Let the beauty we love be what we do.
 
-Rumi

 

#WYDWYDWYD is shorthand for What You Do, Why You Do What You Do, created by a group of consulting colleagues I’m affiliated with to share our stories with each other.

How do you describe what you do…and what inspired you to pursue this? There are many things that give our lives meaning, but most of us spend the majority of our days and our lives invested one way or another in making a contribution to the world (whether we are compensated for this or not).

I’ve been motivated by many people and experiences, and among other quotes, this Aldo Leopold reflection captures much of my own passion:

“There are two things that interest me—the connection of people to the land, and the connection of people to each other.”

From an early age, I was attracted both to nature and to culture: How did people understand and relate to nature, and make sense of and participate in their “place”; and, how did they interact with one another—in their families and communities, at work and at play, in the broader world?

This led me to studying politics and environmental studies, and to early work as an educator, organizer and advocate connecting environmental and community issues. Over time, I realized that my purpose was rooted in wanting to cultivate wholeness and connectedness at all levels—to ourselves, to each other, to our places, and within and between the systems that shape our experience.

My work with networks is a natural manifestation of this desire to seek for and surface wholeness and connectedness. The lens through which I see working with networks (and my work generally) is shaped by four intersecting (and, conveniently, rhyming) domains:

IMG_2043

  • SPACE: We need to create the space to have conversations and experiences that focus our work and create possibility for transformation. My work as a facilitator and coach helps cultivate opportunities for people to reflect and connect to make meaning of where they are, where they are going, and how to get there.
  • PLACE: We all live in and are connected to particular places—our neighborhoods, our organizations, our region or nation, our world. Understanding and advocating for practices and policies that can most effectively create healthy places for all is a vital part of my work and those I support.
  • RACE: There are many lines of difference that we must reconcile and learn how to effectively work across, and race (which I often refer to as the conversation we need to engage in, yet often don’t) is a perennial challenge on an individual, institutional, and systemic level in the work of creating a more equitable world.
  • PACE: Despite the urgency that many of us no doubt feel, true transformation requires an attention to pace—and often asks that we slow down. Providing an opportunity for self-care and well-being is a foundational part of my work with changemakers.

I’ll be writing about these areas in more detail over the coming months, to explore further the implications and possibilities of each.

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It is no measure of health to be well adjusted

to a profoundly sick society.

Krishnamurti

I’ve always appreciated the connection between the root of the word health and the root of the word whole. To be healthy in any regard is to feel and appear whole. Whether this applies to our own bodies and minds or to the body politic and the mindsets across a community or culture, this sense of wholeness is essential.

While we experience fragmentation and brokenness throughout our lives, there is always an opportunity for wholeness and healing—be it physical, emotional, spiritual, political, or cultural…or some combination of these.

Our orientation to what keeps us healthy and the practices we pursue and questions we ask in supporting health and resilience are an important starting point. Framing what health looks like – on an individual level, in our communities and organizations, and on a societal scale – helps determine the choices we make and the strategies we pursue.

Everything should (ideally) start and end with health. So often, we sacrifice this – in ourselves and in our relationships – as we pursue our work in the world. And often, if we are trying to make the world a better place, our actions become out of alignment with our values and vision, and the erosion of healthy relationships can undermine what we care about most: those in our families and communities and the work we are doing.

Health is something we must prioritize both individually and institutionally, and it involves both what we do and how we do it.

Lake Anna Mountain Sunrise

Are we creating time for ourselves to exercise and eat well? Get enough sleep? Spend time truly connecting with family, friends, colleagues? Reflect upon and learn from lessons emerging in our work and our broader lives?

And are the institutions we are connected to prioritizing health—in the way that they conceive of and act on their mission and vision, or in the actions they are taking in supporting those they impact? As a specific example, with the trauma that individuals and communities have experienced—particularly historically disadvantaged populations, those who are in recovery from natural disasters, or both—philanthropy is beginning to attend to issues of equity, inclusion and framing funding efforts from a perspective of trauma-informed care.

One of the practices I’ve been using for many years now includes not scheduling any meetings on Wednesdays, so I can take the time to reflect, plan, and catch up…and spend more time outside, which has a whole host of health benefits in and of itself. Even if you are part of a large organization, there are still ways of blocking out time for reflection, planning, or strategic thinking—an island in each week where you can focus and catch up.

Many organizations—particularly those doing transformative and movement building work—are beginning to honor this approach as well, and going further by simply instituting a four-day work week so that “you can take care of yourself and still change the world.”

