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The arc of the moral universe is long,

But it bends toward justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

How do we stay engaged in work that we may never see completed?

For those of us in the sustainability and social change arena—perhaps across many fields—there can be a sense of working for change perpetually. At the 25th Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony this week, multiple speakers mentioned that many of the critical issues linking the environment, poverty, and democracy that we were working on 25 years ago (when my work in this arena was just starting) are still threats.

There has been progress—and we can point to landmark legislation and a shift in cultural consciousness and behavior to prove it—though it is hard to see this when the change can easily get lost in the “so much more to be done.”

We must work at the challenging confluence of the change we have seen and can celebrate, and the vision we have that has yet to be achieved. Forsaking one for the other would either undermine how far we have come or overwhelm us with the magnitude of the problems yet to be solved.

E.B White wrote “I awaken each morning caught between the desire to savor the world and the desire to save it. It makes it hard to plan the day.” As difficult as this makes our work, we can’t move forward without celebrating and building upon the efforts of those who have come before us.

I know that I can easily get caught up in feelings of the progress we’ve seen not being “good enough”—and it’s not. Yet I also feel a tremendous solace and am energized by the victories and more importantly the people who have contributed to a strong a growing movement for positive change.

In his inaugural address in 1961, JFK said: “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

This is the spirit we must have to navigate the long arc of change.

 

 

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Whatever you can do, or think you can, begin it!

Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

                                                –Goethe

Many people like to take the opportunity at a time of transition-a new year, for instance-to change a habit, re-commit to a practice, pursue a goal. Now may be a good time to assess where we have come with our commitments, if we made them at the start of the year (or at any other time).

Mine often live between the realms of some new practice or accomplishment via my work, a desire to cultivate greater community connection, and the importance of physical health, creative pursuits, and spiritual practice.

It can be a heavy load.

I’m reminded of a line from Neruda’s Keeping Quiet: “If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence would interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves…”

In trying to create change, there can be a zeal that causes us to miss things-a “competing commitment” as organizational and behavioral theorists Kegan and Lahey call them-and can stop change on an individual or collective level before it even is able to take root.

In his teaching and writing on the idea of “committed action without attachment to outcome”, Donald Rothberg quotes T.S. Eliot: “ours is in the trying, the rest is not our business”. It can be paradoxical to be in a place where we are committed to creating change in a personal and/or social context, but not attached to how things turn out.

While it’s important to have a vision and set goals, these can sometimes create unrealistic expectations for how things should be and can affect our process for achieving the changes we seek (especially if we fall short and become discouraged).

Buckminster Fuller famously said that “there are no failed experiments, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.” As counter-intuitive as it may be, change requires resolve and a commitment to new habits and practices without holding too tightly to what might be.

 

Monthly Practice: Systems Over Goals 

In a recent article in Entrepreneur magazine, James Clear encourages readers to set up a process for change, rather than setting goals. He sees the creation of practices within a particular system (running a few miles a day) more powerful than the end result (compete in a 10K road race). Ultimately, it is the habits supported by a system that create change, rather than the goal somewhere over the horizon.

What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each others’ despair into hope?

You yourself must change it.

What would it feel like to know
your country was changing?

You yourself must change it.

Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange…

what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

Adrienne Rich

 

In 2014, DIG IN will enter its tenth year as a platform for working with individuals, organizations, collaboratives, and communities in service to catalyzing sustainability and social change efforts.

What started from a reflection that organizational practice could be more effective, that communities and groups could benefit from working together more intentionally to build sustainable, healthy places, that skills in leadership and conflict resolution could support this transformation has sustained me for a decade. Not only has it been my livelihood but-as all right livelihoods should be-it has been a source of inspiration and education over the past ten years.

I am buoyed by the incredible network and community of which I am a part, and supported and encouraged by the interweaving of individuals, groups, and movements dedicated to doing good in the world. Amidst what can often seem like insurmountable odds, I am renewed daily by those of you I work with directly and so many more who share their courage, intelligence, and passion by engaging in the work of social justice and sustainability.

Over the next year, I will continue and deepen the work of DIG IN-founded to both support practices and policies growing positive impact in communities around California and around the country AND to share tools and build leadership for individuals, organizations, networks, and communities focused on this goal.

