Rhizome Assumptions and Outstanding/Guiding Questions

I just had a great conversation with June Holley (Network Weaver) and Emil Vincentz (Acter) about the Acter platform and how it might connect with Rhizome, the platform I’ve been working on.  One of the things that came of it is that I realized I haven’t written much about my assumptions yet that undergird the work I’ve been doing on Rhizome.  So, thanks to that convo, here are most of the assumptions I’ve been using.  I’d love to hear your thoughts – whether you agree or if you hold different assumptions.

Countless (hundreds of?) similar platforms have been created before and have failed: we must design in a different way.

  • They’ve failed because they:
    • are proprietary (not open source),
    • have heavy gate-keeping (usually include only one closed network),
    • are not based in co-design (do not question assumptions together),
    • overestimate the role of technology in solving the problem (over-focus on technology),
    • are not nimble enough to support learning given so many unanswered questions (over-invested in technology and therefore rigid),
    • do not consider questions of the cultural change called for by [systems change].
  • Therefore a better approach would be: open source, cross-network, co-designed, embedded in network activities, and promote distinct cultural rules:
    • Open source or developed more openly, not only represents alternative culture, but also promotes collaboration on the platform itself.
    • Cross-network: what is learned in one network can be applied to other networks – mutual benefit.
    • Co-designed: embrace with humility what we do not know yet.  Do not assume that technology will solve the problems of collaboration or of the lack of systems change, rather share and ask questions of actual users who are jointly moving toward self-organizing.
    • Embedded in network activities: technology is not separate from or prescriptive of how people should behave.  Rather than technology leading engagement, engagement leads technology.
    • Culture: see culture section for more details, but also that the technology should have these cultural rules embedded in its design.

The “non-technical” pieces of a platform are much more important than the technical, especially in this phase of learning together.  A shared technology platform can also be the platform for conversations about these activities – this may be the true promise of the tech/communications platform.

  • Non-technical pieces include culture, learning, governance, network engagement, self-organizing practices, systems transformation. 
  • This is really the bulk of the work – practicing these things together.  The promise of a cross-network platform which asks similar questions on these topics in a diverse set of networks lets us learn faster together.
  • We can apply co-design principles to those activities.  We can use a tech platform to spark conversations, especially when we are clear about how we see that the platform is lacking.

Cultivating a shared network culture is (may be?) necessary to *feel* like we’re moving together.

  • Culture is a broad container that includes, at least: our behaviors that create and sustain relationships, our visions and worldviews, how we talk about and understand issues, and our diverse contexts – across, past, present, and future. 
  • If we are not explicit about the cultures that we are creating, we will inevitably fall back into patterns from dominating, oppressive systems (white supremacy, cis- hetero- patriarchy, colonial mentalities, etc.)
  • We should seek to be explicit about our shared assumptions: of how we want to be in relationship with each other, about where we disagree, where we’re still learning, and about where we are moving together.  If we are not explicit about these things, we may be acting together based on assumptions that are incorrect.
  • How do we feel that we’re moving together, that we’re on the same page, that we’re wanting to move toward a shared horizon/vision?
  • Part of this is being clear about what we don’t want.  We don’t want white supremacy culture to govern our groups – so we learn about what that means and practice ways to interrupt it when it inevitably shows up.  We don’t blame each other for having internalized these ways of being, rather, we see them as something we’re all learning to move out of. 
  • We also don’t want to continue to perpetuate siloed, competitive, and organizational-centered thinking/being.  So: we share what we’re working on freely when there is trust, we seek to re-integrate, re-connect, and look for synergies across perceived silos.
  • Other cultural aspects that might be worth questioning in this work:
    • How do we understand scale?  Movement Generation’s “translocal autonomous organizing”
    • See below, but what is our relationship to dominating systems?
    • What do we hide and what do we share?  Do we hide our failures?  Do we hide how money is allocated?  Are we ok with these things?
    • How do we understand our individual actions in relation to the systems change we seek?  Do we act in a way that suggests “we are the change we want to see?”

Within many networks, our theory of change in relation to systems is foggy at best.  Similarly, self-organizing has not been practiced in a way that has led it to become natural to us or embodied.