Our culture has a long way to go in weaving health into the ways we work, the values and policies that shape our communities and culture, and the assumptions and expectations we have of ourselves and others to “be productive” and “achieve results.”

And there is a new wave of thinking and action afoot to bring new attention to health in the way we structure our lives, our work, and our communities – by encouraging more flexible work arrangements and opportunities, promoting social connectedness, centering health in policy advocacy, and even integrating play as a core value and design principle.

Each of us can make decisions—whether they are individual actions or meant to affect institutional, political, or cultural changes—that create greater opportunity for health and wholeness.


 

Replenish

We go on, we go on.

Canoe under hot sun,

The upturned paddle guides liquid to our

dry mouths.

Water within us, water surrounds us,

A great mystery our becoming dry at all.

Replenish, replenish, all must be

replenished.

The water within and without.

All that fills us, all that surrounds us:

The great whistling pines,

The tenacious beaver,

The ancient loon,

The rush of the young eagle’s winds as it

dips low over our canoe.

Replenish!

The eyes bathed in this delicate solitude,

This trembling eternity,

Called back in mid-sweep only to be

assessed by green parched eyes

Replenish!

Each shriveled heart

Which has its moments only at events set

aside for its song,

But cannot fly for the connection

Between the rock and the human body,

The heron’s wing and the hope in our souls.

We go on,

We go on,

Our paddles dance with the lake water to

the music in our throats.

We will grow dry again

Perhaps leap into the water

A small and symbolic celebration of a great

and endless task

Which gracefully undertaken,

Might allow us all to go on, and on, and on.

 

Claudia Schmidt

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.
 
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Perhaps we’ve all heard hope defined in contrast to optimism-as the perspective that everything will turn out well-as the ability to have faith and find possibility in challenging times.

This year, I’ve experienced and written about the nature of resilience and how to sit with and move on from loss. Hope underlies both and is a key ingredient for practicing gratitude and in framing the vision of the world we hold as individuals or collectively. It has incredible power for boosting confidence, building relationships, and is a key determinant of academic and professional success.

Hope is what gets me up in the morning, despite news from the night before. Hope is what allows me to keep working on solutions to conflicts I might encounter, or those I work with are grappling with. Hope is what inspires me to strive for connection, understand others, keep learning about myself and the world.

Hope is much like water: it is an essential condition for life, or should be. The absence of hope creates a contraction in thinking and feeling and results in actions that hurt others rather than elevate them…and ourselves in the process.

In his ethnography Hope Dies Last, Studs Terkel shares the stories of dozens of people who have been involved in social change-what brought them to that work, and what gives them the strength to continue on. To a person, they testify to the challenges they faced and the inner strength (which I would define as hope) they were able to find, along with a supportive community which encouraged their deeper involvement in their workplace, community, or movement.

We have a profound need to find that strength–now more than ever–in ourselves and in our communities and our country. We will no doubt experience defeats in our lives and in our work, see the people and places we care about suffer, but each of us has an inner reserve of hope which we can cultivate: on our own and with the support of others.

Wherever we might face challenges, hope is a first and best response. In that spirit, I have great hope that the new year brings opportunity for all to craft the lives we would like to lead, and to offer support to others in doing so.

 


 

It is not possible to know what’s possible.

And because this is true, we are free.

We are free to act assuming that our actions–no matter how small–could trigger the tipping point and set off tectonic shifts of consciousness and creativity.

In this spirit of bold humility, I ask us to pay attention.

To consciously let go of defeating and false messages that tell us it’s all over, or that there’s no place for us in this great human drama.

We can’t judge our chances of success, but we can acknowledge the richness of our actions–a richness that’s been rendered invisible, but that we can make visible, so that its ripples radiate.

Most of all, we must realize that not one of us is alone as we set out on the exhilarating experience of democracy-this satisfying and very human walk that requires only that we go on risking belief in ourselves.

Frances Moore Lappé

Resilience is about being able  
to overcome the unexpected.  
Sustainability is about survival.  
The goal of resilience is to thrive.
 
-Jamais Cascio

We weather so much in this life.

Loss, disappointment, heartbreak…even the intensity of a busy day can be exhausting.

Amidst all of this…and the broader landscape of our communities, work, and world: how do we strengthen our ability to move through hardship (even literal catastrophe in some instances) and generate greater resilience?

The qualities of resilience are sometimes referred to as grit or flexibility, and the magic in an individual, institution or system is the transformation of vulnerability into power.

