Tag Archive: Networks

August 22, 2022

“Entangled” Social Change: From Inter-action to “Intra-Action”

“What is at stake with quantum theory is the very nature of reality. Should reality be understood as something completely impervious to our interventions, or should it be viewed as something responsive to the very existence of human beings?”

Christopher Fuchs (physicist)
Image by Kevin Dooley, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

A mark of a good book for me is one that challenges my thinking, moves my heart, and also resonates in my body. That has been the case while reading Karen O’Brien’s You Matter More Than You Think: Quantum Social Science for a Thriving World. I want to give a big “thank you” and shout out to Fabian Pfortmüller who made this recommendation to me during a rich conversation a few weeks ago.

O’Brien’s book makes the case for bringing a quantum physics lens to the social sciences and to thinking about social change, even as she acknowledges the doubters and detractors who see this as an inappropriate move. Indeed, in posting about the book on LinkedIn recently, I was a little surprised to see a couple of comments attacking the idea of importing quantum considerations into the human realm. In anticipation of this, O’Brien notes that while quantum and classical physics, as well as the “hard” and social sciences, may have different applications, they are not totally separate from each other. Furthermore she writes:

“… given the nature of global crises, maybe this actually is an appropriate time to consider how meanings, metaphors and methods informed by quantum physics can inspire social change, and in particular our responses to climate change.”

So I have been doing what she invites – playing with these different ideas and concepts from the quantum realm and seeing what they stimulate. One I want to lift up here is the notion of subjectivity versus objectivity, and specifically that we are always participants in the world, never simply “detached observers.” This is not simply meant in an emotional sense, but that our very act of observing is actually an embodied intervention and can change what we see and also how we see the world. This “entanglement” (meant more metaphorically here, rather than in the formal scientific sense) asks us to consider how we are already connected, or part of a larger whole.

O’Brien spends some time exploring beliefs as being central to both what is possible and what is actually realized in our lives and world. If we believe we are completely separate from one another, for example. what do we and don’t we consider possible or worth while? If we believe we are more tied or woven, then what might we be inclined to do? The work of Karen Barad is referenced in this respect, pointing out the difference between talking/thinking about “inter-actions” of separate entities versus “intra-actions” among entangled elements within a larger whole. This is not just about a difference in language, but a difference in perceived and acted upon futures.

Photo taken at The Gennie in Craftsbury, VT

What comes to mind is a mantra of sorts that Valarie Kaur puts forward in her justice work focused on addressing the dynamics of othering and oppression, as well as in her book See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love

“You are a part of me I do not yet know.”

Similar to this spirit, john a. powell offers the following in Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society:

“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.”

I am also reminded of the peace-building work of John Paul Lederach, and this from his book The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace:

“Time and again, where in small or larger ways the shackles of violence are broken, we find a singular tap root that gives life to the moral imagination: the capacity of individuals and communities to imagine themselves in a web of relationship even with their enemies.”

If we treat the so-called “other” (whether human, other animals, plants … ) as apart from us, or as in some sense fundamentally threatening (“the enemy”), then where does that lead? The point here is that reality is not just “reality out there,” it is also what we make of it. We have a say. We matter. What we believe matters. What we do matters. Embracing “a bigger WE” matters. We can “bring forth worlds,” (to quote Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s Santiago Theory of Cognition) at least to a certain extent. And whether this is about imagining or re-membering, acting “as if” we are joined in something larger can seemingly create tangible results, while also acknowledging that dynamics of power and privilege are important to consider in terms of who may be inclined to make first gestures and how these will be received.

“Between me and not-me there is surely a line, a clear distinction, or so it seems. But, now that I look, where is that line?

This fresh apple, still cold and crisp from the morning dew, is not-me only until I eat it. When I eat, I eat the soil that nourished the apple. When I drink, the waters of the earth become me. With every breath I take in I draw in not-me and make it me. With every breath out I exhale me into not-me.

If the air and the waters and the soils are poisoned, I am poisoned. Only if I believe the fiction of the lines more than the truth of the lineless planet, will I poison the earth, which is myself.”

Donella Meadows, from “Lines in the Mind, Not in the World”

* * * * *

A few years ago I was diagnosed with a benign tumor on my left acoustic and balance nerve (an acoustic neuroma). As the tumor continued to grow, albeit slowly, I made the decision to have radiation treatment two years ago (six months into our new COVID reality). What was presented as a fairly straight-forward outpatient procedure turned into quite an ordeal as I had a strong reaction to the treatment. What followed was dizziness, terrible tinnitus, poor sleep, muscular pain, headaches and occasional “nerve storms” in other parts of my body. After a few months of extreme discomfort I went to see a very adept acupressurist and holistic healer who made the observation that I seemed to be trying to separate myself from that part of my body, tensing against it, rejecting it, and the result was further exacerbation. With her help, over several months, I gradually got reacquainted with that sensitive area (really getting to know it for the first time), and through slow and steady integrative body work, began to relax and reclaim that part of me in a way that has brought greater ease to my overall system and life.

Image by  Joe Le Merou, “Peace,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

The very energizing thing about that work with this healer is that it has helped not simply to address discomfort in one area of my body, it has positively impacted other parts that I did not even realize were misaligned and/or listless until this crisis occurred. I take it as ontological truth that I am all of my body (though not simply my body), yet for many years (and especially recently) I had not been acting like that (consciously and unconsciously), with real health-related ramifications. Extend this metaphor (separate –> connected, inter-action –> intra-action) to other “bodies” of different sizes. scales and dimensions, and where might that lead?

What excites me here is acknowledging the entanglements that we do not yet know, or cannot possibly hold in our minds alone given the immensity of the world. This is where “thinking and acting in a networked way,” with some faith and conviction, comes into play for me, along with an orientation towards equity. In particular, I think of the encouragement offered in these words from the late long-time community organizer and political educator Grace Lee Boggs:

“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.”                      

What critical connections and small moves might we make in this intricate, [vast/intimate] and mysterious world that could yield big and needed changes in our communities and lives?

Photo by Gordon M Robertson, shared under auspices of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
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July 13, 2022

Getting to the Goods (and Beyond “Folded Arms” Syndrome) in Impact Networks

“Your generosity is more important than your perfection.”

Seth Godin

Over the past 20 years of working with a variety of social change networks, I have observed a common dynamic surface after the initial enthusiasm and launch phase. As happened recently with a place-based network about a year into its development (navigating COVID and political uprisings along the way), some members started to bang the “What have we actually done?” drum. Contextual crises notwithstanding, this is not an inappropriate or unhelpful question. As important as relationship and trust-building is, there can come a time when people want to know … “So what?” Sometimes this comes from what we might call more “results-oriented” people in the network. Or it may come from the more time-strapped and stressed, those from smaller organizations, or those who just genuinely don’t see the return on their investment. When this has come up, and people are either holding back (“folded arms”) or threatening to walk, I have witnessed and facilitated several different ways of moving through the real or perceived lack of progress.

  1. “If you want it, then you better put a ring around it” – In one instance, the convening team of a state-wide network essentially drew a line around all of the network participants and started claiming their successes as network successes. This might sound a bit shady, though it was not done in that spirit. By celebrating “your success as our success,” people felt appreciated and started to turn towards one another and see themselves as a bigger we. They didn’t have to wait to get to mass action. Smaller subsets having success counted.
  2. Get a quick win – In another state-wide network, fraught at the outset by folded arms despite the fact that people would regularly physically show up for meetings, a network coordinator seized upon a timely policy advocacy opportunity that surfaced, which resulted in a mass outpouring and a legislative win. Nothing sells like success. That early victory got people eager to see what else they might be able to accomplish and they settled in for some more relationship-building.
  3. Collect and share connection stories – We know that relationship-building is not just about the relationships. It can lead to new partnerships and projects. Often this happens at the start of a network, but is not tracked. We worked with another place-based network that intentionally set out to track the results of connections made in and through the network, and then shared these with the network as a whole. More about connection stories here.
  4. Highlight the unusual and adjacent conversations – What makes many of the networks we work with unique is that they bring together people who do not often work with each other. Highlighting this and also what emerges out of novel interactions across fields can make “just talking” into exciting explorations and engines of innovation. For a little inspiration on this front, see “Why the most interesting ideas happen at the borders between disciplines” from Steven Johnson at Adjacent Possible (!).
  5. Pump people up, individually and collectively – Let’s face it, in these times (and really all times), expressing genuine appreciation can go a long way. We work with a network convenor who does this wonderfully, tracking and celebrating people for their individual contributions outside of network gatherings, and constantly speaking to the power and potential of the collective. She just makes people feel good! This can make the proverbial “marathon, not a sprint” more enjoyable.
  6. Get a super weaver going – Having a really adept and energetic network weaver can make all the difference in the early stages of a network. We have seen the impact this can have when ample capacity is created to regularly check in with people, listen to them, make connections between different needs and offers in the system, and encourage people to share more with one another. When those exchanges start happening, the “there” there is often more apparent.
  7. Lift up the network champions – Generally there is a small group of people who really appreciate and lean into the value of the network from the get go (gratefully receiving and using resources that are shared, following up with new connections, testing out new ideas, leveraging the network as a platform), making it happen and not waiting for it. Observing this, capturing it, and sharing it with the network can help make the point that the network is what people make of it and give ideas for how to make this happen.

What have you done to successfully navigate impatience and intransigence in impact networks?

Image by Sylvain Raybaud, shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
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June 11, 2022

Energy Systems Practice (ESP) for Long-Term Human Thriving

Over the course of the last few years I have been delving deeper into the trans-disciplinary science of energy systems, largely thanks to my colleague and mentor Dr. Sally J. Goerner. Sally and I recently offered a session to The Weaving Lab on energy systems science for network weavers. A summary of that session can be found here. Since then I have been exploring, identifying and building out resources, practices and tools at different “levels” (individual, group/organization, and larger system) in the four different domains of Energy System Science that support saluto-genesis (the capacity of living systems to reproduce resilience and wellbeing). The four domains include:

  • regenerative flows
  • resilient and balanced structures
  • common cause culture
  • collaborative learning

The Energy System Sciences (ESS) see all living systems as “flow networks” or structures that arise from the circulation of resources, information, nutrients, etc. Thinking through the lens of flow, systemic health can be seen as being based on things like: investment and re-investment of key and diverse resources, healthy outflows (not polluting or poisoning “the host”), the velocity and spread of resources in the system, cross-scale circulation, etc. The nature and quality of these flows determines how systems are able to adapt and evolve in healthy and health-promoting ways. 

The image above offers a starter collection of resources, practices and tools, that transcend specific sectors (economics, education, etc.) and that I look forward to bringing to a group later this summer. Certainly incomplete, these practices also do not all neatly fit into one category, even where they appear to in the graphic – that’s life! If you go to this link, you will find the above image as a clearer PDF document that has hyperlinks for some of what is listed (items that are underlined) that will take you to additional information. And I am always eager to hear what others would add!

I am grateful for the many teachers and collaborators, in addition to Dr. Goerner, who have guided my practice along the way: Joe Weston, Gwen McClellan, john a. powell, Eve Capkanis, Rev. Howard Thurman, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Joel Glanzberg, June Holley, Resmaa Menakem, Katya Fels Smyth, Tanya Tucker, Robert Peng, Maya Townsend, Father Richard Rohr, Melinda Weekes-Laidlow, Dorn Cox, Sherri Mitchell, Harold Jarche, Donella Meadows, Marty Kearns, Tara Brach, John Fullerton, Marilyn Darling, Daniel Christian Wahl, Anne Marie Chiasson, Tyson Yunkaporta, Kelly Bates and Steven C. Hayes, among others.

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January 13, 2022

Energy System Science for Network Weavers: A Summary

Image by lwtt93, “Flow,” shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

“Culture is a verb.”

– Rowen White, Seed Keeper, activist and farmer from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne 

“It’s all about how things are flowing.”

Gwen McClellan, acupressurist and holistic healer

“A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event, like a flame or a whirlpool.”

– Alan Watts, philosopher and writer

“Seeing energy flows so that we can engage with them in positive ways is not some mystical, esoteric art, but the role of engaged human beings.” 

– Joel Glanzberg, permaculturist and sustainable builder

Last week I teamed up with Dr. Sally J. Goerner, who stewards a transdisciplinary team of researchers and practitioners in the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics, to offer an interactive session to The Weaving Lab on the Energy System Sciences and how they might support network weavers working for social change in a variety of contexts. Energy System Sciences (ESS) is “an umbrella term for disciplines that use the study of energy flow networks to understand the laws of systemic health, growth and development in living, nonliving and supra-living systems.” ESS disciplines include: Chaos, Complexity, Resilience, Ecological Network Analysis, Self-Organization Theory, Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics, Panarchy, and others. It was a lot to present and absorb and process during our short 2 hour session, and so I have made an effort here to summarize and simplify …

Everything is made up of energy, so says “western” science and also many wisdom traditions (think spirit or chi) and indigenous peoples (see Sherri Mitchell), but many of us often don’t like to use the word “energy” (too woo woo). And perhaps that is to our detriment! Switching from a “matter” orientation about everything to an “energy” view can help us see and do things differently. 

Systems are complex networks of interconnected “parts” that work together. Flows of energy of different kinds are crucial for a system to function (carbon in the biosphere, traffic in cities, supplies and information during a disaster response, ideas and emotions in a social group, nutrients on a farm, money and other resources in economies). 

The Energy System Sciences (ESS) see all systems as “flow networks” or structures that arise from the circulation of resources, information, nutrients, etc. Thinking through the lens of flow, systemic health can be seen as being based on things like: investment and re-investment of key and diverse resources, healthy outflows (not polluting or poisoning the ecosystem), the velocity and spread of resources in the system, cross-scale circulation, etc. The nature and quality of these flows determines how systems are able to adapt and evolve in healthy and health-promoting ways. 

