Just wrapping up some work with a network focused on just and sustainable food systems, and based on work we have done and conversation we have had to date on equity, networks, and love, here is a list of 10 things that might be transferable to your work (remembering that you can’t always transplant directly, without some fine-tuning to context):
If you have an equity commitment, revisit it often, if not during every significant meeting that happens. Integration is key. If you have not developed a commitment, consider it. You might ask your team, “Why are we committed to advancing equitable wellbeing and belonging in and through our work? What does this mean to us? What is in it for us? What happens if we don’t live into this commitment?”
Go back to your group agreements (assuming you have a set of guiding principles) during every meeting (think about opening with these). Ideally these agreements help you to answer the question, “How can we create conditions for a sense of equitable wellbeing and belonging?”
Have more discussion with people in your organization/system about Zoom and on-line etiquette. This has to do with supporting equitable wellbeing and belonging and also leaning into collective accountability, which is a big part of “justice infrastructure.” Talk about what you all mean by “accountability” in terms of “showing up” for each other and “speaking up” when together and why it is important.
Clarify an equitable “system of roles” in your meetings/work (facilitator, scribe/memory keeper, sponsor, lead organizer, point person, etc.). These roles can (and probably should) rotate, and be distributed (not all held by a single or few people). Know what your system of roles is in any given moment, whether you are making meaning, making decisions, or taking action together.
Create and maintain a broadly accessible list of recommended equity tools for all. Ideally co-create this, revisit it together from time to time, and think of it in terms of different modalities (text, audio, visual, etc.). Keep it fresh and pruned. Here is a great resource to get started.
Fine-tune the structure of your organization/system so that it reflects your equity commitment, following the notion that “form (structure) follows function (activities) follows focus (what you are trying to make happen in the world).” Revisit structure in light of changing functions and your evolving understanding of equity at least once a year. How is it supporting equitable wellbeing and belonging? How might it be adjusted to be more aligned? Consider using an equity impact assessment to guide you in this work (see image below).
Keep broadly accessible equity learning and cultural celebration events going, monthly or quarterly. This could be movie nights, discussion groups, guest speakers, book clubs, multi-cultural food potlucks, storytelling festivals, etc. This could also include something like participating in the FSNE 21 Day Equity Challenge. And certainly see if you can attract a diverse flock to these events and celebrations.
Think about how to do your events in such a way that a wide variety of people feel engaged and included, as participants, contributors, presenters, etc. Consider who has access and feels welcomed and who does not.
For a bigger stretch, perhaps, consider doing relational organizing or “conversational weaving,” focused on discussing and practicing equitable wellbeing and belonging. You can do this in small groups starting in your organization/community and spread out from there. A resource that might be helpful in this regard is Marshall Ganz’s work.
“We now know what each other is made of. We can start weaving this beautiful tapestry, this community.”
“I don’t want to wait another 8 months until we are back in person!”
“I want others to know about this. I’ve never experienced anything like this. Others should know about this.”
The three quotes above came from participants in the newest Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Network Leadership Institute cohort, at the close of our opening session two weeks ago. After a year of doing an on-line only Institute, we made the decision to move to a hybrid model for this sixth annual offering, launching and concluding in-person during the warmer months (September and June) and going on-line for five sessions during the colder months late fall through early spring 2023.
Like so many, we weighed many considerations before making this choice. As one participant said during the session, “Many of us had to push through vulnerabilities to be here.” Ultimately we felt we really needed to tap into the power of the in-person gathering to ground people and set an energetic tone for the rest of the program. Many conversations were had about COVID protocols that would ensure safety without being overly onerous. This ended up including a wrist band system (see photos below), testing the day before, at arrival and after upon returning home (tests provided by the program), meeting for the bulk of the time outdoors in a tent with plenty of ventilation, light and spacing, and making masks available for those who wanted them, when we met or ventured indoors.
