Over the last couple of months I have really savored my reading of Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. Yunkaporta is an academic, arts critic and researcher who belongs to the Apalech clan in Queensland, Australia. His book met me during found me in these times of disruption when I was searching to further disrupt myself and pry open some widening cracks in my older ways of thinking, feeling and being.
It is important to say that any review of the book or excerpting from it necessarily de- and re-contextualizes the content, which is a key point Yunkaporta makes – many people are caught up in low context cultures that are rather disconnected from the specifics of place and community. With that awareness, I wanted to offer some take-aways that have helped me to bring different, more energizing, engaging and empowering perspectives to multiple contexts in which I move, in the event that they may help others make enlivening shifts.
Towards the end of the book, Yunkaporta sums up what he and a number of other indigenous people with whom he “yarns” see as an indigenous approach to engaging with living systems – respect, connect, reflect, direct. He offers corresponding embodied centers for doing this work as: gut, heart, head, hands. He also makes the point that Western colonizer cultures reverse this progression, leading with action and control (direct), and only perhaps later capitulating (respect, or “looking again”), if at all, when things do not go according to plan. This “indigenous progression” aligns strongly with a community of practice of which I am a part (Respectful Confrontation/Fierce Civility), which is based in Taoist philosophy and practice, and invites devotees to lead in grounded and focused ways that put one in right relationship with their (multiple) selves and so-called “others.” I can say from experience that this is a very powerful way to prepare myself for engagement, especially in these volatile and unpredictable times.
Yunkaporta also lifts up what Aboriginal and indigenous knowledge asks of those who are attempting to bring about change in complex systems (all living systems). What he calls the “complexity agent protocols” includes:
Connectedness (create bonds to self, others and wider networks)
Diversity (respect and engage across difference)
Interaction (continuously transfer knowledge, energy and resources)
Adaptation (remain open to change, as that is the constant)
This, of course, is the much older wisdom that more recent so-called “regenerative” (agriculture, development) efforts are calling for and building upon, engaging the dynamics of network structures and energetic flows that constitute life.
The rest of what follows is a selection of twenty quotes that I pulled from the book, and that I can continue to read from time to time, to jolt my own tendencies towards complacency and stasis.
“Increase is different from growth, because you don’t want the size of the system to grow, but you want the relationships within the system, the exchange within the system, that needs to increase. And you can increase that quite infinitely.”
“Many Aboriginal stories tell us how we must travel in free-ranging patterns, warning us against charging ahead in crazy [linear] ways.”
“All Law-breaking comes from that first evil thought; that original sin of placing yourself above the land or above other people.”
“Nothing is created or destroyed; it just moves and changes, and this is the First Law.”
“Every unit requires velocity and exchange in a stable system, or it will stagnate – this applies to economic and social systems as well as natural ones.”
“Sedentary lifestyles and cultures that do not move with the land or mimic land-based networks in their social systems do not transition well through apocalyptic moments.”
“People today will mostly focus on the points of connection, the nodes of interest like stars in the sky. But the real understanding comes in the spaces in-between, in the relational forces that connect and move the points.”
“If you live a life without violence, you are living an illusion: outsourcing your conflict to unseen powers and detonating it in areas beyond your living space. … The damage of violence is minimized when it is distributed throughout the system rather than centralized into the hands of a few powerful people and their minions.”
“It is difficult to relinquish the illusions of power and delusions of exceptionalism that come with privilege. But it is strangely liberating to realize your true status as a single node in a cooperative network.”
“There is more to narrative than simply telling our stories. We have to compare our stories with the stories of others to seek greater understanding about our reality.”
“There’s no valid way to separate the natural from the synthetic, the digital from the ecological.”
“Most of us today are living in a state of compliance with imposed roles and tasks rather than a heightened state of engagement. We are slaves to a work ethic that is unnatural and unnecessary.”
“The assistance people need is not in learning about Aboriginal knowledge but in remembering their own.”
“The only sustainable way to store data long term is within relationships.”
“[From an Aboriginal perspective] an observer does not try to be objective, but is integrated within a sentient system that is observing itself.”
“Understanding biological networks appropriately means finding a way to belong personally to that system.”
“Somewhere between action and reaction is an interaction, and that’s where all the magic and fun lies.”
“Your culture is not what your hands touch or make – it’s what moves your hands.”
“Guilt is like any other energy: you con’t accumulate it or keep it because it makes you sick and disrupts the system you live in – you have to let it go. Face the truth, make amends, and let it go.”