  • Some networks are more explicitly “transformative.”  Leadership I’ve seen in relation to systems comes from:
    • Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s Block, Build, Be
    • Movement Generation’s making alternatives so irresistable idea
    • Gender non-conforming and trans- individuals: @alokvmenon, @thejefferymarsh
    • Black and Afro futurism
    • Indigenous land back efforts, movement, and visioning
  • Most of these are acting outside of dominant systems (capitalism, gender binary, colonialism, racism), which is to say they do not follow the same rules that govern the dominant system, and from within it may be illegible.  The people who are least likely to reify dominant systems are those most marginalized “within” those systems.  (“Within” is in quotes because it is likely that the dominating system wants to include these people, but these people do not necessarily want to be included; they may see themselves in other systems.)
  • It is a major barrier that we have not gotten more explicit about our relationship to the system within network weaving work.  Do we want to change it, shift it, destroy it?  Do we want to create a new system that could serve some similar purposes?  Do we want to help articulate and support efforts that are already happening in parallel to the existing system?
  • Further, most of us are unclear what the practice(s) of self-organizing is/are.  Though we may see it as aspirational, we are still fumbling with how to do it, and we aren’t necessarily learning together from our experiments.

Trust is only required as an entry point for certain types of relationships – or, we overestimate the role of person-to-person trust in seeding relationships.

  • For more transactional relationships, trust is less needed than, for example, beginning a long-term collaboration.
  • Part of how we understand trust is through understanding the relationship someone we trust has with someone else.  “Strength of weak ties” theory.
  • Perhaps, there is a person-to-network contextual kind of trust that can serve as fertile ground for new relationships. Think about networking at a conference: we know we’re both interested in the same topic and even though I don’t know you, there is trust because of our shared presence.
  • Or alternatively, we could trust the process. I wrote a blog post in 2016 justifying this in the context of next economy work. That context – one that includes a lot of unknowns and a lot of places where we know we want to move away from – is a good place to try out focusing on a shared process as we transition.

Network maps are most useful for a specific type of user.  Other ways to understand the ecosystem (“see the network”) are needed for other user roles.

  • I propose 3 user roles: network strategist, network weaver, and network member.  One person may play multiple roles.  Network maps are most useful to the first two roles and may be a distraction to the third.
  • Network maps can support an evaluation-based understanding of the network, often held by funders and other people in the role of holding a strategic vision of the network.
  • Network maps can support network weaving.  (Read June’s book.)
  • The majority of network members are looking for specific things (a person with a specific skillset, a particular resource, an organization located in a certain city).  Because of this, network maps are often overkill, providing way too much information and in a way that is not easily digestible or actionable.
    • Furthermore, an outstanding question is: how these types of network members want to understand what’s happening in the ecosystem/network, or, what alternatives to network maps exist that can help us see the network as a whole?
      • Is it like a Twitter feed with trending topics?  Is it a huge dashboard of all activities, in long-form like we often see in Slack?  Or receiving less frequent email-based curated newsletter with network-wide updates?  How do we not inundate people with a fire-hose of information but rather offer them what they’re most likely looking for: do we rely on an algorithm for this, and/or do we make it possible for them to do targeted searches?
  • A major design assumption is to consider these 3 roles as based on the same dataset but looking at it from different perspectives: whole-network maps, sub-group network map (ex. based on an interest, a geographic location), a directory with search capability.

Governance and learning require transparency for networks to thrive.

  • Integrating these two aspects alongside with other network activities challenge dominant narratives of privileged government and hiding failures.
  • Shared governance is being practiced through many emerging forms: civic governance, new forms of democracy, consent-based decision making, advice based/circles/sociocracy, etc.  We are learning about sharing decision-making roles and making decisions more accessible to more people.
  • As we learn about the possibilities represented by networks for the creation of new systems, sharing what questions we’re asking, what we’re learning, what we’ve tried and failed, etc. is important for us to iterate faster.  Dominant narratives of success and perfectionism can be major barriers to communicating about these things, as well as how these dynamics have been connected to receiving (more) funding.
  • Both governance and learning happen in networks, however, if they happen in secret, they can be susceptible to old forms – governance happening behind closed doors and not representing the full network, learning in a way that showcases outcome and not process, hiding what’s seen as failures.

A Small Needful Fact (Ross Gay)

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

Ross Gay

Remixing as colonial practice

i’ve been attending Writers’ Hour almost every morning since mid-November. it is a supportive space to come to weekday mornings to “either do nothing or write. ” having this group and routine has encouraged me to have discipline around writing like never before in my life and has helped me write more than 100,000 words toward a book i’m working on. every morning, the hosts share an inspirational quote. generally they’re by other authors encouraging us to bloom into our writing and are a little snack to get us going. however, today’s quote landed differently for me: today’s “words of wisdom” came from james clear, author of a new york times bestseller, and i’ll share my responses.

“Italy is known for tomatoes. Thailand for chilies. Germany for sauerkraut.

But tomatoes originated in Peru. Thailand imported chilies from Central America. Sauerkraut started in China.

Everything is a remix—and the world is better for it. Share what you know. Learn from others.” – James Clear, as shared in Writers’ Hour, Apr 26, 2021

THIS SHIT PISSES ME OFF. how a lie can pass as truth. how these seemingly innocent, *white* lies serve to manipulate and eventually serve a violent, extractive, historically inaccurate status quo. anger bubbles from my chest through my throat and is transformed into rapid keystrokes.

first, tomatoes are from mexico. which is to say that indigenous people here on the land currently known as mexico cultivated an intentional, multi-generational relationship with this plant in these soils to produce what is now known as jitomate or tomato. these relationships are not ignorable or irrelevant. the existence of italian tomato sauce is due to thousands of years of human relationship with this plant — but not any humans, and not in any place. indigeneity matters. roots matter. that this work was done in a specific place by specific people matters. and to ignore that is to ignore the sacred, to ignore history, to erase relationship.

second, the reason these fruits arrived to italy was through a process of intended (and failed) genocide, a process that killed millions of people and affects their surviving descendants to this day. this pomodoro pasta dish is not free of its heritage of violence, rape, destruction, desecration. let us not forget that christopher colombus, one of the first people to set foot upon this land as a colonizer, was of italian descent. that next to his tomb in sevilla, spain, there is still a “treasure room,” full of stolen gold, locked away within the walls of the church.

finally, the construction of this lie is not only of direct and convenient benefit to its author (a man who gains his wealth from writing), but also serves to further justify appropriation en masse. appropriation, as i’ve come to understand it, is a cutting off from the roots. yoga practiced as exercise, a series of stretches completely disconnected from a deep spiritual tradition. indigenous community-made textiles stolen and sold to be marketed as fashion. your remixing is not inherently innocent, nor necessarily of benefit to the world. some remixings perpetuate harms that began on this landmass currently known as “america” (also an italian namesake) 500 years ago.

as a writer (and as a human), i am angry that “truth” seems to not mean anything anymore. that a few select people have been granted power by a fictional worldview and thus can proclaim lies as truth. some of these lies-masquerading-as-truths are deadly. that “truth” that indigenous people no longer exist supports continued exploitation of land and labor to fuel an ongoing colonial process of development. that “truth” that Black people are a threat maintains a population captive for 500 years, under penalty of death by simply driving, walking, even while sleeping.

so no, james clear, i will not remix. i will not mix and match where it serves me in convenience. i understand the power i have been granted by these oppressive systems that would allow me to cut the fruit from its root and i reject that power. instead, we must seek another way. we must seek a truth with roots. we must seek to return to our own roots and tend to them.

Network Mindsets Posters

With my colleague Odin Zackman, we created a set of mindsets and practices to help guide network weavers.  Check out the beautiful, ecologically-grounded posters below.  Feel free to use and share them, and let us know how it goes!

Click here to download a zip file (15 mb) of these images at high resolution or a pdf (2 mb) that contains them.

Click any image to see a high resolution version.

Capacity and Networks

Synthesis thoughts + provoking questions

Many of us within the nonprofit sector talk about capacity every day or at least once a week.  It’s a pressing need that never quite gets fulfilled.  However, we may not have a very well-defined concept of what capacity actually means for our organization, let alone how to “build” it.  Even worse, when we talk about the connection between networks and organizations, there may be some embedded assumptions about directionality.  For example, we might assume that an organization needs to be strong in certain ways (like have a paid executive director) in order to participate in the network.  But it might be the other way around: participating first in the network even with a volunteer director could help that organization build its capacities by connecting to resources, experiences, culture/expectations, etc. within a rich network.  Some of the following articles are thought provoking, some of them help with definition, but for all of them, I suggest holding some of the following questions in your mind as you read.

Questions to keep in mind while reading:

  • What is capacity?  How do we define it within our organization, our network(s)?
  • What is the relationship between organizational capacity and network capacity?
  • How do organizations and networks build capacity differently?  How do these processes interact?
  • How is capacity connected to impact (fulfilling the organizations’ mission)?

