How to Connect the Dots
I’ve used my last two posts to introduce the ideas behind the Connecting the Dots Community which I’m in process of creating with a few of my friends and colleagues.
So far, I’ve described what connecting the dots entails and why it is important to do so.
So far, too, I’ve ducked the hardest question.
How do you go about connecting the dots in the United States today?
I could answer that question with the next three words and then end this post.
I Don’t Know
But I won’t.
It is true that I don’t know how to build a movement that connects the dots and brings much of the social change community together around some common goals and tactics. I’ve never done anything like it before. As far as I know, no one else has either.
Yet, I’ve backed myself into an interesting but very difficult intellectual corner. I’ve waited years for someone else to connect the dots across the issue-based and ideological lines that matter to me and, with it, sparked paradigm-shift like changes. It hasn’t happened .
So, at the urging of some friends and colleagues, I decided to get the ball rolling.
In other words, I have no choice.
I have to at least take a stab at defining what I mean by connecting the dots so that the people I end up working with can figure out what I’m asking them to do and whether or not they want to get involved.
You Don’t Have to Quit Your Day Job
Just about thirty years ago, I left my day job. I gave up the security and the joy of teaching at a high end liberal arts college. It was a leap into the unknown, but it also was a blessing, because it allowed me to go on a very non-linear journey that got me to dot connecting in ways that are neither terribly interesting or relevant to anyone other than me and, perhaps, the people I hang around with the most.
What is relevant is that I definitely do not expect the people I work with to follow my lead and give up their day jobs because they are doing their part in creating what the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation calls “a more just and peaceful world.
What I do want them to do is to spend some time with other “dots” and find not only some common ground but some common steps forward as well, which is where the idea of catalytic convening come into play, although that is easiest to see what I mean if I reverse the order of those two “c” words.
I’ve done a lot of convening over the years. I first thought of it as central to my political life (and something that I enjoyed doing) when I began inviting students who disagreed with each other but would probably also like each other over to my house for dinners after I started teaching. More importantly, I’ve spend much of the last thirty years working with my friend Dick O’Neill (see my earlier blog posts) who got me thinking about doing it far more intentionally, since that he convened people for a living.
Despite his influence on me, I never thought systematically about convening until I read Priya Parker’s delightful book, The Art of Gathering, a couple of years ago. While my kind of convening and her kind of gathering are not quite the same, she helped me focus on four key questions that might seem obvious at first glance, but have to be dealt with if you want to have a chance of having the catalytic side of things work especially at the early stages of a project like Connecting the Dots. So, too, do David Bradford and Carole Robin in their more recent book, Connect, which builds off of their wildly successful interpersonal dynamics course at Stanford Business School, which is universally known as Touchy Feely. And, as the chart from the Center for Purposeful leadership suggests, these four concerns may not take me deeply enough into what it means to convene
Who. We’ve solved the first problem with a simple decision rule. The Connecting the Dots Community will start small and will initially be limited to individuals and organizations I know are open to the kinds of collaborative work that can help promote radical or transformative change in American society but are seeking ways of doing so by working largely inside the system. As the community grows, we will undoubtedly broaden those criteria. For now, however, it is important that the group have at least a few critical common points of departure. Most of the groups are already networks of organizations which means that they have some sort of local base and aspirations to grow nationally and, in some cases, globally.
At the same time, we don’t want them to be too similar so that there is room for the kind of intellectual growth that comes from discussing differing perspectives on similar topics. Thus, some of them are fairly large and well-established, while others are in the first stages of starting up. Some are pretty edge, while others are more mainstream.
Where. Dick typically held his Highlands Forum events in delightful and out of the way places so that participants could eat well and relax in comfort while doing the hard work of grappling with some contentious and intellectually difficult topic. In the mid-2000s, for example, he convened a group of military and Peacebuilding leaders to discuss civil-military cooperation in post-conflict reconstruction. We started with a tour of the Gettysburg battlefield led by the eminent Civil War historian, James McPherson. We then spent the next three days as the only guests at a lovely small hotel in the area where we kept bouncing back and forth between reconstruction in the U.S. after 1865 and what we were watching unfold in Iraq and Afghanistan. Parker, by contrast, often gathers people for walking tours around New York. But, again, her choice of where to walk and, more generally, where to meet, can be just as important as who is there.
Unfortunately, I can’t do either of those things. For reasons that have nothing to do with this post, we decided to launch the Connecting the Dots Community without any funding, let along enough for us to rent a site—picturesque or otherwise. And, we will be doing the first convening during the pandemic which means that we will have to hold them virtually. So, we’ll be stuck using Zoom and similar platforms that promise a slightly less impersonal setting for our discussions, such as spatial.chat.
Content. This might seem so obvious that I shouldn’t have to raise it. After all, I will be bringing together people who have already made a strong commitments to constructive social change. So, we should just launch into a discussion of how to reach those goals together?
However, if I learned anything from Dick, it’s the importance of not assuming that the people you convene share a lot. We will, thus, start by defining those common points of departure as well as those areas in which we see things differently.
In other words, the first step will involve relationship building around the themes that the individuals and organizations already work on. We haven’t figured out exactly how that will happen, but one option would involve brainstorming sessions after each of the groups briefly discusses what it already does and how it would like to grow by connecting more dots. That will take some time, but by the time it’s done, we should have a clearer sense of what we do and don’t share and have established some issues and opportunities to explore in more depth.
How. This is the hardest question for me to deal with personally. The older I get, the more impatient I become to, as I often jokingly refer to it, as “wanting to change the world by next Friday.” And, many of the organizations I will be inviting share at least some of my impatience and, what’s more, don’t have a lot of time to waste given the pressures they face given their current commitments.
Still, I have to struggle with my impatience. While I can see many of the commonalities among the groups because I have worked with all of the dot connecters already, they don’t have that experience with each other. Nor have they built the trust that comes with exploring their common ground—and the lack thereof—together. This will take time.
You may have noticed that the deeper I got into the section on convening, the less precise I was in laying out how I expect the project to evolve because those will not be my decisions to make—a point I’ll return to in ending this post.
It’s even harder to predict what the catalytic side of the convening will lead to.
In fact, it’s impossible.
A few weeks ago, I had thought about launching local projects, including identifying a couple of places where we could begin. Now, after some feedback from friends, that feels way too premature.
So, the most I can do is lay out three areas in which I expect we will catalyze new collaborative efforts and, I hope, new projects.
Pivot toward intersectionality. I am assuming that we will all pivot toward efforts that put the intersectional nature of the problems we face on center stage. After all, that’s the main reason why I decided to write the book that led to the decision to create the Connecting the Dots Community. Despite their best intentions, the organizations I’m reaching out to are not finding it easy to actually do work that crosses ideological and issue-based silos although they very much want to do so.
One conversation I had this week suggests the kinds of initiatives we could envision down the line. A friend had led a workshop at a public health center in an affluent suburb that serves a largely poor and Latinx clientele. While there, my friend learned that that his firm that specializes in training on DEI issues could have an even greater impact on addressing systemic racism if it incorporated public health, housing, and even the transportation options available to those mostly undocumented clients into its work. His organization does not have much expertise in any of those other areas, and I’m hoping that the community can be a place in which that kind of expertise can first be identified and then shared.
If anything, the chart underestimates how intersectional our work has to because the International City/County Management Association didn’t include issues like climate change or economic inequality in it.
Help the dots do their existing work better. One thing is certain. I will not be asking these organizations to give up their “day jobs.”
I was drawn to them for my research because I was impressed by what they were already doing, and it would be absurd to ask them to give that up and only pursue some elusive connecting of some ill-defined dots.
In fact, the initiative will fail unless it add new ideas, projects, and resources to what they are already doing.
In other words, my desire to build the community is based on the assumption that it will help the member organizations do their current work far better than they currently are and have the kind of impact they can only dream of today.
Grow the community. We will also fail if the community doesn’t grow beyond the ten or so founding members. Although we may not try to grow the organization in the first months, we will have to at least begin planning its growth that could begin sometime later in 2022.
The original community members themselves also made it clear that they would prefer to start small so that they could build a solid agreed framework on which to base whatever came next. Still, the network will have to grow to include more communities, more issues, more ideological diversity, and more. In all likelihood, the next wave of “dots” will be more locally based and more focused on an individual issue, which makes having that agreed-upon set of values and organizing principles all the more important.
Implicit (but by no means certain) here is the idea that the network will support existing local projects and/or help start new ones. That’s the case because all of the original members share the assumption that transformational change is best achieved by starting with grassroots initiatives that can be taken to scale. All, too, have some sort of organizational scaffolding through which such initiatives could grow nationally. