A lot of work I am doing these days centres on supporting activists. Whether it is through the Art of Social Justice, the work of addressing addictions related stigma in the health system, running a pro-action Cafe for the BC Government Employees Union Human Rights and Equity Conference, changing the conversation about immigration in the United States I am surrounded by people both within and outside of systems and corporate structures that are engaged in changing things.
Over the course of the fall I’ve been thinking alot about what I have been learning about action from these folks. I think the model of activist organizing and activity is applicable widely, not just in the fields of social change but in all kinds of change where complexity and new forms of leadership are needed. When I say activism, I mean models of action that are characterized by people working from the power they have, forming alliances, opening up participatory processes and working skillfully within systems to change substance and process. So here are a few insights from travelling the world with people who make things happen.
Pay attention to the process. Ironically, people associate process conversations with a lack of action. But my experience is that that having a focus on process makes action precise, participatory and sustainable and increases the chance of success. Activists who are trying to change systems know that the process is the deep architecture of systems and where systems are stuck, it is because the process is enabling that stuck-ness. You can see this at play in the #Occupy movement worldwide where people are working to learn about and implement new forms of democratic engagement. Skillful focus on process is a way to move innovation forward. At Berkana we say “Slow down to go fast” and this is what that implies. Become skillful with means and radically different ends have a chance.
Look for leadership everywhere. In the social justice movement there is a saying: “check in and step out.” If you come to a change initiative with privilege (ie you have power within the system) the best thing you can do to enable change is to check in with your privilege and step out of the conversation to create space for new leaders and new forms of leadership to come forward. Asserting your privilege closes space down. Becoming an ally to change initiatives is a powerful and important way to support emerging solutions and to allow leadership to come from anywhere. People with power and privilege can open lots of space if we get real about how our power works.
Connect initiatives. Yesterday our addressing stigma initiative had their first champions meeting. Ten people came together and we discussed the 15 action initiatives that were underway. The most important work that we did yesterday was to connect these initiatives together and connect them to existing work within the system so that we could weave a net that lifts the issue through the system. The analogy is similar to weaving a blanket. With single strands you cannot lift anything, but woven together, the strands can form a blanket that can toss people to great heights!
Remember that complex problems require multiple solutions. Using the Cynefin framework for making decisions about process and action has been very useful. The reason is that when we are working in the complex domain, participatory leadership is important and that activist model works well. Creating multiple prototypes and “safe-fail probes” is a powerful way to precipitate change. Relying on analysis and expert leadership is an excellent way to move forward in complicated decision making frameworks. Within organizations, there is a strong bias to defaulting to analysis and expertise. Consultative models are used for complex problems which consult people for ideas, but retreat to expert groups to make decisions based on what they have heard. This is not an appropriate mechanism for addressing complexity. Within organizations, the activist approach can be powerful but it needs to be learned. Wouldn’t it be something for social activists to train people within organizational structures on ways of social innovation?
Become skillful at convening. For me this goes without saying, but Peter Block’s work around emphasizing the competency of convening is an important one. Peter’s redux of this leadership competency is useful here:
– Create a context that nurtures an alternative future, one based on gifts, generosity,accountability, and commitment.
– Initiate and convene conversations that shift people’s experience, which occurs throughthe way people are brought together and the nature of the questions used to engagethem.
– Listen and pay attention
I see these capacities being worked and developed among activists in deep and accelerated ways. When you are working for community change, there is often more at stake than working within organizational settings. Leadership in organizations, especially commercial organizations tends to focus on efficiency, production and increasing revenues. Within communities, change is often precipitated by the threat to lives or livelihoods, addressing violence or inequality and improving complex indicators of health and well-being. Those needs have a way of focusing activist on doing things well, and people who don’t work in this world would do well to learn from those that do. If you are concerned about action, study and learn from those who do it when lives are at stake.