“Words are how we think, stories are how we link.”
– Christina Baldwin
Last week I had the privilege of facilitating a two-day Network Learning Lab for a remarkable group of conservation leaders and network weavers. I co-designed the session with Olivia Millard and Amanda Wrona of The Nature Conservancy (and at the instigation of Lynn Decker of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network) to connect and strengthen the capacity of those working at the intersection of ecosystem health and human/community development while building networks at local, state, regional, national and global levels. Our design was informed by input given by the participating network weavers themselves about their core challenges and learning objectives, while leaving room for the unexpected – enough spaciousness for the network magic of emergence to happen.
As with other network leadership institutes that we at IISC have had a hand in designing and facilitating, the experience last week had as its foundation plenty of opportunities for the cohort to authentically connect, to get to know one another on both professional and personal levels. And as with both leadership development sessions and ongoing network development initiatives that we support, we turned to storytelling as a way to create bonds and understanding. This included time for the participants to tell brief stories about their networks, doing so in 5 minute informal bursts sprinkled throughout the two days (which could also have been done as Pecha Kucha or Ignite presentations). The intent was to create a bit more understanding of what might make each network unique in its aspirations, attributes and accomplishments and to whet people’s appetites for further conversation at breaks, meals and into the evening.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
– Maya Angelou
We also set up a couple of exercises within the first hour of the lab for people to hear more about one another’s paths to the work they currently do, not by ticking off their resumes, but by telling stories about what happened to and moved them to be where they are now. Time and again, when I facilitate this kind of exercise, it shifts the tone of the gathering in the direction of greater openness and trust. And as we touched on in our debrief of those exercises, inviting that kind of storytelling into our work can send a signal about what is validated with respect to forms of knowing, expression and parts of ourselves to bring to the table. Along these lines, we also drew from poetry and other forms of creative expression, including a stanza from a favorite William Stafford piece, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” which, to me, gets at the heart of network building … Read More
I recently received an email from the NorthSky Nonprofit Network about a practice group they have called the “Network Sandbox.” They introduce a tool (for “Tuesday Tool Time”) and invite members to play with it. I was happy to be told that they recently incorporated “connection stories” as a tool. Here is their invitation to participants to stretch and innovate:
This week’s tool is inspired by the new connections catalyzed by the mini-grants. While the survey we used collected some anecdotal information about the new connections, it left all of us wanting more… richer, deeper stories about these connections. Curtis Ogden from the Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC), calls connection stories “critical nutrients” for networks that “feed a network forward.”
Last week over 190 delegates attended the 6th annual New England Food Summit in Bridgeport, Connecticut. This marked the completion of a cycle through all six New England states and an important moment in the evolution of Food Solutions New England, a network of networks that has been in development with IISC’s support around a bold Food Vision that sees the region becoming more connected and self-sufficient while supporting a more equitable, eco-logical and vibrant food economy.
Leading up to the Summit, the FSNE Network Team engaged in a year-long system mapping and analysis process that yielded a few key systemic health indicators associated with the Vision as well as a set of leverage areas for framing and advancing regional strategies in the direction of the Vision:
Engaging and mobilizing people for action
Cultivating and connecting leadership
Making the business case for a more robust, equitable and eco-logical regional food system
Weaving diverse knowledge and inspiration into a new food narrative
“As long as it remains invisible, it is guaranteed to remain insoluble.”
Margaret Heffernan, from Willful Blindness
Photo by Marie Aschehoug-Clauteaux
The following is a slighted edited re-post of a piece that appeared at this time last year on our site . . .
As I look back on this past year through the lens of the work we have done at IISCsupporting networks and movements for social change, one of the most significant themes from my perspective is the value and importance of “making the invisible visible.” Over the past twelve months, we’ve facilitated many reflection sessions with diverse groups to gauge the development and impact they observe from our work together. I tend to ask people how they seechange happening at different levels: self, group, larger systems (organization, neighborhood, community, state, region, etc.). I also like to ask them to reflect via the use of stories to capture and convey significant development.