If we truly learn from our mistakes, what are the decisions we make about our lives and our communities if we can acknowledge and employ the challenges we’ve endured, even when (perhaps especially) when we had no control over them?

Resilience asks us–at any stage of life or at any scale–to practice being comfortable with discomfort, to clarify where we can affect change and where we cannot, to be grateful for the lessons we learn and use them as compost for future experience, and to promote honest and caring relationships with ourselves and those in our lives.

If we are able to do this, we can also generate resilience by crafting organizations, communities, and systems in ways that honor the way the real world works: things may fall apart and we can put them back together…likely different, hopefully even better.

Cultivating resilience requires transparency and a willingness to re-think and re-design our approach to how our lives, our workplaces, our cities, our political and economic systems work to support opportunity, well-being and wholeness.

In a year where we have seen a steady flow of disasters–human, natural, political, cultural–we need a wholehearted effort to share practices that can build resilience in people, in places, and in the systems of which we are a part.

 

Autobiography in Five Chapters
I.
I walk down the street
There is a huge hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I’m lost. Hopeless.
It’s not my fault.
It takes forever to get out.
II.
I walk down the same street.
There is a huge hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend that I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in that same place again.
But it’s not my fault.
Still, it takes me a long time to get out.
III.
I walk down the same street.
There is a huge hole in the sidewalk.
I see it.
Still I fall in…it’s a habit.
My eyes are wide open.
Already I know where I am.
It’s my fault.
I climb out quickly.
IV.
I walk down the same street.
There is a huge hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
V.
I walk down a different street.
Portia Nelson

 

Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss contains its own seed, its own lesson.
 
-Malcolm X

It has been a long, long time since I have written one of these posts…over a year. The last year has been about getting lost and about loss—the challenges and what emerges from these experiences. This post, hopefully the first of a renewed series, honors and harvests some lessons.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, questions, and recommendations and encourage your reflections and ideas around sustainability and social change.


We all have to endure loss, in many forms. Our grieving process is often private, held close…sometimes too rushed. Yet there is a strength in the vulnerability that comes when we experience loss and when we realize that we may be lost.

In one of her many wonderful books, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit muses:

The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?

I’ve found that loss is absolutely transformative and about exploring unknown territory, and that it may be that in “extending the boundaries of the self” it is to become more ourselves. Loss of any kind, and getting lost, is to experience a sense of disorientation that can help us see what is important and who we truly are.

Whether it is the death of a loved one, the heartbreaking loss of a pivotal election that has consequences for our communities, or the tragic and accelerating disappearance of landscapes, cultural traditions, and species, loss sharpens the definition of who we are and what we value.

If we listen—especially in the midst of a loss when much of the external noise that characterizes our lives is necessarily muted—one can experience a window that brings us not only to sadness, but to gratitude.

From this place, we can shape a renewed commitment to how we want to be and what we want to do. One of my favorite Wendell Berry quotes is about this moment:

When we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work.

And when we no longer know which way to go

we have begun our journey.

The mind that is not baffled

is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Loss—and being lost—takes us away from what we have become accustomed to long enough to ask deeper questions from a different place. In doing so, we create a power in ourselves from confronting obstacles—like that impeded stream—that helps us act and respond in new ways.

Most importantly, I’ve learned and struggled with what it means to feel loss—the sadness and the demarcation it creates in our lives—and then do the best I can to build alternative approaches personally, professionally, and politically that honor what emerges from that experience.

What comes from valuing vulnerability, connection, slowing down, opening up which are so often diminished or demeaned within our culture? Seeds for greater commitment to kindness and understanding, to cultivating community, to being strategic about solutions that can create opportunity for all.

This post is dedicated to my father, Myron Zackman, and to our beloved dogs Roshi and Bubbles, all of whom died in the last 8 months. Their lives brought great inspiration and joy for me and for so many others.

 

 

Thanks

Listen

with the night falling we are saying thank you

we are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings

we are running out of the glass rooms

with our mouths full of food to look at the sky

and say thank you

we are standing by the water looking out

in all directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

after funerals we are saying thank you

after the news of the dead

whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

in a culture up to its chin in shame

living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you

in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators

remembering wars and the police at the back door

and the beatings on the stairs we are saying thank you

in the banks that use us we are saying thank you

with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable

unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us

our lost feelings we are saying thank you

with the forests falling faster than the minutes

of our lives we are saying thank you

with the words going out like cells of a brain

with the cities growing over us like earth

we are saying thank you faster and faster

with nobody listening we are saying thank you

we are saying thank you and waving

dark though it is.