To celebrate a decade of this work, 2014 will feature regular gatherings of colleagues and those interested in this work to learn together and share best practices-stay tuned for dates and locations!-and a series of longer articles on the lessons learned from ten years of DIG IN’s work around leadership development for social change, collaboration and networks, strategies for building sustainable communities, and working across lines of difference.

Thank you again for your work and your inspiration. Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and bright holiday season filled with celebration and gratitude!

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,

to surrender to too many demands,

to commit oneself to too many projects,

to want to help everyone in everything,

is to succumb to the violence of our times.

Thomas Merton

I spent time cleaning up the garden this weekend, pruning back the plants that had grown with such vigor over the course of the spring and summer, readying the garden for winter. As I was cutting back a particularly prodigious shrub, I was reminded of the gardener’s adage that “roses don’t need much care-just 5 minutes a day.”

This shrub-not a rose, but the California native Matilja poppy (or fried-egg poppy)-had grown out of control. Its flowers had been beautiful all summer, but now it was unhealthy, overtaxed and collapsing on itself. See where I’m going here?

I am often in conversations with clients and colleagues, and reflect regularly about how we can be most effective in achieving the social change and sustainability goals we set to reach. Most of them are ambitious, inspiring, even overwhelming to work with. Yet even with the smaller projects and objectives that can add up to greater change, I often see individuals and institutions “out ahead of ourselves and unable to catch up” as a colleague recently shared.

In order to truly build capacity, we need to pay greater attention to the work-in planning for it, accepting it, managing it, and completing what we’ve started. I do a lot of work supporting the vision, values, and strategy of sustainability efforts and in many cases execution and implementation is out of balance with the vision and values guiding the effort. How can we work for sustainability if our own individual and organizational efforts are unsustainable?

To grapple with the concept of capacity, I think of this broader quasi-buzzword in terms of the ecosystem created by its constituent parts. Capacity is comprised of several elements we need to consider to assess and manage our individual and collective ability to create impact:

  • Clarity: Strategy and vision are meant to set a clear path for any effort-even when these exist, the connection between strategic pathways and the specific work to be performed isn’t always outlined in a way that can focus effort and prevent mission drift and overwhelm;
  • Capability: Do we individually and collectively have the time and resources required to achieve what we have set out to accomplish? We are often asked to do more with less, or are seeking support for a broader vision-to avoid burnout and realize intermediate victories we need to scale our work appropriate to the time and funding available;
  • Competency: This is the “is it plugged in” question, as it’s challenging to feel that we have the capacity to achieve our goals if individually or organizationally we don’t have the skills to do so-learning and leadership development is essential AND can be a limiting factor in the near-term;
  • Confidence: Knowing that we are able to do the work we’ve set out (provided we have the competency to do so) is often supported by our ability to make the right decision about how to move forward with a particular project or strategy;
  • Collaboration: To be truly effective, we can’t think about capacity in an individual or institutional vacuum-the reality is that the amount of work we take on and the goals we set are more often than not bold and visionary…working together gracefully is becoming the standard of practice in social change and sustainability work, and across sectors.

Ultimately, determining our capacity is an informed choice about what we can or cannot take on-informed by the elements outlined here and shaped by other external and internal factors. We can all work with greater attention to the Merton quote so that we stay as focused as possible, and in our efforts to heal the world don’t unintentionally “succumb to the violence of our times.”

It takes a campaign to change a policy. 
It takes a network to change a system. 

June Holley

There is a not-so-quiet revolution taking place in the way we work. We can see it everywhere in nature, but in our communities and organizations, we are just now beginning to see its power and impact-relationships change everything.

While this might seem blindingly obvious, I’m not talking about relationships in any one workplace or community, critical as these connections are. We are beginning to see the advent of the real power of networks — groups of organizations or communities working together — to affect lasting change.

I define a network not simply as a group coming together across organizational or community boundaries to share ideas and learn together, but to take action in creating transformative change.

When I started doing work supporting organizations committed to sustainability and social change, I always said that “we need less stuff and more glue” to emphasize the importance of connecting individuals, institutions, and ideas. We all operate within systems and in order to shift those systems, we need to not only understand them but to act as they do.

Too many organizations and communities still attempt to make change acting alone. Even groups of organizations acting together talk about transformative change but wind up with only incremental victories.

