Recently a colleague and I were invited to present to partners in Mississippi about what we have learned over a dozen years of creating a network in New England dedicated to advancing a just, sustainable, democratic and collaborative regional food system.
It has been quite a journey to date, filled with twists and turns, much joy, and some hard-earned wisdom. Over this time I have done my best to capture insights and developments as they have happened in blog posts. In reflecting on those, along with content that has been curated on the network’s website, I pulled together the list of developmental lessons/milestones below.
This could easily be longer, and if one were to “double click” on any item, a whole story would unfold with other learnings. Some day we hope to capture this in a fuller telling, and for now, here is an offering of 25+ take-aways, some of which might be of interest to others depending on where you are in your own network stories of change.
Identify leverage areas (we now call them “impact areas”) that we can lean into collectively to create the better system(s) that align with our shared vision and values.
“Do what you do best and connect to the rest”– keep focusing on what is ours to do as a network in the region, while respecting, appreciating and linking with what others are doing that aligns with and complements our efforts.
Create an integrated policy platform across the region and sectors, grounded in our core vision and values, and help make policy more accessible and relevant to everyone.
As Toni Morrison once wrote, “Keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.” Normalize complexity in our shared work, while avoiding making things more complex than they need to be.
With respect to technology tools and platforms, remember that less can truly be more, and that they are as much about sociology as technology. Ask what you really need to facilitate fluid communication, sharing and decision-making.
All along the way, there were messages of what the times are calling for in terms of practicing resilience and transformation. Each of these deserves a fuller unpacking, and I offer them here for now, with much gratitude to many teachers along the way. I begin each of these with the word “remember,” as that was a core teaching from our gathering on Haudenosaunee lands, that one of our greatest gifts is to remember, and that so much of this is about remembering …
Remember that everything is designed to work together through reciprocal relations.
Remember where you come from, what your “creation story” is, as there is great guidance there.
Remember what matters most to you, your values, and align with them in practice.
Remember what is yours to do in this lifetime and in/with Life.
Remember to go below the neckline (to the heart and gut), without throwing out what is above it (the head).
Remember to practice belonging and accountability (they go together and support one another).
Remember to do intergenerational work/learning, thinking of those living, those passed on, and those yet to come.
Remember to bring in “the periphery” (whatever that means in your particular situation – this generally relates to power and access). There is much wisdom and fresh insight here.
Remember the importance of putting in place a “resilience or transformation infrastructure” (think process, roles and relationships) – this does not necessarily happen on its own.
Remember when it makes sense to “institutionalize” and do so in ways that do not kill spirit, vitality and diversity.
Remember not to make assumptions and be prepared to be surprised.
Remember to have faith in the unseen, the power of “practical magic.”
Remember to break bread with one another, to talk with one another and to keep leaning in to the (apparent) differences. Learning awaits!
Remember to find what grounds and nourishes you (individually and collectively) and cherish/honor it.
This is something that I put into a digital journal as I was traveling home to capture what was moving through me:
“Just leaving Jackson, Mississippi, where I was for three days, co-facilitating and participating in a gathering convened by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future of food policy councils from around the country (US) that are trying to advance social equity in their work. It was incredibly powerful to me to gather in Jackson, for all its history; to meet the likes of Reena Evers-Everette (daughter of Medgar and Myrlie Evers), Charles Taylor (head of the NAACP-Mississippi), Savi Horne (Land Loss Prevention Program), Ed Whitfield (Seed Commons) and Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott(founder of Foot Print Farms); and also to learn more from colleagues there about the network weaving and healing work they are doing in and around food systems, which is about so much more than food – community, local economy, and culture.
As I was walking through the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum about two hours after we closed the convening, I was hit in the forehead and heart (literally had to sit down) by the messages from both the history I was taking in and also what I had just experienced in Jackson. And I should add that it links to the work we at IISC have been supporting through Food Solutions New England for over a decade. To distill “success” (or encouraging movement) in the Civil Rights movement (especially in Mississippi) and what is happening now in Mississippi and in New England around food systems change, much seems to come down to this:
Grounding in the anchoring power of faith, which may or may not be religiously-sourced, and nonetheless is about having humility in the face of Life’s gifts and grandeur, which is complex and awe-inspiring, and asks us to both never give up but also to let go …
On top of this, or infused with this, comes the work for policy change, creating new civic infrastructure, and the like, and never losing sight of the list above.
One peril, over and over again, in social/system change work, seems to be the pitfalls of abstraction – making what we are doing too intellectual and inaccessible to most, not to mention unactionable; not addressing the abstractions that people make of one another in systems (seeing someone only as their role, or other aspects of identity); inappropriately “scaling” or “franchising” efforts and not shaping the work to real places where there may be some familiar patterns but always uniqueness in terms of history and culture.
