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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.
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.
All great achievements require time.
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 Focus. In order for people to promise space and time, the possibility of a long-term vision combined with short-term results must exist to engage network members. This also comes down to creating flexible structures that support participation while honoring the values of the network .
- 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.
People need wild places.
Whether or not we think we do, we do.
We need to be able to taste grace and know again that we desire it.
We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers.
It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd.
It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence many future generations, we ought to choose carefully.
There’s a small section of the Bay Trail near my home where I walk regularly with my dogs. It’s nothing spectacular, sandwiched between the Bay and the Interstate 80 corridor. I’m often there in the early morning, as an endless parade of cars and trucks is making its way toward the Bay Bridge into San Francisco.
Why it is notable is that it’s undeveloped, its use as a site for fill slowly reverting back to the wild–whatever that might mean in a major metropolitan area. And there are plans in the works to develop this low rise and spit known as Brickyard Cove, to replant native species and improve the dirt paths and gravel parking lot. The plans look lovely, and I’m sure it will be beautiful…but the news of this project also saddened me.
There is growing evidence that green space and nature has a beneficial effect on our health, from backyards and small parks to large open spaces and wilderness areas. Those spaces with increased biodiversity have been shown to have even more psychological benefit.
I would also suggest that we need “wild spaces”, both in the traditional sense of untrammeled wilderness AND–in an interpretation for more developed areas–those places that remain unplanned, where there is no intervention, even if they have been previously disturbed.
We need to be where the natural world–and not only the human mind and hand–creates (or re-creates) the landscape.
As Wallace Stegner has written: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
We need that “geography of hope” in our lives and in our communities now more than ever. We need to engage with the wild, whether that is an actual place or a state of mind, as our lives can often feel over-planned and predictable in terms of our schedules and our habits. We also may stay busy to avoid the wildness or lack of control we may feel.
In a recent article on the role of nature in Facing Fear, author J.B. MacKinnon asks: “Were our distant ancestors, gathered around the fire in the lowering light, touched only by the awesome sunset, or did they also dread the awful night? Do we say that nature is only beneficial when it comforts, calms, and uplifts, as though there are no secret pleasures, no vital lessons, in feeling scared, disgusted, and uncomfortable? Is there a person alive who only ever wants the calm sea, and never the storm?”
The “wild” we may discover nearby, in ourselves or in others can help creatively disrupt the patterns too often inherited from a fast-paced, results-oriented culture. It can inspire us to sit with chaos, come to terms with messiness and imperfection, to do less, to listen more carefully to one another, to allow things to unfold.
I often reflect on this in my work with communities, networks, and organizations, eager to clarify strategy, improve collaboration, and spark change. Noble goals to be sure (and my bread and butter), but deeper discoveries and relationships can sometimes remain unearthed if we rush past the wild places or act too quickly. Sometimes not intervening or taking an unplanned course is the most transformative path, relying on the wisdom of the wild to guide us.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
During times of universal deceit,
telling the truth
becomes a revolutionary act.
For numerous reasons and in many ways, we are challenged at telling the truth. Whether we are embarrassed or feel like we’re not enough or we don’t want to hurt someone. Or we’re unsure that our organization is doing the right thing and we don’t feel empowered to speak out. Or we’re not even aware that we’re being untruthful because of societal circumstances or what we’ve come to believe as the truth about ourselves.
In Jon Harr’s book A Civil Action, a real-life story of a suit by families in Massachusetts seeking justice for the deaths of their children due to pollution, attorney Jan Schlictmann is told by an opposing lawyer that “the truth lies at the bottom of a bottomless pit.”
Those working for social change confront lies on a regular basis, and we can occasionally be the victim of our own desire for the truth. Even those organizations that speak out and challenge power can sometimes experience similar issues around power internally or in relationship to their constituencies. I wrote about unearthing organizational secrecy several years ago and still see this in practice on a regular basis.
A wonderful recent blog post by a colleague explores challenges to the concept of inclusion, ostensibly a positive practice by many seeking a greater voice for those who have been historically marginalized. But if we don’t understand the deeper truths many we are trying to include experience within a broader system of power that doesn’t hear their voices. In this scenario, even when the truth is spoken, it has no place to make an impact if the system doesn’t change as well.
Making an impact is another place we are confronted with truth-telling-through the process of living out a vision and mission for our work, in shaping and acting on what has come to be known as a “theory of change.” I was recently working with a group that is inspiring in how they have shifted the landscape in their chosen place and field, and is now addressing questions-much like the issue of inclusion raised in the post above-of whether the strategy they are pursuing may in some way contribute to the problem they are committed to resolving.