The tone we aimed to set from the outset was one of community care and belonging, acknowledging that for some this would be a new and welcome experience, and others may well be feeling anxious and uncertain. Hosting is always a spirit we aim to bring to the Institute, whether in-person or virtual, and includes working to ensure that everyone feels welcome and that their well-being is front and center. This included providing clear information on the front end around expectations and supports, a warm welcome upon arrival, a care package of local/regional food items (appropriate to our common work), keeping food and beverages available and setting a tone of ease and enjoyment (fidget items on tables, art supplies and a diverse music playlist).
More recently, the network has honed its focus on four overlapping impact areas as its unique and essential contribution, complementing those of its partners in the region, to bringing the FSNE vision and values for food system transformation to life. The Network Leadership Institute (NLI) is an outgrowth of both Network Building & Strengthening as well as Racial Equity & Values Leadership, but also touches on the other two areas as well in its content.
From the start, we knew that the main value of any kind of leadership development program would be in the people that came together and the relationships they built with one another. You only need to read about the current cohort to feel how much potential there is in simply creating opportunities for these individuals to connect and identify as more of a collective! From there, we were interested in connecting those involved in the program with other values-aligned change agents in the region. In addition, we looked at giving people an experience of different and diverse places in our region (rural, urban, coastal) and to see their work in a regional context. Lastly, we wanted to offer an opportunity for participants to hone their skills as collaborative/network leaders and social (especially racial) equity champions.
This year’s program integrates all of these elements, again with a particular theme of care and welcome. What we heard from this year’s cohort was how this was very much appreciated and built over the course of the more than 24 hours we were together. Here are some highlights of the programmatic progression that were intended to contribute to our themes of care, trust, truth and belonging:
We began by breaking bread together, at small tables, in the tent. Good food, relaxing music and informal introductions were meant to help people land softly.
We formally opened, as we generally do during FSNE gatherings, with an offering and a grounding exercise. The offering might be a poem, a quote, a song, a short story, a dance …. We read one of our favorite stanzas of poetry from William Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” (see below), again to set a tone for the session, and then led people who were interested (making sure to let people know it was voluntary) through an embodied exercise to ground bodies/nervous systems, honor feelings and any thoughts people might be having as we got going.
We were joined by NLI alum Rachel Sayet, a Mohegan tribal member, Indigenous educator, essential oil crafter and Reiki practitioner, to provide some background on the land on which we were meeting and the history and present of Indigenous peoples who have stewarded them. This included the terrible and truthful telling of the actions of Lord Jeffrey Amherst, for whom the town in which we were meeting is still named, as well as efforts by indigenous educators and students in the area to reclaim their foodways and advance food sovereignty.
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
We introduced everyone to the Welcome Table ritual, through which people share objects that are meaningful to and say something about them, and share a bit of that story. At the end of our session, participants are invited to take their object back and say what they have gained during their time with the group. People always remark how “deep” this goes very quickly in helping people get a sense of one another.
We collaboratively built community care agreements, by consensus, first by inviting people to consider their self-care practices and then inviting them into conversation with one another about what might support the entire “village.” We guided them through one of the Liberating Structures practices known as 1-2-4-All for this.
We introduced people to a brief history of the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Institute, the Backbone Organization (convenor, coordinator, communicator and fundraiser) for Food Solutions New England, how it defines “sustainability” broadly (including cultural diversity and social equity) as well as the history and current reality of FSNE. In presenting this, we made clear that this new cohort was already a part of FSNE and we welcomed their contributions not just to the Institute, but its various other programs and initiatives.
We started our second day by sharing a land acknowledgment in the form of a poem (another favorite – “Being Human” by Naima Penniman) that personalizes our connections to the Earth).And we shared an offering with some of the same themes in the form of a quote by Penobscot educator and advocate Sherri Mitchell ((Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset) from her book Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change(see below), which encourages the reader/listener to attune to the rhythms in the natural world for greater ease and alignment.
“When we merge our internal rhythms with the rhythms of creation, we develop grace in our movement, and without thought or effort we are able to slide into the perfectly choreographed dance of life.”
On our second day we also invited offeringsfrom the cohortmembers, whoever felt moved to do so. There were three – a short personal story, a reading and a poem. We look forward to more over the course of our next six sessions!