What has surfaced from this sharing is that even though some of the big goals around equity and sustainability are still ahead of us, there has been movement and part of this development comes down to seeing and being able to work with what had previously been unseen. While the methods for getting to this recognition have varied – from system mapping and analysis to network mapping to structural and power analysis to learning journeys to dialogue and tackling difficult conversations– by creating space to see, share and explore, there has been significant deepening of relationships (to self, other, the work), understanding and commitment.
A recent report out of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University highlights a number of food systems change efforts that have adopted a collective impact approach. Two of these are initiatives that IISC supports – Food Solutions New England and Vermont Farm to Plate Network. The report distills common and helpful lessons across eight state-wide and regional efforts. Here I want to summarize and elaborate on some of the article’s core points, which I believe have applicability to virtually all collaborative networks for social change. Read More
“Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”
Last week while having a discussion with a group about food system economics, I was reminded that the word “externalities” does not always refer to something bad. An externality can also be something beneficial that is not formally accounted for by “the market.” This had me reflecting on what can happen in networks, really any collaborative endeavor, where some of the real “goods” remain out of sight, on the edges of peripheral vision, at least with respect to where people typically tend to concentrate focus. Read More
The following is a slightly modified post from a little over a year ago. In recent months, the notion of puttingcare at the center of “net work” – to ground it, make it real and people accountable – has surfaced a number of times and strengthened. The original post included the phrase “the empathic turn.” Since that time I’ve come to see “caring” as a more appropriate word, rather than “empathy,” as it evokes for me not simply feeling but action. This re-post is inspired by the activists and thought leaders who are about to gather in Oakland, CA for the “Othering and Belonging” Conference, hosted by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.
In an essay that I continue to revisit, the poet/essayist/novelist/farmer/ conservationist and champion of sanity, Wendell Berry, talks about what he calls “the turn towards affection.” Having spent many years reflecting on and pushing back against the unfortunate demonstrated human capacity to despoil landscapes and demonize “the other,” he takes a strong stand for both deep rooted connection and . . . imagination:
“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.”
In other words, by his assessment, imagination thrives on contact, on an intimate form of knowing that is not simply intellectual, but intimate and holistic. For Berry it is only this kind of knowing that can lead to truly “responsible” action.
Others, past and present, hold the truth and power of this kind of fuller bodied knowing to be self-evident, in environmental conservation and social justice efforts and in what it means to be a responsible human. Professor john a. powell writes in his book Racing to Justice:
“There is a need for an alternative vision, a beloved community where being connected to the other is seen as the foundation of a healthy self, not its destruction, and where the racial other is seen not as the infinite other, but rather as the other that is always and already a part of us.”
The above graphic is something that I recently created, borrowing heavily from the good work of Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor, to help convey what is meant by engaging in “network strategy.” One of the challenges we’ve encountered in working with different networks is helping people to understand the difference between strategy development and network development. I try to meet this challenge, in part, by showing how they are not so different, or at least, that they are intimately connected. The diagram is also designed to help people get beyond some of the either/or thinking that we encounter. For example, it’s not that we have to choose between decentralized self-organized action and more formally coordinated collective action. It can be both!
So here’s what the graphic is meant to convey. First of all, network strategy is grounded at a fundamental level in creating (strategic) connectivity, by building linkages and trust between key stakeholders and perhaps unusual bedfellows. This can be done by convening people; sharing stories, data and other forms of information; co-creating knowledge; learning together, etc. Part of the value of this connectivity is that it can lead to orthogonal thinking and bolster individual network participants’ efforts in the shared domain where the network is focused. What also may ensue is self-organized action between those who are meeting one another for the first time or getting to know one another better (see the arrow to the left side of the triangle). This is all well and good and is something that networks should try to track. Read More
“Narratives can create a very different world, one where pressure evolves from a source of stress to a source of excitement, calling us to achieve even more of our potential, both as individuals and collectively.”
I was recently turned on to the work of Louise Diamond by the Plexus Institute. Diamond has been bringing insights from the dynamics of complex systems to peace building work for many years. Her efforts connect to a growing number of practitioners and thinkers who see the need to approach social change with an ecological and evolutionary mindset. In one of her papers, she extracts some of the “simple rules” that yield core practices for working in this way. Here I have adapted and adjusted some of them in application to network building for food systems change. Read More