Return of the Tamarack 8

CI Team cropped

bottom row: Randi Quakenbush, Leslie Ackerman; middle row: Schelley Nunn, Kirby Edmonds; top row: Karim Beers, Brigid Hubberman, Natasha Thompson and Phoebe Brown

Eight representatives from Tompkins County spent 5 inspiring days in October at the recent Tamarack Institute Collective Impact Summit in Toronto, Canada. Among the 300 participants were people from Canada and the Northwest Territories, USA, Kenya, New Zealand, Australia, and Denmark. The purpose of the summit was to help participants learn how to use Collective Impact to solve complex problems in their communities.

The team returned excited to share their insights about how to use Collective Impact. Each of the “Toronto 8” spoke to a big gathering at last week’s Building Bridges Brown Bag Lunch at the Tompkins County Library. They made the case for working together to create a “community-wide aspiration”–a big, hairy, audacious goal that can encompass all of the collective working groups that are underway:

  • Food Security & Justice
  • Renewable Energy
  • Kindergarten Readiness
  • College&  Career Readiness
  • Jobs Pipeline
  • Re-Entry
  • Entrepreneurship

They emphasized that Collective Impact requires a new mindset and way of operating, and widening our focus beyond the success of individual programs to the effectiveness of the systems that impact us all. No, we don’t have to quit our jobs or shut down our organizations. But the process of weaving all of our efforts together will require a shift in our thinking. One big lesson emerged from the success or failure of Collective Impact initiatives in other places: it is crucial to include a really significant percentage of people who are most directly affected in the work of planning and decision making.

Huge Success–the Building Bridges Community Forum

On May 13, 202 people attended a Community Forum to learn about Collective Impact processes creating big successes in various communities, and possible “big results” we might want to work on in Tompkins County.

Here is a link to the presentation slides:

Building Bridges Forum CI presentation

Highlights from the feedback include:

Of the 119 evaluations we received:
41 organizations asked to be added to the Building Bridges Coalition list *
100+ new people have joined the Building Bridges Network listserve
96% of you said you learned more about Collective Impact
96% of you said that CI is a direction that we should pursue as a community
97% of you said the time was worthwhile
89% of you said you would do your work differently as a result of the time we spent together.

Once again, a big THANK-YOU to
  • GreenStar staff support, use of The Space and coffee, tea, fruit salad, yogurt and  pastries
  • MRC for the mini-bagels
  • GIAC for the cheese, crackers and cookies
  • Ithaca Bakery for the pastries
  • Moosewood Restaurant for the Brownies and Vegan Chocolate Cake
  • CCE staff for stuffing packets
  • Park Foundation for supporting this intro to Collective Impact

*If you would like your organization added, please contact Kirby Edmonds at 607/277-3401

Cross-Class Alliances for Social Change: Webinar review

Cross-class Alliances for Social Change:  Research on the influence of class culture on how we organize

A report and some questions.

On October 17th, a few people gathered at Cooperative Extension to watch a webinar presented by a group called Class Action.  The webinar, “Building Cross-Class Alliances for a New Economy,” was presented by Betsy Leondar-Wright who was reporting on her research on whether class differences had an effect on how people take up social activism.  Her answer was “yes.”

Leondar-Wright and her team interviewed 61 people from 25 progressive social movements in 5 states and surveyed 362 people.  Of the 362, 28% were people of color, 72% white.  To assign class to respondents they looked at their parents’ income source and education and their current occupation and education.  They consolidated these results into what they describe as 4 “class trajectory categories:”  lifelong working-class (which includes poor, though it isn’t clear how many people who consider themselves poor responded); lifelong professional; upwardly mobile straddlers; voluntarily downwardly mobile.  These latter three were lumped together for reporting purposes, and so the results are in two (possibly confusing) categories:  working-class and college-educated, as follows:

Why do we join movements?

Working-class people join movements because they have a shared context—workplace, family—with the group and they join as a cluster with others.

Most college-educated activists join movements because they are committed to an issue or an ideology.  That comes first, then they find a group.  These people tend to join as individuals.

How do these groups recruit?

Working-class activists recruit more members with incentives, assurances of mutual aid and member-only benefits, realistic plans for short term victory that will improve recruits’ lives, and food at all meetings.