We invited people to get artistically expressive through illustrating their River of Life– with crayons, pencils, markers – and naming where they are in their leadership/change agency journeys. They then were invited to share these in trios and talk about how they want the Institute to support them moving forward, and what their intentions were for learning from and contributing to the program and one another’s journeys.
We delved into Facilitative Leadership for Social Change, our collaborative skills curriculum for the program, and led off with the practice of “Balancing Dimensions of Collaborative Success: Results, Process, Relationship.” This practice includes a small group challenge exercise (building a tower) that tends to bond people (lots of laughter) and helps them think about the trust, care, truth and belonging that is needed to ensure long-term “success” in collaborative change work.
Mutual trust, holistic care, truth-telling and equitable belonging. Those words were expressed throughout our first session in one form or another, in word and in deed, by the hosting team, guests and by the participants. It was evident how these were not just ideas, but becoming part of the collective body that will carry this program and network forward, as we move into an on-line season. “That’s okay,” said one participant,” as some bemoaned going back to more life on Zoom, “we know each other now. That will stay with us.” And we are delighted to already see one subset of the group looking to meet in person soon in the southeast of our region.
This is how we do and will do it, as the poet Marge Piercy writes in two stanzas of her poem “Seven of Pentacles” (see below image) …
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses. Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving. Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in, a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.
Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen: reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in. This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always, for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.
Just wrapping up a bit of work with a national network that we at IISC helped to get off the ground 5 years ago, which has seen incredible growth and success in its efforts, and which continues to make progress in these times. For us, what this means is that they have really been hitting on what we call the collaborative dimensions of success – results, process and relationships (see image above). That said, some parts of the network (particular working groups) are humming along more so than others.
In our latest meeting with the network, we helped incubate new working groups (now taking their total to 13!) and also held a gathering of existing working group members to come up with a list of success factors and what they wish they had known at the outset to set themselves up for success. This list will be provided to the new working groups to help them along. I was struck by how many of the items on the list below align with what we teach in Facilitative Leadership for Social Change. While there is no exact recipe for success, we have found over the past 27 years that there are certain practices that create conditions for more likely fluid collaboration. ‘
Here is a list of 27 distinct but related success factors that were identified:
Diversity; people with different skills and experiences, a diversity of vantage points, ideas, and learning curves.
Dividing up roles – facilitator, recorder, timekeeper, liaison, etc.
Willingness to grow and change our roles; not feeling one has to be in the original role.
Establish group working agreements for collective accountability and be open to changing them as needed.
Understanding of the difference between a working group chair and facilitator (these may or may not be the same person).
Ensure everyone feels like they are able to contribute to group conversations if they want to; check for accessibility issues of various kinds.
Intervene around those who would otherwise dominate conversation and shut others down.
Comfort with letting go of an idea once it has been incubated; people understand that when they generate an idea or proposal that it might be changed or critiqued by the rest of the working group, to make it better.
Loosen grip on ego.
Have consistent meetings and touch points – monthly or bi-weekly – to keep on track.
Practice an ethic of love, generosity and forgiveness.
Open up to bigger sources of inspiration and creativity.
Build common language; make sure that everyone understands any acronyms or technical terms being used.
Use a process guide/map for helping working groups in their overall development and work planning; they can adjust as they see fit, but having a framework can be very helpful.
Have an agenda for your meetings and follow it, until it doesn’t make sense to do so.
Set desired outcomes each meeting, so you can determine where any conversation or agenda item is heading and when it’s over.
Make sure your meeting agendas are realistic … put on it what you can actually get to; prioritize and manage the conversation.
Give people time to connect with one another.
Check for agreement and/or for clarity around key points before moving on.
Make sure action items/next steps are captured at the end of each meeting and restated at the top of your minutes/group memory; revisit in your next meeting.
Conduct process reviews of meetings (what worked, what could be improved); keep what’s working and make changes accordingly.
Keep easy-to-digest minutes/group memories to maintain momentum; having consistent and capable support around this kind of record keeping, including key agreements and next step.
Get meeting minutes/group memories out as soon as possible to everyone, including those who may have missed a meeting.