A great deal of neuroscience research over the past decade confirms the fact that in our brains neurons that “fire together, wire together” or “where attention goes, energy flows”: if we are what we eat, we’re finding that we become what we think as well. This has the positive impact of enabling us to re-frame our thinking, to innovate, and to build resilience individually and collectively.
However, on both an individual, and also on an organizational and even cultural level, this may demonstrate that a great deal of what we believe is in fact untrue, but simply the experience of thinking the same thoughts over and over again and coming to accept them as the truth. Many in the organizational behavior and systems change space refer to the outcome of such persistent thoughts as “mental models.”
If we come to believe certain things as true in our own lives–which may or may not be–then our organizations and cultures also have potentially slipped into a shared post-traumatic stress disorder where we live out stories and patterns that may not be “true” for us or contributing to lasting change, but simply accepted because “that’s how we’ve always done it.”
Even in instances where entire societies or the world have been deceived, truth telling can be a healing act: not to excuse or correct, but to come to terms with and learn from past injustices.
Individuals and organizations–and hopefully whole cultures–can begin to rewire belief systems and move closer to surfacing and acting from “the truth”: not just a more positive story about our work, but hopefully one that creates richer relationships and greater impact as well.
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth
And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms
When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseums
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil
When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze
When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse
When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets
Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world
When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
There are no great acts.
There are only small acts,
done with great love.
It seems that most people want to be kind. Our human inclination, in most cases and if not threatened, is to attempt connection with others and kindness is that vehicle.
In their insightful and useful book, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey lay out seven languages for transformation: underlying all of these (though not explicitly stated) is kindness.
In its true form — not “being nice” but demonstrating compassion and connection — kindness is the currency we need more of in this world. Imagine the transformation in relationships, workplaces, communities, between countries and cultures if we were able to be kind more often.
Longfellow wrote: “If we knew the secret history of our enemies, there would be enough sorrow there to disarm all hostilities.”
Whether we see the “other” as an enemy or just someone with a contrary view or who wants to get in front of us on the freeway, kindness requires a vulnerability, a generosity of understanding, and a pause before acting or responding.
So often the speed at which things are moving (on the freeway or otherwise) doesn’t allow us to slow down and respond with kindness.
Even in the field of social change and sustainability, where many of us work to improve lives, protect landscapes, and fight for change, there is latitude to increase the kindness we direct at ourselves and share with others.
The urgency of the issues we face is a challenge to navigate, and sometimes that challenge leaves us worn out or overwhelmed, where we can forget to celebrate our victories and lift up those sharing the work.
I received an e-mail from a colleague this week that celebrated the accomplishments of a team member and it was so uplifting to read-not a request or a quick reply, but a genuine and thoughtful celebration of someone’s talent shared with a group benefiting from her hard work.
That level of acknowledgement–in our work, in our families, on the streets or on a train with strangers–can be transformative. Another example of how we might think about doing this is captured in this month’s featured resource, an interview with Nina Horne .
The foundation of any change, even in the most intractable or longstanding conflicts, is our ability to see another or the other side. Choosing to be kind whenever possible-even in difficult or stressful circumstances-is one small act moving in that direction.
This is one of my favorite poems, and expresses the importance of kindness in the world and suggests where its true source lies. I carry it with me and regularly share this with others-it’s a great reminder of how rare and vital this practice is.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.
Naomi Shihab Nye
How wonderful it is that nobody
needs to wait a single moment
before starting to improve the world.
“If this only prayer you said in your entire life was ‘thank you’, that would suffice,” wrote Meister Eckhardt.
Sometimes it’s hard to say thank you. I find ease and get a lot of joy appreciating what I have in my life, and in expressing gratitude to others–including all of you in my community of clients, colleagues, friends, family. So THANK YOU for all of the ways you have informed my work, supported me, dedicated yourself to what inspires you….which inspires me.
However, when I look at our world, it’s often hard to stay hopeful and thankful: from injustice in Ferguson to the Senate “torture report” to the senseless killing of innocent children in Pakistan or slaughter of marine mammals in Japan.
The late winter holidays celebrate finding light and solace during a season where light is a scarce resource. I have tried to find this year-round in the practices of cultivating presence and in the process that I use in my work with individuals, groups, and communities.
A recent segment on 60 Minutes explored the growing popularity of mindfulness-not only among individuals, but in corporations and even the halls of Congress.
While there is urgent work to do in the world addressing both grave challenges and opportunities for change, it can only be enhanced-if not ultimately successful-by taking the time to be present and in designing a process that will support meaningful results.
