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 …
– Rowen White, Seed Keeper, activist and farmer from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne
“It’s all about how things are flowing.”
– Gwen McClellan, acupressurist and holistic healer
“A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event, like a flame or a whirlpool.”
– Alan Watts, philosopher and writer
“Seeing energy flows so that we can engage with them in positive ways is not some mystical, esoteric art, but the role of engaged human beings.”
– Joel Glanzberg, permaculturist and sustainable builder
Last week I teamed up with Dr. Sally J. Goerner, who stewards a transdisciplinary team of researchers and practitioners in the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics, to offer an interactive session to The Weaving Lab on the Energy System Sciences and how they might support network weavers working for social change in a variety of contexts. Energy System Sciences (ESS) is “an umbrella term for disciplines that use the study of energy flow networks to understand the laws of systemic health, growth and development in living, nonliving and supra-living systems.” ESS disciplines include: Chaos, Complexity, Resilience, Ecological Network Analysis, Self-Organization Theory, Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics, Panarchy, and others. It was a lot to present and absorb and process during our short 2 hour session, and so I have made an effort here to summarize and simplify …
Everything is made up of energy, so says “western” science and also many wisdom traditions (think spirit or chi) and indigenous peoples (see Sherri Mitchell), but many of us often don’t like to use the word “energy” (too woo woo). And perhaps that is to our detriment! Switching from a “matter” orientation about everything to an “energy” view can help us see and do things differently.
Systems are complex networks of interconnected “parts” that work together. Flows of energy of different kinds are crucial for a system to function (carbon in the biosphere, traffic in cities, supplies and information during a disaster response, ideas and emotions in a social group, nutrients on a farm, money and other resources in economies).
The Energy System Sciences (ESS) see all systems as “flow networks” or structures that arise from the circulation of resources, information, nutrients, etc. Thinking through the lens of flow, systemic health can be seen as being based on things like: investment and re-investment of key and diverse resources, healthy outflows (not polluting or poisoning the ecosystem), the velocity and spread of resources in the system, cross-scale circulation, etc. The nature and quality of these flows determines how systems are able to adapt and evolve in healthy and health-promoting ways.
ONE BIG PROBLEM now is that there is a dominant narrative stemming from the power and influence of oligarchy (rule of and for the few) and oligarchic capitalism (economies that are run by and support the few), which seeks to increase the wealth of “elites” at the expense of most people and the planet. Narrative, in contrast to story, is a way of looking at the world. In a sense, it’s a big story that influences thought, meaning and decision-making. The dominant oligarchic narrative and view is grounded in things and beliefs like “the divine right of capital and kings,” a master/slave mentality, dominance, supremacy ( based on race, gender and other markers of identity), narcissism, coercive hierarchies, “survival of the fittest,” and self-interest.
The oligarchic view cuts against the evolutionary promise of the Energy System Sciences in that it gets in the way of the kinds and qualities of flows needed to keep the whole body of humanity healthy and in right relationship with the planet. It prevents pro-social and pro-ecological evolution. For example, at a smaller scale, if we only privilege a certain part of our physical bodies (our heads or brains) over and at the expense of other parts of our bodies (for example, our hearts, our guts), this can have damaging impacts for the neglected parts and our entire bodies, and diminish our intelligence. Science is increasingly showing that our hearts and guts give us access to important information about the world around us. And our health and development are being shown to rest upon more integration and coherence between the different biological systems that make us up (digestion, vascular, nervous, etc.).
