“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.
Having run the NLI for four years as an in-person offering, happening over three multi-day retreats in different parts of the region, we took a break during 2020, which we had considered doing before the pandemic, and recalibrated. The lingering uncertainties of COVID19 forced us into making the Institute virtual, and it is now a monthly day-long offering, that happens between September and February, with optional intersession opportunities (a movie – we have already watched “Gather”, a cooking demonstration – Wampanoag Chef Sherry Pocknett joined us earlier this month, a Liberating Structures evening, etc.).
Along the way we are doing what we can to encourage connections beyond our on-line gatherings, and doing this by making space for realtime connection, albeit on Zoom. This has stretched our creativity and also has us constantly thinking about how to balance presentation with discussion, form and void, whole group with small group and paired discussions, etc. One small practice that we have integrated that seems to be helping people connect during and between sessions is asking a few simple questions. Where this shows up most prominently is when a few of this year’s cohort members do short 10 minute presentations during each session about their work advancing just and sustainable food systems.
When people share, we prompt them not simply to talk about what they do, but also WHY IT MATTERS TO THEM. In addition, we may ask what they bring to the work they do and what excites and challenges them about this work. What we find is that this can create opportunities for connections that are not simply functional (You do what I do or something related to what I do), but also values-based and affective/emotional (Hey, we have some of the same experiences/motivations!) and mutuality (Hey, I have something that might be helpful for you, and you might have something that is helpful for me!). My colleague Karen Spiller and I ask these same questions during panels we have of food systems change agents in our region, before inviting small group breakouts for the cohort to be more intimate with the individual panelists (our recent session included Gaby Pereyra of Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, Anna Muhammad of NOFA-Massachusetts, Sarah Huang of The Grassroots Fund and Madeline Sarrow of Migrant Justice, all speaking to one of FSNE’s four core impact areas – racial equity leadership).
Another simple but powerful question we ask, after someone presents is, “Questions? Comments? Connections?” It is interesting to see how many people jump on the last question, making connections between their work and that of the presenter, offering a name or resource that might be of support, or thinking about possibilities for collaboration. Of course some people might be inclined to do that without the prompt, but this refrain, “Questions? Comments? Connections? seems to be prompting regular weaving activity during and between sessions, reminding us that the questions we ask matter!
And we are checking in with people during each session about the connections they have made since our last time together, reminding them and ourselves that larger change and movement is built through and upon this workof reaching out and exchange!
What other questions have you been asking and small moves have you been making to promote a culture of weaving?
I am struck by how the network building and weaving field has really mushroomed over the past several years, and with it, so much learning around approaches, structures, roles, strategy, etc. I regularly hear myself say that there is no one right way to go about “net work” for change (which is why I regularly reference this compendium of thoughts on networks – “A Network Way of Working”). That said, I have found that “principles” (for lack of a better word) for network thinking and action have been helpful in a number of different contexts to support people in finding ways to leverage the promise of networks (or “network effects”).
This is a list that I continue to play with, expanding and contracting given new learning and different contexts. I recently offered the following version to a food system network. Always open to riffs and improvements …
Come First as Givers, Not Takers – Of course people should think about their self-interest, but if everyone holds out for what they are going to get, then nothing gets created in the first place. Generosity leads to generativity.
Support Intricacy & Flow, Beyond Bottlenecks & Hoarding – Many kinds of connection and robust movement of resources of all kinds is what contributes to the adaptive and regenerative capacity of networks.
Make the Periphery the Norm, Don’t Get Stuck in the Core – In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. … Big, undreamed-of things–the people on the edge see them first.”
Work with Others and/or Out Loud, Not in Isolation – Otherwise, what is the point of creating a network?! Connect, cooperate, coordinate, collaborate, and for God’s sake, share!
Value Contributions Before Credentials – Valuable contributions come from all kinds of places and people. Credentials and holding out for a certain kind of “expertise” can get in the way of seeing the greater abundance around you, and benefitting from it.
Lead with Love and a Sense of Abundance, Not Fear and Scarcity – Fear and scarcity narrow our view, shrink our thinking about what is possible, and inhibit our willingness to share. Love is love and does what love does.
Think Spread and Depth Before Scale – Because it’s easier in many ways, can avoids mechanical/replication thinking, and helps to establish a more firm foundation (think roots under the tree).
Support Resilience and Redundancy Instead of Rock Stardom – Because we aren’t all that special and because its not strategic to put all eggs in one basket, however shiny. And then there’s the ego thing …
Trust in Self-Organization & Emergence, Not Permission & Predictability – COVID19 is driving this lesson home, big time. We are not in control. Life is complex, and beautifully so. Evolution is real, and so is people’s capacity to be response-able when they are trusted.
Say “We’re the Leaders!” Instead of “Who is the Leader?” – Who and what are you waiting for? And why?
Do What You Do Best and Connect to the Rest – Stop trying to do it all. It’s not possible, it creates unnecessary competition and it inhibits collaborative efficiencies (yes, they exist).
