I’m talking to a group this week about the ways we can build stronger and more just societies through social movements and the support of peace building communities. This post is based around the three questions that they have posed, shared as part of #WorkingOutLoud as i gather my thoughts. Whilst the context may not be relevant for others, i believe that many of the underlying questions of power, change, and fairness, are, so i hope you can draw your own insights from it.
1. What are the opportunities for international networks of civil society organisations to make a positive impact for social change in the current moment of societal upheaval and transformation?
A question about ‘opportunity’ must be met by the answer ‘boundless’, when considered in the context of the Social Age: anyone, be they an individual, a community, a political leader, child, entrepreneur, or rockstar, has the potential to make a positive impact, to drive social change, because we live in a world where technology has democratised storytelling, and social communities can emerge, rapidly, at scale, globally.
Historically we were limited by the ownership and control of communication channels (printing presses, mainstream media, postal services, etc) and the great distances that separate us, but today, every device we use to consume media can also aggregate and broadcast, and distance is collapsed by our radical connectivity.
So technology has overcome many of the barriers that separated us, but it has, of course, simply shifted the perspective of challenge.
With technology eroding separation, social forces come to the fore: certainly anyone ‘can’ have that impact, but it turns out that not everyone ‘does’ have it. As the social space is opened up, we rely increasingly on the reputation economy, and the aggregation and amplification of messages.
And we see emergent, and often toxic, effects of tribalism and conflict, held through ever more inwardly facing communities.
With that in mind, the opportunity for civil society organisations may lie less in sharing one perspective, but more in terms of interconnecting between groups, building tolerant spaces, supporting the creation of shared vocabulary, even mapping out areas of conflict or difference.
In the language i would use around Social Leadership, our role is not to own the story, but to enable others to share their grounded realities, their truthfully held stories, and to weave a narrative between them.
Any model of change is unlikely to be built upon consensus alone: that type of colonial view of ‘right’ only promotes opposition, or the perpetuation of existing power. Instead, the peace we find will likely be negotiated, and held within a network of separate, but connected, communities, and our role will be to facilitate that connection.
One final point on this: the ‘current moment’ of societal upheaval is likely to be the dominant ongoing position: even before the pandemic we were seeing the fracturing of older models of social organisation and the social contracts that govern them. At the broadest level, it’s likely that we will see the emergence of new models of citizenship, new modes of social organisation (existing beyond nations), and new blocs of power held within highly authentic and fluid community structures.
Again, this speaks to our need to build individual leadership skills (connecting, enabling, listening, held with humility) as well as organisational structures (fluid, equitable, interconnected).
The opportunity is before us to drive greater connectivity and achieve more equitable, just, and peaceful outcomes, but we will only achieve this through indirect power, humility, and community.
2. What are the characteristics of an innovative and impactful international network best positioned to respond to the challenges, and can long standing networks evolve into this space?
In my broader work around the Socially Dynamic Organisation, i typically describe how our legacy strength casts a shadow into our own future. Essentially our Organisations act as temples to our historic success and power. But our journey forward is heading into the light, and we can end up carrying that legacy as a heavy load.
The characteristics of an innovative and impactful network lie in it’s ability to change, to be inclusive, to be reflective, and to recognise the limitations of potential. Essentially to act as an enabler and connector rather than through mechanisms of ownership or control.
Or to put it another way: the thing we seek to achieve will most likely not come through our action, but rather out of the spaces that we create, nurture, and support, and the Communities that grow within them.
It’s easy to say that our best networks will be diverse and inclusive, but the reality is that communities tend to be monocultural and exclusive: indeed, it’s almost a definition of ‘community’ that it exists because it excludes certain people. The reasons for this exclusion are native social forces, the social currencies that are spent with discretion and tend to be spent ‘in group’: forces such as trust, gratitude, pride, and reputation. Whilst we can aspire to change this, much of it sits in our innate social behaviour: perhaps better to focus on how we can build upon it.
Through conscious action we can connect beyond our boundaries of consensus and similarity: we can forge new relationships based not upon similarity and comfort, but actively founded in our respectful dissent. But understanding the underlying reasons for our monocultural groupings, we can be better positioned to move beyond them.
Perhaps another way to look at it is to understand the difference between ‘community’ and ‘connection’. We may find that ‘communities’ come and go, but that underlying ‘connection’ remains. I have explored this in more detail with the language of ‘community firmament’, the idea that we can be socially connected as a precursor to ‘community’ itself.
Can long standing networks evolve to be innovative and impactful? Well, that may be a matter of semantics: can ‘a’ network evolve? Perhaps not. But can the same people engage in new ways, forming new networks? Absolutely.
It’s worth remembering that most of the constraint that we feel is held in culture, and existing relationships and structures that hold us internally. Changing our personal narrative risks social consequence and judgement, even exclusion, so we tend to conform.
For a network to adapt requires us to evolve the dominant narrative, to write the story of our new space and then find common belief to get there.
3. What are the barriers that prevent international networks functioning to their full potential, and how do they overcome these?
The barriers that prevent any network functioning to it’s full potential can be divided into ‘internal’ and ‘external’ constraints. Internal ones includes forces such as consensus, belief, dominant narratives (‘how things are around here’), historic pride and purpose, trust, culture, and generational effects of power. External ones include legal frameworks and social norms, budget, opposition, reputation, and politics.
Most of the internal ones are under our control, but strangely are harder to change than the external forces. And in most organisations, we come to believe that the primary mechanism of constraint it external, whilst in reality it may be internal.
To change requires the conception of change (to think of a different future), aggregation around a new narrative (common belief), and the actions of change (doing something differently, at scale). Conceiving change is hard, especially if that change will take something away from old power, and most change does. Even if we are able to conceive of it, we need opinion to aggregate around the new story (to build a social movement of change), which is a challenge in itself. In the space of narratives, stories are closely aligned to power, so existing power will likely dominant the future narrative, unless your new story is easy to invest ourselves within.
Another mechanism of failure can be a failure of imagination: the world is very different than it was, specifically in the mechanisms by which new social beliefs emerge, the ways that communities rise, and the ways that people engage in change.
You have only to look at how individuals such as Greta Thunberg have raised social awareness at scale, or #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have acted as social aggregators, whilst older organisations become embroiled in controversy and apparent lack of effect.
A simple summary would be to say that the biggest barrier that prevents an international network functioning to it’s full potential is that network itself: our legacy of belief, of power, and of effect can constrain us.
In a very real way, the future is a matter of envisioning what we wish to become, and then finding the specific mechanisms of belief to invest, spaces to engage, and the individual agency to build.