W. S. Merwin

 

Perhaps the most radical act we can commit is to stay home.
Terry Tempest Williams 

Overwhelm seems to be a part of our conditioning. Particularly in the work of social change–where there is an urgency in both the task at hand and a challenge in arriving at the outcome–I regularly talk with colleagues confronting perennial overwhelm and overload.

When this occurs, stepping back and staying grounded is a crucial practice. Rather than working through the problem, or working more, it’s important to find time to step away for some perspective…whether that’s a break, an opportunity to get outside, or just stopping to take a breath and feel the ground beneath us.

This is a simple yet elusive practice, so we need reminders and support. A post-it note or quote on our computer monitors or an hourly alarm which help create space for a break, leaving “buffers” on our calendars between meetings, an agreement with a colleague to take a daily walk.

Such small adjustments and breaks in our schedule can make a big difference alone-and can be complements to deeper opportunities to stay grounded.

Because of our orientation to communication via technology, it’s easier to forget and acknowledge where we are. Our places matter-and can help keep us grounded. Whether we are the middle of a city or live in a small town, look out our window into the woods or over a street, connecting with the places we find ourselves is a powerful way to settle ourselves. It may provide a perspective on our place in our community, the world, or the cosmos…or literally offer the feeling of being “grounded” somewhere amidst seemingly endless e-mails, posts, and other intangible information we are asked to navigate.

When I worked in downtown San Francisco, I would take regular breaks to stay grounded by stepping outside and looking up-staring up into the slice of sky between huge buildings was calming amidst the motion of the city and the overwhelm of work. This can also come from focusing on something very small or specific…a leaf, a bird, the pattern of light on a building.

Beyond individual practices and connection with our place, there are also ways of working collectively that support staying grounded. Much of the work of paying attention to process is about creating opportunities for groups to connect more authentically through their experience. In a recent post on Designing for Uncertainty, Brooking Gatewood observes that:

“it takes patience to slow down to develop shared understanding, especially in high stakes situations; it takes vulnerability and humility to admit uncertainty and listen for a wisdom deeper than our problem-solving minds; and it takes tremendous courage and trust to act collectively toward shared interests”

The process of slowing down in our work–individually and/or collectively–provides an opportunity to stay grounded. While this has the potential for increasing the impact of our efforts, it has the even more important benefits of honoring our own health, transforming our relationships with others, and strengthening our connection with community and place.

In the woods,

we return to reason and faith.

Nothing can befall me there;

no disgrace, no calamity

that nature cannot repair.

 

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the work I have often referred to as “restoring the civic ecosystem”, my practice has to been to focus on ways to connect people with each other and with place…whether it is their own or a more distant place that might need their attention.

That act of connection is critical in doing our work in the world: in affirming our purpose, communicating with others, and completing a task or project successfully. In much of my work with individuals, organizations, communities, and networks it is often the case–because of our cultural “default”–that we don’t have or don’t take the time to connect sufficiently.

And often technology (claiming to better “connect” us) can get in the way.

The most successful people, teams, and communities I have encountered make some form of connection a central part of their practice. Recent analysis (which I found somewhat humorous and in the category that I call “no-duh” research) revealed the essential factor in creating a strong team: it basically boils down to “Be nice.”

Whether it is taking time for self-care to get exercise, meditate, or just go for a walk in the middle of a busy day, reach out to a colleague for a conversation that might not be about a project, but about how they are and talking through the bigger picture of your work together, or starting a meeting with a check-in (no matter how brief), this allows time for connection.

Such practices create a stronger sense of purpose and meaning, more effective relationships with colleagues (and friends and family!), and better outcomes in our work.
The poet Patrick Cavanaugh has written that “Sometimes the truth depends upon a walk around the lake.” The time we take to authentically connect can bring us closer to the truth-whether that is our own, or shared understanding in a team or community.

It is also essential to practice connecting with place: to talk with our neighbors, to notice the feel of the place we work or live as we head out into our days, or to observe some element of nature even if we live or work in a congested urban area. This not only has important physical and psychological health benefits, but brings our attention to participating more fully as citizens-not simply as “workers” or “consumers”-and to connect with how our place and our planet sustain us.

