Building Community
Building Community

When educators design and create new schools, and live next gen learning themselves, they take the lead in growing next gen learning across the nation. Other educators don’t simply follow and adopt; next gen learning depends on personal and community agency—the will to own the change, fueled by the desire to learn from and with others. Networks and policy play important roles in enabling grassroots approaches to change.

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Not every form of social organization maximizes network effects—but there's much to be gained if they did.

“Your generosity is more important than your perfection.”
–Seth Godin

Over the past several years of supporting networks for social change in different domains, including education, we at IISC continue to grow our awareness of what is new and different when we call something a network, as opposed to say a coalition, collaborative, community or alliance. On the surface, much can look the same, and we can say that coalitions, collaboratives, communities and alliances are simply different forms of networks.

And as we addressed in an earlier post in this series, Why Linking Matters, it is also the case that not every form of social organization maximizes network effects.

In this regard, experience shows that another difference maker is when participants in a network embrace new ways of seeing, thinking, and doing. The following list continues to evolve as our collective practice and understanding does, and it speaks to a number of principles that might guide your thinking and action:

Giving First, Not Taking

You’ll see it when you create it. Often people are drawn to networks by the promise of opportunity and abundance, but stand back and wait for something to happen. The key to generativity is generosity, to being first to make a humble offering—of ideas, truth, courage, attention, and other resources. The fear of having an already scarce pie became further divided is fulfilled by the failure to give, to give freely and fully of our experience, gifts and excess capacities. This is not to say that there aren’t risks involved and real power dynamics and differentials to account for; yet there is no denying that a lack of generosity results in less potential overall.

hands-on learning

Contribution Before Credentials

You may have heard the story about the custodial staff person in a shoe company who anonymously submitted his idea for a new shoe design during a company-wide contest and won (hint: he coached basketball in his spare time and knew what would really interest kids). Or there’s the homeschooled teenager who contributed tremendously helpful information on nitrogen pollution to an open and crowd-sourced call for research.

‘Expertise’ and seniority can serve as a bottleneck and buzzkill in many networks and organizations, where ego gets in the way of excellence and vital experience. If we are looking for new and better thinking, it should not matter from whence it comes.

“The work of creating health is the work of creating connection.”
–Didi Pershouse

Intricacy and Flow, Not Bottlenecks and Hoarding

As we explored in Connection is Fundamental, the first post in this series, networks are key to supporting life and liveliness. A constant threat to vitality is rigidity, hoarding and exclusion. Economically we are seeing plenty of evidence of this. With hyper-concentration of information and resources, patterns of exclusion and growing inequality, we see entire systems put at risk. The antidote is robust, diversified local networks that are connected to other such networks, which are collectively able to move information and resources of many kinds fluidly from and to more parts of the social body.

Resilience and Redundancy instead of Rock Stardom

You see it on sports teams all the time. When the star player goes down, if the team is built around said star, so goes the team. Among other features, resilient networks and network activity are built upon redundancy of function and richness of interconnections, so that if one node goes away, the network can adjust, support and continue the work or learning.

"Minds on the margins are not marginal minds."
–Anil Gupta

Don’t Get Stuck in the Core; Look to the Periphery

As living entities, networks are defined in part by the nature of their edges. The core of the network tends to be made up of those who are most connected to others in the network, as well as interested in and engaged in the work (albeit in some cases through exclusionary dynamics of power and privilege). Those on the edge, or periphery, may be less connected and engaged, and they also bring their own value, to the extent that they provide lessons about adaptation, a willingness and ability to play in different spaces, and have connections to other important domains. In many cases, there is strength in following the lead of the margins.

Group of teachers visiting a Chicago school

Self-Organization and Emergence rather than Permission and Predictability

As with any complex living system, when a group of people comes together, we cannot know what they will create. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Vying for control and predictability can mean short-changing ourselves of new possibilities, one of the great promises of networked activity.

Furthermore, network effects and change stem from many different experiments rather than looking for the single best answer.

“Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone."

–Maya Angelou

From Working in Isolation to Working with Others and/or Out Loud

I recently spoke to a leader of a youth service organization who was bemoaning the situation where a number of his newer staff thought that “getting the job done” meant paying attention to the tasks on their list and working on them in an independent and efficient way. What they were not doing was involving others, communicating about what they were working on, where they were in their process and what they were learning as a result. One network mantra I have heard is “Never work alone.” Or to put a more positive spin on it, “Work in good company.” Why? Because often our thinking and ideas are made better by others.

Furthermore, sharing work is crucial since communication is the lifeblood of networks (and networked organizations) if they are to be intelligently adaptive and resilient to changing and challenging times. Even it we are physically alone, we can show and share our work in helpful ways, to ourselves and others, using virtual tools.

young students collaborating

From “Who’s the Leader?” to “We’re the Leaders!”

As we explored in What is Network Leadership, the most recent post in this series, the concept of leadership is undergoing an evolution. The late Mila N. Baker made the case that the individualized and command-and-control leadership lexicon is grossly insufficient for our changing, complex, and interconnected world. She promoted the use of peer-to-peer (P2P) IT architectures as models for thinking about leadership and how people organize themselves. In P2P arrangements, everyone becomes a generative and recipient node in a network, and has easy access to other nodes.

This embodiment of leadership is stymied by rigid hierarchies, fixed positional authority and purely transactional mindsets (without regard to underlying and authentic relationships). Flipping this script means seeking arrangements where more people lead and follow, trust and reciprocity are fundamental values and thriving is linked to connection.

What might the integration of one of more of these principles do to the way you lead and do your work as an educator?

What opportunities and outcomes might be created?

Other Posts in this Series:

  • Connection is Fundamental - Life is at base a network. It thrives on connection. How can professional networks in education connect people more deeply, creating new insights, access and opportunity?
  • Why Linking Matters in K-12 Education - What is the big deal about networks? Educators, change agents, and learners can create value by taking advantage of these "network effects."
  • Structure Matters: How Networks Form Affects Outcomes - One way to create abundant value for education network participants is to examine and shape power dynamics, the patterns of connections, and other aspects of the network's structure and form.
  • What is Network Leadership? - Together, a number of leadership roles in a collaborative/networked view of education create a culture for connections to flourish.
Curtis Ogden headshot

Curtis Ogden

Senior Associate, Institute for Social Change

Curtis Ogden has served as Senior Associate at the Interaction Institute for Social Change  since 2005 and brings to IISC his experience in education, community building, leadership development, and program design, as well as an abiding passion for work at the intersection of racial justice and environmental sustainability. For the past several years he has built a robust practice in support of numerous multi-stakeholder collaborative change networks. He is a recognized thought leader around network development and social change, and has presented numerous webinars and keynote speeches. He is co-author of “Equity as Common Cause: How a Sustainable Food System Network is Cultivating Commitment to Racial Justice” (Othering and Belonging Journal, April 28, 2017) and was featured in the Getting Smart Podcast on “How Networks Make the World Better.”