Toolkit: A Network Approach to Capacity Building (Council of Nonprofits, 2015)


  • There’s no consensus on definition of capacity building. However, “across all definitions the ultimate goal is to improve overall organizational effectiveness and sustainability.”
  • Collaboration helps according to GEO, “close the gap between pretty good performance and full potential.”
  • Doing capacity building in a networked way can help to prioritize specific capacities within an organization
  • Capacity building should be collective – creates opportunities for efficiencies of scale (See GEO report)
  • Technology is key for sharing learning across a diffuse network
  • “A growing body of literature suggests that when nonprofits employ a network approach to capacity building, they generate impact “at a scale exponentially greater than the sum of their individual parts” (Wei-Skillern, Silver & Heitz, 2014).”

Academic Article: Building Local Infrastructure for Community Adoption of Science-Based Prevention: The Role of Coalition Functioning (Prevention Science, 2015)


  • The research found no connection between coalition function and impact, but rather, found a relationship between coalition functioning + coalition capacities to enable impact.
  • “These results lend support to the importance of promoting the goal directedness, efficiency, participatory orientation, and cohesion of coalitions, but may also suggest that such efforts are only likely to lead to coalition achievements when they are leveraged to build member skills and external linkages to diverse community sectors.”

Briefing Paper: Capacity Building 3.0 (The TCC Group; no date, more recent than 2013)


  • The practice of capacity building has changed – specifically related to impact investing and scaling – however our understanding of the term has not kept up
  • Need to distinguish between capacity and capacity building
  • Capacity describes the skills and ability to make and execute decisions in a manner that achieves effective and efficient results. Capacity building is the process of developing those skills and ability.”
  • “We must acknowledge that, at their core, conversations about capacity are inherently infused with value judgments.”
  • Capacity building 3.0 as actualization, realizing relationships, seeing oneself within context/ecosystem; build org capacity as well as ecosystem capacity
  • “Organizations must ask, “What is our capacity to play an effective ecosystem framed role?””
  • CB3.0 isn’t encouraged through consulting or trainings.  Need “targeted performance optimization”, includes change management support, tracking CB progress
  • “They will recognize how status quo structures, cultures, and practices can impede the success of capacity-building efforts”

Academic article: Exploring relationships among organizational capacity, collaboration, and network change (Psychosocial Intervention, 2015)


  • Relationships between effectiveness and learning capacity, centrality and connectedness in the network
  • The central, core group of high capacity organizations isn’t the only way to affect impact; learning organizations can be on periphery and not well connected to each other
  • There’s a tension between trust/interdependence and resulting lack of adaptability; being deeply embedded in a network can work against the network’s adaptability
  • Out-degree associated with organizational effectiveness, not in-degree; relationship between investment in existing collaborative relationships
  • No correlation between organizational learning and network measures; effectiveness and learning highly correlated – not sure which direction

Academic Research Project: Nonprofit Capacity Instrument (Network for Nonprofit and Social Impact, 2017)


  • “Over a five-year process, researchers tested these questions – in four different languages – on hundreds of nonprofit organizations around the world to develop a survey that would be useful regardless of nonprofit mission, size, age, or location.
  • After analyzing results from around the world, we find that what is commonly referred to as “nonprofit capacity” should actually be thought of as “capacities.” Our statistical analysis suggested that nonprofit organizations might instead think in terms of eight capacities: financial management, adaptive capacity, strategic planning, external communication, board leadership, operational capacity, mission orientation, and staff management.
  • More information: https://nnsi.northwestern.edu/ 

Article: Investing in Networks Grows Impact (Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2015)


  • Analysis of Garfield Foundation + RE-AMP after 10 years
  • RE-AMP: 160+ orgs, 8 midwest states

Flexible formations for networks

Thinking about co-design embedded within a network presents additional challenges. Ideally a design team creates many spaces to engage in co-design – both online and in-person – that allow for maximum input and creativity as well as respond to shifting levels of availability/capacity to participate. What follows is a brainstorm I did with my sister Licia of the list of formations (groups within a network) that enable this. Furthermore, these formations can be organized from a central group, like a design team, or self-organized as they emerge from network members.

Advisory group
Small group that lasts for the length of the project to advise and provide context for the design work; similar to design team but broader
One person does a one-on-one, then takes on work to do other one-on-ones, or takes information to broader group; “train-the-trainer” might fit here
Large group comes together with potential breakout groups, usually in-person
Design team
An ad hoc group that meets throughout the duration of the project (or sub-scope within it) to provide planning insight
Innovation fund
Selected group of projects that are funded for specific outcomes
A conversation between two people
Ongoing focus group
A representatively diverse group of people assembled to participate in a guided discussion about a particular product before it is launched, or to provide ongoing feedback on a political campaign, television series, etc.
Outreach team
Spreads the word about design process and reflections to rest of network
Pop-up focus group
A representative group of people that meets once to provide structured feedback on a specific topic
Seek external expert
Someone reaches out of core network for advice or thought leadership
Small group experiment
An ad hoc group that meets to engage with and provide feedback on a project, product, or part of it
Structured interview
A one-on-one with very specific outcomes
An online lecture with potential Q+A
Working group
Small group of people who meet regularly with specific outcomes in mind; could be called a committee.

Land as Investment

This post was originally written while I was part of Regenerative Finance.

Take-away points

  • Remember to broaden frame of investment/wealth beyond cash assets
    • SRI and impact investing will tend to focus on cash.  Continuing to ignore other types of assets is colonial.
  • Investment in land seen as “safe.”
    • Doesn’t depreciate, doesn’t require maintenance, tangible asset
  • Investing in land is reliant on historical and continued genocide, forced assimilation, colonization.

Commodification of nature

Capitalism rooted in colonialism erases or downplays the importance of land and “natural resources” as foundational to growth.  One of the major ways to turn land into a natural resource is called commodification — or the process of turning something into a commodity by converting it from its original form to a value that can be measured in dollars.

Take a tree for example, a complex living being that can do many amazing things: turn what we breathe out into oxygen; produce a huge variety of delicious tasting fruits, nuts, syrup, and berries; provide a home for birds, mammals, and other animals; can induce a sense of awe in us if we pay attention (see: redwoods, live oaks in the south of the U.S., bristlecone pines that are 5,000 years old); I could go on.  In his book Cradle to Cradle, architect William McDonough illustrates this point too:

“Imagine this design assignment: design something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates microclimates, changes colors with the seasons, and self-replicates.

Why don’t we knock that down and write on it?”

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that trees are – for a variety of reasons – magical.

Capitalism takes these magical beings and turns them into something that can be traded on a market – paper, lumber.  Occasionally, economics can understand “environmental services” – more of the things that McDonough was getting at – the valuing of sequestering carbon, and then complicate the tree’s value, as well as make a stronger economic argument to keep it alive and healthy.

By the way, this is all reliant on a lot of separations within nature.  Trees are separate from birds that live in them, separate from the soil and water and fungal networks that nourish them.  We are separate from them.

So…commodification turns parts of nature into things that can be traded on markets, and made money from the sale of, based on an agreed upon value.  “Raw materials.”

This relies on separating us from nature, from our other ways of relating, and the interrelatedness of its parts.

Other related ideas include water investment and privatization, carbon trading and treating land itself as property.

If you’re interested in any of these things, I highly recommend watch Tom B.K. Goldtooth’s video on Youtube:

History of the land under the United States

United States history is different than the history of the land that the U.S. currently occupies.  Who was here before the “start”?  How is their deep history erased by current narratives that start history at 1776?  How does our understanding of the U.S. as one nation erase the hundreds of other sovereign nations that also currently inhabit this land?

Here’s a quick timeline to illustrate the 1.5% of history since European settlement of the land as contrasted with a conservative under-estimate of total human habitation of the land, 20,000 years ago. It also includes what our current timeline calls “0.”

“Counter to the western stories that we’ve been here 12,000 years, we’ve been here over 60,000 years, likely over 100,000 years, and there is a great deal of evidence to support that,” says Paulette Steeves, director of the Native American Studies program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

A more complicated understanding of history that many of us did not receive in school is necessary to understand the depth of relationship that indigenous people have had and many continue to have with this land currently called the United States for thousands of years.  In contrast, the colonized period of this land is relatively small, a few percent of total peopled time.

Land as Investment

Investing isn’t just about money.  All capitalism relies on commodification of nature and land and the genocide required to do those things as well as direct investment in land.

Wealth redistribution tends to focus on dollars and donation of money.

International land grabs are kind of a big deal too.  The Oakland Institute has some great resources on that topic.