Carl Jung shared that “Everyone needs a piece of garden, no matter how small, to connect them with the earth and therefore with something deeper in ourselves.” Whether it is our own garden or one we simply pause to observe in our neighborhood or on our way to work, this connection can be calming and transformative.

In an era where it seems like political and social discourse indicate a fraying and degraded set of connections, practicing some form of connection can keep us grounded, supported, and acting in a way that restores and maintains the communities and places we care for.


For one human being to love another human being:

that is perhaps the most difficult task

that has been entrusted to us,

the ultimate task, the final test and proof,

the work for which all other work is merely preparation.

 

Rainer Maria Rilke

Excerpt from “Letters to a Young Poet”

It is good people who

make good places.

Anna Sewell 

There is an important connection—for me personally and for all of us politically—in the relationship between people and place.

At a young age, I was fascinated by stories of how people came to be who they are and where they are—an interweaving of biography, history, and geography. As a child, I remember devouring biographies of Martin Luther King, Louis Armstrong, JFK, and Amelia Earhart among others…along with a curiosity about family, friends, and strangers and the way their lives took shape.

From the time I heard the following quote by conservationist Aldo Leopold, it seemed to justify and outline a path for my work:

There are two things that interest me:

the relationship of people to the land, and the relationship of people to each other.

This intersection of people and place is at the heart of my own personal passion, and is increasingly important as we become more detached from one another and the places we live and love. From the influence of our busy lives to the distractions of technology (in many cases meant to more effectively connect us), and from the speed at which we move through our communities to the demands we put on the land locally and globally—we have much to attend to and restore.

The vitality of our communities, our economy, and our political process depend upon a practice I’ve referred to as “restoring the civic ecosystem”: a knitting together of relationships—with one another and with the places that give meaning to our lives.

 


A Vision
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
rich in the windows. The river will run
clear, as we will never know it,
and over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be
green meadows, stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance
cut down the old forest,
an old forest will stand,
its reach leaf-fall drifting on its roots
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling light.
This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.
Wendell Berry

All great achievements require time.

-Maya Angelou

There’s something very particular about engaging in work with others, and especially across organizational boundaries when we collaborate to create networks for social change.

What I’ve seen as a key element is what I’d call promise, a word I appreciate for its dual meaning: a commitment we make to ourselves or others that we do our best to fulfill AND the possibility we see in a direction or course of action. Both characterize the spirit of collaboration, which combines the hope of greater impact with ongoing relationship.

In my practice over the last year and over the past decades, I’ve seen many essential ingredients which help hold teams together and allow networks to sustain themselves and succeed including the achievement of concrete outcomes, clarity around communication and structure, and the development of shared values. These are all rooted in embracing the full nature of promise.

Here are some of the ways I see this show up in networks focused on social change and sustainability, though this can be generalized to any team or group hoping to create meaning and results:

  • The Promise of Space. This is a “no-duh” idea, but for a network to feel important and ultimately to succeed, those participating need to create the time to show up-both at network gatherings and meetings, and in dedicating a part of their time to what the network is trying to achieve. I often hear from people that “we also have our day jobs” and acknowledge this truth and challenge–yet successful networks (and network mindsets) are those where everyone feels the broader goal of the network serves their own goals and where the space they create is honored.
  • The Promise of Learning. People need a concrete reason to participate in a network, and beyond a particular outcome, it’s also important to acknowledge other values created–one of which is learning. This could be about the exchange of information or about building skills including the practice of collaboration itself, which Eugene Kim reflects on beautifully in his piece on High Performance Collaboration Requires Experiencing Great Meals.
  • The Promise of Promise. While it’s a little “meta”, this practice is critical to network success: much of the feeling in a network and possibility it holds is emergent–we may think we know why we’re collaborating and what the results will be (and may not), but we need to experience the potential of “not knowing” and where that might guide us. Curtis Ogden’s recent post on Network Impact: Hidden in Plain Sight elevates this idea powerfully.
  • The Promise of Care. Most importantly, commitment and possibility are embedded in relationships where people experience three things-a feeling of trust generated by an ethic of “I’ve got your back” or “we missed you” (or both), a practice of self-care shared by the group, and-this is the magic ingredient-having fun! In teams and networks where there is a genuine feeling of fun and wanting to be together-even when things get hard-the ability to commit over the longer-term and build connection for collaboration increases.

Promise in collaboration or otherwise is ultimately not only about commitment and possibility but also about appreciation and gratitude, for commitments fulfilled and for the intention of walking a path together and doing our best (individually or as a team) to achieve what is possible. In some cases, what we propose may be closer to impossible, but often has a greater power as a promise which is inspiring and visionary.