Attract a Diverse Flock, Not Birds of a Feather – Homophily (like being attracted to like) is a strong tendency in people. In network speak, we should not simply bond, but also bridge. This is important for the wok of equity and inclusion, tapping creativity and innovation, and and tasting spice in Life.
I have been working with a national environmental health and justice network for the past few years, and at a recent retreat, the core leadership team wrestled with a set of criteria for guiding the creation of equity-grounded, whole network-mobilizing and systems-shifting strategies. This is where we landed:
If successful, the strategy will move us towards our long-term systemic goal.
The strategy is fundamentally collaborative in nature.
The strategy is consistent with network’s values.
The strategy does not advance the network at the expense of other key constituencies, partners, or social justice movements.
The strategy is worth the expenditure of time, resources and opportunity costs of pursuing it.
“Words are how we think, stories are how we link.”
– Christina Baldwin
Last week I had the privilege of facilitating a two-day Network Learning Lab for a remarkable group of conservation leaders and network weavers. I co-designed the session with Olivia Millard and Amanda Wrona of The Nature Conservancy (and at the instigation of Lynn Decker of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network) to connect and strengthen the capacity of those working at the intersection of ecosystem health and human/community development while building networks at local, state, regional, national and global levels. Our design was informed by input given by the participating network weavers themselves about their core challenges and learning objectives, while leaving room for the unexpected – enough spaciousness for the network magic of emergence to happen.
As with other network leadership institutes that we at IISC have had a hand in designing and facilitating, the experience last week had as its foundation plenty of opportunities for the cohort to authentically connect, to get to know one another on both professional and personal levels. And as with both leadership development sessions and ongoing network development initiatives that we support, we turned to storytelling as a way to create bonds and understanding. This included time for the participants to tell brief stories about their networks, doing so in 5 minute informal bursts sprinkled throughout the two days (which could also have been done as Pecha Kucha or Ignite presentations). The intent was to create a bit more understanding of what might make each network unique in its aspirations, attributes and accomplishments and to whet people’s appetites for further conversation at breaks, meals and into the evening.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
– Maya Angelou
We also set up a couple of exercises within the first hour of the lab for people to hear more about one another’s paths to the work they currently do, not by ticking off their resumes, but by telling stories about what happened to and moved them to be where they are now. Time and again, when I facilitate this kind of exercise, it shifts the tone of the gathering in the direction of greater openness and trust. And as we touched on in our debrief of those exercises, inviting that kind of storytelling into our work can send a signal about what is validated with respect to forms of knowing, expression and parts of ourselves to bring to the table. Along these lines, we also drew from poetry and other forms of creative expression, including a stanza from a favorite William Stafford piece, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” which, to me, gets at the heart of network building … Read More
Image by tarotastic, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
This is the third in a series of blog posts that appear in their entirety on the Education Week website. In the previous post we considered how structure has implications for the extent to which a network or networked activity is able to leverage different kinds of net effects and create value for diverse participants. We also considered how structure has implications for both equity and how power is distributed. Another important consideration in how to create equitable benefit is what leadership looks like and how it plays out in and around networked activity.
The concept of leadership seems to be undergoing a rapid evolution lately. Especially in this “network age” there appears to be both a growing appreciation that leadership has always been about more than the singular and highly visible heroic individual, and that going forward, leadership must be upheld as much more of a shared and multi-dimensional endeavor.
“Leadership for this era is not a role or a set of traits; it is a zone of inter-relational process. Step in, step out.”
In much of the collaborative consulting work that we do through the Interaction Institute for Social Change, leadership (or what we at IISC often call Facilitative Leadership) is about “holding the whole.” That is, there is a need for groups, teams, organizations and communities to think more expansively about the state of a given complex system (community, economy, food system, organization, school, school district) and pay attention to what is required to support resiliency and/or change for more equitable and sustained benefit.In these situations, the traditional top-down images of leadership fall short.
In education, for example, we have seen hopes often pinned on seemingly superhuman teachers and principals who are brought in to “rescue failing kids and schools.” The assumption underlying such moves is that these extraordinary individuals will of their own drive and volition beat the odds and dramatically reverse the downward trajectory. This story may be the making of a box office smash, but in reality is met with mixed results at best. This is not to say that individuals cannot provide crucial sparks at important moments in organizations and communities. But holding out for heroic singular leadership ignores the systemic reality of what got us to where we are in the first place, and denies the more complex and connected response that is actually required.
“Leadership is helping to make the network smarter.”
Indications are that network leadership is at its best a dynamic, diverse, and multi-dimensional phenomenon.Many of those with whom IISC partners in the work of social and systems change understand this implicitly, and we have found it important to help them externalize and be more explicit about this by naming some of the roles that leadership can embody in a collaborative/networked world. Read More
Last week I had the privilege of co-leading a three day Facilitative Leadership for Social Change training for a group of health equity advocates in Springfield, Massachusetts. It had been a while since I had done a training of that length, and it was a nice opportunity to not only cover more material, but to deepen the conversation and practice. Along the way there were many good questions about what to do around various challenges when one is co-leading a collaborative change effort. And a common response was, “It depends.”
