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 devote less time to it – more sporadically and perhaps with varying levels of commitment. we 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 it involves unlearning: doing things differently, and practicing new ways of being with each other.

what gets in the way of 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 from within marginalized groups
  • less gatekeeping of funds: innovation funds, shared gifting is a start. decolonial commons and cooperatives are closer to real, community control of resources. (also reparations!)
  • communities of practice to unlearn some ways of being and practice new ones – creating new cultures of interacting: specifically anti-racist, feminist, and otherwise undoing hierarchies while also being caring and supportive
  • 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 is 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, whatever else)
  • liberatory culture: all network members practice undoing oppressions; working across privileges
  • space 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
  • 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 does 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
  • 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 acts (ex. reaching out to people, connecting people, listening, skills exchanges,
  • self-organizing to co-design and implement network structures through circles (ex. innovation fund, equity funds, communities of practice),
  • self-organizing on the networks focal area (ex. food systems, water rights, economic justice),
  • processes such as reflection, sensemaking, and learning,
  • training and capacity building (ex. weaving, knowledge harvesting)

We can start to track these activities and show them back to the network to answer 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.

Technology as “tequio”

This post is a short summary of Yasnaya Elena Aguilar Gil’s essay “Una propuesta modesta para salvar al mundo,” translated into English as “A modest proposal to save the world.” (The original version is in Spanish.)

Adapting technology to suit a new context is not a new practice. However, adapting tech to support collective, rather than capitalist outcomes, may be able to help us move out of some of the pervasive problems inherent in development paradigms.

“Tequio has also become a strategy for meeting everyday needs. Just as the modern-day technology of free, open-source code has enabled collective progress in the digital sphere, the communal labor of tequio raises the possibility of resistance in Abya Yala — and survival of the world at large.”

Technologies have been adapted in Abya Yala, an indigenous name for what’s now called “Latin America,” to serve diverse needs like language preservation and distributed ownership of cellular phone/internet networks.

These needs are a response to colonization and capitalism. Many rural and/or indigenous populations have never been given access to these increasingly necessary forms of communication, so now they are reclaiming and grounding this tech in the own communities. More neutrally called “digital divides,” this unpoliticized and academic understanding points to inequitable gaps in access to and use of online spaces and tools. Aguilar Gil’s essay suggests that these gaps can be bridged by going back to roots of collective and cooperative practices embedded in many indigenous communities:

There is a serendipitous affinity between the logic of collective effort and free cooperation that defines open-source software like Linux and the philosophy of many indigenous communities who built structures to survive the harshness of colonial rule. Both rely on mutual support and small-scale, community-level labor linked into a circuit of larger tasks. Such tequio is an essential “social technology” common across Abya Yala.

This is a continuation of what we might call “self-organizing” – appropriating capitalist/colonial tools to suit decolonizing contexts. Although not necessarily designed as such, tech tools can be used to create spaces for collaboration, cooperation, and community. This happens through a reclaiming – a reclaiming of the intentions and goals from a capitalist, profit-centered model to one that benefits communities.