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 …
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.
I’m fInishing up David Fleming’s book Surviving the Future, and buzzing with ideas and questions about the role of networks, network weaving and energy network science in these times of “systemic release” (see the adaptive cycle above, and more about the cycle here).
Fleming’s book, a curated collection of essays from the heftier Lean Logic, offers some compelling thinking about the trajectory of globalized and national economies – at best de-coupling, de-growth, and regeneration, and at worst catastrophic collapse – and the ways in which intentional and more localized culture building and reclamation as well as capacity conservation, development and management, might steer communities to healthier and more whole places post-market economy.
One of my favorite quotes from Fleming is that large-scale problems do not require large scale solutions; they require small-scale solutions within a large scale framework. That resonated immediately, even if I didn’t know exactly what he meant when I first read it. Re-reading more carefully, I hear Fleming making the argument that to take on systemic breakdown at scale is a fool’s errand – too massive, too slow, too much rigidity to deal with, too much potential conflict, too abstracted from real places and people.
Instead what is required is more nimble small-scale solutions happening iteratively and quickly (relative to how slow things move at larger levels). This suggests that action for resilience must happen at more local and regional levels, connecting diverse players in place, helping to encourage more robust exchanges of all kinds (including multiple “currencies”) and culture building. David Fleming offers the following definition of the lean economy (as opposed to the taut perpetual growth economy): “an economy held together by richly-developed social capital and culture, and organized around the rediscovery of community.” How might we weave that fabric even as others unravel?
Lean (network) weaving (a new term?) would focus on helping to create more intricate, high quality/high trust and diverse connections as well as facilitating robust, nourishing flows in tighter and more grounded cycles and systems. Part of the lean weaving would entail ensuring that smaller systems remain alert, quick and flexible so as to experiment, learn and adapt. And it would also maintain connection and communication between these smaller systems/clusters (Fleming’s “larger framework”), to facilitate learning and feedback of various kinds between them (not unlike proposed bioregional learning centers).
“The more flexible the sub-systems, the longer the expected life of the system as a whole.”
This idea of “lean weaving” also brings to mind 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 we have. Connectivity, like so much else in our mainstream economy and culture, can be ruled by a relentless growth imperative that is not strategic or sustainable and can cheat us of quality in favor of quantity.
More connections require more energy to manage, meaning there may ultimately be fewer substantive ties if we are spread too thin. Instead, the invitation is to think about how we mindfully maintain a certain number of manageable and enriching strong and weak ties, and think in terms of “structural holes.” For more on this network science view, visit this VNL blog post “We want to let you in on a network science secret – better networking is less networking.”
The COVID19 pandemic along with other mounting challenges may already be presenting the mandate and opportunity to get more keen and lean in our network thinkingand weaving, not simply in the spirit of austerity and regression, but to cut an evolutionary path of resilience and regeneration (renewal). Network weavers of all kinds, what are you seeing and doing in this respect?
For a number of years now I have been digging into network approaches to social change, including supporting collaborative network formation and development at national, regional, state and local levels around a number of issues, from food insecurity to health inequity to environmental conservation to economic decline and stagnation. While there have been promising advances made in many spaces and places to build trust and connection across various lines of difference (geographic, sectoral, cultural, ethnic, racial) and also to achieve alignment around shared goals and shared identity, significant change has been slow to come and while I know it is important to be realistic about time, I keep feeling that there is a missing link between the work of network development and what is often held up as the goal of “system change.”
I will admit that increasingly I find the stated goal of “system change” a bit hollow and too big, too abstract. Change from what to what? For the sake of what and whom? Increasingly I am more interested in looking at the work of system change as being about working with living systems (neighborhoods, communities, organizations, economies, democracies, etc.) to be equitable, salutogenic (health-promoting) and regenerative (self-renewing). Arguably many of the systems that change agents are focused on are in a state of crisis and/or impending collapse, putting significant portions of the human population, if not the entire species, at risk. And, of course, the extent to which many of these systems have been “functional,” it has often been at the expense of certain people and the planet (parts or the entirety thereof).