Against the oligarchic capitalist view is another view of humanity as being a collaborative learning species that can ground itself in common-cause and cooperative culture (including values of equity, justice, fairness, trust, transparency, mutualism) and seek resilient and regenerative economies and other systems that guarantee long-term human thriving for the many and for the diverse and not just the few and the alike. This narrative and set of beliefs aligns with the Energy Systems Sciences. Together they suggest that to support healthy and health-promoting webs and flows, it is important for groups of people to integrate the following core pillars, economically (especially in the etymological sense of the word – “household management”) and culturally:
Circulate diverse resources regeneratively, at and between different scales/levels
Create and sustain flexible and resilient structures of different and balance sizes
Ground in common-cause values such as mutuality, trust, transparency, equity, justice, fairness, accountability
Engaged in collaborative learning that supports intelligently adaptive responses and actions
For example, as Sally Goerner lifts up the following (it may be helpful to click on the image below):
We can also bring attention back to our own selves and how we interact with others to see how the energy system sciences can guide us. We can have stagnant energy if we are not inviting new ideas in or not releasing emotions. We can quickly get overwhelmed if we open ourselves to too much energetic flow of information or emotion, especially if it is negative or challenging. If our bodies are not structurally strong and flexible, they can be more prone to dis-ease. If our social organizations are overly rigid, they can be un-responsive to change and unable to adapt accordingly. If we are not having honest conversations with one another, that “clear the air” (and move energy through as it needs to), we can get bogged down in unhealthy interpersonal dynamics. The emotional body language and tone we convey energetically can impact our interactions with others (and flow widely in larger networks!). If we are not attending to what is otherwise sealed away in our insides (which equates with dissociation) this can also have impacts on how we are with ourselves and one another.
Bottom line: We share a hope that many more of us can become adept energy and flow scientists, artists, healers, weavers and workers as we intentionally create patterns that are the basis of the better world we sense is possible and know is necessary.
We just completed a third year of providing coaching support to a state-wide health equity network. We began our partnership before the pandemic and have spent the last couple of years checking in as life with the pandemic and intersecting crises have evolved, working with both staff and key partners. It has been interesting to see how there has been a natural inclination to build on recommendations from our first year, as people have appreciated the power of and need for leaning into more networked ways of thinking and acting (spending more time connecting organically and getting to know one another, providing mutual support in light of intersecting crises, staff operating as more of a gate-opener for and facilitative leader with partners, creating stronger alignment around shared policy priorities across the state and between communities).
In our first year report we used the Connectivity-Alignment-Coordinated Action framework to assess gaps, strengths and possibilities for the network. What this framework suggests is that movements for social change and advocacy organizations can be more effective when they bring a network lens to their work and intentionally cultivate diverse, intricate and robust connections and exchanges of various kinds through those connections to advance their goals.
creating stronger connectivity and trust between people, organizations, and communities;
facilitating greater alignment amongst those who are connected around shared purpose, values, and/or common goals;
coordinating action and also creating conditions for/supporting self-organized initiative among aligned people, organizations and communities.
In conversations with organizational staff who steward the network throughout 2020 and into 2021, it was clear that much had moved on different fronts with respect to all three realms. Some examples include:
Virtual retreats seeking maximizing network connections and deepen relationships.
More care and attention given to onboarding for new members.
Mindfulness being given to tech tools regarding how best to use virtual spaces so that they are accessible, allow for equitable engagement, and do not distance or marginalize participants.
Staff working to facilitate connection and alignment between partners working on advocacy for the state budget and organizing in local communities.
Advocacy work that has included more network mobilization and in a way such that staff is less protective of connections to lawmakers.
Community partners have been invited to bring along a community member and there was an opportunity to work with relatively high level staffers.
Virtual retreats have featured an activity around “contribution mapping,” to look at, appreciate and celebrate how the network more broadly was engaged in action.
The report also included a set of recommendations, many of which we feel could be applied to many different networks in these times, especially as people grapple with issues of capacity and the need to front and center care and wellbeing. And so we offer this slightly edited list for wider consideration, with an invitation to add:
Keep doing what you are doing! Continuing to facilitate deeper trust and connection, stronger alignment and broader network action will only help to support the overall movement for justice and sustainability.
With respect to creating new and strengthening existing network connectivity going forward, ask what few key connections would really bolster the overall network and its work. As Grace Lee Boggs puts it, “Movements are born of critical connections rather than critical mass.”
Consider how you might continuously cultivate a set of “network weavers” (and weaving behavior overall). Look for who is already engaged as “network champions” and consider supporting their capacity to do what they might naturally be inclined to do.
Consider deepening values work with staff and key partners. As there continues to be tumult in many places and spaces, helping people to ground in and be accountable to shared values can be of tremendous benefit in strengthening alignment. More on this here.