According to the research, college-educated activists expect issues and political ideas to recruit people and often, according to Leondar-Wright, overlook food and short-term incentives.

How do these activists talk?

When talking about their cause, working-class activists tend to use humor, teasing and  prefer concrete, specific language.  They tend to make political points via story telling, metaphors, analogies, and examples.

College-educated activists tend to talk in abstract generalizations.  Humor is in the form of wordplay.

For example, in the interviews, college-educated activists used “strategy” or “strategize” more than 8 times as much as working-class activists.  They were fond of “network” (used 6 times as often), “outreach” (5.4 times as often), and “context” or “contextualization” (used 4.7 times as often).

And how about leadership?

According to the research, working-class activists are reported as much less “anti-leadership” than college-educated activists.  They tend to monitor leaders’ actions as either for or against the community.  For college-educated activists “leadership” has a negative connotation.  Many will stay in a group and criticize the leaders or the group.  For some, equalizing power and sharing airspace are just as important as the group’s goals.

So, what to make of all this?

The categorization of classes as reported in the webinar seems awkward and arbitrary, but the researchers were clear on how they made these choices.  I find the distinctions between classes blunt and wish for more differentiation in the results.  For example, who doesn’t like food at a meeting?

On the other hand, the research brings to my attention things I’ve known or suspected and tended to sweep under the rug because a) it is risky to generalize  and b) because even if I did pull them out and look at them, I thought of them more in terms of my own behavior, not in relationship to collective action.

I wonder how this research relates to reader experience?  What have you noticed makes you and others effective activists?  What would you add?  What would you ask the researchers?

Leondar-Wright ended the webinar with advice on building cross-cultural movements:

  • Look for and dismantle invisible walls
  • Eliminate “inessential weirdnesses,” cultural norms, processes, language that may alienate.
  • Instead of asking, “why don’t they join us,” reach out and pitch in as allies to working-class/low-income led community efforts.

Whether or not we might quarrel with the research, I welcome this advice.  I would find it helpful to think together about how we can actually do these things.

You can check out Class Action at

Leondar-Wright’s book will be out soon, Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures.

Reimagining a Fair & Local Economy

Freeing Ourselves From Systems that Weaken & Divide Us

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this…We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality …whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. over 45 years ago as an impassioned call for “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution”, these words seem more relevant than ever to the linked economic, environmental and social calamities we face today. Our global economy and its effects on nearly every facet of our lives is increasingly seen as a root of these problems. With a warming climate and epic failures like the BP oil disaster and financial crisis, this system and its structures are looking catastrophically flawed and outdated. The “economic genius” of Frankensteinian creations like derivatives has turned our world economy into a shell game, with perhaps the worse yet to come.

Communities have become ground zero for a resource extraction model seeking to maximize short-term profits for distant stock holders while externalizing as many costs as possible. Those “externalities” include many of our own who are left behind as the divide between the haves and multiplying have-nots grows. Making matters worse, the reach and influence of the too-big-to-fail juggernauts responsible for these crises extends deep into our systems of governance, playing no small part in the recent government shut-down.

At the same time, a growing number of communities like our own are grappling with how to sustain basic civic infrastructure, including water, transportation, health, social services and educational systems. Put into place decades or centuries ago, many are now crumbling and we find ourselves without adequate means to maintain or replace them. Extreme events like Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, expected to increase in frequency, are also revealing a lack of resilience in our support systems and compromised landscapes.

We seem to be caught in a destructive feedback loop, unable to break free from a system that is continually reinforcing itself (with the help of bailouts and subsidies) while weakening our communities and endangering the planet. Some are wondering what alternatives might exist – how can we reinvent a new economy that serves, not consumes us?

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.  -Buckminster Fuller

Unseen by some, another great revolution, or “reimagining” is already occurring. It is rising from communities like our own, leveraging the power of We to solve intractable problems collectively.  Here are some signs of and guideposts for this emergent and hopeful movement. Continue reading

What would happen if our great leaders became a great network?

Jeff Piestrak poses some thought-provoking questions.

What would happen if our great leaders became a great network?

Would it bring closer the vision of a vibrant, just, and sustainable world with hopeful futures for children?

Watch this 90 second video about work being done in Boston to do just that: