Networks for Equity and Systems Change
The events of the past year have made clear what many in and outside of philanthropy already knew: that equality in resource distribution is not equity, that much of what was thought impossible to change – telework policies, reporting requirements, fiduciary responsibilities – is suddenly possible, that what we need to shift big systems is interdependence (not codependence), and that what is needed for this shift to happen begins with strengthening our relationships with one another – as individuals, organizations, and communities.
Networks offer a structure for linking people and groups of people with a shared vision and shared values to build and strengthen the relationships necessary to shift big systems. By offering us opportunities to work together in ways that challenge us to build different understandings of and relationships to power and to each other, we are able to move in more interdependent and interconnected ways.
Many individuals and organizations – particularly those rooted in Black and Native communities, queer communities, and immigrant communities – have experience working in networks both rooted in and working to advance equity and justice yet are often not sufficiently resourced for this work. Other entities, including many funders, are bringing increased attention and resources to working in this way and yet these many groups that are poised to resource networks are still just learning about how to do so in ways that align with equity and manage disproportionate power dynamics.
In this moment of possibility for reimaging big systems to live our imagined future of love, dignity, and justice now, we are sharing some learning from a late-2019 gathering of nearly 70 network funders, practitioners, and participants about how network practitioners and some funders are nourishing and growing networks for equity and systems change.
An Experiential and Embodied Approach to Learning in Networks
The Networks for Equitable Systems Change gathering was co-created in partnership with Change Elemental, Uma Viswanathan and Matt Pierce at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a design team of network practitioners including Allen Kwabena Frimpong, Aisha Shillingford, Marissa Tirona, Robin Katcher, and Deborah Meehan. The group came together to engage with practices for building, resourcing, and sustaining networks. Together, we set out to learn about the following questions:
- How have funders and other organizations worked together in networks that promote equity and systems change?
- What are the barriers to resourcing networks for equitable systems change and what would it take to shift those barriers?
- What is the personal work and way of being needed to fully engage in networks, equity and systems change?
While desk research and interviews can be useful learning tools, we decided to take an experiential and embodied approach to learning about our questions. By bringing convening participants into the experience of network building in real time, we were able to create shared experiences that led to shared understanding about what it takes to build and sustain networks that can shift systems.
We can’t shift systems when we’re only touching one part of the elephant. We need spaces where the whole ecosystem comes together, bringing various perspectives that can give us a picture of the whole. Rather than host separate conversations with funders, intermediaries, and grassroots organizations, the gathering brought together many parts of network ecosystems to discuss how folks were experiencing power sharing within networks.
Below are some of the ways the experiential design of the convening – in addition to the deep expertise and knowledge that participants brought to bear – helped co-create our elephant and answer some initial questions about networks…
We Challenged Dominant Ways of Building Alignment through Rigid Frameworks and Definitions and Instead Reached Shared Understanding with Storytelling
Through experiential learning and storytelling, convening participants aligned on shared definitions for what we mean by a network as well as successful practices for building, sustaining, and resourcing networks.
With our design team, we co-created a learning network that engaged people with different access to resources, different kinds of power, and different experiences and roles in networks. We were concerned about bringing so many different folks together to talk about networks when we all were coming in with these different experiences, definitions, etc. We faced the same pressure points that networks face: how do we distribute resources across this group and compensate people for their time and labor? How can we facilitate more open discussions with transparency and deeper sharing among groups who have different priorities, expertise in networks, roles in the movement ecosystem, and kinds of power? Where do we need alignment and shared definitions and where should we hold generative tensions and conflict?
Initially, we considered aligning the group through some shared definitions and research in networks before coming together, but that process seemed time consuming and didn’t fully honor the wisdom in participants’ different perspectives and experiences. Instead of creating written definitions and a compilation of research to align participants on a common framework, we had attendees prepare spark stories – a short story that communicated their experiences and challenges in a network when working across funders, individuals, grassroots organizations, and other entities. Participants shared stories in small groups and each group created an image to show similarities and differences in themes across stories. The storytelling accelerated shared understanding in small groups and highlighted the multiple perspectives in how participants understand and experience networks.
