Cultivating Resilience

Last week I was at an inspiring meeting in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  A dozen of us gathered from different parts of the US to continue an exploration of common ground.  There’s a confluence happening.  Especially over the last decade people have been working with different words to explore the same questions: How do we create healthy communities?  Communities where happiness is pursued, not  consumption.  Communities where people live with the graceful bounty of this planet rather than destroying it.  Communities where both excessive poverty and excessive wealth are outside community norms.

They’ve been called sustainable communities and thriving communities and resilient communities.  A whole Transition Towns movement has grown up to help communities see how to move from where they are now to where they want to be.  Just how similar are these different efforts?

Definitions

Many names are used to describe a similar possibility:

  • One Thriving Communities website asks:  How do you know a thriving community when you meet one?  Information and resources flow smoothly through the community from where these assets exists to where they can be best applied. The people within a thriving community feel cared for, acknowledged, and yearn to give back to their community as a whole as well as to the people within it. There is a sense that the community becomes greater than the sum of the parts. The community becomes resilient to shifting outside forces and responsive to the needs of its members. A thriving community does not become passive, instead it holds a balance of tension to uplift  the community as a whole.
  •  A website about Resilient Communities suggests Resilient communities are capable of bouncing back from adverse situations. They can do this by actively influencing and preparing for economic, social and environmental change. When times are bad they can call upon the myriad of resources that make them a healthy community. A high level of social capital means that they have access to good information and communication networks in times of difficulty, and can call upon a wide range of resources.
  • Bay Localize says that we inspire and support Bay Area residents in building equitable, resilient communities. We confront the challenges of climate instability, rising energy costs, and recession by boosting our region’s capacity to provide for everyone’s needs, sustainably and equitably. We achieve this by equipping local leaders with flexible tools, models, and policies that strengthen their communities. Why local? Why now? Humanity is at a turning point. We’re using so much of the Earth’s resources that we’re endangering the very life-support systems upon which we all depend. At the same time, too many people in our communities are going without the basics to lead healthy lives. The task of our generation is to learn to live happily on fewer resources, to distribute these resources equitably, and to make our communities resilient enough to withstand the bumps in the road along the way.
  • Transition US says that its movement  is comprised of vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. Transition Initiatives differentiate themselves from other sustainability and “environmental” groups by seeking to mitigate these converging global crises by engaging their communities in home-grown, citizen-led education, action, and multi-stakeholder planning to increase local self reliance and resilience.
  • Shuli Goodman, a friend and colleague of mine, gives a robust definition of the term sustainability, a term that has fallen out of favor in many places (who wants to just be sustainable?).  Shuli suggests sustainability is conceived of as a journey, perhaps even a hero’s journey, with the promise of transformation and redemption. It is not something we arrive at and then are done with . We cannot buy it or make it–it’s not a product. Rather than a destination, sustainability is an emergent process with multiple developmental stages leading towards respect and care–a practice of non-harm to our collective natural capital. Or, from a more positive perspective, sustainability is a journey towards personal and planetary health.

These movements use different language to talk about themselves, but listening beyond the words, they embrace  a resonant set of purposes supporting the creation of healthy communities.  What would become possible if we started to be able to see this as a meta-movement of transformation?

Resources

Already an amazing array of resources has been assembled to support people working in these domains.  Much of what each movement has done is still relatively invisible.  What would happen if their knowledge became a common resource?  Some of examples I’ve seen for the first time in the last week include:

✓        Transition US has a delightful Knowledge Hub, personally stewarded by people in the field, which provides access to a wide range of resources.

✓        The Post Carbon Institute has grown a set of resources at Energy Bulletin which will soon be part of the core materials for a  new website: http://www.resilience.org.

✓        Bioneers website hosts a body of resources gathered over the last 20 years from a wide range or areas and with the guidance and support of both participants and  presenters in their remarkable annual conferences.

✓        Bay Localize has, among other things, created a remarkable Community Resilience Tool Kit which provides access to an array of resources.

These are just a few examples, of course, of what’s already out there ready for wider use.  It’s pretty amazing when I stop to think about all this.  Many, many people have been working away, often quite quietly, to discover how to make a difference in their lives and local communities.  They’ve engaged in numerous experiments, sometimes succeeding and other times failing and always learning as fast as possible.  The resources available on these and other websites are the fruits of many years of many people’s labor.  It’s now time to move them out  into the world, going to a wider scale.

