Convene, Connect & Commit: Spark Large Scale Change
by Freya Bradford, Director of Systems Change and Learning
This is the first in a four-part blog series exploring different aspects of systems change work: convening, connecting & committing; finding leverage points for change; designing interventions to change systems; and learning as we go.
As I sit down to write this blog it is one of those impossibly bright white winter mornings when even the air is twinkling. Fresh powder rests over all the muddy brown of last week, last year. It is hard not to feel hopeful.
When I reflect on the last year, I am hopeful that, in spite of it all, we have found ways to gather safely, to find common purposes, and commit to supporting our neighbors. It is hard work that has been made harder, but that hasn’t stopped us. We seem to agree, “survival is insufficient.”1 It feels we are more ready than ever to make choices that can help us all thrive.
This series focuses on making different choices about how we work and what we work on. Choices that will walk us upstream, together, to investigate why downriver looks the way it does. Choices that favor a better future for everyone by changing the systems that are creating the present. It is not a map or manual, but a collection of observations, tools, and wisdom from brave scouts who are doing this work, locally and from around the world.
To work to change a system that is creating a community problem is an active choice, but first it is a belief. It is the belief that we do have the power to change the seemingly intractable problems of our communities. A different kind of power is required. One that we can’t accumulate or hoard as individuals, or assert as a single organization. It is collective power. Collective power requires individual and organizational power, but it is more than its sum. It emerges through relationships and transforms into possibilities unimaginable.
This piece in the series is about the first steps in tending to those relationships that make large-scale transformation possible: convening, connecting, and committing to a common purpose and to one another.
“Host organizations foster belonging, providing the space for gathering, and keeping participants engaged, so that collectives can stay together through the learning process, adapting and experimenting continuously.” - Cynthia Rayner & Francois Bonnici, The Systems Work of Social Change
The extent to which a community is thriving is the result of the complex interaction of many, many different factors. These factors are nudged and influenced by the big and small choices we make as citizens, leaders, employees, and government representatives. Quite plainly, together, and most often unwittingly, we create the policies, practices, resource flows, and patterns that result in all that works and doesn’t work in our communities.
Efforts to change a community take a community. We must, as Dan Heath says in his book Upstream, “surround the problem.” Northern Michigan has an abundance of efforts that are trying to do just that. From the decades-old Food & Farming Network to the ambitious 10-county Northern Michigan Community Health Innovation Region, and the nascent movement to protect youth mental health that in two weeks has attracted over 400 volunteers (and growing), we are actively trying different ways to organize and transform our communities.
Initiatives like these are inclusive of those who have institutional knowledge and power, but also those who have insight that comes from experiencing first-hand the consequences of systems that are not working for all.
If you are hoping to tackle a complex community problem and are not already collaborating broadly, early questions to ask yourself are:
- Who else cares about this issue?
- Are they already convening? How can I join them?
If you find that people are not already meeting around an issue, consider initiating a group (these can take the form of networks, coalitions, collaborative bodies or movements). Whether initiating or participating in a group focused on a community issue or opportunity, it is important to view the invitation as one to co-create. As David Ehrlichman puts it in the book Impact Networks, participating in networks is a “collective discovery of what the network is and what it becomes… networks are not owned by anyone, they are shared by everyone.”
Collective initiatives require a different type of leadership, one that enables the will and wisdom of the group to emerge. It makes space to build relationships and trust. It is curious, more than certain.2 It doesn’t make decisions for the group, but it helps the group decide how it will make decisions and govern itself.
How a group will organize and function together are important early considerations, but they seem most effective when they are held lightly and remain open for adaptation as group needs and functions change. Consent-Based Decision Making is a “third option”3 for decision making that is beginning to be practiced more widely and seems particularly well suited to social impact networks and collaboration. Group governance can take a variety of forms from a few Simple Rules to Collective Impact frameworks and complex Constellation Governance.
“In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass,’ it is always about critical connections.” – Grace Lee Boggs
Groups, new and old, must continuously work to cultivate two critical types of connection: connection between people in the group, and connection to their collective purpose.
The people in a group are its most important resource. The resources members bring – knowledge, insight, skills, energy, connections, and resources – are what create value when exchanged, and ultimately help to fuel the change the group is seeking.4 Groups can get to know each other and make their assets more visible by activities like the ones Systems Change Coach Curtis Ogden describes in the blog, Network Development through Convening.
A clear and compelling collective purpose further bonds a group and can be revisited regularly to adapt to changing contexts. One way of arriving at a shared purpose is anchoring people in their own individual purposes first. Ask questions like:
- Why do you do the work you do?
- Why is it important for you to show up here today?
- Why is it important to the organization or group you represent that you are here today?
Seeing this collection can transition nicely into exploring:
- What might we be able to do together that we could not do separately?
- What does the system need from us today?
Tending to connections is often criticized for taking time away from the “real work.” An important mindset shift in this type of collaborative work is that this IS the work because it forms a connected base for action. Without it, nothing durable can sustain. As the authors point out in The Systems Work of Social Change, “All of the activities that go into creating a ‘we’ ultimately build an ‘action system’ which becomes the foundation for broader social change.”
“There’s a reason why folks vow to stick together for better or worse…relationships create resilience, transactions don’t.” – Edgar Villanueva, Decolonizing Wealth
Engaging in collective work to solve social problems requires commitment to the work, but also to interdependence within the group. This can be challenging for a variety of reasons. Organizational priorities compete for time, roles and accountability are not clear or well distributed, or disagreements and tensions rise.
People work most effectively in environments where group expectations are clear, and they feel psychologically safe. Once work begins to launch, tools like DARCI have helped many groups be clear about roles and responsibilities. Group Agreements can help clarify how members want to behave with each other. And, polarity management can help groups understand how to allow a group to hold the tension of two seemingly contradictory ideas and enable multiple truths to co-exist and co-influence.
Adrienne Maree Brown in Emergent Strategy describes that being interdependent takes practice and a commitment to be seen, be wrong, and ask for and receive the help we need. Rotary Charities Systems Change Community of Practice created a Habits of a Systemic Mindset tool that incorporates three key practices that cultivate interdependence:
- Share yourself with others - what you know and are learning, have, believe, and can do
- Count on others & commit to others, especially those you have no formal accountability relationship with (e.g. people from another organization)
- Let go of ownership, seek contribution over attribution
Regularly tending to the foundations of collective work has tremendous payoffs. It creates the conditions that allow us to see the present more clearly, envision a different future, and courageously begin to make different choices for ourselves, our organizations, and our communities so all can thrive.
You can begin applying these principles today, even if you are not currently involved in a collective effort.
- Explore your own personal purpose: why do you do the work you do?
- Ask who else cares about the issues you care about – reach out to them
- Actively connect (close triangles) among the people you know who don’t know each other yet.
Stay tuned! A new Rotary Charities workshop will focus on these topics in March 2022. Next month’s contribution will explore how groups can begin to see a problem more clearly and find new leverage points for change.
Freya Bradford is the Director of Systems Change and Learning at Rotary Charities of Traverse City. You can reach her at email@example.com
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- 26 - Empowering People to Become Citizen Scientists
- 13 - Reflections from Here: A Letter from Becky
- 12 - Honoring History, Revitalization of a Railroad Town
- 12 - Recovery to Resilience: Meeting Changing Needs
- 12 - Expanding Access to Healthy Food: A Changemaker+Funder Partnership to Shift a System
- 08 - Housing Solutions Not One Size Fits All