It’s imperative that our interpretation of investment be broadened to also encompass land.  Investment in land doesn’t have to look like owning a real estate property, there are lots of ways to invest.  And certainly all of capitalism happens on land anyway.

The process of commodification – turning trees into paper, into an abstract commodity that can be bought and sold – is the process of disconnecting ourselves from place, of literally uprooting ourselves and nature and abstracting it into something else.  In its very nature, this is colonial — it is void of a sense of place, a sense of context, history, and connection.

There’s a strong connection to present-day gentrification and displacement – these are not new concepts.  This is also super connected to the gentrification that’s happening around the country (and many parts of the world) as people move around.  The idea that people are movable, easily displaced, that a value connected to a place will drive people out of being able to live there — rooted in racialized colonialism.

Land Reparations

Land is not arbitrary.  Things like “equal redistribution of land” or “land as commons”  are colonial concepts that continue to erase deep relationships of indigenous people to *specific* places.

For a really basic idea of what I mean here, think about a place you call home.  About how it smells, about the plants that live there and how they change over the course of a year.  About all the people you are connected to in that place.  That place can’t be anywhere, it’s a specific place to you with many histories.  Multiply that by 20,000 years and then it might be similar to indigeneity.

One example of a land reparations project I’m familiar with locally is an indigenous women led project called the Sogorea Te Land Trust. It asks settlers on Chocheño Ohlone land to pay a “tax” to fund the purchase of land to be stewarded and used in ceremonial practices.  There are several other indigenous led land trusts around the country.

Finally on a related note, it can’t be left unsaid that this country’s histories of slavery and (forced) immigration complicates our relationship to land in the present.  (For more on this, see my summary of an academic paper called Decolonization is not a Metaphor.)

I’m going to leave you here with a few resources, some questions to consider, and let you know some of the questions we’re currently holding as Regenerative Finance.  Want to be in conversation with us?? Far out!  Drop us a line.

Some Resources

Questions to consider

  • Do you have investments in land? What does that look like? REITS, a home you live in, homes you don’t live in, relationships to real estate developers, buildings, infrastructure, …?
  • Do you have investments that are involved in the commodification of land?
  • Whose land are your investments on or in? What’s your relationship to those people? What’s your current relationship and ideal relationship?
  • What has your family’s historical relationship to land been?
  • All of our wealth was extracted from land, what were the steps in that process, and how does that feel? What are you going to do about it?

Questions we’re dealing with as Regen

  • How does land fit into regenerative investing?
  • If a project we work with is not indigenous-led, what would it need to do to be decolonized?
  • Given that so much wealth is accumulated through direct investment in land, what are we doing about that?
  • How do we take this message as settlers to other settlers?  How do we continue to bring this topic up in the impact investing scene?

On words: “inclusion”

A few days ago, I posted an idea on Facebook that I’ve been toying with. I felt it was a bold statement that spoke about power in a way that isn’t often talked about and about a word I hear frequently. Here’s the post:

The post garnered more traction than most of the thoughts, photos, videos, and shares I usually put up.

Two people asked a question kinda like this: if this isn’t the right word, what is something like this that we can do to achieve a similar purpose?

I hear that. There’s an underlying theme in inclusivity that I can get behind in the context of histories of marginalization: making sure more people are being heard. Recognizing this is based on: 1) an acknowledgement that the people in the room don’t represent the broader group and 2) a determination that this should be the case. Not only are two heads better than one, but more difference at the table can bring about different relationships to problems, solutions, and systems.

On the other hand, inclusivity presupposes that the existing set-up is completely fine and the only issue is that certain people either aren’t aware of the metaphorical table, aren’t educated enough about it, or for some other reason can’t make it. This assumption erases oppression and power.

By framing the question as [ why aren’t certain people here? ] rather than [ is there something about our underlying structure/dynamic/agenda/leadership that turns certain people off? ] locates the problem and thus the solution in totally different places.

The following 2 women of color have also blogged about the word in ways I’ve found useful in developing my thinking around it. I’ve culled some of the key quotes.

I first turn to a piece provocatively titled “How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion” by Kẏra, a Chinese-Amerikan trans woman working to create space for radical racial justice through technology where progress has been limited to liberal white feminism.

She writes,

“Inclusivity” and “exclusivity” are politically meaningless without context and divert attention away from specific power dynamics. In common use, they are assigned inherently positive and negative values without specifying who is being included or excluded.

