Welcome to the Open CoLab newsletter.
Each edition shares recent content from across the social change sector. That’s a big catchment area, so my goal isn’t to be comprehensive or even to pick the “best” pieces, but to gather new ideas and practices that provide value together as a set.
And did I mention there’s a theme?
This month is all about emergence.
Like a butterfly emerges from a cocoon, or a murmuration of starlings heads for warmer roosts in the winter, we entered 2019 with glimmers of light through dark clouds.
But emergence is not just about coming into prominence—like emerging markets or emerging technology. It’s the way a system’s elements interact to create novel properties and behaviors that those elements lack on their own. Mindless little termites collaborating to build massive dirt mounds. A memory triggered as a billion neurons fire. Global warming causing a polar vortex.
What does emergence mean for those of us working social change? Is it a tool we can wield? Or just a wave we ride?
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa
Emergence in the wild
An excerpt from An Xiao Mina’s new book describes the aggregate effects of the funny images, animated GIFs, and other memes shared online. In a world where our gatekeepers are the attention-hungry algorithms of Facebook and Twitter, memes spark gut reactions with visual, emotional narratives. One key effect they have is to expand what political scientists call the Overton Window: the range of acceptable public ideas. The alt-right used memes to infect mainstream discourse from the shadows of Reddit and 4chan. And authoritarian disinformation campaigners (like Russia’s Internet Research Agency) use them to muddy everyone’s sense of what really happened; propaganda today isn’t about enforcing one truth, but about undermining your sense that anything can be trusted.
Mina leaves us with a meager note of hope (maybe her full book has more?) so I’m left asking: Can memes be harnessed for positive change? Or are the underlying dynamics too corrupted?
A rare piece of longform reporting on organizing and mobilizing from the middle of last fall’s campaigns in the United States. There’s something valuable about looking back at “live” reporting done without the benefit of knowing the election results. (Plenty of post hoc analyses suffered from journalism’s equivalent of data mining: fitting neat narratives to the outcomes.) Charlotte Alter’s reporting for Time included visits to a few Indivisible-affiliated groups (including one in North Carolina where the Congressional race remains unresolved), Jolt’s work organizing Latinos in Texas, the Black Voters Matter network mobilizing rural black communities in the South, and NextGen America’s work on college campuses. None were isolated efforts, as they were each embedded in their own networks; and yet there was little explicit coordination across those networks. We can see emergence fractally: within each of these formal networks, and more informally across them.
Key takeaway for the political types: “It’s not that the Democrats are being pulled left. It’s more that Democrats are being pulled local.” But what’s doing the pulling? And should we resist the inevitable counter-pull of the center?
For a shorter version of the above: Just after the election, Micah Sifry described the decentralization of Democratic campaigning (“more like a swarm than an army”) in The New Republic: The Outside Democrats Who Built the Blue Wave.
Dance with the storm
If emergence is powerful enough to swing an election, how can a single organization leverage it? Writing in Nonprofit Quarterly, Ana Polanco and Susan Misra reflect on what happens when coaching approaches reach a critical mass within a group. They describe team members supported to be their full selves (wholeness), the organizational outcomes of improved individual performance (ferning), the ability to recognize and change patterns (“aha” moments), and more. The results are processes of transformation that bubble up throughout an organization, rather than from top-down edicts. I also appreciate the emphasis on the coach’s “stand”, or foundation, which needs to consider power and privilege, multiple ways of knowing, and openhearted curiosity.
Key line: “Coaching builds people’s ability to embrace emergence and be flexible and nimble as things change.”
What about fostering emergence across the sector? Many of our organizational and funding practices do the opposite: they atomize our work, making it harder to collaborate; put us on short time horizons, undermining long-term capacity building; and evaluate based on narrow metrics, discouraging aspirational visions. The Ford Foundation has been flipping the script on those dynamics by providing five-year general operating grants, combined with capacity-building support. Jeanne Bell and Ruth McCambridge interviewed four BUILD grantees and described how the approach allows them to better respond to their constituents and build their institutions over the long haul.
Ford doesn’t use the term “emergence”, but think about BUILD this way: emergent outcomes require interactions among a system’s elements with a “goldilocks” amount of direction (just enough direction to be heading somewhere, but not so much that they’re constrained). If an organization can set its own course, build its own capacity, form its own partnerships, choose its own risks, try new things, and learn as they go—then you’ll see something truly unexpected.
What’s one step beyond BUILD? Funders are thinking more about participatory grantmaking—an idea whose time has come?
In our work, emergence can be a force for good or bad. Gentrification is an emergent phenomenon, resulting from a mix of public policies and a thousand individual choices. So is a movement of millions protesting authoritarianism in Tahrir or Taksim. The major difference between natural versus human systems is the intentionality of each actor: our goals and hopes and fears and decisions make us more complex than a termite.
Like termites, though, we need enough awareness of what’s happening elsewhere to “coordinate” (in whatever form that may take), to learn lessons, to know our efforts will add up. But we don’t want so much awareness of what the others are doing that it distracts us from our own role (like spending so much time on twitter you don't get your work done... it happened to a friend once).
Have anything nerdier? You betcha!
Emergence in social systems is hard to define, and harder to measure. But what about a particular emergent property—like resilience? A systematic review in the International Journal of Health Policy and Management last year looked at 34 empirical studies from health systems and other sectors, drawing common lessons. The factors that contribute to resilience range from the more obvious (availability of resources, adequate planning, redundancy, decentralization) to the less intuitive (non-linear planning, deliberative democracy, inclusive decision making, transparency, coordination, staff wellbeing). The full paper is fairly accessible, as academic literature goes.
At first glance, adrienne maree brown’s book is about applying concepts from complexity to social change. But whatever that description conjures for you, it’s not quite right. Sure, there are chapters on the fractal nature of change, on adaptation and interdependence and non-linearity. But they’re interspersed with poetry and interviews and asides on the value of science fiction (“all organizing is science fiction”). The chapter on resilience is less about systemic or organizational dynamics, and instead focuses on the personal resilience of those doing the work—a theme throughout the book. The final chapters are filled with facilitation tools and tips.
(Admittedly, this book came out over a year ago—too old for a “newsletter”?—but it’s so on-point for the theme of emergence that I couldn't leave it out.)
Bits and bobs
Smarter giving through portfolios? A few tools are helping small donors give to portfolio funds built around particular issues. I read a tension here between empowering small donors to make better decisions, versus nudging them toward experts' choices. Here’s another piece on a similar theme.
Some soundbites of Anand Giridharadas (author of Winners Take All) discussing Davos have been circulating online. Want the more nuanced version? Elmira Bayrasli interviewed him for the Project Syndicate Podcast.
Heard enough about Winners Take All? Check David Callahan’s thorough review of another big philanthropy critique book: Rob Reich’s Just Giving.
Charity contest gone wrong: In October, ProPublica and Time co-published a bombshell report on More Than Me, an American charity working in Liberia that failed to protect girls in its care from rape by one of its employees. Last month, a less-noticed report details how MTM got its start: by scamming a JPMorgan Chase online giving contest with fake Facebook accounts for a million dollar payout.
There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.
— Buckminster Fuller
You made it this far? Let me know what you think. This newsletter is an experiment. My goal is to help you learn, help you see things differently, so you can ultimately do better work. Hit reply and tell me how I’m doing.