ONE BIG PROBLEM now is that there is a dominant narrative stemming from the power and influence of oligarchy (rule of and for the few) and oligarchic capitalism (economies that are run by and support the few), which seeks to increase the wealth of “elites” at the expense of most people and the planet. Narrative, in contrast to story, is a way of looking at the world. In a sense, it’s a big story that influences thought, meaning and decision-making. The dominant oligarchic narrative and view is grounded in things and beliefs like “the divine right of capital and kings,” a master/slave mentality, dominance, supremacy ( based on race, gender and other markers of identity), narcissism, coercive hierarchies, “survival of the fittest,” and self-interest. 

The oligarchic view cuts against the evolutionary promise of the Energy System Sciences in that it gets in the way of the kinds and qualities of flows needed to keep the whole body of humanity healthy and in right relationship with the planet. It prevents pro-social and pro-ecological evolution. For example, at a smaller scale, if we only privilege a certain part of our physical bodies (our heads or brains) over and at the expense of other parts of our bodies (for example, our hearts, our guts), this can have damaging impacts for the neglected parts and our entire bodies, and diminish our intelligence. Science is increasingly showing that our hearts and guts give us access to important information about the world around us. And our health and development are being shown to rest upon more integration and coherence between the different biological systems that make us up (digestion, vascular, nervous, etc.).

Against the oligarchic capitalist view is another view of humanity as being a collaborative learning species that can ground itself in common-cause and cooperative culture (including values of equity, justice, fairness, trust, transparency, mutualism) and seek resilient and regenerative economies and other systems that guarantee long-term human thriving for the many and for the diverse and not just the few and the alike. This narrative and set of beliefs aligns with the Energy Systems Sciences. Together they suggest that to support healthy and health-promoting webs and flows, it is important for groups of people to integrate the following core pillars, economically (especially in the etymological sense of the word – “household management”) and culturally:

  1. Circulate diverse resources regeneratively, at and between different scales/levels
  2. Create and sustain flexible and resilient structures of different and balance sizes
  3. Ground in common-cause values such as mutuality, trust, transparency, equity, justice, fairness, accountability 
  4. Engaged in collaborative learning that supports intelligently adaptive responses and actions

For example, as Sally Goerner lifts up the following (it may be helpful to click on the image below):

We can also bring attention back to our own selves and how we interact with others to see how the energy system sciences can guide us. We can have stagnant energy if we are not inviting new ideas in or not releasing emotions. We can quickly get overwhelmed if we open ourselves to too much energetic flow of information or emotion, especially if it is negative or challenging. If our bodies are not structurally strong and flexible, they can be more prone to dis-ease. If our social organizations are overly rigid, they can be un-responsive to change and unable to adapt accordingly. If we are not having honest conversations with one another, that “clear the air” (and move energy through as it needs to), we can get bogged down in unhealthy interpersonal dynamics. The emotional body language and tone we convey energetically can impact our interactions with others (and flow widely in larger networks!). If we are not attending to what is otherwise sealed away in our insides (which equates with dissociation) this can also have impacts on how we are with ourselves and one another.

Bottom line: We share a hope that many more of us can become adept energy and flow scientists, artists, healers, weavers and workers as we intentionally create patterns that are the basis of the better world we sense is possible and know is necessary.

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January 5, 2022

Steps for Network Evolution in Ever Uncertain and Pregnant Times

Image by snowpeak, “Connections,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons attribution license 2.0.

We just completed a third year of providing coaching support to a state-wide health equity network. We began our partnership before the pandemic and have spent the last couple of years checking in as life with the pandemic and intersecting crises have evolved, working with both staff and key partners. It has been interesting to see how there has been a natural inclination to build on recommendations from our first year, as people have appreciated the power of and need for leaning into more networked ways of thinking and acting (spending more time connecting organically and getting to know one another, providing mutual support in light of intersecting crises, staff operating as more of a gate-opener for and facilitative leader with partners, creating stronger alignment around shared policy priorities across the state and between communities).

In our first year report we used the Connectivity-Alignment-Coordinated Action framework to assess gaps, strengths and possibilities for the network. What this framework suggests is that  movements for social change and advocacy organizations can be more effective when they bring a network lens to their work and intentionally cultivate diverse, intricate and robust connections and exchanges of various kinds through those connections to advance their goals. 

This includes:

  • creating stronger connectivity and trust between people, organizations, and communities;
  • facilitating greater alignment amongst those who are connected around shared purpose, values, and/or common goals;
  • coordinating action and also creating conditions for/supporting self-organized initiative among aligned people, organizations and communities.

In conversations with organizational staff who steward the network throughout 2020 and into 2021, it was clear that much had moved on different fronts with respect to all three realms. Some examples include:

  • Virtual retreats seeking maximizing network connections and deepen relationships.
  • More care and attention given to onboarding for new members.
  • Mindfulness being given to tech tools regarding how best to use virtual spaces so that they are accessible, allow for equitable engagement, and do not distance or marginalize participants. 
  • Staff working to facilitate connection and alignment between partners working on advocacy for the state budget and organizing in local communities. 
  • Advocacy work that has included more network mobilization and in a way such that staff is less protective of connections to lawmakers.
  • Community partners have been invited to bring along a community member and there was an opportunity to work with relatively high level staffers. 
  • Virtual retreats have featured an activity around “contribution mapping,” to look at, appreciate and celebrate how the network more broadly was engaged in action. 

The report also included a set of recommendations, many of which we feel could be applied to many different networks in these times, especially as people grapple with issues of capacity and the need to front and center care and wellbeing. And so we offer this slightly edited list for wider consideration, with an invitation to add:

  1. Keep doing what you are doing! Continuing to facilitate deeper trust and connection, stronger alignment and broader network action will only help to support the overall movement for justice and sustainability. 
  2. With respect to creating new and strengthening existing network connectivity going forward, ask what few key connections would really bolster the overall network and its work. As Grace Lee Boggs puts it, “Movements are born of critical connections rather than critical mass.”
  3. Consider how you might continuously cultivate a set of “network weavers” (and weaving behavior overall). Look for who is already engaged as “network champions” and consider supporting their capacity to do what they might naturally be inclined to do. 
  4. Consider deepening values work with staff and key partners. As there continues to be tumult in many places and spaces, helping people to ground in and be accountable to shared values can be of tremendous benefit in strengthening alignment. More on this here
  5. Pay attention to how you are spending your time and energy around network development, for the sake of all network members. There is so much overwhelm in so many systems now. Ask what brings life to the overall network and to participants and co-creators throughout and follow that. For more on connection, flow and energy management, see this.
  6. Related to the above, if you do not do this already, consider bringing in a trauma- and burnout-informed lens to your work with partners. Some guidance can be found in the context of this post
  7. And by all means, take time to celebrate your successes and recognize how you are changing and evolving in “small” ways as an organization and a network. Experience shows that his will go a long way to keeping people fueled and engaged. Keep telling the evolving story of networked change.
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November 19, 2021

Prompting Network Weaving: “Questions? Comments? Connections?”

“Movements are born of critical connections rather than critical mass.”