So why do so many people seeking racial justice, female empowerment, and queer liberation still choose to advocate for “diversity” and “inclusion”? They appeal to liberalism. They prevent oppression from being named. They prevent us from speaking truth to power. They make progress sound friendly to those in power.

The only way to prevent that is to name oppression for what it is; to speak truth to power. If a group is dominated by whites, men, and other privileged classes, don’t let that be reduced to a diversity issue.

When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we necessarily position marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination.

As a web developer / techie / nerd myself, I’ve frequently found myself in spaces dominated by nerdy, white, cis-, straight men. Possibly because of this, becoming acutely aware of who is in the room, who is taking up space, and who isn’t is something I do by default. In response to Kyra’s point of not “reducing it to a diversity issue,” there are very well known and documented reasons that women aren’t equally represented in technology. To say that the conference organizer (for example) just didn’t know enough women, or the women were busy, etc, fails to recognize systemic ways in which women have been excluded from tech, forced out of it, harassed while persevering in it. (Perhaps that’s why more women are freelancing.)

Next, let’s hear from Virgie Tovar, MA is an author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. Here’s what she says on her blog about inclusion:

The word “inclusion” is a buzzword in political organizing that typically indicates some vague understanding that something just isn’t right here. The idea of inclusion is typically thought of as an innocuous way of discussing the perceived lack of meaningful engagement by people who are experiencing the greatest impact of the political issue at hand. But I don’t think it’s an innocuous idea. I think there’s a lot embedded in that word, and so I wanted to give you three reasons to rethink the idea of inclusion.

Here are snippets of Virgie’s reasons:

  1. First, embedded within the idea of “inclusion” is a kind of white supremacist/heteropatriarchal/thincentric/ableist framework or epistemology – the presumption that thin people need to create space for fat people […]”
  2. Second, any movement that engages heavily with reinscribing dominant aesthetics – or respectability politics – is not going to be of interest to marginalized folks who see that dominant aesthetic as problematic and violent.”
  3. Finally, and – in my opinion – most importantly, is that the word “inclusion” presumes the maintenance of that movement’s current leadership with the understanding that these “included” people will become absorbed into that movement without any radical rehaul of its current hierarchy.”

At the end of her post, she poses 2 amazing questions for people who see inclusion as a need:

1. What do the people who see inclusion need or want from the inclusion of people who are not well-represented? I think this is an incredibly important question for organizers to ask themselves. We all kind of know that a lack of poc or big bodies or trans folks is an indication of a failure, but do organizers desire their inclusion simply as evidence that they are not failing or is there some greater desire to be in service to people who are experiencing the greatest impacts of marginalization?
2. Is the individual or group who is seeking “inclusion” ready to change up the agenda, the political tools they use, or the hierarchy of leadership?

So. What do you think – is inclusion a word you use frequently and a process you undertake? Or do you think it reeks of a liberalism that seeks to maintain existing power structures?

Here is a cat-related meme to get you started:

Network Mapping and Power

To the extent we are concerned about ushering in a future that looks different than today, we must not only understand how power operates, but seek to shift and democratize it. (I’m using this handout from powercube.net to ground my understanding of power.)

Network mapping inherently illuminates power.

Network mapping and/or analysis inherently seeks to bring to light several kinds of power. Here are several ways it can include power:

  • Demonstrates where capacity and resources exist in a group of entities
  • Visualizes previously invisible patterns, structures, and dynamics that existed but of which we were unaware
  • Elucidates relationships and pathways for exchange; help understand how things flow through a set of entities (and where they don’t flow)
  • Surfaces gaps like who’s not being represented by providing an overview of a set of entities
  • Supports an understanding of these things as they change over time so we can reflect transparently (rather than anecdotally) on improvements or regression

Network mapping is different and broader than power mapping.

My understanding of network mapping differs from power mapping (for example, see MoveOn’s Community Power Map Guide) in a few ways:

grid from Danielle.
MoveOn’s power grid
  • It’s not necessarily about a campaign victory; network mapping can address power over the long-term in heterogeneous communities
  • Doesn’t have one/few explicit target(s); rather, takes a broad approach to understanding power dynamics within a larger group of entities
  • Network mapping is broader than only looking at power. Taking an example of clustering for power mapping from MoveOn’s page, we can think of several other useful ways of understanding a network, and view those side by side.

Network map credit: Valdis Krebs, copyright 2013 from http://orgnet.com/contagion.html.