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

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.

Barbara Kingsolver

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.

–Wendell Berry

During times of universal deceit,  

telling the truth  

becomes a revolutionary act. 

-George Orwell 

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.”

Elephant in the RoomThose 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.

A Brave And Startling Truth
We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
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.

Maya Angelou

There are no great acts.

There are only small acts, 

done with great love.

-Mother Teresa 

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.

Image result for 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.

-Anne Frank

“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.

This work is often undervalued–or forgotten–in creating lasting change, whether in the design and execution of a program or project, or on a broader movement level.

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.

-Jeanette Winterson

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.

It focuses on both the practice and underlying philosophy of running effective community and coalition meetings and understanding overall engagement for community, policy, and place-based initiatives. Here are some additional hallmarks of how we might successfully navigate change using a collective approach. You can apply these principles and practices to your own leadership or to your participation in a network or collaborative effort.

  • 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.)

A thing is mighty big

when time and distance  

cannot shrink it.

Zora Neale Hurston


I recently returned home from a summer camp reunion in Maine. Although it felt in many ways as if being there was returning home.

This month’s musings are about the power of returning to the places and people who have shaped us and is dedicated to Hidden Valley Camp in Freedom, ME-the place itself, and all of those connected to it and who have in some way inspired my experience there. It was a blessing to return to such a special place and see people I haven’t seen in years.

The writer Barry Lopez has a concept that I have always loved: he talks about the need to “reconcile our inner and outer landscapes.”

For someone who works to cultivate sustainable communities, build networks for social change, and support place-based initiatives, I’ve experienced how the places we inhabit and the communities we are a part of can reflect and inform our internal landscape.

Last month, I had the tremendous privilege to return to a summer camp in Maine where I’d spent a decade from the early 80s into the early 90s as a camper, counselor, and program director.

I arrived early with my family, and the place was quiet and immediately familiar. As if it had been within me all the years since I’d been there. Old friends arrived, and the familiarity deepened-the people and the place complementing each other and stirring memories and laughter.

This is the power of reuniting and reconciling with places and individuals who have touched our lives–and those places and opportunities seem all too rare. Each person at that summer camp in Maine had numerous stories, feelings, songs they could share that continue-years later-to have a profound influence on the people they have become.

I remarked to Peter and Meg Kassen, the camp’s owners and directors (and among my early mentors), that my time at camp had fundamentally shaped who it is that I am, my values, and what it is that I do in the world: working with groups of people to create and sustain healthy communities, engage meaningfully with each other, and act as stewards of the places–urban, rural, and wild–that they love.

They in turn confirmed these feelings in their comments to the group around a campfire two nights later, talking about the deeply embedded values of prioritizing inclusion and acceptance (Peter reflected that the camp has long welcomed children and staff from throughout the world and from diverse backgrounds) and which at its core is about stewardship (Meg sharing that “the unsung hero of this place is the place itself”).

These are very central values for me and inform my work-I often quote Aldo Leopold who offered “There are two things that interest me-the relationship of people to the land, and the relationship of people to each other.”

Reunions are life-affirming events, and as the writer Toba Beta shares that “reunion demonstrates the potential in friendships that haven’t emerged in the past”. I reconnected with many friends back in Maine, who even though we are not in touch regularly continue to inspire and encourage me, and some of whom I hadn’t even fully connected with while at camp but who reflect the spirit and values of a place that was so special to all of us.

In addition to sharing stories, we also shared the songs which shaped our camp experience. And we laughed repeatedly at the fact that many of the songs we loved were about disaster and loss–whether a rollicking almost celebratory tune about the Titanic going down, or the more plaintive Neil Young or Joni Mitchell reflections on fleeting youth in Sugar Mountain or The Circle Game.

There was something about camp that built community, acknowledged reality in a place that seemed like a fantasy, allowed for the shaping of lifelong values. Such experiences have been shown to build resilience for children, and I would propose even provide guidelines for creating resilient and thriving communities.

One of my favorite Wallace Stegner quotes epitomizes my feelings after that reunion weekend:

“Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on, that will be the sort of gauze through which he or she will see all the world afterwards.”

Though there are many places and communities I have come to love, including my home in California and my current professional community (many of whom I could see as their adult or younger selves at that summer camp in Maine!), there is part of me that will always see the world–and possibilities for connection, community, and change–through the experience nurtured by Hidden Valley Camp.


Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets, partly because she is able to capture universal and profound feelings and an appreciation of the moment via an experience with nature.



Oh do you have time

to linger

for just a little while

out of your busy


and very important day

for the goldfinches

that have gathered

in a field of thistles


for a musical battle,

to see who can sing

the highest note,

or the lowest,


or the most expressive of mirth,

or the most tender?

Their strong blunt beaks

drink the air


as they strive


not for your sake

and not for mine


and not for the sake of winning

but for sheer delight and gratitude-

believe us, they say,

it is a serious thing


just to be alive

on this fresh morning

in this broken world.

I beg of you,


do not walk by

without pausing

to attend to this

rather ridiculous performance.


It could mean something.

It could mean everything.

It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:

You must change your life.


