“Networks are present everywhere. All we need is an eye for them.”
You may have heard a version of this story before:
There was a man who had worked at a factory for twenty years. Every night when he left the plant, he would push a wheelbarrow full of straw to the guard at the gate. The guard would look through the straw, and find nothing and pass the man through.
On the day of his retirement the man came to the guard as usual but without the wheelbarrow. Having become friends over the years, the guard asked him, “I’ve seen you walk out of here every night for twenty years. I know you’ve been stealing something. Now that you’re retired, please tell me what it is. It’s driving me crazy.”
The man smiled and replied, “Okay, wheelbarrows.”
This tale about not seeing something in plain sight reminds me of a dynamic that can ensue in network gatherings where at some point anxiety is expressed about not getting to “concrete” outcomes. This happened recently at a large convening of a national network attempting to set systemic change strategies. 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.”
– John Hagel
What follows is a slightly edited version of a post from a little over a year ago. It remains timely in terms of conversations I am currently having with a few different networks about the interest in engaging in not just communications work, but in changing consciousness. As abstract as it may seem to some, the power of robustly connected and distributed networks to create and promote new stories of who “we” are and what we might become can be critical to the work of social change.
Today’s post gives a tip of the hat and bow of gratitude to John Hagel for his work on narrative, which I believe has much to offer networks for social change. First a little story . . .
A regional network with which I have been working has been wrestling with what has to this point been called “a vision” for the region’s future. Part of this struggle owes to attempts to create something that can speak to a verydiverse and complex range of interests. And part of the struggle, from my perspective, stems from what I see as the need to parse out and accentuate different elements that to this point have fallen under the rather broad heading of “vision.” Read More
Last week I had an interesting conversation with an evaluator who was curious about some of the networks for food system development we’ve been supporting through IISC. We got to talking about “metrics,” which led into consideration of the role of story in not simply gauging network effectiveness, but also in stimulating network evolution. Communication and social learning are part of the life-blood of human networks. This is something that we’re coming to understand at a more profound level amidst the complexity of food system transformation work at all levels.
As we try to identify “leverage points” to shift regional food system dynamics in New England in the direction of increased local production, food security, economic development, resiliency and equity across the board, we are realizing that more robust connectivity and sharing across boundaries of many kinds is a significant strategy and form of structural change that can allow for critical self-organization and adaptation. Stories become one of the critical nutrients in this work.
Furthermore, we have begun to solicit stories of success and innovation around embracing the FSNE Vision (of 50% self-sufficiency with regards to regional food production by the year 2060) and racial equity commitment. And coming out of this year’s Summit, there is interest in sharing stories of how people are working towards “fair price” across the food chain, in such a way that food workers, producers of varying scales, distributers and consumers have living wages and access to health-promoting and culturally diverse food. The curation of these stories we see as beginning to change the underlying economic narrative.
Stories then become fuel in many ways, providing different points of access, connection, inspiration, education, and meaning-making. Stories are like enriched compost that can be fed back into the network to nurture new growth. Our work as a Network Team, as network gardeners, is to “close the resource loop,” encourage and support more equitable channels for expression, more cross-fertilization, more interest in diverse (and concealed) stories and “processing venues” for these (virtual and in-person).
How are you using story to feed your net work forward?
This week I was in a conversation with someone who asked me what the difference is between “networking” and “network building.” I’ve been asked this before, and certainly do not purport to have the right answer, but it became an opportunity to deepen the conversation that has been evolving in my work and head about what it means to develop potential through and in networks. Here is what popped to mind as a response, actually in the form of a series of questions
“As long as it remains invisible, it is guaranteed to remain insoluble.”
Margaret Heffernan, from Willful Blindness
Photo by Marie Aschehoug-Clauteaux
As I look back on 2014 through the lens of the work we have done at IISC supporting networks and movements for social justice and system change, one of the most significant themes that I’ve distilled is the value of “making the invisible visible.” This month I’ve facilitated a number of reflection sessions with diverse groups to gauge the development and impact they have felt and observed from our work over the course of the year. I tend to ask people how they see change 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, which I find often help to capture and convey developmental processes.
What has come from this sharing is that even though some of the big goals around equity and sustainability remain elusive, there has been movement and a significant part of this development comes down to seeing 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 ample space to see, share and suppose, there has been significant deepening of relationships (to self, other, the work), change processes, and potential impact.
I will admit to being a bit dubious when I read articles about “scaling social impact.” A fair number of these pieces come from rather privileged places and can smack top-down solutions that perpetuate existing and problematic power dynamics and largely ignore the specifics of local realities. I am also concerned that many continue to hold an industrial/mechanistic/extractive view that renders “scaling up” simply more of the same old damaging same old.
So I have been heartened to hear different takes on scale this past month in a few conversations about evolving a more regenerative, “human scale”, and equitable economy. Read More
Last week, Curtis Ogden wrote about the power of narrative to build engagement and shape the action in networks. We’ve also been taking a deep dive into the role of narrative in racial healing. That is, focusing on the need to expose and transform the deeply embedded narratives about race that allow racism to persist through unconscious bias, individual behaviors and micro-aggressions, institutional practices, and structural arrangements in this society. The report “Telling our Own Story” describes the ways in which narratives about race have shaped the U.S. culture and values, and laid the foundation for social structures based on false stories about the value of people based on a racial hierarchy. Here are a few opening ideas. We hope you will read the full report.Read More
“Love” is now a category on the IISC Blog. How appropriate! Love is one of the three lenses that give shape to our work. And love is at the very heart of this project of social transformation. Love is path and goal. Love is how we get there and it is where we want to go.
This beautiful video speaks to the importance of will, community, and creativity to transform an otherwise unused asset into a new engine for local economic vitality. In the words of catalyst Greg Cox, “This is an evolution. . . . You come up with an idea. The human animal reacts with fear almost all the time. And you go, ‘Ah, it can’t happen. It’s Rutland. It’s not going to happen here. It’s been too difficult. We just don’t have the capacity.’ This is the way the story is. We looked at the outcome we wanted and we’re trying to rewrite the story.”
This is excellent Curtis. It brings me back to one of our most important inquiries – how do you nurture the conditions for emergence? With this inquiry, we are not just saying that emergence happens; we are saying that our best approach is to nurture it. It is a significant shift from a more top-down technical approach.
In the discussion of my post from last week about human connections across political divides, we were exploring the challenge of engaging with people whose views we do not share or even necessarily respect, without disrespecting the person or doing damage to relationships. This week, a young woman named Denise Helms gave me a real challenge.
At the second Vermont Farm to Plate Network Convening two weeks ago, my colleague Beth Tener and I facilitated a conversation about the value the nearly 200 people in attendance see the network adding to the food system. From where they sit, what do they see net work enabling that they have not been able to accomplish in the “old way”? Here’s a taste: