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A New Year, a New Perspective: Thinking Like a Network

By Jamie Bain, Extension Educator — Health and Nutrition

I feel a sense of urgency for the work we in Family Development engage in. Minnesota in particular is in the national spotlight for our problems with disparities in health and wealth. Research, research, and more research shows how we are a state of beauty and plenty, but only for those of us who live in certain zip codes, have certain backgrounds, and enjoy certain privileges. Until all Minnesotans share equally in health and wealth, those of us on the comfortable side of Minnesota’s many gaps cannot rest.

And we cannot work alone. As the problems in our society become more complex and “wicked,” I believe it is important to embrace a network mindset in our work of closing disparities.

Curtis Ogden, a senior associate of the Interaction Institute for Social Change, lays out six core tenets of creating a network mindset in his blog post Thinking Like a Network. These tenets have guided the work of myself and fellow “network nerds” for years, and I’d like to share them with you. Throughout this post, I also ask you to consider some critical questions and make some important commitments for our common work in Family Development as we enter into a new year.

Natural Flow and Organic Progression

The first of the six core tenets in the philosophy of “Thinking Like a Network” is adaptability instead of control. To me, this can be the hardest of the six tenets because this means that in order to do our work effectively we need to surrender control to a certain degree. We can plan everything to the last detail and still something is inevitably going to happen that we don’t expect. So, if we work to let go of the illusion that we have control over everything, it could allow us to free up that part of our minds that is trying to control things, and potentially open up our capacity for greater creativity.

In 2017, I want us to consider this question: How can we let go and allow for the natural flow and organic progression of the work to take over?

Amplifying Voices

The second core tenet is contribution before credentials. We know in our hearts through the connections we make in the community that everyone has their own inner brilliance, regardless of their credentials. Like America Bracho, M.D., taught us at the Qualey-Skjervold Conference last summer, this means respecting, valuing, and engaging all voices in our work. Even more so, this means that the people with credentials and privilege have a responsibility to create space to allow for those without credentials to let their brilliance shine.

In 2017, I ask all of us to think about whose voices we value in this work and why. What voices aren’t being valued or are being forgotten altogether? How can we help amplify them?

Resiliency and Redundancy in Connections and Functions

The next core tenet is resilience and redundancy instead of rock stardom. We’ve all seen it happen: a small nonprofit organization starts with a dynamic, energetic, and visionary leader and the organization does amazing work in the community. But as soon as that leader retires or moves on, the organization falls flat, struggles to survive, and sometimes even fades away. So how can that organization stay afloat and even thrive without the dynamic and visionary leader it started with? The article The Networked Nonprofit from the Stanford Social Innovation Review has an answer for us. Given the complexity and wickedness of the problems we currently face, organizations must cultivate deep and meaningful relationships with others in order to accomplish their mission and vision.

In 2017, I implore us all to take a critical look at the extent to which our work is networked. If you were to take a new job, retire, or win the lottery tomorrow, how would your work continue? Is there resiliency in your connections and redundancy in the functions of what you do so that your work would live on even without you? If not, how are you building connections so that your work can continue and thrive when you are no longer leading?

'Nothing about us, without us, is for us'

The fourth core tenet is diversity and divergence rather than the usual suspects and forced agreement. Sometimes it’s easier for us to make decisions by ourselves or with a group of likeminded people, so we can just get the work done already. Even though the work can get done faster when it is done in this way, it also means that we aren’t taking in the full complexity of the issue at hand. We aren’t considering all sides, all perspectives, all angles of what we are trying to accomplish when we don’t engage diverse and divergent perspectives in our decision making processes.

In 2017, I want us all to take a hard look at who has seats at the tables where decisions are made. Are we surrounded by the usual suspects, the people who always make the same decisions because they are like minded or because they don’t want to rock the boat? Or are we inviting diverse perspectives and volunteering to engage in sticky, uncomfortable, and difficult conversations? I urge us all to remember this quote when we make decisions in 2017: “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.”

Embracing the Gray

The fifth core tenet is self-organization and emergence rather than permission and the pursuit of perfection. This tenet is about embracing the gray of the work, instead of trying to force every program, project, or idea to have a black-and-white solution and a tidy package. This means allowing for emergence and iterative design to guide our work. And it means following our intuition. We all know what it feels like when we hit on an idea that feels electric and our gut tells us, “There’s something here!” Allowing ourselves to pursue our gut feelings and allowing people we supervise to do the same is essential to our work. We need to trust that building relationships and following our intuition could lead to failure, and it could also lead to success beyond our wildest dreams.

In 2017, I encourage us to commit to embracing the gray and opening up to the potential of wild success.

Making the Choice

The final core tenet is to shift the focus from the core to the periphery. I learned from my wise friend, colleague, and geospatial lover Noelle Harden that ecosystems are most productive at their intersections, where peripheries overlap. So too are communities and networks. For those of us who work in the periphery, it can seem like decisions with far-reaching repercussions are made at the core in places like Coffey Hall, the Minnesota State Capitol, or in the conference room of an organization without the important input and context we could provide. We may feel helpless during the decision-making process and then frustrated when we experience the repercussions of those decisions.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can always choose to be more involved. Maybe you choose to communicate with your supervisor how the repercussions of a seemingly small decision impacted you or your work. Maybe you choose to prioritize spending your money on locally made and grown goods. Maybe you choose to get involved in your local neighborhood association, join the board of an organization, write a letter to the editor, run for city council or the school board. Maybe you choose to talk to your legislator. Now is the time to make the choice to get involved and to advocate for what you believe in. The equitable distribution of health and wealth of our communities depend on us holding those at the core accountable for the way they make decisions.

In 2017, I encourage us all to think about when we are acting from the core or the periphery. When you are acting from the periphery, ask yourself how you can engage with the core to hold them accountable for making equitable decisions. If you are acting from the periphery, ask yourself how you can connect with the peripheries in meaningful ways.

Thinking Like a Network

As I reflect on my work in 2016, I feel grateful for all the inspiring and powerful relationships I’ve had the honor to make in my work with food networks across the state. In fact, my favorite part of working with networks is working with others who believe above all else in the power of connectivity. We are all employees of the University of Minnesota Extension because we believe the work we do cooperatively can make the world a better place. We need each other to do our work more effectively and we are more powerful together than individually.

This means we are already a network.

In the Center of Family Development, we are a network of people working toward a common vision of leading families in Minnesota to greater health, resilience, and well-being. To close Minnesota’s disparities in health and wealth, now more than ever, our work requires us to adopt a network mindset. So in 2017, let’s commit to thinking like a network.
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