From Emergence to Transformational Change

There’s a new way of thinking about how change is created that is present in this work.  For the last decade at The Berkana Institute we worked with many communities around the world that shared some key principles and beliefs about change which apply here as well:

  • Every community is filled with leaders
  • Whatever the problem, community itself has the answers
  • We don’t have to wait for anyone. We have many resources with which to make things better now
  • We need a clear sense of direction AND we need to know the elegant, minimum next step
  • We proceed one step at a time, making the path by walking it
  • Local work evolves to create transformative social change when connected to similar work around the world

In other words, we do this work together.  Stepping forward, experimenting, learning, and finding that elegant minimum next step.  In past years, those of us concerned about these areas have been engaging in a variety of incremental change efforts.  It’s great work.  Individual people are improving their lives and finding more contentment.  But overall our directions continue to be unsustainable.  One of my questions is how does our important work, which has been guided by principles of emergence, actually lead to transformational change?  How do we increase the impact of our work?  Incremental change just isn’t good enough:  Disasters are happening and systems are collapsing because of the choices we as humans have made about how to live on the planet.  How do we transform?

I’ve been reading Shuli Goodman’s dissertation on Organizational and Community Transformations after a Catastrophic Event.  Her entire dissertation is a fine and promising piece of work.  Shuli has looked at the journey of  a number of US that have used disasters as a springboard for transformation.  Her dissertation also led me to a remarkable article by Connie Gersick from the early nineties:  Revolutionary Change Theories: A Multilevel Exploration of the Punctuated Equilibrium Paradigm.  The article uses the concept of punctuated equilibrium to distinguish between incremental change and transformative change.  I like the way Gersick distinguishes between incremental change and transformative change.  Incremental change, she says, is when we change the height of the hoops on the basketball court — the game is still basically the same.  Transformative change happens when we remove the hoops entirely — it is a whole new ball game.  Moving the hoops around isn’t enough.  We need a whole new plan for how we live on this small planet of ours.  I want to share a few excerpts from Gersick’s article:

Deep structures  persist and limit change during equilibrium periods, and it is what disassembles, reconfigures, and enforces wholesale transformation during revolutionary punctuations. And we, my friends are in a period of “revolutionary punctuations”

Gradualist paradigms imply that systems can “accept” virtually any change, any time, as long as it is small enough; big changes result from the insensible accumulation of small ones. In contrast, punctuated equilibrium suggests that, for most of systems’ histories, there are limits beyond which “change is actively prevented, rather than always potential but merely suppressed because no adaptive advantage would accrue.”  It appears that we’re now at one of those punctuated equilibrium points.  One of the ramifications of this is that the future — form, structure, relationships, content — does not exist and cannot be seen.  Our great challenge and opportunity is to work with it as it emerges.

This piece of research from the early nineties makes five key assertions based on comparative analysis based on analysis of change and transformation from seven different bodies of work on individuals, groups, organizations, scientific field, biological species and grand theories:

  • Systems evolve through the alternation of periods of equilibrium, in which persistent underlying structures permit only incremental change, and periods of revolution, in which these underlying structures are fundamentally altered.
  • Systems do not evolve through a gradual blending from one state to the next. Systems’ histories are unique. They do not necessarily evolve from lower to higher states, through universal hierarchies of stages, or toward pre-set ends.
  • Deep structure is a network of fundamental, interdependent “choices,” of the basic configuration into which a system’s units are organized, and the activities that maintain both this configuration and the system’s resource exchange with the environment. Deep structure in human systems is largely implicit.
  • During equilibrium periods, systems maintain and carry out the choices of their deep structure. Systems make adjustments that preserve the deep structure against internal and external perturbations, and move incrementally along paths built into the deep structure. Pursuit of stable deep structure choices may result in behavior that is turbulent on the surface.
  • Revolutions are relatively brief periods when a system’s deep structure comes apart, leaving it in disarray until the period ends, with the “choices” around which a new deep structure forms. Revolutionary outcomes, based on interactions of systems’ historical resources with current events, are not predictable: they may or may not leave a system better off. Revolutions vary in magnitude.

It seems to me that our work now is to consciously create a new set of deep structures which simply support better ways for all of us to live on this  planet of ours.

Collaboratory

Some of us think that it is time to become much more intentional about collaboration.   Numerous synchronicities and synergies are available when people passionate about building healthy communities embrace each other’s work.  Leaders of some of these efforts have started to come together in a new effort — a Thriving and Resilient Communities “Collaboratory” — to share ideas, build and strengthen relationships and to begin to co-create a broader impact – a system of influence.   The Threshold Foundation has provided some initial support for  the development of this Collaboratory, helping to bring  these different bodies of work closer together.

We’ve begun to take some initial steps:

  • We’re bringing people and organizations from these different efforts together to build relationships and to learn more about each other’s work. A limited number of face-to-face meetings, regular phone and Skype calls, sharing of ideas and documents in Google Docs, and beginning to build out of a project wiki are among the initial steps to understand each other’s work and strengthen relationships.
  • Scott Spann from Innate Strategies  will be helping to build relationships and to increase clarity across the network.  We’re hoping that Scott’s approach can help these separate efforts understand themselves as a meta-movement.  His work is powerful.  For example, Innate Strategies designed and launched the RE-AMP collaboration of 24 members from utilities, government, non-profits and foundations who wanted to increase renewable energy in the Midwest U.S. Levels of confidence and trust among the participants by clarifying each of their individual needs and strategies and integrating all 24 perspectives into a unified view of their system with a single, shared goal.
  • For more than 20 years, the annual Bioneers Conference has brought increasing numbers of people together to learn with each other about new ways of building enduring and healthy communities.  This fall’s conference will be preceded by a one-day intensive where we hope to draw together more than 400 practitioners working to create thriving/resilient/sustainable communities to learn with each other and to explore this larger movement.  This event will be one major attempt at further mapping this growing field of endeavor.
  • The Collaboratory is beginning to call together this wide field because we believe that as these connections and relationships are made, even more compassionate action will follow.  It is an exciting time.

Our overall intent in doing this is to Name, Connect, Nourish and Illuminate this field. Berkana also articulated this four step process — name trailblazing leaders and communities, connect them to one another, nourish them with relationships, learning, resources, and support, and illuminate their stories as important examples of the future taking place right now — as one way in which important work grows to larger scale.

At Berkana, we spoke of this as the work of developing systems of influence.  In this case, we’re working to manifest a meta-movement which is truly transformative. Watch for more news of the Collaboratory as our work unfolds.

A Last Note:  Dialog

I want to add one more thing, in conclusion, to this somewhat long blog.  We’re not just talking about structural and technical changes here.  The only way these changes will endure is if they grow from a strong field of relationships in which we learn to  be in community again.

I’m told that one of the biggest limitations in current community movements is not technical — it is relational.  People’s egos get in the way.  They find it impossible to hold the tension of differences.  They are unable to listen deeply for understanding rather than rushing to judgments.  When there is an overwhelming and obvious disaster, we can put those things aside and work together.  However, we’ve lost some of the relationship skills which make it possible to continue to do this week-in, week-out for the rest of our lives.

The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter movement, in the US and around the world, has been helping people learn how to reweave this relational field.  This is one of the essential capacities in building a transformational movement.

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Ordinary People

Pausing as I write the phrase, ordinary people….

What’s really true is that I am just blown away.  I’ve spent the last three days meeting people who are doing the work needed to stabilize and then re-create the Tohoku region of Japan that was ravaged by the triple disasters of March 11, 2011.

There are special names for these folks in Japan.  Some are called “U Turn:”  people raised in Tohoku who had moved away and have now returned.  Some are called “I Turn:” people who never had a connection with the region, but who have moved their lives to Tohoku.  Some are called volunteers:  people who have spent days, weeks and months living in the various volunteer centers doing whatever is needed.  And, of course, others are the people who have lived in Tohoku all their lives.  They arec sometimes are called victims or sufferers, but those terms turn them into applicants.  They are just people rebuilding their lives and their communities.

A year ago Suji Suzuki had no idea he would be living in Sendai.  He was happy in Tokyo, finding ways to use Appreciate Inquiry to change health systems in Spokane.  He did an I Turn and has now set up the Sanaburi Foundation to act as an intermediary foundation to create a bridge between people with resources outside Tohoku and those who need support within (see http://www.resilientjapan.org/content/id/c6c47e).  He came to the region back in April and just showed up for what needs to be done.  Gradually, as he worked alongside many other volunteers, he began to see this need for an intermediary function and he had some previous background doing foundation work so he stepped forward.  Each day he continues to find his way.  Brokering new partnerships and forming new relationships with others who are working to create a new Tohoku.

Watanabe-san worked for a firm in Tokyo that made log homes.  He did a U Turn to Tohoku after the disasters hit.  Now he is the volunteer coordinator for Minami-Sanriku-cho area where 7 communities with 2500 people were completely destroyed (see http://www.resilientjapan.org/content/id/41e63a).  He was born in Sendai and thinks that he will be in the region for a long time.  There was nothing in particular in his background which prepared him for the work he is doing now.  He just showed up and started to offer his talents. stepping forward to do what he could for people who needed his help.

I don’t have a picture of Chiba-san.  I was too blown away by his story to take one.  An older man with white hair.  So humble.  So unassuming.  He was born in the small village of Oosawa where all 188 homes were washed out to see.  He spent most of his life away, as a ship’s engineer and returned for retirement three years ago.  He’s been the servant leader of one temporary housing site where he’s managed to gather many member of the village together.  They’re organizing themselves to do all sorts of things because they already had relationship.  Although he waved his hands to reflect any praise, I have no doubt that most of what’s happened in the new Oosawa would have happened without him.

Or then there is Kawasaki-san from Shikoku. He showed up in Kesennuma in May to help.  He thinks he will be there for a long time, helping businesses and communities rebuild. In Rikuzentakada, I met with two met who had been friends for 35 years.  One is a former local politician and the other is the President of a large Driving School.  They are among the people who lived through the days of the disaster and who are now working together to build a new community which combines the strengths of traditional culture with new technologies.  (see http://www.resilientjapan.org/content/id/3114ad).

These and others I met are just a few of the ordinary heroes who are stepping forward because the times call them.  They each have a large portion of common sense, a lot of humility, a willingness to do whatever needs to be done and the courage to step into the unknown time and time again.

I feel honored to have met them and will look for ways to support their work.

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Profiles of Courage in Zimbabwe

More than a thousand years ago, they came from the north of Africa, leaving the violence and seeking peace.  They came and they settled in an area that became known as the Great Zimbabwe, a kingdom from 1200-1500 AD which is estimated to have had a population of more than 10,000 and famous, today, for its unique stone architecture.  Little is known about Great Zimbabwe.  There was no written tradition amongst the people who came to be known as the Shona.  Some speculate that perhaps somewhere, lost in the archives describing the travel of Arabic traders across the African continent, there might still be records and more information.

I’ve just finished a week at the Great Zimbabwe, in the company of a little more than 30 passionate, committed, insightful and experienced Zimbabweans who are the leaders of a number of nonprofit initiatives.  My colleagues Marianne Knuth and Simone Poutnik offered a four-day training in the Art of Participatory Leadership under the guidance of Sabi Consulting, which is the steward of a network of nonprofits called Profile. When I arrived in Zim a little more than a week ago, it just felt good to be home as the spring Jacaranda trees release the majesty of their purple blossoms against the African sky.  I realized that I’ve been to this country more than any other in the last decade, except my own.  Zimbabwe has been a great teacher for me.  It has shown how people can come together to develop resilience in times of collapse.

My mind makes up stories when I don’t know what to expect.  I try to stop it – but it has a will of its own.  I arrived not knowing what to expect of this week.  Will the political stasis of Zanu PF and MDC hold a grip over this training?  So many have fled from Zimbabwe in the last decade, who is left that will come to this training?  Will they be eager to engage and learn or will they be reserved and cautious?  Who will they be?  Especially given that my work these past two years has concentrated in Japan, will I be able to speak and host in this culture in a way that is useful?  What will happen?

I’m just humbled and amazed.  WOW.  What an incredible group of people.  Each day as I learned more of their stories and their work I just felt deep gratification.  They are the people who are tirelessly working with what they have to build resilient communities.  AND, much of their work is confined within somewhat traditional structures where hierarchy is the only organizing pattern and where the priorities of the donor dictate many of the parameters of their work.

It was a difficult and demanding week.  They came expecting to be trained in participatory leadership, and found themselves sitting in a circle.  Some of them arrived wanting to know our definitions and expecting us to be carefully articulating frameworks and theories.  Instead, we invited them into exploration and questions.  Some wanted us to give them answers – we said good questions are more important.

In the Art of Participatory Leadership, we believe that a participatory experience is the key component of the learning field.  By the end of the first day, some of the participants were asking is your only theory one of keeping us confused??