Many participants also shared their spark stories in video conversations. In this video, design team member Allen Kwabena Frimpong and Rachel O’Leary Carmona from AdAstra Consulting share their own definition of a network.
We Used Art Making to Illuminate Power Differences and Start Deeper Conversations about Power Sharing in Networks
Navigating power differentials – including naming and managing them – was a key element in supporting shared learning in this diverse space and also mirrored the ways in which engaging with power can create generative conflict that supports network building or exacerbates unnamed tensions that derail it.
At one point before the convening, some funders were feeling nervous about their power relative to other groups and considered having a separate space. We ultimately decided against that and instead brought funders together to discuss how we might acknowledge and visibilize power differentials (rather than obscure them). We also saw this as a way for funders to build practices for being in spaces where they have more power related to resourcing (such as in a network).
In an exercise from Theater of the Oppressed participants could make visible the power differences between funders that financially resource networks and other network participants. Participants positioned chairs differently based on their vantage point and each new sculpture was in dialogue with the previous one, creating space for different perspectives in support and in tension with each other.
In this spark story, Sage Crump, Cultural Strategist, shares her experience with power as an intermediary navigating the relationships between networked organizations and funders.
Starting with this creative exercise created a bridge to harder conversations about the barriers to equity in resourcing networks such as how money is distributed across network participants, inappropriate use of power, or challenges that come up when there is misalignment between the equity values of a network and the culture of a funding institution.
Convening participants Eugenia Lee of Solidaire and Rajiv Khanna from Thousand Currents discuss what it takes for people inside large funding institutions to align foundation culture with equity and other values needed to better support networks.
We Made Space for New Conversations about Resource Sharing and New Processes for Resource Distribution
Equity should inform how we resource people to be and learn together across power, identity, and roles and then to do together (in networks). Yet external systems, norms, and habits can often inhibit us from living out our values. One example of this is the radical redistribution of resources in neworks, which requires leaning into new practices for how we work together and support each other given our proximity to power and resources.
To financially support people’s attendance at the gathering and their contributions to the space, we created an equity fund. The set-up and distribution of the convening’s equity fund provided the group with an opportunity to lean into these new ways of being. It required vulnerability from participants in asking for what we need and for those holding financial systems to figure out creative ways of reducing the administrative burden on participants, for example by offering stipends rather than reimbursing receipts.
To guide us in these new (to some) ways of being and doing, we created a set of fund principles. Adapted from Leadership Learning Community, the principles included:
- People can ask for what they want and need
- Adopt an abundance mindset (we can always find a way to get more)
- Function with trust, no questions asked
- Give people examples of what they might use funds for (e.g., lodging, childcare, funds to cover a missed day of work for hourly professionals, etc.)
At first, people asked for very little. After more enthusiastic nudges and encouragement to lean into the principles and the discomfort of asking (for example, by looping back to confirm, clarifying our equity principles, and sharing more examples of what people have asked for) more participants felt comfortable asking for what was truly needed.
The initial hesitancy from participants prompted us to think more about who feels entitled to ask for equity funds and how that may relate to our individual sense of worth (eg. how much do I really need this?) and relationship to the collective (e.g., how much might others need relative to me?).
During the convening, we shared what we learned from managing our equity fund in this meme-filled presentation, including how we pushed for a “no receipts” policy, which was challenging to navigate from a compliance perspective but saved a great deal of administrative time.
In this spark story, convening participants Elissa Sloan Perry from Change Elemental and Alexis Flanagan from the Resonance Network share another example of resource distribution within a network, including the vulnerability and trust needed to talk openly about personal wealth as a way towards more equitable resource distribution.
While some of the experiential learnings from the convening are captured above, network practitioners and funders also brought together learnings from past experiences in leading with equity and navigating power differentials within networks including how funders operate in networks; the different forms and shapes networks might take; capacity, impact, and infrastructure needs in networks; and ways of being needed to build, resource, and support networks.
To dig into more stories and insights as well as many other resources about networks, see the report, “Resourcing Networks for Equitable Systems Change: Perspectives from Funders, Intermediaries, Individuals and Organizations on How We Fund and Support Networks for Equity.”
Video recording, editing, and photos by Breathe Media Group
Graphic recordings by Brandon Black
Cover photo by Brian Stout