The following is an excerpt from the third in a series of posts on networks, education and learning. The full post and series are published on the Education Week website. This post builds on two previous ones – Connection is Fundamental and Why Linking Matters – and looks at the importance of structure in supporting network effects while considering equity and power dynamics.
Networks are not necessarily easy to control in terms of their overall structure, especially when they are large and complex (diverse and widely distributed). And it is important to note that there are network phenomena that may tend to pull a networked endeavor in a certain structural direction.
For example, homophily is a phenomenon where social networks tend to form clusters of nodes with similar properties or attributes. This is captured by the adages, “Birds of a feather flock together,” and “Those close by form tight ties.” The result can be self-segregation along various lines of difference, for example racial, cultural, or class divisions in schools. Or consider the current pronounced political polarization in our country. The key to confronting homophily is to be both aware of the tendency and diligent about creating structures and incentives for bridging across boundaries.
“Opportunity … depends, at least in part, on our inherited networks.”
One of the great hopes and marvels of networks is that they can be liberating, especially in the face of bureaucracy and various barriers (see more about “network effects” in the previous post in this series). While this is worthy of celebration, another important phenomenon to be aware of is that networks can be deeply inequitable.
Return-on-investment (ROI) is not a term that I love, especially given how militantly utilitarian and narrowly it is often considered and applied. My friend, mentor, business consultant and holistic thinker Carol Sanford refers to ROI as “the future increase in value that is expected when the initial capital contribution is made.” Carol is quick to point out that capital can take many forms (financial, intellectual, social, spiritual, natural, etc.), and for network participants (or let’s call them “co-creators”) this often takes the form of investments of time, money, knowledge, creativity, and social connections.
Why would co-creators in networks take the time and risk to make such an investment? What is the expected return? Presumably, when we are talking about networks for social change, the principle driver is the desire to make a meaningful difference for people, places and purposes they care about and that they sense will be more positively impacted through network activity. Co-creators are also “kept in the network game” if participation enhances their own capabilities, grows and deepens their connections, and gives them increased opportunities to be creative, and perhaps even find a place of belonging!Read More
We know we are not alone at IISC when we say that 2017 left many of us a bit exhausted and breathless, if not somewhat dumbfounded. What occasionally felt like the wheels coming off of our country’s management and morality caught us by varying degrees of surprise, which is not to say that the underlying frustration and ongoing dynamics of “othering” were necessarily shocking. Rather, the unabashed in-your-face tenor of it all got to points where it was all I could do to stay even minimally tuned in to have at least a fingernail on the pulse of things (but really, there were few places to hide!).
I am grateful that as an organization we take a break at the end of the year to rest, restore and reflect. And while some of us may feel like we could use another week (or two), I for one feel ready and resolved to step boldly into 2018 with an open heart and humble sense of not knowing (what will happen, what is in others’ hearts and minds, what the answers are). I would characterize this as a stance of love or loving kindness. Read More
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge. Where is the knowledge we have lost in information.”
– T.S. Eliot
For the past few weeks I have been re-reading the book Designing Regenerative Cultures by Daniel Christian Wahl. I am deeply grateful for Daniel’s gift, a rich distillation of his PhD thesis that points in the direction of a more sane, hopeful and health-promoting future. Regenerative development is a broad body of study and practice that informs much of my own thinking about and practice around social change. A fundamental recognition of the regenerative lens is that in order to live we harvest from the larger living systems (communities, ecosystems) of which we are a part in such a way that can weaken them, and can put us at risk. Regenerative thinking and practice then asks:
What might we do not simply to wreck less havoc or do less harm, but to leverage the natural connections we have with living systems to contribute to the integrity, resilience and long-term viability of people, places, and ecosystems?
“It’s great that I’m learning all of these practical leadership and facilitation skills, but what happens when I’m not the one leading or facilitating?”
How can we keep things rolling when we aren’t formally in charge and when formal leadership is perhaps not so skillful? My answer: There’s usually some opportunity to lead, ask good questions, and to facilitate from the chair! Read More
We were heartened to see and hear the many conversations about racial equity during the main conference proceedings, and noted good and challenging questions and exploration about the fit between the Collective Impact model, such as it has been formally presented and understood, and community organizing and power building work. These conversations continued in some form or fashion during our session. Read More
I along with some other colleagues was recently approached by a networks researcher and thought leader about any emerging lessons and what we perceive to be current gaps in the “networks for social change” field around knowledge and practice. We were also invited to share any blog posts that speak to these lessons and growing edges. Below is the gist of the response that I sent, and I am curious to hear any reactions, extensions, etc.