Support onboarding of new members, so they can catch up easily and step into the flow – think about one-on-one conversations and mentorship.
Provide easy access to/support around accessing shared documents, tools and platforms.
Keep group size manageable – 10 is a nice size; if more consider sub-dividing for certain tasks (think in terms of small group ministry).
Photo by tracydekalb, “Redbud Love,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
The following post was originally published in 2014, and has been edited. In many ways it feels even more relevant five years later …
Over the past dozen years or so at IISC (our half-life as an organization, and my whole life as a member of this amazing community), we have seen and experienced some interesting progressions. In our Facilitative Leadership for Social Change trainings and consulting work, we talk about the “interior condition” of effective collaborative and network leadership. When I first joined the organization, we used to say that collaborative leaders and change agents embraced an ethic of “service, authenticity and respect.” Then we made the move of changing “respect,” which came across to some as a bit weak, to LOVE. For the first couple of years after making this switch, when we asked “What’s love got to do with it?” with respect to effective leadership and work for social change, there were definitely some uncomfortable silences. Some participants would ultimately want to rename love as “respect” or “passion.”
Then in 2009 we started noticing a change. More heads nodded in rooms when we mentioned the “L-word,” less nervous laughter and shifting in seats. In one particularly striking instance, during a training with health care and public health professionals, a senior and very respected physician responded,
“What’s love got to do with it? Everything! Beyond my technical skills, I am effective in so far as I am able to really see my patients, students, and colleagues, to make them feel seen for who they are.”
“It’s great that I’m learning all of these practical leadership and facilitation skills, but what happens when I’m not the one leading or facilitating?”
How can we keep things rolling when we aren’t formally in charge and when formal leadership is perhaps not so skillful? My answer: There’s usually some opportunity to lead, ask good questions, and to facilitate from the chair! Read More
Social change networks are complex, compared with other human organizational forms; they are not so easily controlled, directed or predicted. And that is as it should be, especially when dealing with real life diversity and uncertainty. This can cause some anxiety on the part of those who would like to be able to better control for outcome and process and may not be very comfortable with emergence and self-organization. But these are the life blood of complex networks, part of their intelligence and effectiveness, even as people may struggle to wrap their heads around the full picture of what is happening. That’s the way life works.
That said, experience suggests that there is an important effort to be made and role to be played in tracking (even if imperfectly and incompletely) the unfolding story of a social change network over time. This is especially important for those in pursuit of hard evidence of effectiveness and/or some kind of guarantee that there is return on one’s investment of time and other resources. I have noted previously and continue to be struck by the fact that seeing signs of network impact can indeed be difficult, perhaps because of a kind of conditioning around what constitutes “action” and “success.” Furthermore, the pace of life can cut against an appreciation for what is moving right before one’s eyes in fairly nuanced and perhaps more measured ways. Read More
I sometimes use the metaphor of “fire tending” when talking aboutFacilitative Leadership, the approach to leadership and social change we here at IISC practice, model and teach. Facilitative Leadership is grounded in theethic of“creating and inspiring conditions for self-empowerment so that people can work together on a common goal.”It is a form of leadership, rooted ina series of connected and reinforcing practices, that increasing numbers of people, organizations and networks seem to be drawn to in this ever more complex, uncertain and dynamically interconnected world.
Thanks in part to the following inspiration from poet and professorJudy Sorum Brown, I invoke “playing with fire” as a way to think about ways of creating optimal conditions for collaborative change.Read More
One mantra I have for working with groups is, “If you’ve seen one group, you’ve seen one group.” Part of the welcome and challenging nature of collaboration is that in each instance we are dealing with a unique organism or constellation of human beings coming together to get something done. As complex living systems, groups of people are not prone to simple “best practices” for getting them working in a prescribed way. There certainly are some “promising practices,” including what we teach at IISC in our Facilitative Leadership for Social Change courses. Still collaboration, including the practice of group facilitation, is a heuristic undertaking – an experience-based approach to problem solving, learning, and discovery that suggests solutions which are not guaranteed to be optimal. Read More