― Grace Lee Boggs

Sometimes the small moves and tweaks we make can create significant change and opportunity. We are definitely being reminded of this as we facilitate this year’s Food Solutions New England Network Leadership Institute (NLI).

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 areasracial 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 work of reaching out and exchange!

What other questions have you been asking and small moves have you been making to promote a culture of weaving?

For more on small moves to advance networks, see 3 Mantras and 3 Small Moves for Advancing Networks and 25 Behaviors That Support Strong Network Culture.

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November 5, 2021

The Power of Networks, In So Many Words

Getting ready to host a session for the Connecticut Food System Alliance (CFSA) focused on “rethinking networks,” I am playing with a list of curated quotes from various people, which all have something to do with networks, connection and interrelatedness. I’ve found over the years that diving into theory first is not a way to bring participants in. Instead I begin with associations, stories and a set of quotes. Below are the ones that I plan on offering to the CFSA by way of volunteer readers, with an invitation for everyone to pay attention to what resonates – when are heads nodding, pulses quickening, smiles spreading, goose bumps rising … and asking readers here to do the same and to freely share your own favorites that do not appear on this list.

“It really boils down to this: all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

“Connections create value. The social era will reward those organizations that realize they don’t create value all by themselves. If the industrial era was about building things, the social era is about connecting things, people, and ideas.”

– Nilofer Merchant (entrepreneur)

“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.”                                           

– Grace Lee Boggs (community organizer)

“Network intelligence is the ability to learn from a diverse group of connections. Wherever you work, look beyond your walls: there are more smart people outside than inside your organization.”

– Reid Hoffman (digital strategist)

“We can no longer rely upon traditional gatekeepers of information and knowledge. Each of us must engage with others and develop our trusted knowledge networks. None of us are smart enough to handle all the connections in our digital lives on our own. We need to use both our human networks and our machines in concert.”

  – Harold Jarche (personal knowledge management expert)

“i think of movements as intentional worlds, or perhaps more accurately as worlds designed by and for intentional people, those who are able to feel the world not as an unfolding accident of random occurrences, but rather as a massive weaving of intention. you can be tossed about, you can follow someone else’s pattern, or you can intentionally begin to weave and shape existence. and yes, the makeup of your web is the same matter as all that already exists, but your direction and pattern can be new, unexpected, agitating new growth. what results from your efforts depends on your intention.”

– adrienne maree brown (author, doula, activist)

“The key knowledge/abilities of an organization are found in individuals, teams, projects, and their interconnections. The value of the organization is in its network! … The structure of the organization can be viewed via the organization chart. But the ‘doing and learning’ of the organization happens in the ‘white space’ on the organization chart.”

– Valdis Krebs (network scientist)

“While a network, like a group, is a collection of people, it includes something more: a specific set of connections between people in the group. These ties are often more important than the individual people themselves. They allow groups to do things that a disconnected collection of individuals cannot. The ties explain why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

‐ Nicholas A. Christakis (sociologist and physician)

“Connectedness is a social determinant of health. The degree to which we have and perceive a sufficient number and diversity of relationships that allow us to give and receive information, emotional support and material aid; create a sense of belonging and value; and foster growth.”

‐ Katya Fels Smyth (advocate for equity and well-being)

“When our ancestors spoke about a web of life, they were describing what Western science calls quantum entanglement. They understood that we all originated from the same seed of life, and when that seed exploded and carried life across our universe, we remained connected. Quantum entanglement tells us that any matter once connected physically can never be disconnected energetically (or spiritually).”

– Sherri Mitchell, Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset (Indigenous rights activist and spiritual teacher)

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September 13, 2021

Weave Back Better: Investing in Network Weaving as Part of Core Infrastructure

I was recently in conversation about the creation of a systems change programmatic offering for funders and nonprofit leaders, and as the discussion turned to the “once in a generation” billions of dollars investment from the US federal government into states and towns, a thought occurred more clearly. Part of “building back better” is weaving back better, connecting and reconnecting the social and cultural fabric of places and communities. This work could fall to official and unofficial “network weavers,” in places that are so inclined, and perhaps there is a need to make this work more official, visible and well supported/compensated.

At a time when many are disengaged from work because of disenchantment, uncertainty and burnout, what could be more engaging than being paid to build trust, facilitate communication and learning, and weave more functional, equitable, resilient and democratic structures of all kinds? A Civic Weaving Corps (CWC)!!!

A few years ago I worked with a place-based multi-organizational collaborative initiative in Massachusetts with a focus on health and fitness. What they recognized is that there was not nearly enough interstitial tissue between organizations and agencies, so that beneficiaries of the system were dropping through gaps or confused about how to navigate. Relying on existing staff to do this was not realistic (except for the energetic few who then risked burnout, or not doing their “day job” well). The same came up in a national education network, where school coaches were discovered to be playing a crucial weaving role between schools within and across regions. This, however, was not what they were formally paid to do, and so it was the first thing to go when people got pressed.

So what if part of Build Back Better lifted up the strong suggestion that cities, towns, states and regions take seriously the importance of weaving activity, and officially supported the creation of network weaver positions (called that or something else contextually meaningful)? Isn’t this the time? What if we really took this opportunity to promote relational stewardship at different scales as being central to ensuring long-term human thriving? While there is some risk to institutionalizing anything, this seems to be worth doing so that it becomes more of a habit and value in systems. And certainly institutionalizing network weaving behaviors in many more positions might help to create the regenerative flows and resilient structures needed for a just and sustainable future.

There could be many models for this. One with which I am intimately familiar is the Food Solutions New England Racial Equity Ambassador Program. This team of passionate and skillful weavers takes the FSNE Vision and Values and its commitment to racial equity in food and related systems to communities across the region. They work together to identify and make connections with new and diverse partners, organizations, and individuals; to create a space for more racially diverse leadership and mentorship opportunities for equity in the food system; and to ensure more connectivity between community efforts, the broader regional food system, and a racial equity agenda. 

What do you think? Where is this happening already? How might we advance this as a cause collectively?

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September 7, 2021

Growing Network Awareness: Class, Conflict, Culture and Becoming More Trauma-Informed

As mentioned in a previous post (see “A Network Leadership Institute Goes Virtual With an Appeal to the Senses”), this summer, the core convening team of Food Solutions New England was able to attend a number of different trainings to heighten the team’s awareness and facility around issues of trauma and racialized trauma. This was made possible through the generosity and understanding of the Angell Foundation, which has supported FSNE in offering the Network Leadership Institute since 2016. Last year, in light of COVID, the calls for reckoning and repair, and so much uncertainty, along with the very place-based nature of the Institute to that point, we elected not to jump into the virtual fray. Instead we took a step back, and had some deeper conversations about the future of the NLI, what we had learned over the past years, how we wanted to evolve the offering, and what new capacities we needed as a team and broader network.