Networks are about relationships between individuals, organizations and ideas that create a new systems-oriented way of working where our allegiance is not so much to the institution which employs us, but to the larger mission and ecosystem of relationships that can support large-scale transformation.

We are seeing this in the increasing popularity of the collective impact model, and in the number of organizations and efforts-on a local, regional, state, national and even global-level-pursuing collaborative strategies. We are realizing that we have tremendous power, but that we can’t act alone-the power we have comes from working together. If done well, consistently and with great patience, this leads to broader movement-building and social transformation.

Einstein famously shared that “The problems that we face can’t be solved by the same level of consciousness that created them.” Working through a network or collaborative approach creates a different consciousness and new possibilities for affecting change.

When I work with networks, I use a series of “I’s” as important steps themselves, but also as “essential puns” for successful network development including:

  • “I”: What are you bringing-in terms of self-interest, resources, and attitude-to any collaborative effort?
  • “Aye”: To what extent are you affirming your participation-are you “all in” or waiting on the periphery to see how things develop?
  • “Eye”: How are you paying attention and staying aware of dynamics unfolding as a collaboration gets underway, moves through challenges, and evolves?    

With those first three “I questions” as a foundation, here are seven “I” steps to consider when assessing or building any network activity:

  • Intention: Clarify why the group is coming together and the vision for the network;
  • Invitation: Define and welcome key participants and who will reach out to engage them;
  • Inclusion: It’s especially important to identify and connect with a diversity of stakeholders early on, as they will set the tone for the network;
  • Involvement: Provide opportunities for all members of the network to contribute meaningfully-it’s very easy for a core set of people or organizations to do the work, and this leads to power imbalances and lack of engagement. Everyone should have a role, no matter how small;
  • Integration: To be effective, the ideas and institutions in a network are woven together through a compelling vision (see intention), clear strategies and activities, and shared governance-how decisions are made, relationships cultivated, and resources shared;
  • Iteration: Networks need to encourage experimentation, new ideas and new membership-while remaining faithful to their core purpose;
  • Impact: Effective collaboration creates results that can be measured, celebrated and learned from — near-term victories are critical to maintaining momentum for larger change.

Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on,

that will be the sort of gauze through which

he or she sees all the world afterwards.

-Wallace Stegner

Country music icon Ernest Tubb once said “Be better to your neighbors and you’ll have better neighbors.” I would add: know your neighbors, or your colleagues, or your congressperson, or the place where you live, as these are vibrant gateways to building stronger connections to create community.

The roots of early democracy-in this country and elsewhere-were nurtured by relationships of people to one another and to the places they lived. Participation in decisions about “the commons” were informed by those living and working around us and the places we called home.

Increasingly, community can often be less about our connections to our neighbors and to particular places, and is defined by our identities or professions, linking us with people in other neighborhoods, cities or countries. Both are valuable ways to think about community, which is still an essential building block for affecting change from the local to the global.

Communities create possibilities for action through the networks of support they weave. Communities are crucibles that contribute to forming who we are and how we relate to the other people and places we encounter in our lives. Understanding the impact our community history has had on our perspective is critical as we create and participate in new communities at work, at home, or on-line-which in turn continue to inform our experience.

Our initial interaction with community or place serves as “a sort of gauze through which we see all the world afterwards”-as Wallace Stegner puts it-and though the communities in which we find ourselves can shift over the course of our lives, our roles at work, in our families and in our neighborhoods are often shaped by these first forays in civic life.

It is why programs such as Early Start and the work of creating healthy neighborhoods and school environments for children are so vital. And it is why we must continue to work tirelessly to create sustainable communities for all where there are options for economic prosperity, equal opportunity, and access to a clean environment.

In his book Community and the Politics of Place, former Missoula mayor Daniel Kemmis argues that the erosion of our communities and public discourse are directly related to the disappearance of our “sense of place”: while on-line communities and communities of identity are vibrant and meaningful, they cannot replace the shaping and promise found in those places we live, work, and play. Paying attention to cultivating those relationships-with our colleagues, our neighbors, and the places that we value-is what creates community, and inspires action for positive change.

There is no such thing as a failed experiment.

Only experiments with unexpected outcomes.

-Buckminster Fuller

Einstein is famously quoted for his observation that “the problems that we face will not be solved by the same level of consciousness that created them.” Particularly if we get stuck looking at the problems and not spending time understanding what created them-the root causes-or developing the new level of consciousness necessary-the perspectives and practices that can address our challenges.

In the work of sustainability and social change, I often find that-despite the number and worthiness of issues we have to focus on-we also create obstacles on an individual and institutional level which make the hard journey of creating transformative change even harder.

There are relational obstacles that we generate-through differences of opinion or other conflicts with those we work with-and there are systemic obstacles to deal with: primarily the challenges in the way we approach the problem. In a recent article around Hawaiian Monk Seal conservation efforts, those seeking to conserve an endangered species alienated precisely those who could help them most in achieving their goals-the native Hawaiian population.

Usually the greatest barrier to solving a particular problem is identification with the problem itself. We often talk about what we are against, rather than what we envision and want to see for our communities and our world. If we identify the problem itself as the focus-rather than defining a clear set of values and a vision that we want to achieve-we limit the options for actually solving that problem.

We need to begin with an attitude where we believe that the obstacles we face may be overcome. This doesn’t mean acting like a Pollyanna or ignoring the problem, but to approach obstacles as opportunities to learn from or puzzles to be solved. Obstacles are seductive and possess a tremendous amount of power, especially if we continue to invest energy in identChallenges Imagefying with the problem rather than seeking the solution.

Martin Luther King shared that “Through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Darkness cannot put out darkness.  Only light can do that.” A great deal of behavioral research has shown that bad habits aren’t addressed by focusing on the habit you are trying to change, but by creating new habits that pattern what is desired.

We often create obstacles because of our expectations in terms of the way something should be or how someone should behave. In developing creative approaches to novel challenges, we might look to  research on play as a critical developmental tool for humans and other animals.

Evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff “think[s] of play as training for the unexpected.” What might it mean to “play” a bit more when confronted with obstacles-conflicts with others, an overwhelming amount of work, a seemingly intractable situation, or a combination of “all of the above”?

Perhaps if we could see obstacles more as adventures, and tried to approach them with the combination of excitement and openness to the unknown when embarking on something new, we would get stuck less often-and might even design (or just stumble upon) creating a different consciousness to address our challenges and those in our field.

As a closing thought on overcoming obstacles from Maya Angelou’s Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now:

We often forget that life is an ongoing adventure.

We leave our homes for work, acting and even believing that we will reach our destinations with no unusual event startling us out of our set expectations.

The truth is we know nothing, not where our cars will fail or when our buses will stall, whether our places of employment will be there when we arrive, or whether, in fact, we ourselves will arrive whole and alive at the end of our journeys.

Life is pure adventure and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art: to bring all our energies to each encounter, to remain flexible enough to notice and admit when what we expected to happen did not happen.

We need to remember that we are created creative and can invent new scenarios as frequently as they are needed.

 

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.

 

—Frances Moore Lap

 

BREAKING NEW GROUND

It’s easy to fall into habitual ways of doing things, to rest in familiar territory. While this is essential in some respects, in many instances it can quickly limit our individual or collective vision and ability to move ahead and create lasting change.

In my work in creating sustainable communities, healthy organizations, and capable leaders, the challenge lies in finding a balance between the traditions and practices that serve us and in breaking new ground to unearth ways that we might leap forward in realizing our goals.

Next week, I’ll travel to Baltimore to participate in a gathering that remains one of my annual favorites: Creating Space is an amazing opportunity for those interested in transformative leadership to engage with one another to both share lessons learned and discover novel approaches to supporting collective efforts for social change.

Not coincidentally, this year’s theme focuses on “Breaking New Ground: Leadership Development for Social Innovation and Impact”. In “pre-flecting” on this event, I authored a guest blog post around the topic of “What Will It Take?” which pushes those participating—and the field more broadly—to be mindful of the vision we have for our communities and our world and where we might need to push further.

Innovation for breaking new ground depends upon our capacity for “creative disruption” and the tolerance or flexibility of any system—our institutions, our communities, ourselves—to accommodate and adopt that which is new. Oftentimes, systems will fight such changes by treating innovations as viral—and not in a good way. There are many organizations and neighborhoods that squelch new ideas because “we already have a way of doing that” or “that’s not the way it’s done”.