Intermediary and training organizations like The Movement Strategy Center and Generative Somatics are doing extraordinary work in supporting changemakers, organizations, and movements by integrating transformative practices around presence, health, and process with insightful strategy.
While my work, and examples of organizations like these support these efforts, its incumbent upon all of us to increase our own potential for presence, and the ways we design and use process creatively in effectively delivering on our goals.
Resolutions are popular at this time of year, and what you decide you’d like to recommit to is a great gift you can give yourself. The gift I’d like to bestow is simply the wish–as you continue your work in a world where it often might feel unappreciated or ineffective–that you find ways to remain healthy and engaged with yourself, your purpose, and others.
Krishnamurti wrote that “in the transformation of the self is the transformation of the world.”
Thank you for your dedication to both of these pursuits, and for your support as I celebrate the completion of ten years at DIG IN and the continuation of my own efforts to bring presence and process into the field of social change and sustainability.
In the space between chaos and shape,
there was another chance.
As someone who helps guide individuals, organizations, communities, and collaboratives through change to achieve greater impact, I am constantly in the process, personally and professionally of learning about how we navigate transitions so that we achieve the results we seek.
All too often, I witness people (including myself!) stating a goal and having a challenging time executing on the steps to achieve that goal. One opportunity here is to look more broadly at building systems based on your individual or community values that support practices that lead toward your intended result. I wrote about this at the start of the year, and have found it to be a useful shift in perspective.
There are two related trends that I want to highlight in social change and sustainability work in particular that are important to understand if want to navigate change successfully.
The first is the shift in understanding leadership as a collective process rather than an individual pursuit. And similarly, the second is about an evolution moving us from a field defined by organizational and institutional actors to one that is increasingly shaped by networks.
Both of these trends create more opportunity for impact, and they require a philosophical and practical shift in the way we navigate change. These transformations are the movement building equivalent of setting up systems rather than goals. There is a clear vision and result attached to working in a more collective way, but the mindset and behavior is often at odds to how we currently operate.
In order to successfully navigate change, we need to build competencies as leaders that see us in relationship with those we work with in a different way. We need to build teams where everyone is able to bring their leadership to bear and hold ownership for results–as opposed to a single individual with ultimate authority and accountability. We have epidemic rates of Executive Directors and other senior leaders burning out or leaving the work and this does not help sustain morale or achieve the depth of change we seek.
How can we lead in a way that still allows for clear decision-making, but strengthens team responsibility for leadership? It requires acknowledgement of the need to work differently, clear guidelines on team roles and responsibilities, and embracing the practice of organizational learning and the value of evolutionary improvement.
In networks, there is a similar dynamic, especially where people see the network as comprised of a set of organizations and organizational interests rather than defined by the power of the linkages among members. While it’s critical to uphold the value that institutions bring to networks, I’m often told that network or collaborative practice is something “in addition to our day jobs”, which is inimical to network success.
Networks only succeed when people involved in collaborative efforts see them as core to their work, and the pathway-inclusive of yet beyond the boundaries of their organization-to accomplishing results they could not achieve by acting alone. If we are committed to large-scale systemic change, we should participate in networks “early and often.”
Two recent companion articles in the Stanford Social Innovation Review support this by celebrating The Dawn of System Leadership detailing the skills needed to lead in new ways and Bridge Building for Social Transformation looking at the structures we need to create to affect change.
This is hard work, and a path which has not entirely been defined, but a philosophy and practice of transformative change which is only growing-and which requires many of the same innovations as the shift in leadership demands: an understanding of the systemic and interdisciplinary nature of the challenges we face, a commitment to structure relationships across teams and institutions to create ongoing connections and lasting change, and a greater consciousness on the part of both advocates and philanthropy to be patient with and supportive of “longer arc” processes.
Featured Resource: Navigating Change
Several years ago, I was asked by Smart Growth America to prepare a webinar on Navigating Change, along with some supporting materials.
- Do a “collective leadership” inventory. Whether you are assessing your own leadership or that of your organization, reflect on how well you are working to build bridges between organizations for a larger goal (not simply supporting your own agenda). Where would you place yourself on the spectrum of collective leadership and what might you change?
- Talk to your close partners. We don’t have many forums for performing network evaluation, though navigating change collectively depends on this practice. Reach out to those you work with and schedule time (regularly) for an honest conversation or process.
- Set (and revisit!) a clear vision and roles. Even in established networks and collective efforts, it’s common for participants (new and existing) to lose sight of the overall vision and what roles each individual/institution is playing. At all meetings, or at least quarterly, time should be taken to remind all of vision, agreements, and roles. (An MOU or cooperative agreement never hurts either.)