Now we are poised to offer the 5th Institute over the next six months (September 2021-February 2022), anchored in 6 day-long virtual sessions, complete with many of the same components we have had in the past: (1) community and relationship building, (2) grounding in the history and present work of the Food Solutions New England Network, (3) meeting and hearing from other food system leaders and change agents in our region, (4) sharing practices to cultivate personal and collective resilience, and (5) developing deeper collaborative and networked capacity to realize justice, equity, sustainability, and democracy in our regional food system. In addition to these six sessions, we will offer a number of optional inter-session gatherings, in the early evening, with either a cooking demo, relevant movie (such as Gather and Homecoming), or special speaker.

We enter into this year’s offering knowing that the baseline for our work is connection and care. And thanks to Jerrilyn Dixson and team at Progressive Therapy, LLC out of Jackson, MS, Cultural Somatics Institute, Class Action and Quabbin Mediation, we have more enhanced sensibilities related our collective work for equity and well-being. What appears below are some of the lessons that we are bringing to this year’s Institute, and all the on-line gathering work of FSNE.

3 Realms of ACEs (sources of child trauma)

Important overall learnings and take-aways

  • Class is not just wealth; class is about a combination of resources + culture (status/power/education, etc.)
  • Class can be a driver for anxiety, stress, comparison, confusion, shame, inner resistance …
  • The levels of classism can mirror and connect to the levels of racism (internalized, interpersonal, institutional and structural).
  • Harm-doing can take many different forms, including: racism, sexism, misgendering, aggression, unpaid labor, miscommunication, exploitation, abuse …
  • At least 70% of people have had at least 1 traumatic experience; thus, trauma is the norm, not the anomaly
  • 6 core principles of trauma informed care: safety, trustworthiness and transparency; peer support and mutual help; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment, voice and choice; attention to cultural, historical and gender issues
  • “Trauma happens when people feel disconnected,” not seen, heard or valued.
  • Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and values and when they give and receive without judgment.
  • Challenging behaviors are almost always about creating connection and/or safety, even if that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on to the outside observer of the behavior
  • The concept of “protest behaviors” — these are things people do to get what they need to feel connected, when not getting their needs met. These show up in all different kinds of ways — be on the lookout. 
  • Fight/flight/freeze/fawn reactions — protest behaviors vary based on which one of these reactions you are wired for — learn to recognize and respond accordingly.
  • “People who experienced trauma often do not do well with [unexpected] change.”
  • “Overwhelm can look like rage.”
  • Harm doers can be trying to meet basic needs, but not in ways that are not helpful.
  • Inhibitors of addressing harm-doing can include fear, confusion, diffusion of responsibility and danger.
  • Not intervening in harm-doing can engender vicious cycles of disengagement and disregard. Being an “active bystander” can, on the other hand, create virtuous cycles of care and connection.
  • Basic needs include feeling safe and secure, and having control over what’s important to us. There is little chance of learning if these aren’t being met. 

“Helping one person might not change the world, but it could change the world for one person.”

Quabbin Mediation

Practices to consider …

  • Be aware of language used and how it might help people connect or lead to disconnection =on the basis of class and other aspects of their identity.
  • At the beginning of a session, invite people to come up with an image that helps them to feel connection and belonging, to which they can return.
  • Consider integrating “morning risers” into group sessions that invite people (optionally) to do mindful box breathing, shoulder rolls, and/or head rolls.
  • Ask what participants already associate with/know about a particular topic before presenting material as a way to encourage self-reflection and openness to material.
  • Create opportunities for people to tell their stories, and more about what is important to them, including their values .
  • Invite people to name themselves (including on Zoom) and add identifiers (such as pronouns) that are meaningful to them.
  • See and treat people as whole people, not as one-dimensional or as labels (“beware of the single story”).
  • Make sure to offer assistance with technology and do not assume, or convey the assumption, that everyone is comfortable with any given technology or technique.
  • Build community agreements collaboratively and by consensus.
  • Ask people to name any accessibility needs, discomforts and triggers (this could be done in a survey and/or during group activity).
  • Create safe and soothing space (white noise to drown out distracting noise or to let people know that what they are sharing is not carrying beyond the room, soft/relaxing music, natural imagery, calming scents)
  • Be aware of your own triggers as a trainer/facilitator/coach – realize it isn’t the person, it is the action andthe interaction. Recognize, take a break.  Have a code between facilitators for when one of us is triggered and needs to step out to re-regulate. 
  • Consider having a “3rd party” (not one of the facilitators) that a participant can talk to if there is a perception that the challenge lies with the facilitation approach.
  • Use a grounding/re-connecting exercise or opportunity after a challenging moment or episode of disconnection in a group (breathing, movement, shaking, tapping, etc.).
  • Use a scale of 1-10 for mood check/how people are entering or leaving space. Use a scale of 1-10 on how connected you as facilitator feel to [the group or the topic we are working on today.
  • Invite people to make themselves feel comfortable as participants (bring fidget toys, food, water, something that makes them feel at home).
  • Pay attention to the choices of colors, images, etc, in the slides that you use.
  • Create some predictability and transparency by sharing goals and the agenda of a session in advance, along with timeframes, roles, expectations and any supplies/materials needed.
  • Stay online 15-30 minutes after a session for anyone who would like to talk more.
  • Agree on a hand gesture signal that allows people to take space as needed (i.e. when they want to leave the room to use restroom or take an unscheduled break).
  • Consider structuring in identity-based caucuses.  Give them topics and structure. Use when needed or desired.
  • Use entry passwords, and make sure everyone in the group can get easy access to them, for virtual settings, ensuring that all feel it is literally a safe space 
  • Apprise guest speakers of group agreements, before they show up and brief them on the vibe/pet peeves. Let the group know this is being done to demonstrate you value the trust-based environment you are trying to create.
  • Have mental-emotional-spiritual health and support resources information available.
  • Should things get volatile with someone who is triggered, reflect back (name the behavior), create space for them to be heard, do not take it personally and check your privilege …
  • Be ready to recognize if an individual is not ready for the group or program (and vice versa) after employing all of these practices. No one person is bigger than the mission/goal.  Have procedures in place for non-compliance that maintain the dignity of all.  
  • Have a “consent/agreement” about actions that will be taken should challenges arise, including the possibility of determining the program is not the right fit for participant. “In the event of a conflict or a feeling of harm being done, here are [2-3] ways to start the process of addressing or resolving the issue. If, even after these efforts, the challenges remain, we may collectively decide that this program is not a good fit for your needs….”

“Non-violence is the constant awareness of the dignity and humanity of oneself and others. Non-violence is a courageous acceptance of active love and goodwill as the instrument with which to overcome evil and transform both oneself and others.”

Wally Nelson, African American civil rights and peace activist (1909-2002)

Content and resources to consider integrating…

Image from Monica Secas, used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

Dr. Brené Brown

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August 10, 2021

Perspectives From a ParadigmShift: Lessons for Net Work, Racial Equity, Innovation and System Change

For the past 4 years IISC has supported the formation and evolution of a network of educators (the Diverse Teacher Workforce Coalition) across four school districts in western Massachusetts dedicated to diversifying the teaching profession with respect to race, with a leading strategy being to leverage the paraprofessional pipeline. And as the ParadigmShift initiative, as it is called, explains, “By helping Black and Latinx para-educators and teachers on waiver become licensed teachers, we are building a sustainable path for teacher diversity, increasing opportunities for students of color to thrive.”