Another peril is perpetuating fragmentation – not working with living breathing wholes, siloing our “knowing” to overly intellectual/analytical thinking, failing to integrate/weave strategies and perpetuating unhelpful competition (playing into the oligarchic capitalist narrative and way of doing things).”
Now reflecting on this a few days later, something else comes up, which is the importance of ongoing work on ourselves as “change agents,” care-fully watching our own automatic tendencies, biases, and inclinations (including towards groupthink), and especially being careful of the rearing of the overly pride-full ego in the forms of fear, envy, greed and striving for control. Much seems to come down to the abiding power of Love (and from it the expression when necessary of “holy rage”) and the never-ending practice of making room for regenerative flows …
Still sitting with it all, and curious to hear reactions, resonances and other reflections …
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 quantumentanglement. 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)
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 inputbuilds 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—andbuild authentic relationshipswith—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 thatlegitimizes 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.
Allen’s book provides a lot of food for thought. It is an exploration of a series of design principles from mature ecological systems (living systems) and how these can be applied to human organizations. These principles include:
Run on sunlight (tap the power of photosynthesis/positive energy)
Waste is never wasted (conserve energy, cultivate wise use)
Fit form to function (and function to purpose, paying attention to context)
Reward cooperation (respecting connection and interdependence)
Bank on diversity/difference (for intelligence, resilience, adaptation)
Curb excess from within (via feedback loops)
Depend on local expertise and self-organization (for more response-ability)
Tap the power of limits (constraints can inspire creativity)
In the first chapter, Allen also highlights some of the key dynamics of living systems that provide a better understanding of how generous and generative human organizations might operate. These include:
Living systems are interdependent – change in one part of the system influences other parts of the system in expected and unexpected ways
Living systems become more diverse as they evolve
Living systems are never static; they are always in flux
Living systems are filled with feedback loops that facilitate evolution
Living systems cannot be steered or controlled, only attracted or nudged.
Living systems only accept solutions that the system helps to create
Living systems only pay attention to what is meaningful to them here and now.
As I was reading, I pulled out a number of quotes and posted them on Twitter, which provoked some fun interactions. Many of these have to do with the underlying network structure and dynamics of living systems, for which I have a particular fondness. Here is a sampling, that will give you a taste of the book and perhaps entice you to dig deeper. Curious to hear what thoughts, feelings and sensations these inspire:
“Once we shift our worldview to seeing our organizations as living systems, then we can begin to see that generous organizations behave more like dynamic networks rather than traditional hierarchies.”
“The quality and authenticity of the relationships between people, and between people and ideas, increase the flow of positive energy in organizations.”
“The structure of nature’s network, the connections and interdependencies, allow the living system to self-regulate, adapt to changing conditions and evolve to survive.”
“Mutualistic relationships can help buffer partners against extreme conditions, open new niches for both partners, and amplify the baseline of resource acquisition.”
“Diversity allows for multiple ways that nutrients can be exchanged, making the entire system more resilient.”
“Opposition is necessary for wholeness.”
“When we recognize organizations are in constant movement, we then see organizational strategies as adaptive cycles instead of linear constructs.”
“We need to let go of the assumption that all of our assets are tangible.”
“Wet sand operates like a network. It is made up of grains of sand held together by saline. When it encounters force, those elements combine to resist; however, when it encounters a slow entry into its system, it accepts the presence of our foot. Living systems are networked and the nudge and wait for change is very effective in influencing them.”
“Generous organizations are open to the wider world. There are no silos in a generous organization.”
“What if a job description articulated a philosophy of relationships and connections that this person would need to develop and maintain while doing their job?”
“What would leadership look like if its highest purpose was to ensure that future generations thrive?”
Currently engaged in a number of state-wide and regional network-building initiatives focused on food, health and education system change, I am beginning to see some interesting patterns across efforts to build connectivity-based and more fluid movements for change. Watching these dynamics unfold, I can’t help but come back to one of our foundational frameworks at IISC, what we call the R-P-R Triangle, for all that it has to offer our thinking about network strategy and success.
This framework (see below) makes the point that any kind of collaborative endeavor is a multi-dimensional affair when it comes to the core determinants and definitions of success. Of course, many of us come to “net work” and collaborative efforts eager to see results, to work in new ways to have greater impact on the issues that we care most about. Without concrete results or “wins,” it is hard to keep people engaged and morale up. But results are just a part of the story, and the big results may take some time in coming.
“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, and the particular pattern of 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. And the specific pattern of the ties is crucial to understanding how networks function.” – Nicholas A. Christakis
At the Interaction Institute for Social Change, we have a collaborative change lens that includes the facets of (1) naming and building power and working for equity and inclusion; (2) seeing and advancing networks as the unit of action and analysis and (3) embracing love as a force for social transformation. With respect to networks, we have noticed that there are a lot of different takes on what networks are, why they matter, and how to “leverage” them for positive social change. Part of this may be due to the fact that network science and approaches span a variety of schools of thought and practice, including sociology, psychology, mathematics, political science, communication, anthropology, economics, and epidemiology.