Mary Oliver

I spent the summer traveling;

I got halfway across my backyard.

Louis Agassiz

I just tried my hand (and eyes) at a technology fast, a digital detox. No screens or gadgets of any kind for a few days. It made the quote above from naturalist Louis Agassiz even more striking.

We’ve come to prize-and prioritize in many cases-our online existence and it may be that virtual reality is becoming more real every day. Not many days go by where we don’t take the time to check and respond to e-mail, post to Facebook (or any number of social media platforms), talk on the phone, watch TV. These practices shape our schedules-or at least fill our time in between meetings, on commutes, or as an activity with family or friends.

I usually take a late summer break to “re-connect” and this year, that involved both taking a “stay-cation” and taking a few days to not use any devices or stare at any screens. I love the Terry Tempest Williams quote “Perhaps the most radical act we can commit is to stay home.” In a world where we are always moving, always seeking a new destination, there is a power to staying put. This is increasingly true in a world where our “connections” are often mediated by technology.

I typically take a day a week to not turn on my computer, and we try to be selective about how much TV we take in. But I still frequently have my phone nearby, essentially a tiny screen where I stay tethered to more information than anyone could possibly process. In not using any technology for a few days, I noticed the increased presence I felt-both in connections to others, connections to what was happening around me, and connections to my own feelings -which is all usually there, but tempered by the ironic ability to “connect” at any point.

In one of his early books, The Age of Missing Information, Bill McKibben records and watches 24 hours of all 93 stations of the Fairfax, VA cable network (which dates this 1992 book!). He contrasts that with 24 hours spent hiking and camping in his native Adirondacks. Of course, his observations are striking about the kind of “information” we receive mediated by a screen, and that which comes to us via nature, via the real world.

There is no avoiding the fact that technologies like e-mail and others that allow instantaneous communication are here to stay-and evolving. We’re now exploring the potential of the internet of things, as more and more everyday objects–our cars, our refrigerators–are connected and able to talk with each other, self-adjust, provide us with feedback, or tell us that “it’s time to buy more….”

There’s something insidious about this convenience that we should remain aware of: both in the way it affects our relationship to inanimate objects (see the movie Her) and more importantly, in the way it affects our relationships to ourselves, to others, and to the places we live, work, and play.

A recent article in the New York Times (and many others like it) on Dealing with Digital Cruelty talks about the ways in which we behave differently on-line than in person, why that is the case, and what to do about interacting on-line. I’ve always said that on-line communications are not “communications” per se, but ways of transferring information. I think it’s important to have a digital commons, and am always struck by the depth (sometimes possible and sometimes not) people attempt via a technology-mediated exchange.

It reminds me of one of my favorite bumper stickers: “Discuss complex and challenging issues via bumper stickers.”

I am admittedly biased, as my work has always been about face-to-face interaction and about real places-about community building, place-making, leadership development, network creation, and organizational culture and effectiveness. It is critical–whatever the technology is–to use our tools wisely. The insightful elements of science fiction–think Star Trek, the Planet of the Apes, Avatar, the Terminator movies or take your pick–are not that they paint a picture of a possible future, but provide a window into the very real present. While we can’t “jump to hyperspace” or travel time (yet), our culture shifts with every technological innovation-and it’s up to us to decide how that change happens in our lives.

During a place-based learning workshop with that I led with the New Leaf Collaborative earlier this month, I was moved by the reflections that student participants shared about how using place and community as a medium for learning had changed their lives. As many schools are adopting technology as a tool for learning and cultivating the citizens of the future–and as we sense its ubiquity in our lives–I hope that we can find a graceful balance in not forgetting meaningful interaction with the people and places that shape us.

California is not so much a state of the Union

as it is an imagination that seceded from our reality a long time ago.

California was the first to discover that it was fantasy that led to reality,

not the other way around.

William Irwin Thompson


At a planning retreat with a client this Spring, several of us reflected that we could capture the value and motivation behind our work in a t-shirt in a simple phrase: “I love California”

I moved to this state twenty-two years ago without any experience of being here, with only the knowledge or a dream that I wanted to be here…as I’m sure many who relocate to California hold.

I’ve heard it said that in California, the world sees everything that it hopes to be and everything that it fears. As the quote above captures, California is not so much a state as a state of mind.

I love the diversity of people and places across this state, from coastal communities to the farm fields of the Central Valley, to some of the highest peaks in the country. I love living in a place where I can meet people whose families have been here for several generations and those who have just arrived. It’s this diversity in part that creates a place that has a special energy and spirit.

That’s not to say that there aren’t very real places and people to protect and very real problems to address, as there are anywhere. Yet there is a mythology—largely borne out I have seen, despite some of our more intractable challenges—that the creativity, innovation, and sense of possibility held by those in California can not only begin to solve the problems we face, but can inspire others to think and act in similarly inventive ways.

A very Californian attitude, I know.

However, this approach can not only support California communities, but can support community sustainability and positive change anywhere. In the work I’ve done around the country and around the world, I’ve seen both the potential that exists when people think positively and creatively and the self-fulfilling prophesy that comes to pass when we think that the problems we face have no solution.

