The above card is from the Mixed Metaphor Learning Deck by Leveraging a Network for Equity (LANE). Join us in exploring this resource to deepen our practices of play, creativity, dreaming, and inner work within our experiments.
“When we suppress play, danger is often close at hand.”Sarah Lewis, The Rise
We all, every one of us, are working to advance deep equity and liberation—living the world we want as much as we can in the world we are in. To say this is often difficult and with uncertain pathways is an understatement. There are many centuries-old systems in place that present very real and daunting obstacles and sometimes what gets in the way is our own fears, limitations, and rote ways of doing the work that come from living in the very systems we are trying to transform and/or dismantle. Fear and concerns about resources are often appropriate and they are also at times overwrought. For good reason we are wired to overestimate threat and underestimate or not even see possibility when we are in fear. When that tiger is bearing its teeth in front of us, we want to live! Our trying and surviving muscles are overtrained. Yet, fear and scarcity rarely take us anywhere new and don’t help us live into liberation, in fact staying in a fear and scarcity mindset keeps us in a survival mindset.
We know this logically, but it can be hard to move out of fear, scarcity, and the old patterns of being and doing that are born of surviving in racist, capitalist, colonialist systems because our unconscious mind wants to stay with what it knows. Staying with the known ways (our known responses and behaviors for surviving) is less fear inducing and more energy efficient (in the short term) than creating new pathways.
Unsticking Ourselves Through Experimentation
So how might we get unstuck from our old patterns, from a constant thirst for logical and seemingly fast solutions? How might we try on smaller, nimble, creative (and seemingly slower) changes necessary to move with and toward equity, sovereignty, and liberation? The way forward is both planful and emergent. The way forward is in experimentation. Over the past several years, I’ve been exploring this very question with organizations, networks, and other partners in a process that we refer to as learning through experimentation. As we go deeper into experimentation, I want to acknowledge how scientific experimentation has hugely harmed BIPOC people and communities.
The influences we draw from include artistic processes, innovation processes, action learning, improvisation, and childhood development processes, to name a few. These kinds of experimentation frameworks support people to strategically and systematically move forward in emergence and complexity by offering a lightweight structure to support iterative, innovative learning. It harnesses the agency and creativity of individuals designing and implementing the experiments. An experimentation framework also supports us to work through persistent, complex barriers by breaking them down into smaller pieces to find creative ways to address them. Here is a video of me talking through the experimentation process.
When we first began trying out what it would mean to co-create experiments to shift our patterns, systems, and practices, I created an experimentation template to guide the designing and tracking of an experiment. This template included support for creating guiding questions for our experiment and a hypothesis, collecting and analyzing data, and capturing lessons learned and decisions made. The template brought some rigor to the process that encouraged us to stick with it, discerning what were the smallest bites we could take of the complex change we sought to make, and opening possibilities for advancing in a desired direction.
Change Elemental’s first foray into this particular framework began almost eight years ago in a practice group we called E3: Engage, Experiment, Emerge. (The experimenters led by Alison Lin included adrienne maree brown, Elissa Sloan Perry, Mark Leach, Eugene Eric Kim, and Jodie Tonita. Read all about it here!). The tools we use together have evolved over the years as we learned through practice, and have created the infrastructure for us to share the learning from our experiments with each other, and across networks and groups.
As Change Elemental continued supporting experimentation internally with our Governance Team, staff, and with some of our network partners, we noticed a deep shift happening in justice work. The ever-changing and increasingly polarized social, political, and environmental context was (and continues to be) such that the typical levers and buttons for creating change were no longer working. The mindset that we could control many of the parameters to our work was no longer relevant. Instead, justice leaders, organizations, and networks across the sector were embracing emergent strategy and trying on an experimentation mindset to move creatively and nimbly towards their vision.
Liberatory Experimentation Practices
While groups were increasingly coming to us to partner on designing and implementing experiments towards their vision, we found that people, ourselves included, often found it easier to focus on getting to the “right” how might we question (the guiding question for the experiment) or the “right” idea, and then going directly into implementation. There’s often a strong inclination to spend little to no time on the dreaming, imagining, and ideating that comes before moving into on action and implementation.
The spaciousness necessary for this dreaming and ideation can be hard to come by. Primarily, it is not the work typically supported by our sector (check out the Spring 2023 edition of NPQ, The Space Beyond: Building the Way, for more on that). The quality of our work is too often judged on over-simplified outcomes metrics, which are not easily correlated with iterative learning cycles where failure can support us in finding a way through. We also hold the awareness that people (including us doing the experiments) are suffering in real and tangible ways, and we want that suffering to end immediately. Taking time for artmaking and dwelling in the imaginative space can feel like an irresponsible (or unaligned and unstrategic) luxury. But as Audre Lorde and Toi Dericott told us, “poetry is not a luxury” and “art is resistance.” This kind of holding of liberating practices and outcomes requires us to unstick from our old patterns, particularly concerning scarcity of time, of money, of options, of air, of water…of many things.
As we’ve continued to learn and practice together, we’ve evolved the experimentation template to invite creativity more explicitly and expand how we think about success and failure. We began encouraging the use of some less common indicators of success like counting the number of hugs (pre-COVID 19) or how long people continued to chat after a meeting to measure the sense of relationship in a group of people, as well as felt senses of success in order to include more of our ways of knowing in how we define and ascertain success. The template invites people to come up with fun names for their experiments and to find or create photos to accompany them.