“Stop asking the question: ‘Are we alone?’ Of course we’re not! Everything in the universe is alive and full of knowledge.”
“Innovation is as much a function of the right kind of relationships as it is of a particular kind of individual vision.”
The following is a slightly edited post from a couple of years ago. In many ways it feels more pertinent to me now …
Among other reads, I’ve been revisiting the book Evolutionariesby Carter Phipps. Phipps is the editor of EnlighteNextmagazine and enthusiastic about what we calls “the evolutionary worldview” and how it is showing up in many different fields, from biology to sociology to philosophy and theology. He sees this perspective as transforming one’s understanding of just about everything.
“The debate about our origins is also a cultural referendum on our future.”
The book is in part retrospective, looking at the history of “the evolutionary perspective” that shook up perceptions of “a fixed world” when it suggested that creation is not static, but ever-changing. This realization is still making waves and sinking in. Phipps writes – “As the fog of fixity lifts, we are finding ourselves much more than observers and witnesses to life’s unfolding drama.” In other words, the view of an evolving world is associated with a sense of movement, possibility, engagement, and response-ability (an ability to respond).Read More
I am saddened to learn that Mila Baker passed away recently. While I did not know her personally, she was a mentor from a distance. A few years ago, I read her book about peer-to-peer leadership and found it both enlightening and validating as I continued my journey to uncover more about the promise of seeing and doing in networked ways.
Mila N. Baker
Mila Baker was a writer, teacher, philanthropist, cross-sector leader and artist. At the time of her passing, she served on the Board of Directors for the Berrett-Koehler Foundation, was a member of the adjunct faculty at Columbia University Teachers College, as well as a Principal Research Investigator at the Institute for Collaborative Workplaces, and Visiting Professor at Kuwait University. The following is a post I wrote after reading her book published in 2014.
I just finished reading Mila Baker’s Peer-to-Peer Leadership: Why the Network is the Leader, which adds to the growing case for more widespread network thinking, foregrounding of human relationships, and shifting traditional conceptions (and myths) of leadership in business and beyond. Baker’s book echoes the spirits of Margaret Wheatley, Clay Shirky, Carol Sanford, Nilofer Merchant, Kevin Kelly, and Harold Jarche, and I appreciate how she couches her writing in the evolving leadership and organizational development literature and thinking.
The following is a slightly modified post from a little over a year ago. In recent months, the notion of puttingcare at the center of “net work” – to ground it, make it real and people accountable – has surfaced a number of times and strengthened. The original post included the phrase “the empathic turn.” Since that time I’ve come to see “caring” as a more appropriate word, rather than “empathy,” as it evokes for me not simply feeling but action. This re-post is inspired by the activists and thought leaders who are about to gather in Oakland, CA for the “Othering and Belonging” Conference, hosted by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.
In an essay that I continue to revisit, the poet/essayist/novelist/farmer/ conservationist and champion of sanity, Wendell Berry, talks about what he calls “the turn towards affection.” Having spent many years reflecting on and pushing back against the unfortunate demonstrated human capacity to despoil landscapes and demonize “the other,” he takes a strong stand for both deep rooted connection and . . . imagination:
“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.”
In other words, by his assessment, imagination thrives on contact, on an intimate form of knowing that is not simply intellectual, but intimate and holistic. For Berry it is only this kind of knowing that can lead to truly “responsible” action.
Others, past and present, hold the truth and power of this kind of fuller bodied knowing to be self-evident, in environmental conservation and social justice efforts and in what it means to be a responsible human. Professor john a. powell writes in his book Racing to Justice:
“There is a need for an alternative vision, a beloved community where being connected to the other is seen as the foundation of a healthy self, not its destruction, and where the racial other is seen not as the infinite other, but rather as the other that is always and already a part of us.”
“Our world is, to a very real extent, based on dialogue. Every action taken that involves more than one person arises from conversation that generates, coordinates and reflects those actions. Those actions have impact. If our human world is based on conversations, then the work of creating and supporting those conversations is central to shaping a world that works. Designing and conducting meetings and other groups sessions well is vital to determining our common future.”
Just recently in work with a national network, we turned the corner to start creating a structure to channel the alignment it has achieved around core goals for system change and ultimately to realize “collective impact” in a particular domain. As we were kicking off some of the early discussions, someone asked what I thought were the keys to creating a successful network structure. That’s a huge question that merits a complex answer, and I’ll admit that in reflecting on the dozen or so large scale change efforts I’ve been a part of the past 7 or 8 years, the first thing that came to mind was – “really good facilitation.”