Pay attention to how you are spending your time and energy around network development, for the sake of all network members. There is so much overwhelm in so many systems now. Ask what brings life to the overall network and to participants and co-creators throughout and follow that. For more on connection, flow and energy management, see this.
Related to the above, if you do not do this already, consider bringing in a trauma- and burnout-informed lens to your work with partners. Some guidance can be found in the context of this post.
And by all means, take time to celebrate your successes and recognize how you are changing and evolving in “small” ways as an organization and a network. Experience shows that his will go a long way to keeping people fueled and engaged. Keep telling the evolving story of networked change.
A couple of years after the Food Solutions New England Network officially published the New England Food Vision, and just after the network formally committed to working for racial equity in the food system, it formally adopted a set of four core values. On the FSNE website, a preamble reads: “We collectively believe that the food system we are trying to create must include substantial progress in all these areas, alongside increasing the consumption of regionally produced foods and strengthening our regional food economy and culture.” The four values are:
We celebrate and value the political power of the people. A just food system depends on the active participation of all people in New England.
Racial Equity and Dignity for All:
We believe that racism must be undone in order to achieve an equitable food system. Fairness, inclusiveness, and solidarity must guide our food future.
We know that our food system is interconnected with the health of our environment, our democracy, our economy, and our culture. Sustainability commits us to ensure well-being for people and the landscapes and communities in which we are all embedded and rely upon for the future of life on our planet.
We consider trust to be the lifeblood of collaboration and collaboration as the key to our long-term success. We are committed to building connections and trust across diverse people, organizations, networks, and communities to support a thriving food system that works for everyone.
In the last few years, these values have generated a lot of good discussion, both internal to the network and with others, and we are discovering that this really is the point and advantage of having values in the first place. They can certainly serve as a guide for certain decisions, and in some (many?) instances things may not be entirely clear, at least at first. What does racial equity actually look like? Is it possible for a white-led, or white dominant, institution to embody racial equity? Can hierarchical organizations be democratic? Are there thresholds of trust such that people are willing to not be a part of certain decisions in the name of moving things forward when needed?
Recently, FSNE received an email from a Network Leadership Institute alum who now works as a commodity buyer for a wholesale produce distributor in one of the New England states. They reached out to inquire who else in the network might be thinking about high tech greenhouse vegetable production in the region. Specifically their interest was talking about projects that use optics of being “community based,” but are financed by big multinational corporations. “What would a “just transition” framework look like in the context of indoor agriculture,” they wondered, especially in light of undisclosed tax deals happening as the industry rapidly grows.
As it turns out, a public radio editor recently reached out to FSNE Communications Director, Lisa Fernandes, about pretty much the same thing, also referencing other similar projects taking root in different parts of the region. What does FSNE think of these? Part of her response was that there are some good questions that not only the New England Food Vision (currently being updated), but also the Values, can raise to evaluate the potential role of some of these more tech-heavy food system projects and enterprises as the region strives to be more self sufficient in its food production. And this conversation is certainly growing.
These exchanges in our region have had me thinking about work colleagues and I have been doing with food justice advocates in Mississippi. A central part of this also lifts up values as being key to establishing “right relationships” between actors in the food system, and also between advocates and partners (including funders) from outside of the state. I have learned much from Noel Didla (from the Center for Ideas, Equity, and Transformative Change) and her colleagues about the importance of establishing what they call “cultural contracts,” which create a foundation of values-based agreements as a way of exploring possibilities for authentic collaboration. The signing of any contract is just a part of a process of ongoing dialogue and trust building. For more on these contracts and culture building, see the recording of a conversation Karen Spiller and I had with Noel and other Mississippi food system advocates during the FSNE Winter Series earlier this year in a session called “The Power of the Network.”
“Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.”
In a different series of workshops with those same Mississippi-based advocates, we introduced a values-focused tool from the PROSOCIAL community. PROSOCIAL is rooted in extensive field research (including the commons-focused work of Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom) and evolutionary and contextual behavioral science. PROSOCIAL offers tools and processes to support groups in cultivating collaborative skillfulness and the critical capacity of psychological flexibility, including the application of Acceptance and Commitment Training/Therapy (ACT) techniques.
The ACT Matrix (see below) is something that individuals andgroups can use to name what matters most to them (their core values), along with aligned behaviors (what are examples of living out these values?), as a way of laying a foundation for clarity, transparency, agreement, support and accountability. The Matrix also helps people to name andwork with resistance found in challenging thoughts and emotions that might move them away from their shared values. The upper left quadrant is a place to explore what behaviors might be showing up that move people away from their stated values. In essence, this helps to both name and normalize resistance and when used with other ACT practices (defusion, acceptance, presence, self-awareness), can encourage more sustainable, fulfilling (over the long-term), and mutually supportive choices.
An additional values-based tool we have lifted up both in New England and in our work in Mississippi is Whole Measures. Whole Measures is a participatory process/planning and measurement framework from the Center for Whole Communities). There is both a generic version of this framework, as well as one specifically focused on community food systems (more information available here). As CWC points out, “How the tool or rubric framework is used, how the community engagement is facilitated, who is represented in the design matters.” Whole Measures is about content, yes, and it is meant to be used for ongoing deep dialogue, especially amidst complexity, diversity and uncertainty, and when faced with the challenge of tracking what matters most that can also be difficult to measure.
When it comes down to it, these times seem be asking us what kind of people we really are and strive to be. As the old saying goes, “If you don’t know what you stand for, you’ll fall for anything.” And so the work of values identification and actualization is of paramount importance. I’ll leave it to the poet William Stafford to appropriately close this post with his poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” (something we often share with social change networks as we launch, especially the first and last stanzas):
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.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind, a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail, but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park, I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk: though we could fool each other, we should consider— lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe — should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve worked with a state-wide health equity network, comprised of smaller coalitions, that has been looking at living into being more of a network in thinking and action. After some conversation and consideration, we decided to use a framework that derives from the writings of Madeleine Taylor and Pete Plastrik.
The Connectivity-Alignment-Coordinated Action/Production framework (see graphic above) lifts up three different network modes, through which value and impact is created. First of all, network value and impact is grounded at a fundamental level in creating connectivity, by building linkages and trust between key stakeholders and perhaps unusual bedfellows. This can be done by convening people; closing triangles, 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 might happen is self-organized action between those who are meeting one another for the first time or getting to know one another better.
“Healthy networks measure their impact, in particular by establishing the links between decentralized network action and outcomes.“
Up a level, networks may be compelled to create some kind of collective and aligned commitment or value proposition in the form of shared vision, values, public statements, etc. This can create greater impact/ripples, and provide additional value to individual participants and self-organized efforts, as they are more prone to head in the same general direction or with some kind of deeper shared understanding of context.
And then there are those instances when there is a call to some form of collective action, such as advocacy, a communications campaign, fundraising, or some other co-produced venture. This can happen even as smaller self-organized action continues (really, from a network perspective, most collective action should be about creating the conditions for those self-organized efforts, which is what is meant by “making the periphery the norm” in network building lingo).
With all of this in mind, after doing interviews, some observation, as well as evaluations and other documentation from the sub-networks of this state-wide advocacy network, a few patterns seemed to surface that suggested ways for the network to strengthen itself and leverage network effects.
Here is a list of what was surfacing as opportunities seen through the C-A-CA/P lens:
In the calls that the network does with its members, there appeared to be more of a one-directional download of information from staff (the hub) to its members (the periphery). And in various documents there appeared to be some suggestion that people were not connecting except through the hub. Furthermore, an annual report said that state partners expressed a desire to know more about one another’s capabilities, constituencies, and connections. All of this suggested an opportunity for creating greater CONNECTIVITY, especially member-to-member.
In an interview the observation was made that on membership calls there were often the same people speaking while others were silent. This suggested that greater CONNECTIVITY could be created for those who were less outspoken and silent. There appeared to be some correlation between those who were longer standing members (more outspoken) and those who were new to the network (more quiet).
In assessments of meetings, comments were made that while people appreciate the great information and education they receive, they were also eager to meet, learn from and strategize with one another. This again suggested an opportunity to strengthen member-to-member CONNECTIVITY.
Questions had come up about whether relationships with state and county lawmakers, behavioral health experts, and others might be better maximized for trust and information sharing. Another area to explore strengthening CONNECTIVITY to and among those stakeholder groups.