These smaller opportunities to be creative together supported greater alignment and the opening of possibilities together. For example, we worked with a group of funders and network practitioners who wanted to learn together about how networks and network practices are advancing equity. Initially, the group was creating an experiment that was stuck in the same patterns and practices that are typical of funder-partner spaces. When the group agreed to look for a photo to represent the group and one of the participants dropped in a photo of a bird and its nest and told us the story of the bird, its unusual nest building practice, and why he chose it, we immediately and unanimously decided to name the experiment NEST (Networks for Equity and Systems Transformation), and everything changed. We were able to play with the metaphor throughout our year-long experiment which kept us bringing a spirit of imagination and play. We talked about flocking birds, emergence, murmurations, and the weaving of birds’ nests, and in doing so, we began to have a much more embodied experience of the interdependent, mutual, and liberatory practice space we were trying to create (you can read more about that experiment here).
Slowing down for these small ways of bringing in creativity and play in the unknown was also the critical essence that gave life to early experimentation processes like those in Northstar Network (then Wye River) as well as some internal experiments at Change Elemental. In 2021, at the height of the pandemic, we had the understanding that as an organization with a small staff and a mix of different income streams, we had access to resources that many healers, racial justice workers, and culture workers we partner with did not. In a time when systemic inequities were amplified, we asked ourselves “how might we co-create a community of care together across our networks—to keep building our relationships and supporting one another, particularly our Black and Native colleagues who are not sufficiently resourced due to historic and current systemic inequities?”
So, we reached out to some partners and friends to see what they might be needing—financial resources, amplification of their work, or support for the transition to virtual work, or something else. Once we heard from colleagues, we came together as a staff to create a proposal to bring to our governance team. This coming together was complicated. We all have different histories and experiences with money both personally and organizationally. Following some shared breath work, we did some individual reflection, listened to our emotions, centered in our bodies, and reflected on our stories. Then we dreamed into the future and our vision of equity, abundance, interdependence, and a thriving justice ecosystem. Together, we created a collage of the future. From there, we were able to ideate ways to equitably redistribute the funds (you can read more about this here). While repeated, iterative attempts at learning may be a starting point for learning something simple or complicated, creativity is required for addressing the complex issues that we don’t yet know how to solve fully.
Stress, Stuckness, and Embodying the Essence of Experimentation
Over the past three years, like much of life, the experimentation process moved to Zoom and while the internal experiment shared above was powerful, it was an exception made possible by our team’s deep relationships seeded prior to the pandemic. Creating collaborative dreaming, ideation spaces was very challenging virtually. Added to this, the weight of COVID, racial uprisings, and continued climate chaos left many of us drained and focusing on ways to streamline our work, take care of ourselves, and assess what risks we were taking. Risk tolerance and creativity were understandably low or all together absent. I was also trying to take shortcuts: less time on Zoom, please; less time holding space, please. And the truth is some of these experiments were lacking energy that pictures and fun names couldn’t mitigate.
Then, at the end of January of this year, our team engaged in an emergent, creative, and rigorous practice space we are calling the Five Elements Lab. The Lab’s purpose is to strengthen our individual and collective practices of the five elements—deep equity, systems change, inner work, multiple ways of knowing, and shared leadership & power. This iteration of the Lab was designed by artists and facilitators Sharon Bridgeforth and Omi Osun Joni L. Jones with Elissa Sloan Perry of Change Elemental. It focused on multiple ways of knowing and inner work. The experience brought these elements to life with the powerful teachings and practices of Theatrical Jazz, as practiced by Omi and Sharon, supporting us to improvise, innovate, and move together in virtuosity and as an ensemble.
We connected with ourselves, our dreams, our lineages, weaving them together and apart in cycles of learning and being and doing. This play, creativity, and inner work (accessing and using multiple ways of knowing) opened us up to seemingly endless new possibilities for ways forward. I was reminded that approaching this work with spaciousness, warm ups, constraints, and pacing are essential as we stretch, learn, fail, and stretch again both individually and collectively.
Through our improvisation practices, we talked about our trepidation with constraints, but also the ways they can serve us in taking risks. In group improvisation, they supported us to have a rhythm and a flow together rather than moving chaotically. In experiments, putting a time frame on it supported us to move quickly with purpose, trusting our guts and getting in rhythm. But we can’t just jump right into these efforts, we need to scaffold ourselves—a warm up, a small risk, a big risk exercise. We have to create space for individual reflection, connecting with our bodies, our breath, grounding or centering, and gathering our own feelings and thoughts (all inherently individual acts of inner work that prepare us to engage collectively), which practices take time.
After three days in our Five Elements Lab, I had a realization that was much deeper than the intellectual understanding I had prior, of the relationship between experimentation, expanding how we know, and innerwork. I came to understand that multiple ways of knowing and inner work are at the very essence of moving in emergence and complexity, of experimenting our way forward in the direction of our vision. Multiple ways of knowing and inner work are not extras. We cannot just tack on creativity and play and hope to stumble upon new possibilities. Advancing deep equity and liberation—which is complex systems change—requires space to explore and dream and ideate and create. I had decentered them to save time, to answer to pressure to get results, to alleviate the discomfort that people had with it, just when they were needed more than ever.
When experiments draw from and incorporate the wisdom of the Five Elements, they bring depth, authenticity, vitality, and innovation. Omi defines improvisation as “the ability to be nimble and try the unknown” and innovation as “improvisations that through repetition/exploration build into new, more lasting ways of being.” These practices cannot easily be captured in an experiment design template alone, without the template turning into a checklist. While we continue to evolve the framework and templates to embrace the elements more deeply, it is our shared practice and mutual accountability to being in these practices of liberation that will make our experiments meaningful and fulsome advances towards love, dignity, and justice.
Through experimentation grounded in vision, relationships, and trust, we can generate big, creative ideas and take small bets on what might advance those ideas, then learn, and iterate, again and again. How might you slow down to make room for more creativity and inner work to help you get moving in the direction of our collective liberation?
Image Credit: Leveraging a Network for Equity