As I hear more talk about the need to come together, connect and collaborate across boundaries (build networks), I keep wanting the conversation to get to another step. Instead of saying that we are here to build networks to work on systems, I want more people to realize that the networks that we are trying to create and that already exist are part and parcel of those systems. That is, neighborhoods, communities, economies, political and health systems, are also networks, or networks of networks – patterns of connection and of flow. They are characterized not just by elements (including people) that are in relationship (that we might see in a typical network map) but also by the resources that move through those channels of relationship (money, information, nutrients, etc.). This realization takes us into the realm of what are called the “energy network sciences” and the idea that evolving patterns and the quality of connection and flow changes and/or creates new systemic possibilities.
“New paths of flow are needed for new patterns of organization that are resilient.”
She begins by reframing our view of evolution from one that is mechanical and accidental to one that is dynamic and quite intelligent. As she writes – “The new logic of life comes most clearly from the new story of growth, development and evolution emerging from an energy-driven process called self-organization.”Self-organization, a phenomenon that is recognized and valued by many network weavers, occurs through the ongoing process of life meeting life and creating new patterns of vitality. Sally writes –
“Instead of improbable accidents in a universe running downhill, we are probable products of energy-flow and binding forces … that connect us in an all-embracing ever-evolving web moving inexorably toward increasing intelligence, complexity, integration and balance.”
In order for this process of complex evolution to occur, there is a need to keep energy flowing and cycling and recycling through an “ever-growing meshwork of connective tissue” so that new patterns of organization can form that are resilient in an ever-changing environment. This flowing energy can exist in the form of information, learning, money, and other crucial resources. When this flow is stunted or fails to happen, certain parts of the system in question can be put at risk, and over time, especially if energy makes it to only a small part of the overall system (through disconnection, blockage, hoarding, extraction) the whole system faces the prospect of collapse. What this means is that the system loses its capacity to regenerate.
“Regenerative systems maintain their existence by constantly channeling critical flows back into nourishing their internal processes and organization and other forms of revitalization.”
Sally spends the bulk of her paper showing how non-regenerative patterns apply to the logic and playing out in the US and globally of economic neoliberalism and oligarchic capitalism. “Neoliberal economies under-invest in human capacities, encourage extractive and speculative practices, promote concentration over circulation; and extol corporate gigantism instead of proper balance.” This is all exacerbated by the accompanying dynamic of the concentration of significant influential decision-making power in fewer and fewer hands (elites) that are self-serving. And this makes the entire system (economy, political system, organization, community) unstable because it violates the rules of “regenerative vitality” – it is less “intelligent” in its ability to respond through diverse sensors and actors to environmental signals.
The counter to where we are and are heading is to be found, in part, through bringing an energy or flow networks perspective which encourages us to keep evolving “constructive, synergistic human networks, linked by mutual benefits, energized by common-cause, and fueled by the robust circulation” of energy/resources. This means embracing a different set if values than those offered by neoliberalism, for example – uplifting a full accounting of human and planetary “externalities” (oppression, theft, pollution, ecological degradation); the care, inclusion and feeding of entire and diverse networks of interconnected individuals, organizations, businesses, communities, cities, governments and the biosphere; and a commitment to robust social learning across all kinds of difference.
This is where I want to take the conversation with more and more social change agents and network weavers going forward. Let’s not focus simply on the structural form of our networks and net work. Let’s focus on what is moving and what facilitates flow through those connections; from where and from whom, to where and to whom; as well as what and who flow supports in terms of resilience, thriving, as well as adaptive and regenerative capacity.
Over the past several years of supporting networks for social change, we at IISC have been constantly evolving our understanding of what is new and different when we call something a network, as opposed to a coalition, collaborative or alliance. On the surface, much can look the same, and one might also say that coalitions, collaboratives and alliances are simply different forms of networks. While this is true, it is also the case that not every collaborative form maximizes network effects, including small world reach, rapid dissemination, adaptability, resilience and system change. In this regard, experience shows that a big difference maker is when participants in a network (or an organization, for that matter) embrace new ways of seeing, thinking, and doing. The following revised list continues to evolve as our own practice and understanding does, and it speaks to a number of network principles to guide thinking and action:
Part of the underlying and deeper change potential of taking a network approach is the notion that we lead withcontribution before credential. This means being open to the idea, for example, that a 15-year-old high schooler or home schooler might have as much to offer a given conversation as someone with a PhD, that lived experience can be as valuable if not more so than formal education, that those on the so-called “margins” often have a clearer view of what’s going on than those who sit at the center.
How focusing on diversity, flow and structure in human networks can be a foundation for great change.