Even in districts where over 80% of the student body is Black and Latinx, the teacher workforce still averages around 75% white in this region. By contrast, the para-educator pool is much more diverse, and many of these individuals come from the local community, yet there are numerous barriers preventing them from becoming fully licensed educators (stigma, stringent exams, lack of support, isolation, racism). A few years ago, educational leaders concerned about these structural barriers came together under the auspices of Five Colleges to explore the collaborative potential of working across institutional lines (school districts, teacher preparation programs, educator unions, workforce development initiatives). This ultimately led to the pursuit and receipt of an innovation grant from the local community foundation, which allowed for staffing and other supports to formally launch a collaborative network.

Over the last few years there have been tangible successes, with cohorts of paraprofessionals receiving mentoring and support to become classroom teachers. And there is clearly much more work to be done to work for educational inclusion and equity. That said, there have been several key lessons noted by the diverse Leadership Team of this initiative, and these have been laid out in a very rich report called “Leveraging the Power of Coalition for Teacher Diversity,” which tells many of the details of the Coalition’s development and discoveries.

Many of these lessons align with IISC’s core commitments around building collaborative capacity, processes and structures, including lifting up power dynamics and working for equity, leaning into the power of relationships and networks, and embracing love as a force for social transformation (see image above). Headlines for these lessons appear below, as they were shared with participants during an on-line conference on June 10, 2021 entitled “Leveraging the Power of Coalition for Teacher Diversity: New Perspectives, Practices, and Paradigm Shifts.” We are curious how these resonate with other system and equity change efforts, in education and beyond.

LESSON 1: Naming race is key because messages “for all” are not interpreted as “for me.”

LESSON 2: Crafting solutions based on participant input builds trust, reinforces the message that the pathways are designed for the candidates, and fosters effectiveness. This is critically important when building pathways to attract teacher candidates from historically marginalized groups.

LESSON 3: When administrators and others pay authentic attention to—and build authentic relationships with—paraeducators of color, the paraeducators are more likely to make the decision to become teachers and to persevere through the process of obtaining licensure. Paying attention matters because paraeducators of color face both role-based and race-based inequities.

LESSON 4: Some teacher candidates who otherwise demonstrate teaching proficiency do not overcome the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL), which functions as a gatekeeping hurdle. The MTEL requirement reflects an assumption that competency is demonstrated solely through passing required tests. It is a barrier to diversification of the teacher workforce and should not make or break a career.

LESSON 5: Redesigning systems for racial equity requires change from the macro levels of policy to the many complex micro levels of practice, requiring leadership and resources. It is not a quick fix. Systems resist.

LESSON 6: Working in coalition leads to shared learning, pooling of resources, and regional solutions for regional problems while raising challenges of commitment, clarity, and communication. 

LESSON 7: The contributions of supportive funding partners are fundamental to the genesis and growth of innovative initiatives, though the funder practice of awarding short-term grants impedes systems change.

LESSON 8: The concept of innovation provides a framework that legitimizes learning and adaptability, elements that are necessary for effecting systems change to promote teacher diversity.

And threaded through all of these lessons was the understanding that in many ways the core innovation in all of this was the collaborative network itself, with people going above and beyond their day-to-day work, breaking down walls and boundaries, and flipping what have often been traditionally siloed and/or competitive institutional arrangements.

For more resources and materials from the Coalition, including information about our ripple effects mapping process, see think link.

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July 30, 2021

Rules of the Road for Change Agents

Image by Eddi

We recently wrapped up a series of workshops for members of the Wallace Center‘s Food Systems Leadership Network focused on Organizational Change for Racial Justice (OCRJ), which was adapted from our IISC workshop Advancing Racial Justice in Organizations (ARJ). This offer was made by IISC under the auspices of The Wallace Center’s CORE Project, and with generous support from the Garfield Foundation. It was a wonderful and challenging experience for our collective Wallace/IISC team, as we welcomed representatives from 21 different food systems-focused organizations from around the US, along with a talented group of 16 small group facilitators who had participated in a customized Fundamentals of Facilitation for Racial Justice Work (FFRJW). That made for over 80 participants over 4 four-hour sessions, that took people from fundamental DEIJ concepts to change process design work to anticipating inevitable roadblocks and detours. We deeply appreciated how people showed up and went along for the ride, giving us helpful feedback along the way, and ultimately sharing all that they had taken that sets them up with a stronger foundation to do the work.

As we wrapped up our final session, my colleague Erika Strong shared an excerpt from a piece by Herbert A. Shephard, “Rules of Thumb for Change Agents,” which appeared in the OD Practitioner in December 1984. It has appeared by permission in our course Collaborative Social Change: Designing for Impact in a Networked World. And we now include it in many of our racial justice trainings as a way of bringing focus back from systems to individual and groups of change agents, and what can support them in doing this work over the long haul. These are re-shared below with some additional commentary.

  1. Stay alive, literally and figuratively. The work is indeed long and often hard. And it can also have its moments of joy and satisfaction, as we experience connection and development of different kinds. But this does not happen if we are not enlivened, or breathing, in a deeper sense. Self and community care is crucial.
  2. Start where the system is. This is about getting clear-eyed about where things actually are, which comes not just from an initial assessment, but over time, especially as people try to do things differently. Action is certainly about trying to make change, and it is also about nudging living organizational/social systems to see how they respond, so that we better understand defenses, patterns, logic, etc. Starting from where the system is not can waste valuable energy.
  3. Speaking of energy conservation, another guideline is to Never work uphill.
    • Don’t build hills as you go. Don’t make the work more difficult than it needs to be, or too insurmountable for people. It is not easy to begin with, requires stretches, but putting people in panic or overwhelm mode does not help. Use accessible language, make clear asks, try not to overly trigger people’s defenses.
    • Work in the most promising areas. Look for early wins. Because this always inspires confidence, that change is possible, and it can build a sense of accomplishment and community. Don’t try and tackle it all. We encourage people to start with a couple of areas in their organization/community/network where you can start and then build/connect.
    • Build capacity. Don’t go it alone. Build your team! As Maya Angelou once wrote, “Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone.” Start with your core/design/equity team. Let them become a model for the rest of the organization. And share transparently about how you are working, as there is much to be gained from trying to create network effects through this work.
    • Don’t over-organize. Don’t fall into the trap of the perfect becoming the enemy of the good. Yes, get necessary supports in place. Yes, do some initial assessment and grounding, and then know that a lot of the learning will come through acting, trying out different things, and iterating as you go. And you want to leave place for others to add their ideas and initiative.
    • Be bold. Doing this will send important signals to those around you, be a “chaotic attractor” of sorts, will help you identify allies and some of the strongest blockers. And given the many roadblocks that come up, boldness is an important energetic counter, especially when held by an even small but mighty group.
  4. Innovation requires a good idea, initiative, and a few friends. The idea for change does not need to be perfect, it needs to be “good enough” (reasonably well informed), have legs (can be put into action) and people who are willing to try it out.
  5. Load experiments for success. This connects to much of what appears above, along with being as clear-eyed as possible about what is actually happening in any given system in any given moment.
  6. Light many fires. Don’t rely on only one intervention or one place in a system to create change. A few interventions in different places, especially when connected, can help create ripples of change over time.
  7. Keep an optimistic bias. Negativity bias is real, and can help us to be both realistic and to survive. And it can also quickly kill ideas and initiatives outside of “the norm.” Part of the value of finding a few friends to move things forward is developing a core group that can maintain and spread an attitude of positivity and possibility.
  8. Capture the moment. Timing may or may not be everything, yet is can matter immensely. Staying tuned in, in both a collective and holistic sense, to what is changing and where energy might be shifting and effort applied is key to being able to nudge living systems in more just, prosocial, and sustainable directions. And it turns out, there is something of a science around “when” decisions.