Related to the above, while the network’s political capital was appreciated by many members, there were also questions about democratizing that power, and helping members to be more involved in the legislative process. This suggested that beyond creating greater CONNECTIVITY among members, there might be some opportunity to provide COORDINATION support to enhance access.
“Clusters” of members in certain parts of the state had been mentioned in interviews and documents. It was observed that in one region, there is some evidence of people getting tighter and that in another region, organizations were using lists to get together. This lifted up the question about more intentional CONNECTIVITY and ALIGNMENT that the network might suggest or provide to those existing and other potential clusters to strengthen their advocacy work.
An annual report identified some expressed concern about the challenge with creating alignment among collation partners on behavioral health priorities, and that “collective buy-in” and “intentional relationship building” will be key to establishing alignment. This is another reason to keep building that trust and CONNECTIVITY and also to explore actively facilitating ALIGNMENT around core priorities.
It was shared in staff interviews that there have been questions from members about the network’s long-term vision – “Where are you trying to go?” This raised some possible opportunities to facilitate ALIGNMENT around a shared, guiding and galvanizing vision with members.
Related to the above, the suggestion was raised around exploring he coalescing of sub-networks to consolidate and create more ALIGNMENT and COORDINATION between those separate coalitions.
And here is what was offered as a set of initial recommendations:
Consider the points above and if there is agreement among staff about where to weave greater connectivity, facilitate alignment and/or coordinate activity in different domains. Specifically: Who needs to be better connected and what would that achieve? Would alignment around a shared vision and high-level goals be helpful? Who would need to be aligned?
As these opportunities are identified, consider existing network (staff) capacity to provide weaving, facilitation and coordination support. Where and how might this capacity be added or developed?
Think about ways to create greater connectivity within existing calls, meetings and trainings. For example, have a check-in question; invite people to share news, victories, needs; break people into pairs and smaller group discussions; create open space for people to explore interests and opportunities to work together.
Consider creating a toolkit and perhaps a training for building relationships and maximizing connections in networks.
Reach out to less out-spoken and newer coalition members to see if there is anything that would support their participation. Related to this, make sure there is an on-boarding process for new members so that they feel up-to-date and know how to participate.
To gauge “network impact,” follow up with members to see what they do with the content, capacity and connections they get from calls. Are they able to leverage these for greater impact in their communities and regions to create “ripple effects”?
Reach out to other networks to see how they go about democratizing power and opportunity in a network. In addition, look to other groups across the state to see how they are working with grassroots groups to mobilize around policy.
Consider having an open conversation with member organizations about how to strengthen the sub-networks (coalitions) as a network. What ideas do they have? This might include giving them some overview of networks and network effects/impacts.
Consider conducting an assessment to find and leverage “network champions.” Are there certain members who are particularly enthusiastic about and active in network activity and might be ambassadors for the collective work? Might they be more formally enlisted as network weavers?
Consider the virtual tools currently used for keeping members connected (virtual meeting platforms, shared files and documents, archives, private group pages). Are they working? Are people taking full advantage of them? Is there additional value they are looking for that might be provided by other tools?
Consider using a more formal network assessment to look for strengths and areas for growth and improvement in the network’s structures and practices. This could be conducted among staff alone and also include key partners. Examples include “Network Effectiveness: Diagnostic and Development Tool”, “Partnership Self-Assessment Tool” and “Network Health Scorecard.”
Transformative change in the food system will not happen unless we work towards racial justice and equity.
Anderson, S., Colasanti, K., Didla, N., and Ogden, C. (2020). A Call to Build Trust and Center Values in Food Systems Work. Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems.
In September of 2019, I was fortunate enough to be invited to co-facilitate a gathering of over 70 people from across the U.S. to learn from one other about the work of coordinating state and regional level food system plans. At least that was the initial idea. The gathering was convened by the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University. I was joined in this work by the very generous and talented Noel Didla, Sade Anderson, and Kathryn Collasanti. As is the case with so many good things, the out of the gate vision for the convening gave way to a more emergent planning process that moved us away from purely technical practices and knowledge sharing to the more complex and adaptive work of bringing people together across various lines of difference to have “real talk” and wrestle with tough questions.