Successful attempts at breaking ground are not always disruptive—but they are creative, and art is central to pioneering alternative approaches to social challenges. At the same time, we must be able to understand and embrace complexity as we seek pathways toward addressing the issues we are working to resolve.

If the only prayer you said

in your entire life was ‘thank you’

that would suffice

—Meister Eckhardt

 

I recently participated in a leadership training where we spoke what we appreciated about the people in our lives, an activity I often encourage people to do for one another at the end of workshop or meeting as well.

It was a powerful reminder of the impact people can have on our lives—and the importance of gratitude, no matter what that impact is. Large or small, negative or positive—as Rumi’s “guest house” poem states: “Be grateful for whoever comes because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” While he was referring to emotions, the same can be said of people and circumstances in our lives.

While gratitude can serve as a daily practice, it is also a powerful tool at major transitions in our lives and our work…such as when we reflect on the year that has passed, and look forward to the year to come. Thinking of who and what we were grateful for and what lessons we learned from them or how they supported us can serve as a springboard for deepening our work in the year to come. Gratitude is a vital complement to commitment if we can be inspired by what has shown up in our lives and use that to create change.

Most importantly, I find that gratitude is also a powerful lever for relationship-building—which is so essential for making individual and collective change and an area where DIG IN will focus even more of its efforts in the year to come. Whether by helping place-based leaders connect and leverage their work or supporting coalition-building efforts on the state and national level, it is critical to acknowledge the great privilege inherent in doing sustainability and social change work and others engaged in these efforts.

On a personal note, I wanted to express my tremendous gratitude for each of you—whether we have known each other a long time, work together or have collaborated in the past, or you are simply a reader of these posts who I have never met—for the ways in which you have touched my life and the dedication you bring to your work in the world.

Thank you and warm wishes for a bright and peaceful transition to the new year.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

 

At a certain point, we must choose the impact we wish to make in the world—and in some cases it is chosen for us. Regardless, how we engage with our desire to see positive change and the circumstances in which we have found ourselves are the building blocks of legacy.

I’ve often lived by the maxim that “People don’t remember what you did or said, they remember how you made them feel.” My commitment in the world is to create change by facilitating connection and transforming differences among those dedicated to building stronger communities. Whether this is an individual organization, a grassroots neighborhood effort, or a broad coalition working to shape policy change, I am dedicated to “restoring the civic ecosystem”—the way in which we build relationships, resolve conflicts, and take action—so that we can be effective in creating a more sustainable, humane society.

I have been encouraged to pursue this commitment and build this legacy by those who have come before me, whether or not I knew them. In this spirit, I’d like to honor someone here who I did not even know, but whose existence has touched my life.

My friend and associate Raquel’s father, Gustavo Gutierrez, passed away earlier this month. He worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, founding the Migrant Opportunity Program , the Arizona Farm Workers Association and Chicanos por la Causa throughout the 1960s. While I never had the honor of meeting him, I was inspired to hear about his efforts and passionate dedication to social equity. I have witnessed how he shaped Raquel’s work as a social justice advocate and the work of so many activists in Arizona, nationally and internationally.

Beyond his contribution as an activist and organizer, Gustavo was rooted in both Western and Native spiritual traditions. I firmly believe that you can do good work in the world no matter who you are or what you believe, and that a commitment to something larger than yourself deepens the experience of why you are doing the work and the legacy you leave. Whether that is a connection to a particular community or to nature, or faith in a spiritual tradition, our legacy is enriched when our individual efforts find a connection to something more universal.

Legacy isn’t simply about our gifts that we bring to the world and what we hope to inspire in others, but about the way we shape our communities and our landscape.. My colleague Kaid Benfield wrote about this in one of his great blog posts late last year, observing that creating continuity in a place or a community is not simply a design exercise, but a fundamental part of our humanity.

Whether we are committed to transforming ourselves, touching the lives of others, creating a work of art, shaping and protecting the places we treasure, or all of these things, clarifying how we each would best like to contribute our skills and vision is not simply fulfilling for us, it is essential for making a difference in our world and in the lives of others.

As the theologian Howard Thurman has written:

“Don’t worry about what the world needs. Find what makes you come alive and do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.”

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