At this time, California faces record drought, a growing population and associated development pressure, and questions around treating our most vulnerable residents fairly. These challenges won’t be solved by ingenuity and creativity alone—they’ll require commitments (and some sacrifices) from policymakers and the public—yet it will make it easier to address these and other issues over the long-term from a backdrop of possibility that is both part of the mythology and reality of this extraordinary place.


When you change the way you look at things,

the things you look at change.

Max Planck

One of my favorite quotes is from the writer and healer Deena Metzger: “There are those who are trying to set fire to the world. We are in danger. There is only time to work slowly. There is no time not to love.”

It was the quote that introduced my very first newsletter/blog post, and it remains core to my work.

Although I think of my work as more than facilitation, many people I interact with see me first and foremost as a facilitator. And there is a responsibility there I take very seriously—the role of creating space.

This is not simply space for conversations, and decisions, and results in a meeting but also—and perhaps more importantly—for surfacing challenging topics, reconfirming a group’s values, resolving conflicts, even acknowledging and addressing the powerful emotions that can often arise in our work.

If we are to create the kind of leadership we need to affect transformative change in ourselves, our workplaces, and our communities, we need to create this space—regularly—in our lives. We need to claim a time in our day and in our week to do what I call “big thinking” or just to be silent. We need to weave this space into our meetings with colleagues, so that we are not only focused on “getting things done” but in understanding why and how we are achieving our goals.

And we need places annually or semi-annually that can serve as a pilgrimage of sorts—a place to return to that helps reconfirm our purpose in the world, reconnects us with colleagues aligned with our efforts, and renews us along the challenging path of seeking greater health, sustainability and justice.

Creating this space is much like the role of fire in a healthy forest…seemingly destructive, but allowing the room for new things to grow. Even if that fire is born of crisis, it also allows for renewal in our lives and in our work.

Creating Space is one place that fulfills this ecological role my work. Whether I have been facilitating or participating in this regular gathering hosted by the Leadership Learning Community, I am provided with a clearing for new perspectives and tools, an opportunity to learn with colleagues familiar and new, and a place to reconfirm and recommit to the values central to my work—including collaboration, equity, and health.

In structuring this year’s gathering, there was particular attention paid to honoring the idea of “creating space”—the authentic time with colleagues we most yearn for which is often lost amidst presentations and working sessions. There was also emphasis on scale, reducing the number of participants from well over 100 last year to a maximum of 60 this year. And, as always, our theme explored innovative ways to deepen leadership that can achieve transformative change…though this year, we focused more intently on engaging participants in sharing or designing tools and approaches to do so.

The experience crafting the agenda and facilitating this three-day gathering led me to reflect on some of the principles I often use for creating space and designing dialogue in any meeting, using the mnemonic “CREATE” :

  •  Clarity. Defining why a particular meeting or gathering needs to occur—either for one hour or over the course of three days—is critical. What is the purpose of bringing people together? Clear outcomes (and the right number of them) help structure a meaningful agenda and allow for dialogue and connection among participants.
  • Room. The space that is used for any meeting creates a mood for that meeting. One of my mentors, David Orr, speaks about “architecture as pedagogy”—we learn from the rooms and buildings we occupy. Is there natural light? Is the space large enough for the number of people? The right answers to these and similar questions can make or break any gathering.
  • Expectations. While the first and most important question asked about any gathering is about its purpose, this MUST go hand-in-hand with participant expectations. If we are to genuinely create space for transformative conversations and results, we cannot design for people…we need to design with them in partnership. Getting input—through surveys, interviews, and pre-meetings—is essential for success.
  • Agenda. The path through any gathering needs to provide ample time for each topic, a graceful balance of content to ground a common experience and opportunity for dialogue, regular rituals—whether for short, recurring, or multi-day meetings (think poetry or getting reflections from participants)—as well as breaks to allow for integration. The intensity of a meeting is much different than the work done sitting alone at a computer or on a call with a colleague…and we need to pay attention to this difference in how we map out and balance the time for any size group.
  • Team. As critical to success as a clear purpose and well-crafted agenda is a facilitation team appropriate for the group and topic. While I often facilitate alone, and solo facilitators can be very successful, larger gatherings require two or more co-facilitators who have worked on designing the experience and who can share the tasks of leading discussion, documenting ideas, and resolving challenges. Equally important—particularly in conversations around social change—is the ability of a facilitator or team to address issues such as race and equity, and the important conversations and emotions that can seem like “off-topic” distractions but actually are core to success.
  • Evolution. I don’t think any meeting I’ve facilitated has gone exactly as planned, and as a colleague of mine once shared—“it’s not knowing what to do, it’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” Having the flexibility to evolve with the group—as a facilitator or a participant—AND remain focused on getting to clear outcomes and next steps is the real challenge and magic when coming together with a group of people.

These elements—and especially the final step—models a vital practice in both designing successful meetings and creating more attuned leadership for transformative change: the ability to remain committed to particular outcomes while respecting the evolution and needs of any group and the discoveries that develop along the way.

April 2020