What became clear very quickly, with the leadership of Sade and Noel in particular, was that considerations of racial equity and economic justice had to be at the center of our design and facilitation. That included:
how we got in “right relationship” with one another as a team
how we framed the gathering for invitees
who was invited to attend and present at the gathering
the choice of where to have the convening
the way we designed both the agenda and the gathering space
the way we held what essentially became one rich two-day conversation
“I am taking away a lot of thoughts about meeting structure and facilitation from the overall convening planning, structure and flow. The structure of the agenda to put racial equity at the forefront and the structure of the conversations that allowed for honest discussion and audience participation was very effective and made for interesting conversations. These are techniques that would be helpful for us to use in our presentations and to share with food policy councils.”
2019 national gathering participant from the Mid-Atlantic
What we experienced during and heard after the event was pretty encouraging – how for many this was one of the best “conferences” they had ever attended, how people left challenged and inspired, how many of the conversations we started at Wayne County Community College stayed with people and continued.
Our original intent as a co-facilitation team was to write up a report of the event not long after we arrived back in our respective homes. Instead, things simmered for a while and the right time to wrap up the writing emerged during COVI19, as certain things that we had already been emphasizing were put into more stark view.
The linked publication, entitled “A Call to Build Trust and Center Values in Food Systems Work,” is meant to be a way to holding ourselves accountable to the work of racial justice by sharing our reflections on two practices to advance equity that anyone can incorporate into their life and work: building trust and centering values. Here we describe what these threads looked like in this national gathering—including both our personal experiences of the process, the practical event decisions we made, and more about what what participants had to say.
Our collective hope is to challenge readers (and ourselves) to consider the many ways in which food systems activity is either welcoming or exclusionary and either embodies equitable belonging or perpetuates “othering.” And because the conversation must continue, we welcome any reflections and reactions, including how you are leading with values, including racial equity, and trust in 2021.
Recently a long-time member of the Food Solutions New England (FNSE) Network Team let us know that they would be transitioning out of their current job and needing to leave the network, at least the core role they have played. FSNE is entering its second, and critical, decade of work, and going through a transition itself as it strives to better weave together a regional food system that is grounded in racial justice, ecological sustainability and democratic principles. It has been quite the journey, 2020 not withstanding.
This person, and real FSNE champion, gave a tremendous gift in their email, laying out how meaningful their experience has been these last several years. In so doing, there is also a wonderful articulation of what being in a network can be all about. Here is a taste of what was so generously offered:
“What stands out to me when looking back is how many aspects of FSNE’s work are challenging: communicating complex concepts; making the most of limited time when such a rich network of folks gets together; putting up with ambiguity when structure and linearity are so comforting and in demand.
But the rewards from the process are on an equal scale with the challenge: building lasting and meaningful relationships with diverse folks from across the food system; being able to think and strategize about that system in entirely new ways; learning new ways to think and to go about work and life. … in offering this to participants, FSNE is very unique among organizations. …
I’m looking forward to what’s coming next, sensing and hoping that the world at large is more ready to support FSNE’s values now, than it was even a year ago.”
So well said! And we know FSNE is not alone.
Even as the network (along with so many others) navigates complexity and disruption and continues to make “progress” around its “impact areas” (including more dense and diverse connectivity; greater advancement of the vision and values; increased regional alignment around a new food narrative; more collaboration on regional food, farm and fisheries policy; more wide-spread commitment to anti-racism in the food system), it can be hard to “see” all of this in the moment. Like so many things in life, it is only in retrospect that we can get a sense of how far we have come. And also like so many things in life, as our transitioning FSNE colleague expressed so beautifully, it is not just what we can most tangibly measure that matters, but also (and perhaps more so) qualitative change and the nature of our experiences (processes, relationships) along the way.
A couple of months ago we had a meeting of the Food Solutions New England Network’s Process Team, and we spent part of our time checking in around our perceptions of where the network is heading in its next stage of development. For the past 8 years, FSNE has moved through a series of stages that have roughly correspond with the following:
Building a foundation of trust and connectivity across the six states in the region as well as across sectors, communities and identities.