Below are links to three blog posts that I would say speak to the growing edges in my own thinking and what I am seeing as important considerations for the field going forward. To summarize, these all have to do with how to get at deeper systemic change purpose and potential (which is not always the presenting purpose or initially perceived potential when networks form), and related to that, surfacing andworking with issues of power, privilege and identity.
In numerous social change networks that we support at IISC, racial equity has been put at the center of the work, whether or not that was the initial impetus for coming together. This is not seen as ancillary to the change effort, but now understood as foundational, in that systemic inequity around race is part and parcel of the water in which we swim. In a few of these networks where there is a majority of white participants, increasing numbers of people are asking what they can do about structural racism, and one response is that there is important work to be done around whiteness and white privilege. As Gita Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk point out, this is often a critical missing link in racial equity work. Read More
This weekend I attended CommonBound 2016, the bi-annual conference of the New Economy Coalition (NEC), “…a [160-member] network of organizations imagining and building a future where people, communities, and ecosystems thrive. Together, we are creating deep change in our economy and politics—placing power in the hands of people and uprooting legacies of harm—so that a fundamentally new system can take root.”
As one might imagine given the mission, the conference was attended by people working on a wide range of projects from public engagement, participatory budgeting, and environmental sustainability to cooperatives, reparations, community land trusts, fossil fuel divestment and more. The 900 attendees were all in some way engaged in doing the very important work of organizing, shifting culture, developing alternative institutions and creative solutions, writing, resisting, and fundraising. All towards a goal of a society that is more just, more democratic, and more sustainable. NEC itself is fast becoming a network of networks engaging groups in the cooperative movement, movement for black lives, labor movement, student divestment network, environmental movement and more. Held in Buffalo, NY, the conference had all the makings of a pivotal moment in movement history, where a true intersectional approach to changing society for the better could be nurtured. The opportunities for significant connections and collaborations to develop were endless.
In many rooms where networks are the topic of conversation, a typical question of interest is “Who is connected to whom?” This is an important question, often the focus of social network analysis (SNA), and can lead to important and strategic information about things like hubs, gatekeepers, strong and weak ties, etc. And this is not the full extent of useful inquiry when thinking about social change.
Another important question is, “What is flowing?” That is, what kinds of value are flowing through these connections with respect to information, natural capital, money, cultural expression, etc. This is the focus of value network analysis (VNA) and is important to help understand the overall vitality and health of a network or system. Read More
“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.”
– William Stafford, From “A Ritual to Read to Each Another”
A couple of weeks ago I was a participant in a SSIR webinar on network leadership. I spent my air time talking about Food Solutions New England as an example of a social change network that has been leveraging authenticity, generosity and trust to address issues of racial inequity in the food system. In telling the story, I realized that much of it amounts to a gradual process of shedding layers and “making the invisible visible.” Specifically, it has been about making visible power and privilege, connection and disconnection, tacit knowledge and diverse ways of knowing, and complex system dynamics. As a result, many in the network sense we are now in a better position to build from what we have in common, and that it is more likely that the vision of a vibrant, equitable and eco-logical food system will be realized. Read More
Not long ago, at a gathering of the Food Solutions New England Network Team, one member, Dorn Cox, told the story of a farmer who has become renowned for the health of his soil. Remarkably, the soil health consistently increases, due to on-farm practices created over years of close observation and experimentation. This is significant as it has boosted the quality of the farm’s produce, reduced the need for and cost of inputs (helping to increase revenues), increased the soil’s ability to handle extreme precipitation and dry conditions brought on by climate change, and mitigates carbon release.
This accomplished practitioner has subsequently been sought out by academics and has served as lead author on numerous peer reviewed academic articles about his soil health practices. Dorn then relayed that the farmer recently reported that because of academic protocols he cannot get access to the very articles he has co-authored. Dorn punctuated his story with the lesson that:
To support learning, equity and resilience, knowledge wants and needs to be free and accessible.
This is a key principle for leveraging networks to make change. In the old world, knowledge was owned and proprietary. But in this increasingly volatile world,to help people be adaptive to change, there is need for robust flows of information that are equitably generated and accessible. This was a lesson learned by professor Anil K. Gupta, before he started the Honey Bee Network in India.
By his own admission, Dr. Gupta had been engaged in the practice of extracting information from people that served his own or purely academic purposes, without ensuring that the information made it back into the hands and minds of practitioners. He realized that “on efficiency and ethical grounds,” this could not continue. Read More