 As our time together continued, there were many times of push back:  people here learn by being instructed – they are not asked questions, they are told answers?  People want to be delegated clear tasks with clear performance measures.  We’re not all that free, ourselves, to ask questions:  our donors tell us what they want us to do and how to measure it or our funding will be revoked.  In Zimbabwe’s crises, too many of our staff are just here because they need a job – they are not that committed and some are not all that well educated.  What is motivation for participation when the Director is paid eight times as much as others on the staff?

But beneath these questions was a yearning, and a knowing.  Some of our language didn’t make all that much sense, but as we hung in there together, there started to be a listening beneath the words.  I think the participants were beginning to connect what we said was possible with their own sense of yearning.  And the listening wasn’t all one-sided:  I certainly came to understand more and more how thoughtful, careful and strategic people will need to be in implementing more participatory learning processes in organizations.

In many ways part of this is the continuing burden of colonialism where people here were told that their own indigenous knowing and their own ways of building and maintaining community were woefully inadequate.  The white experts from the north would organize things in a proper sort of way.  They brought with them burearcracy for organization and new ways to measure, control and account for progress. The colonialists also brought a view that the resources and bounty of the world were there for the use of the most intelligent and powerful.

These views have been super-imposed on top of indigenous knowing and don’t fit. But formal education in Zimbabwe is based on learning from someone who stands in front of a classroom and tells them day-after-day that the world is mechanical and predictable.  Someone has to be in charge and tell others what to do.  Policies and procedures will guide actions under which people will use the authority delegated to them by the person at the top to achieve pre-determined results.

We worked in this dance between the really old – indigenous knowing, the old – traditional leadership from the colonial and modern era, and the new – participatory leadership to co-discover what would serve Zimbabwe well, now.  Each offer insights into ways of seeing the world and ways of being in the world.  The chart I drew, above, is pretty dichotomous chart and can lead to either/or thinking.  That’s not really useful for many reasons.   What is useful, I believe, is seeing how participatory leadership can be brought in to organizations to open up new insights, new possibilities, and new patterns of accountable action.

Those who came are more than able to work together to create a new Zimbabwe.  They have the fire and the will.  I suspect that many from this past week will take some of our ideas, structures, processes and tools and begin to adapt them for use in their own organizations.  I hope they will continue to find ways to support each other in stepping into this area of practice.  I know they have dedicated their lives to their work.  And I know they have perseverance!

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Design of Four Days:   Day One; Day Two;Day Three; Day Four

Many thanks to Simone Poutnik for the photos and for the design day depictions!

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Resilient Japan

Hello friends, Right now my work has taken me to Japan — in a big way.  We’ve launched a new website:  www.resilientjapan.org as host for this work and the commentary I am writing from there.  I will be bringing some of this over into Resilient Communities, because it is the same work.  But right now […]

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One week in Japan

Mt. Fuji revealed itself today, for the first time since I’ve been in Kiyosato, a small town in the mountains a couple of hours south and west of Tokyo.  This silent sentinel is always on the rim, hosting Japan.  Often hidden by many layers of clouds, it is always there.  Sometimes just a glimmer… I […]

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Collaboration: Essential Ingredient for Resilience

A new insight emerged – as it usually does – in a conversation between friends. Bob has been a long time sparring partner for me and so when I was reflecting on a year’s project of co-creating and activating a new collaboration model within our Hub, it was Bob I turned to for his usual […]

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Quaking in Japan

My heart reaches out to Japan wondering what I can do to help.  How do I witness this disaster from a distance in a way that helps to restore community and build more resilience? Stay connected.  Stay connected.  Stay connected.  Those are the words that dance across my heartmind.  So I tweet and retweet.  I […]

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Unleashing Leadership and Inspiring Innovation and Creativity in Japan

atwork

Once again I am awake in the middle of the Japanese night.  Head and heart buzzing from yesterday’s work.  I was invited to join KDI — Knowledge Management Initiative in Tokyo for a afternoon workshop with participants in their new Future Center.  KDI was started 10 years ago to work with knowledge creation and realationships […]

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Open Spaces Project in Southern Africa

I’ve had the chance to come to Southern Africa a couple of times a year for the last decade to work with wonderful people.  My work has been as part of The Berkana Institute and our efforts to create the Berkana Exchange as a translocal network of people and places building healthy and resilient communities.  […]

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