Every group is different, every circumstance is different, and while it might make sense to take some cues from what has been successful in other situations, the caution is not to assume that it will work, or work in the same way, in other situations. This is one reason that I personally do not like the phrase “best practice” when talking about collaborative and facilitative change work. Given the complexity of people and social systems, I find it more helpful to think about “promising practices.”
That said, a promising practice that came up time and time again in our three day training, was the practice or practicing, of ongoing devotion to muscle-building in leadership skills such as process design, facilitation, coaching (leading with listening and inquiry), systems thinking, visioning/imagining, mutual learning and collaborative decision-making/governance. And in undertaking such practice, we at IISC would suggest this is not about achieving perfection. The humbling and exciting thing about collaborative leadership, in my humble opinion, is that it is a life-long learning pursuit and an endless opportunity to deepen understanding of ourselves, others and living systems. For this reason, one of my mantras is:
Practice for presence, not for perfection.
That is, practice can help practitioners get beyond being caught up in simply “learning the scales” of collaborative leadership, in trying to get the skills “right.” Practice at its best can contribute to a state ofbeing more fully present to what is happening in any given situation and being able to work with that in powerfully improvisational ways.
Furthermore, over the past year, there has been a clear call for practice and practices that are explicitly about cultivating spaces to hold difference and tension and trauma. That may be another order of presence characterized by a deeper tuning in and movement away from more transactional processes to ones that are emergent, co-created and geared towards supporting moral courage and imagination. What that can require is vulnerability and a humble sense of “being with.” What it stands to make possible, as opposed to business-as-usual, is growth and real movement forward, together.
I mentioned in a previous post how much I love Twitter, for a variety of reasons, including how it helps me to see networks at work and can help create a variety of great network effects. Well I have reason to yet again appreciate it, as a recent blog post I put up inspired Claudio Nichele, who is located in Brussels, Belgium and works at the European Commission, to create the great sketch above of the network principles I wrote about (see below).
Just like that, an unexpected gift and enhanced visual value! I asked for Claudio’s permission to post, which he granted, and we both agree it is a wonderful example of what happens when you work out loud (see principle #9 below). Enjoy, and please feel free to rift on these images and the principles below, and if you do, let both of us know what you create. Read More
A couple of weeks ago I was in Michigan to do a presentation and discussion with representatives from a number of inspiring networks focused on local food production, food access and public health. I was invited by my gracious hosts at the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University to share a bit of network theory, tell a few stories and cover key concepts around network thinking and action to help advance and cohere some of the good work happening around the state.
Towards the end of that morning session, a couple of the participants mentioned that their heads were swimming and a few acknowledged that along with their excitement, they were struggling with how complex and difficult “net work” can be.
I felt their pain and was moved by their honesty, and offered something along these lines, with a bit of post-event embellishment. … Read More
“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along those sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”
– Herman Melville
2017-2018 NLI cohort members engage in a team building exercise focused on the dimensions of collaborative success.
Last week I worked with the Backbone Team of Food Solutions New England to launch the second cohort of the Network Leadership Institute (NLI) at Ohana Camp in Fairlee, Vermont. This initiative has grown out of FSNE’s commitment to cultivating both thought leadership and network leadership“to support the emergence and viability of a New England food system that is a driver of healthy food for all, racial equity, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” Another impetus for the NLI was a year spent doing system mapping and analysis that revealed four leverage areas for advancing a just, sustainable and democratically-owned and operated regional food system, including cultivating and connecting leadership (see image below). Read More
In the past couple of posts, I have referenced Nora Bateson’s book Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns, a collection of essays, poetry, personal stories and excerpts of talks focused on systems theory and complexity thinking. I just finished the book and have underlined and tweeted a number of provocative lines that resonated and gave me pause (in a good way). Here are a few gems from the book that I continue to contemplate in different contexts:
“The problem with problem-solving is the idea that a solution is an endpoint.”
“Systems theory is struggling inside a system that doesn’t actually accommodate it.”
“We cannot know the systems, but we can know more. We cannot perfect the systems, but we can do better.”
“What does it mean to be healthy in an unhealthy system?”
“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.”
The past twelve months I had the pleasure of working with a team from Food Solutions New England to design and facilitate its first Network Leadership Institute. This initiative grew out of FSNE’s ongoing commitment to cultivating thought leadership and network leadership“to support the emergence and viability of a New England food system that is a driver of healthy food for all, racial equity, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” Another impetus for the Institute was a year spent doing system mapping and analysis that revealed four leverage areas for advancing a just, sustainable and democratically-owned and operated regional food system, including cultivating and connecting leadership. Read More