moving from ladders of engagement to self-organizing as decentralized leadership

Thanks to June Holley for thought partnership!

In campaign-based organizing, we tend to think of engaging people hierarchically: the goal is to move people up the ladder, progressively increasing their levels of engagement. Transplanting this to network organizing can give people a sense of “the network does all the things for network members,” where a few network facilitators become responsible for creating all engagement activities.

These practices shouldn’t be applied to networks. Why? Network members often experience shifts in capacity to engage in a way that is non-hierarchical. Because network participation often happens outside of the context of a job: we may devote less time to it – more sporadically and perhaps with varying levels of commitment. Network organizers should embrace these factors as part of how networks work, rather than trying to mash organizational thinking into network structures.

So, I’m starting to understand the idea of self-organizing as a decentralized, non-hierarchical version of engagement and leadership. We need to unlock this decentralization and move away from centralized levels of engagement. I say unlock because I think this involves a process of unlearning: doing things differently and practicing new ways of being with each other.

What prevents network members from self-organizing?

  • Not feeling autonomy: having experienced generations of marginalization, disinvestment, and maybe never having seen someone like them in positions of power
  • A narrow definition of leadership that privileges only a very specific type of person and way of interacting to be able to arrive to a position of power
    • A relationship to leadership that trains us to do what we’re told rather than to initiate
  • Resource dams and gatekeeping: only certain people have easy access to resources and/or resources are accessible but only after jumping through flaming hoops
  • Lacking a sense of belonging to the network: why should I contribute? What’s in it for me?
  • Culture – how we understand all of these things (autonomy, leadership, resources) is artificially narrow – we’ve become trained to understand them in certain ways and may have difficulty imagining that they could be different

How do we unlock decentralized engagement?

  • Popular education: training and capacity building for and from within marginalized groups (these can be groups that are literally on the margins of a network, and/or groups of people that have been pushed to the margins of dominant society)
  • Less gatekeeping of funds: innovation funds and shared gifting can be a way for funders and other gatekeepers to begin to practice letting go of control. Decolonial commons and cooperatives are closer to real, community control of resources. (Consider also: reparations!)
  • Communities of practice to unlearn some ways of being and practice new ones – creating new cultures of interacting: specifically anti-racist, feminist, decolonial, and otherwise undoing hierarchies while also being caring and supportive to hold space for change
  • Protocols and practices that break down how to do things – the steps to take to form a project – as an activity that regularly happens in a network
  • Measuring and creating intentional interventions around demographic shifts for who are in positions of power in a network
  • Collecting, sharing, and visualizing data that gives us a real-time picture of where we are in this shift
  • Using network weaving to help people find the “right” person/people to start a project with

Attributes of a network that support self-organizing:

  • Widespread desire and openness to collaborate: it feels easy to meet people who are interested in talking, sharing learning, open to new ideas
  • Self-authorization: you don’t feel like you have to ask for permission
  • Accessible resources (including funds, spaces for discussion, knowledge databases, mentors or coaches, whatever else)
  • Liberatory culture: all network members actively practice undoing oppressions; working across privileges
  • Spaces to learn in: you can see what others are doing, you feel like you can ask questions and get answers; you can see what others are learning
  • Culture of seeing “failures” as rich learning opportunities (plus a shift away from an attitude of seeing these projects as a waste of time/resources)
  • Understanding of how efforts connect to network goals/values/principles
  • Ease of finding the right people to collaborate with and learn from

How can we understand engagement as an ecosystem rather than a hierarchy?

  • Appreciate richness and diversity of engagement, instead of focusing on “how high up” someone gets
    • Should be activities at all levels all the time!
  • Think about *indicators* of engagement like the attributes above – how to create a healthy environment that supports engagement?
  • Culture shift (see “feelings” above)

What activities contribute to self-organizing? / What could a healthy self-organizing ecosystem look like?

I’ve written about flexible formations for networks – in how we can create spaces/containers within networks that allow for variations in size and frequency.

Perhaps a different way to look at it would be to map out outcomes of these containers:

  • Lots of network members meeting people that aren’t the right fit (might help them triangulate to learn who is a better fit, also works to build strength of weak ties which can lead to unexpected outcomes)
  • Some network members meeting people that are the right fit
  • Most people know what’s going on in the network (reading a newsletter, reading activity feeds)
  • Many “failed” experiments from which learnings are harvested:
    • Projects “fail” and that’s not hidden but rather seen as opportunity
    • People learn from other projects
  • Harvesting learning is a part of running a project
  • Many projects at all phases: seed, sprout, plant, fruit, compost
  • Understanding and measuring how projects contribute to systems impact/change and/or contribute to building new/alternative systems

As in any ecosystem, there are many kinds of activity happening at the same time:

  • Small transactions (ex. reaching out to people, connecting people, listening, skills exchanges, resource exchanges)
  • Self-organizing to co-design and implement network structures through circles (ex. innovation funds, equity funds, communities of practice)
  • Self-organizing projects happening in the network’s focal area (ex. food systems, water rights, economic justice, etc.)
  • Ongoing processes such as reflection, sensemaking, and learning
  • Training and capacity building (ex. network weaving, knowledge harvesting)

Network members can start to track these activities and share them back to the full network. Ideally this tracking happens in a way that supports network members to continue doing their work, while at the same time providing aggregated data so the full network can start answering the question: “what’s going on in the network?”

So…the goal shifts from getting to the top of a leadership/engagement ladder to participating in an active ecosystem of autonomous self-organizing, resource flows, and learning exchanges that contribute to the network’s bold systems-level vision.