Over the past couple of years, we at IISC have partnered with a few different social change initiatives that have engaged in system mapping to both align diverse stakeholders and surface leverage points for collective intervention. In looking back at these different mapping processes, it is striking the similarities of the areas of focus that have been identified, despite the variety of issues being addressed (food system fragility to educational disparities to public and environmental health). Across these efforts, common areas of leverage have surfaced around:
“Our world is, to a very real extent, based on dialogue. Every action taken that involves more than one person arises from conversation that generates, coordinates and reflects those actions. Those actions have impact. If our human world is based on conversations, then the work of creating and supporting those conversations is central to shaping a world that works. Designing and conducting meetings and other groups sessions well is vital to determining our common future.”
Just recently in work with a national network, we turned the corner to start creating a structure to channel the alignment it has achieved around core goals for system change and ultimately to realize “collective impact” in a particular domain. As we were kicking off some of the early discussions, someone asked what I thought were the keys to creating a successful network structure. That’s a huge question that merits a complex answer, and I’ll admit that in reflecting on the dozen or so large scale change efforts I’ve been a part of the past 7 or 8 years, the first thing that came to mind was – “really good facilitation.”
Simplistic as this response may sound I was thinking of lessons learned from numerous efforts that no beautiful or well thought out network/collaborative structure stands up to a lack of strong facilitative capacity (skillset, mindset, and heartset). To be more nuanced, it is not just facilitation that ultimately came to mind, but what we at IISC call facilitative leadership.
For over 20 years, IISC has been teaching, preaching and practicing Facilitative Leadership (FL), and in many ways it seems that this approach has never been riper in light of the burgeoning call to collaborate and cooperate across boundaries of all kinds. At its base, FL is about creating and inspiring the conditions for self-organization so that people can successfully achieve a common (and often evolving) goal. The logical question that follows is, “How does one ‘create and inspire’ these conditions?” The answer is found in a variety of practices derived from successful group work and that have indeed shown promise across different networks and large scale change efforts to create solid foundations and momentum for social change. Among them are these: Read More
At this point a couple of networks with which I am working have reached or are reaching the three year mark in their formalized existence. By many accounts, this is a milestone and inflection point worth noting, as these initiatives have built significant connectivity (depth and breadth) and alignment (shared sense of common identity and direction) among key and diverse actors. Furthermore, there has been a real proven capacity of these networks to meet individual self/ organizational interests in terms of learning, new partnerships, and a broader community/marketplace of support. And there is a growing appetite for and interest in how this all adds up to significant system change. Another way of framing this is people are wondering how they can activate the next level of the system to bring all of their interactions to a place where there is greater abundance, opportunity, and impact. Read More
A few different experiences last week reinforced my conviction that storytelling can constitute significant “action” and advancement, including work done in networks for (and as) change. The first was during a session that I co-delivered on behalf of IISC with the Graustein Memorial Fund and The Color of Words, about our work with an early childhood system change effort in Connecticut called Right From the Start. During the conference session we emphasized that one of the biggest leverage points for system change is at the level of narrative and belief systems.
Surfacing the dominant implicit and explicit stories about what is and should be, analyzing the degree to which they align with our values and intentions, and countering/reframing them if and as necessary has been part of the work of Right From the Start (RFTS). Read More
Once upon a time there was a funder. This funder had been working for almost a decade to strengthen local community efforts to improve early childhood development opportunities and outcomes around the state. The communities appreciated and were grateful for this support, and the number of community collaboratives grew.
At the same time, in the face of persistent and racialized inequities, recognition was growing that something more was needed to hold these local efforts together, to harness and connect them, and to align state-level efforts with community needs and aspirations. So a call went out from the various communities to the funder to help do something about this. The funder responded, cautiously, and engaged in “listening” sessions with communities and advocates. And it reached out to some potential resources, including IISC, to explore what might be done. Read More
“We want a system that provides all children regardless of race or economic background with the same opportunities.”
– CT Right From the Start
The video above and words below appear on the CT Right from the Start (RFTS) website, and represent one of the outcomes of the past two years of work of a collaborative multi-stakeholder effort that IISC has been supporting as the lead process designer and facilitator. RFTS runs parallel to the state’s planning initiative to create an early childhood office that consolidates services for children and families. Right from the Start has become an important voice for equity in Connecticut and we are very proud of its stance and our partnership . . . Read More