Facilitating systemic analysis of the regional food system, which resulted in the identification of four leverage areas where the network sees itself as poised to contribute most: (1) engaging and mobilizing people for action, (2) connecting and cultivating leaders who work across sectors to advance the Vision and values, (3) linking diverse knowledge and evolving a new food narrative, and (4) making the business case for an emerging food system that encompasses racial equity and food justice, healthy food for all, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.
Developing and beginning to implement a set of systemic strategies to encourage the continued emergence of this values-aligned regional food system, including a narrative and messaging guide; food, farm, and fisheries policy platform; set of holistic metrics to gauge the state of the regional food system; and people’s guide to the New England food system.
Cultivating a “brushfire approach” where, through greater density and diversity of connection, information and calls to action are spread in more timely ways
Making the periphery more of the norm, by moving from just bringing people into the network to making sure we support their aligned efforts “out there”
Moving from “seeding thoughts and cultivating commitments and leaders” to “managing the whole garden,” including supporting a growing team of people who are committed to creating conditions in the region for the Vision and core values to be realized
Creating “bake boxes” that can readily be used and adapted by people and organizations in the region (examples include the regional Vision, the core values, the recently endorsed HEAL policy platform, a soon to be launched narrative/messaging guide, racial equity design toolkit and discussion guide, etc.)
Calling B.S. on those who are “Vision and values washing” (saying they are aligned but acting in contrary ways) or are off point – see for example these recent letters in response to a Boston Globe editorial.
From the start, we and our partners at FSNE (including the backbone team at the University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute, the FSNE Ambassadors, and members of the FSNE Process Team) knew that the main value of any kind of leadership development program would be in the people that came together and the relationships they built with one another. From there, we were interested in creating opportunities for those involved in the program to cultivate connections with other values-aligned change agents in the region. In addition, we looked at giving people an experience of different and diverse places in our region (rural, urban, coastal) and to see their work in a regional context. Lastly, we wanted to offer an opportunity for participants to hone their skills as collaborative/network leaders and equity champions.
Here is our working and ever-evolving definition of network leadership:
Network leadership operates from the understanding that connection and flow is fundamental to life and liveliness and that the nature and pattern of connection in a system underlie its state of health (including justice, shared prosperity and resilience). Network leadership strives to understand, shift and strengthen connectivity; facilitate alignment and resource flows; and create conditions for coordinated and emergent action in the direction of greater health and belonging at different systemic levels.
“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along those sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”
– Herman Melville
2017-2018 NLI cohort members engage in a team building exercise focused on the dimensions of collaborative success.
Last week I worked with the Backbone Team of Food Solutions New England to launch the second cohort of the Network Leadership Institute (NLI) at Ohana Camp in Fairlee, Vermont. This initiative has grown out of FSNE’s commitment to cultivating both thought leadership and network leadership“to support the emergence and viability of a New England food system that is a driver of healthy food for all, racial equity, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” Another impetus for the NLI was a year spent doing system mapping and analysis that revealed four leverage areas for advancing a just, sustainable and democratically-owned and operated regional food system, including cultivating and connecting leadership (see image below). Read More
I am saddened to learn that Mila Baker passed away recently. While I did not know her personally, she was a mentor from a distance. A few years ago, I read her book about peer-to-peer leadership and found it both enlightening and validating as I continued my journey to uncover more about the promise of seeing and doing in networked ways.
Mila N. Baker
Mila Baker was a writer, teacher, philanthropist, cross-sector leader and artist. At the time of her passing, she served on the Board of Directors for the Berrett-Koehler Foundation, was a member of the adjunct faculty at Columbia University Teachers College, as well as a Principal Research Investigator at the Institute for Collaborative Workplaces, and Visiting Professor at Kuwait University. The following is a post I wrote after reading her book published in 2014.
I just finished reading Mila Baker’s Peer-to-Peer Leadership: Why the Network is the Leader, which adds to the growing case for more widespread network thinking, foregrounding of human relationships, and shifting traditional conceptions (and myths) of leadership in business and beyond. Baker’s book echoes the spirits of Margaret Wheatley, Clay Shirky, Carol Sanford, Nilofer Merchant, Kevin Kelly, and Harold Jarche, and I appreciate how she couches her writing in the evolving leadership and organizational development literature and thinking.