This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, and we are always eager to hear what you would add.

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July 22, 2021

Energy Network Literacy: On Care-full Dis-Connection, Dis-Entanglement and Regenerative Flow Management

“i think of movements as intentional worlds, or perhaps more accurately as worlds designed by and for intentional people, those who are able to feel the world not as an unfolding accident of random occurrences, but rather as a massive weaving of intention. you can be tossed about, you can follow someone else’s pattern, or you can intentionally begin to weave and shape existence. and yes, the makeup of your web is the same matter as all that already exists, but your direction and pattern can be new, unexpected, agitating new growth. what results from your efforts depends on your intention.”

– adrienne maree brown

I recently returned from a week-long vacation with family to the so-called Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and a particular location that is deeply nourishing and meaningful for its landscape, its link to family history on my wife’s side and (perhaps for these times) an unusual sense of community. I count myself privileged to have had the time and the opportunity to be in that place with those loving people, with that sense of multi-generational connection.

Heading back “home,” I could feel the tension mounting as my wife and I talked about re-entry. Before thought, my body tightened in anticipation of the return to the mundane daily tasks, to-do lists and un-answered emails/phone messages. The morning after our return, I somewhat absent-mindedly dipped toes into social media and felt my blood pressure rise. “What am I doing?” I wondered, even as I continued to wade in, pulled by questions about what happened while we were away and what new opportunities might be presenting themselves – FOMO (“fear of missing out”) in full effect. When I closed the laptop, perhaps 30 minutes later, I was aware of my stiff neck, shallow breathing, hunched shoulders, and whirling brain. Saved by a 12 year old daughter almost yelling, “Dad, c’mon, let’s get outside and play ball!”

As much of a proponent as I am of collaboration and networks, I am struck by how I can get a bit caught in the approach/avoid loop of connection, and mired in questions of “How to connect?” and “How much is enough connection?” and “What kinds of connection do I really need?” As I engage with others, I realize that these are pretty fundamental ponderings for navigating a more viscerally entangled world.

“When our ancestors spoke about a web of life, they were describing what Western science calls quantum entanglement. They understood that we all originated from the same seed of life, and when that seed exploded and carried life across our universe, we remained connected. Quantum entanglement tells us that any matter once connected physically can never be disconnected energetically (or spiritually).”

– Sherri Mitchell (Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset, “She Who Brings Light)
Image by Kent Schimke

More and more is being written, spoken and (re)-presented about the fundamentally interconnected nature of our lives, and of Life writ large. In a beautiful essay in Emergence Magazine (“When You Meet the Monster, Anoint Its Feet”) , which weaves connections between climate change, race, racism, evolutionary biology, ecology, myth and narrative, Bayo Akomolafe offers …

“Perhaps most important about this time is that the image of the human is being composted—or, we are experiencing great difficulty determining where the nonhuman stops and the human begins. Everything touches everything else in the Anthropocene—an observation that is supported by, say, current thinking about ‘holobionts,’ assemblages of bodies within bodies within bodies, or intersecting communities that toss out notions of separable individuality. We are holobionts. We live and are lived through; we are composite beings, companion species, emerging within and among assemblages.”

And, as Akomolafe later shares from his indigenous and experiential knowledge, bodies and beings transcend time. More recent research into intergenerational trauma (see the work of Resmaa Menakam and Thomas Hubl) shows that our bodies indeed know the score, not only of our own individual pain, but the suffering passed through our ancestral lines. Husband and wife, and astrophysicist and physician, team Karel and Iris Schriyver, in their book “Living With the Stars,” add that our bodies are always in dynamic exchange with … the wider universe! Our cells die and are replaced by new ones, renewing our entire biological makeup, using food and water as both fuel and construction material. This rebuilding happens by using elements captured in our surroundings and cycled through geological processes, all extensions of galactic explosions and ripples and atoms that formed through collisions with our planet’s atmosphere eons ago.    

We are entangled in a multiplicity of ways, containing and residing within multi-dimensional multi-scalar multitudes. I find this simultaneously liberating, dizzying, humbling and dumbfounding. Knowing that everything is interconnected can inspire a profound sense of belonging and ease, yes, and sometimes it can make it a bit hard for me to plan or get through the day!

And so here we are, exquisitely entwined, and yet also individuals, or at least bounded organisms with a sense of individuality, of distinction, of the need to preserve the integrity and dignity of something called “me” or “self.” And the question of these times would appear to be how we can honor a healthy sense of self/individual, whole communities, and Life, all at once.

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activity neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

– Thomas Merton
Image from Charles Patrick Ewing, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0,

While there have been understandable and important pushes to get beyond the individualistic and atomistic view, I have the feeling that some of this emphasis, as with all pendulum swings, can go a bit too far. Seeing the world as profoundly interconnected might drive a strong desire to reclaim a kind of forgotten birthright, and in my experience, it can also result in getting lost, especially if it is guided by an underlying desire to fully understand, grasp and/or control it all (colonial mindset?). Or if that drive is purely to belong to something, anything, no matter its underlying values, to spare the pain of felt/perceived separation.

A certain view in contemporary physics holds that the world, the universe, is entirely made up of an infinite amount of information, a vast expanse of sensory inputs that all taken together would be utterly overwhelming to our individual apparatus. And so we have our human senses as filters to sift through, make sense and identify/assemble what is most … useful, interesting, advantageous. The point is, there is always more than meets (or at least is taken in by) our eyes, ears, nose, tastebuds, touch, etc. This calls to mind the ladder of inference, a framework we teach at IISC that helps people remember that we are often recycling conclusions we have drawn from a very partial understanding of reality, and that it might behoove us to expand our “view” to reach more helpful (just, prosocial, sustainable) conclusions and actions.

That said, simply taking in more, or making more connections, may not lead to a better place, if it results in overwhelming nervous systems. So it seems there is a balancing act here. Just as we often can’t do something new without letting go of something old, there is a need to modulate what one takes in – news, ideas, people, and possibilities. Connection and flow management. Energetic discernment. Intentional dis-connection and dis-entanglement.

What might this look like in this networks upon networks networked world? A few thoughts …

“Between you and me, now there is a line. No other line feels more certain than that one. Sometimes it seems not a line but a canyon, a yawning empty space, across which I cannot reach.