I recently came across an article by Nancy Katz, David Lazer, Holly Arrow, and Noshir Contractor (2004) that names some of the commonalities that exist across these different schools and approaches that we’ve been experimenting with to advance social change networks, support resilience, and to shift patterns and flows in “systems as networks” to create regenerative communities and equitable wellbeing. The article, entitled “Network Theory and Small Groups,” refers to the work of Barry Wellman (1988), which lifts up five core principles of network theory that might provide some more coherence and alignment to “network approaches.”
People’s behavior is best understood and predicted by the web of relationships in which they are embedded. These webs present opportunities and impose constraints on people’s behavior. So working with connections and flows can facilitate, inhibit and shape possibility.
Nothing can be properly understood in isolation or in a segmented fashion. The focus of analysis should be the relationships between people or groups, rather than the units themselves or their intrinsic characteristics. So the quality of relationship matters and needs tending.
Methods of “analysis” should not assume independence, but rather interdependence. People should be understood relationally. So think in terms of “collisions and ripples” as one network we are working with likes to say, characterizing network effects.
The flow of information and resources between two people depends not simply on their relationship to each other but on their relationships to everybody else. Or in network science speak, “Understanding a social system requires more than merely aggregating the dyadic ties.” So focus not just on one-to-one exchanges, but one-to-many and many-to-many (scale-linking).
Groups have fuzzy rather than firm boundaries. The building blocks of organizations and communities are not discrete groups but rather overlapping networks. Individuals generally have crosscutting relationships to a multitude of groups. So focus not simply on the impacts of bonding within groups but bridging across, and what this manifests.
Webs, relationships, flows, interdependence, intricacy, scale-linking, bonding and bridging. This is certainly not a full list of what network mindsets make visible to us, but hopefully lifts up some of what can help us better understand and work with reality, in these and at all times.
“Community exists when people who are interdependent struggle with the traditions that bind them and the interests that separate them so they can realize a future that is an equitable improvement on the past.”
-Carl Moore (quoted by Dr. Ceasar McDowell)
A couple of weeks ago I attended a gathering of network thinkers and doers pulled together by Steve Waddell and Diane J. Johnson, on behalf of the Emerging Network Governance Initiative. Our time together was designed for us to (1) get to know one another better and our respective work (because that’s what network weavers do) and (2) explore possibilities for collaboration to bring different network processes and forms of governance to bear at various scales in the face of the struggle/failure of traditional government to hold and do justice to demographic complexity and address a variety of social and environmental issues.
We spent some time early on unpacking the words “emergent,” “network” and “governance.” While we did not come to final agreement on set definitions, here is some of what I took from those conversations.
Emergent and emergence refer to the dynamic in networks and in life in general through which novelty arises in seemingly unexpected ways.
What is emergent is not planned per se, but rather surfaces through complex interactions between parts of or participants in systems.
As I’ve worked with a variety of social change networks to launch or transition from one stage to another, I’ve been guided by the following formula:
Form follows function follows focus
My experience is that many groups and initiatives can get very concerned about structure – How will we make decisions? Who will be members? What is expected of them? What do they get in return? These are important questions, and they deserve a fair amount of time tending to them. What can bog many groups down at this stage, however, is that they have not sufficiently sorted out the functions of the network, how it creates value, if you will, which has important implications for form. And if the group is not clear on its focus (purpose, animating goal, mission), this can be that much more perplexing.
So I’m spending more and more time with networks sorting out their core “jobs,” with a few additional guiding mantras, including:
Do what you do best and connect to the rest.
The value proposition of change networks in my mind is that they add value to a broader landscape of activity, not that they come in and try to take over. Even if this is not the intent, groups can spend little time figuring out what already exists “out there,” what efforts are underway, what other collective efforts are operating. This lack of awareness risks creating unnecessary and unhelpful duplication and competition. Read More
In the past couple of posts, I have referenced Nora Bateson’s book Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns, a collection of essays, poetry, personal stories and excerpts of talks focused on systems theory and complexity thinking. I just finished the book and have underlined and tweeted a number of provocative lines that resonated and gave me pause (in a good way). Here are a few gems from the book that I continue to contemplate in different contexts:
“The problem with problem-solving is the idea that a solution is an endpoint.”
“Systems theory is struggling inside a system that doesn’t actually accommodate it.”
“We cannot know the systems, but we can know more. We cannot perfect the systems, but we can do better.”
“What does it mean to be healthy in an unhealthy system?”
We 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