Simplistic as this response may sound I was thinking of lessons learned from numerous efforts that no beautiful or well thought out network/collaborative structure stands up to a lack of strong facilitative capacity (skillset, mindset, and heartset). To be more nuanced, it is not just facilitation that ultimately came to mind, but what we at IISC call facilitative leadership.
For over 20 years, IISC has been teaching, preaching and practicing Facilitative Leadership (FL), and in many ways it seems that this approach has never been riper in light of the burgeoning call to collaborate and cooperate across boundaries of all kinds. At its base, FL is about creating and inspiring the conditions for self-organization so that people can successfully achieve a common (and often evolving) goal. The logical question that follows is, “How does one ‘create and inspire’ these conditions?” The answer is found in a variety of practices derived from successful group work and that have indeed shown promise across different networks and large scale change efforts to create solid foundations and momentum for social change. Among them are these: Read More
“The ideas of self-organization are very important to understand the autonomy, the authenticity and basic humanity of people.”
One principle of “thinking like a network” that I like to highlight is the notion of moving from permission and perfection (looking for the one right answer) to self-organization and emergence. Self-organization is a defining characteristic of living systems and connected to their adaptive capacity and development. I like this short video as an introduction to self-organization and how it highlights the importance of diversity, connectivity and “local interactions.” NOTE: It starts to get into “network effects” and social organizations around 2:30. The significance of understanding self-organization is essentially that we develop a better understanding of how life, including social systems, actually works and are able to work better with systemic potential, rather than trying to command and control what is much too complex.
“I think self-organization and the newer understanding of life and complexity, when it is applied to the social realm and human organizations, can help people to find their authenticity as human beings.”
“In principle, empathy can override every rule about how to treat others.”
-Frans de Waal
Photo by Vamsi Krishna
Yesterday’s post considered the importance and power of the empathic turn in networks-as-change, to ground people in deep connection with living realities, for the sake of greater imagination, justice, resilience and responsibility. Taking cues from experience and the work and studies of others, here are some thoughts for how to cultivate radical “affection” (to quote Wendell Berry) in networks:
Go beyond abstraction to interaction – go to and meet in real places, explore them, consider how life happens there (see for example Story of Place and Heart and Soul)
“Life comes when you give people a chance to contribute something.”
– Coralie Winn
IISC board member Jamil Simon brought staff attention to the film The Human Scale a few weeks ago during a discussion about building the capacity of cities to collaborate amidst growing demographic complexity and other social as well as environmental challenges. The film is screening this very evening in Somerville, Massachusetts.
From the film’s website: “50 % of the world’s population lives in urban areas. Read More
“Thinking in terms of networks can enable us see with new eyes.”
– Harold Jarche
Photo by David Shankbone
The biological sciences have revealed that all living things in an ecosystem are interconnected through networks of relationship; that is, they literally depend upon a web of life to survive and to thrive. On the social science front, we are also beginning to appreciate that groups, organizations, and communities depend upon and function in distributed networks of relationship that go beyond contrived boundaries, formal roles, communications, or decision-making protocols. After all, we are a part of life! Read More
I was recently turned on to the work of Louise Diamond by the Plexus Institute. Diamond has been bringing insights from the dynamics of complex systems to peace building work for many years. Her efforts connect to a growing number of practitioners and thinkers who see the need to approach social change with an ecological and evolutionary mindset. In one of her papers, she extracts some of the “simple rules” that yield core practices for working in this way. Here I have adapted and adjusted some of them in application to network building for food systems change. Read More
|Image from Anders Sandberg|http://www.flickr.com/photos/arenamontanus/273180669|
Yesterday I posted a bit of a summary of Carter Phipps’ provocative new book, Evolutionaries, which included the suggested trajectories from a variety of evolutionary thinkers and observers, including greater (and increasing rates of) external and internal complexity, convergence, creativity and change. The implications I left off with included a call for a stronger embrace of our creative self-starting (entrepreneurial) potential and also the necessity of engaging in more intentional and skillful collective (cooperative or collaborative) effort.
To take this another step, there is much in the evolutionary (biological/physical and philosophical/spiritual) literature that validates and extends our thinking about how to work with life and dynamic systems to steward change in broadly desirable, just, and life-affirming directions.
I’ve been reflecting on five years of work here at the Interaction Institute for Social Change. As inside so outside. My life has changed dramatically over the last five years. And so has the world. Seriousness about social transformation, commitment to the evolutionary process, a burning thirst for justice – a posture that demands sharp attunement with the present moment.