“Yet you keep reappearing in my awareness. Even when you are far away, something of you surfaces constantly in my wandering thoughts. When you are nearby, I feel your presence, I sense your mood. Even when I try not to. Especially when I try not to. . . .”

– Donella Meadows
Image from Visible Networks Lab

In a previous post, I shared some of the wisdom of network science as taught by Danielle Varda and colleagues at Visible Networks Lab. They make the point that when it comes to creating strong (resilient and regenerative) networks, more can be less in terms of the connections a person has. Connectivity and related flows can be ruled by a relentless growth imperative(capitalism?)that is not strategic or sustainable. More connections require more energy to manage, meaning there may ultimately be fewer substantive ties if one is spread too thin. Instead, the invitation is to think about how to mindfully maintain a certain number of manageable and enriching strong and weak ties, and think in terms of “structural holes.” For more on this social network science view, visit this VNL blog post “We want to let you in on a network science secret – better networking is less networking.”


Over the last several years, I have been playing with a set of about a dozen principles (give or take) for network thinking and action. One that seems quite helpful here is the saying, “Do what you do best and connect to the rest.” As ecosystems become more robust and complex, individual participants are invited to carve out more specific niches, and be oriented towards synergistic and supportive relationships with others. In other words – stop trying to do it all, or connect to it all! It’s not possible, it can create unnecessary competition, overwhelm and inhibit “collaborative efficiencies.” This also aligns with a metric of energy network and systems science (see below), which focuses on the importance of a diversity of roles in healthy living systems. Share and spread the wealth!


As just alluded to, the emerging field of “energy systems science” points to a number of different factors or indicators that contribute to long-term living system (including human systems) health and thriving. Four of these indicators fall under the heading of “measures of flow.” Thinking about how these apply to our own and/or collective in-take and sharing of information/energy might be helpful for knowing what is “sufficient:”

  • Robust cross-scale circulation: How rapidly (too fast?/too slow?) and well do a variety of resources reach all parts of an individual/social body?
  • Regenerative return flows: To what extent does the individual/social body recycle resources into building and maintaining its internal capacities? Is there too little (depletion)? Is there excess (hoarding)?
  • Reliable inputs: How much risk and uncertainty is there for critical (health promoting) resources upon which the individual/social body depends?
  • Healthy outflows: What impacts do the individual/social body’s outflows have externally?

On a more personal tip, I have been married for almost 20 years. What has perhaps been one marriage from the outsider’s perspective has been many from the inside, as other long-standing intimate partners can surely appreciate. We have learned and grown over the years. One important lesson has been knowing when we are too enmeshed and need to separate for some time. There is a point of diminishing returns in many of our heated discussions/ arguments, and if we do not dis-entangle or dis-connect, we have learned, we can do damage to the relationship.

Along the same lines, two of our daughters are identical twins, now twelve-years old. What we have observed about them is what we have heard about many twins – they are truly uniquely connected. There are many times when we quietly watch with fascination as they, seated on opposite ends of the room, engage in similar gestures (scratching their heads with the same hand at the same time, for example) seemingly without direct awareness. Quantum entanglement in full effect! And they can get themselves enmeshed at times and in ways that drive each of them, and the entire family system, to the edge. They are learning that they need and how to differentiate and take space, even as they have a natural gravitational pull to their other half.

Knowing when to create a bit of a boundary (what Buckminster Fuller once called, “a useful bit of fiction”), a separate amniotic sack if you will, and when it is optimal to connect more fully often requires attention and discernment, for all kinds of relationships.


“Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.”

– Ben Okri

The movie The Social Dilemma and the work of Douglas Ruskhoff (see Team Human) both point to the perils of getting caught up in our increasingly socially mediatized world. The algorithms behind these powerful tools are designed to capture our attention, pressing our buttons oriented towards hedonism (“likes”) and fear/outrage. A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly (“You Really Need to Quit Twitter”) points to how difficult it can be to break this habit. This is not to say that these tools are inherently bad or evil. They are certainly formidable, and require considerable attention and intention. Social media fasts and limited dips can help, as well as being mindful about what and why we are both sharing and consuming (see this other recent post for some considerations on this – The Wisdom of W.A.I.T.ing: Mindful Sharing in a Network Age.


If dis-engagement is not an option or ideal, there are a number of practices I have been learning and using that can help to manage energy exchanges, both in-person and virtual:

  • From the Rockwood Leadership Program, I learned the practice of imagining that my  body is like meshwork (think a fishing net), when something intense is coming at me, so that it can pass through me, and I don’t use too much energy resisting or having it get stuck in my body/psyche.
  • From a couple of local trauma therapist who focuses on racialized trauma, I have learned the practice of using imaginative “shields” (in my mind’s eye) on the outside and inside of my body, to allow for energy coming in or going out. Silver shields on the exterior repel unwanted energy, and on the inside they keep precious energy in. Grey shields allow some energy in or out.
  • From a number of practitioners, I have learned the practice of slowing my breath to manage energy flow, in-take and circulation.
  • From Qigong Master Robert Peng I have learned how to use a “circuit breaker” for the life force (or “chi”) moving through me by enclosing my thumbs with the fingers on each hand, which can diminish intense energy flows when engaged with others.
  • From The Weston Network/Respectful Confrontation community, I have learned the practice of being aware of my own personal space, surrounding my body, and respecting that boundary when engaged with others.
  • Also from The Weston Network, I have learned about the practice of embodied energetic balance when reaching out to make contact with others, while not over-extending, and also maintaining a firm sense of grounding and dynamic flexibility. I have also been reminded, helpfully, that balance is never static. We are constantly in motion, if we are alive, and when “most balanced,” are actually able to recover quickly from being extended or engaged in some way. So a question to carry is “What supports my ongoing ability to recover?”
  • From Harold Jarche, I have learned many ways of managing personal knowledge development through mindful connection to different networks in ways that ideally make them all “smarter” and don’t simply ask them/me/us to work “harder.” Of particular help is knowing what one can reasonably expect in terms of energetic flow and return from work teams versus communities of practice versus one’s wider social networks (see image above).
  • Especially in work that may be emotionally challenging and draining, I have learned from both Acceptance and Commitment Therapy/Training, as well as teacher Tara Brach, the idea of “tending and befriending” otherwise unwelcome feelings that inevitably come up, so that rigid resistance does not make those emotional visitors stronger.
  • And in general, I am embracing and making space for more silence, solitude and stillness, challenging some of my deep seated anxieties about losing connection and a sense of belonging in the world (what some would say FOMO is really about – for more about this, see this informative talk by Tara Brach).

And there are SO MANY teachers out there and much wisdom to glean that I certainly welcome others to share! It is my hope that many more of us can become adept energy and flow scientists/artists/healers/workers as we intentionally weave patterns that are the basis of the better world we sense is possible and know is necessary.

“The point of solitude is to give yourself time to grow in your own way, while the ultimate goal remains the difficult task of love and connection.”

– Damion Searls (from the introduction to a new translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet)

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