I am inspired by and learn from all of the work happening to make our world more humane, sustainable, just and beautiful…most of which I get to read about and a fraction of which I get to be a part of in some way.

One of my favorite quotes is from Meister Eckhart, who wrote “If the only prayer you said in your entire life was ‘thank you’ that would suffice.”

For those of you I work with directly, or are part of my larger supportive community of friends and family, I wish you a joyous and bright transition to the new year and new possibilities. And for everyone out there doing their part to make the world a bit brighter and better…thank you.

 

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,

tied in a single garment of destiny.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The wider world wouldn’t function were it not for networks. I often use ecological metaphor in my work, and one of my favorites is that of a redwood grove.

Redwoods are magnificent, inspiring trees for their height, longevity and beauty. Despite their stature, they actually have incredibly shallow roots and the only reason they are not routinely blown over by coastal winds and have been able to stand for centuries is that they grow in groves. Their roots weave together to form a mesh – some extending hundreds of yards – allowing them to remain upright.

So while we may look up and marvel at the height of individual trees, we should actually be awestruck looking down at the connections they have formed beneath the surface.

Similarly, in our views of leadership and institutions, we still lionize and celebrate the individual rather than the system. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has observed that “the fundamental law of human beings is interdependence: a person is a person through other persons.” However, our culture teaches us not to act that way.

While we claim to prize civility and structure laws to uphold it, our dominant education system and economic model enforce competition and create silos, all in a complex world where we need to act more like redwood trees and other ecological communities which thrive on collaboration.

Among the great challenges of our time is how we move from an era largely governed by the primacy of hierarchical models and institutions to one where networks become an increasingly critical form to create large-scale change.

Understanding network life stages and some practices to successfully navigate these transitions is vital – both for advocates and movement-builders in the social sector as well as among philanthropic institutions and the public and private sectors. As we evolve in this work, our attitude and orientation is most critical…as the late systems thinker and activist Donella Meadows shared:

“The scarcest resource is not oil, metals, clean air, capital, labor, or technology. It is our willingness to listen to each other and learn from each other to seek the truth rather than to be right.”

As with any ecosystem, a network moves through a series of stages with particular features. In the arena of sustainability, public health and social equity collaboratives — and generally applicable to other social change networks — I’ve seen these include:

  • SEEDING. At the beginning of any network, a number of groups or individuals realize the need to come together around a perceived need that no one organization can achieve alone. Often this is a near-term threat or policy opportunity, though networks for social change are most effective when organized around a long-term vision. Like early life influences on an individual or ecosystem, the conditions and early members of a network can shape the trajectory and future characteristics of a network.
  • GROWING. Relationships and an understanding of the issues involved within (and across) networks become richer and more complex as a network grows. With clear near-term outcomes and results, networks are able to attract resources (funding, members) to grow their efforts. The most important growth during this time is trust within the networks as individuals and institutions learn and work together.
  • ROOTING. Once a network is “established”-though network membership and ecology is always changing, there is a sense of rootedness that develops: a dedication to a particular set of issues, a clear analysis of the system in which that network is operating, and operating guidelines that have evolved to build and sustain trust and network vitality.
  • TRANSITIONING. It may be several months or several years-and, as with an ecosystem, change is constantly occurring-but all networks move into and through an evolutionary process. This time often brings up questions, even doubts, but network transitions (whether they are beginnings, bridges, or endings) are often the most fertile moments for understanding the real purpose and power behind our collaborative efforts.

Ultimately, these stages require those engaged in networks to act from a place that supports movement-building and community-rather than the success of any one organization’s mission. For in the end, if a network is modeled on a healthy ecosystem or healthy community, we must heed the words of Cesar Chavez, reminding those of us leading change that:

“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others…for their sake, and for our own.”


This is one of my favorite “network poems” (and seasonally appropriate as well!):

The Seven of Pentacles

Under a sky the color of pea soup

she is looking at her work growing away there

actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans

as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.

If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,

if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,

if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,

if the praying mantis comes and the lady bugs and the bees,

then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.

You cannot always tell by looking what is happening.

More than half a tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.

Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.

Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.

Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.

Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.

Live a life you can endure: make love this loving.

Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,

a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside, but to us

interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:

reach out, keep reaching out, but bringing in.

This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,

For every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting,

after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

 Marge Piercy

August 2018
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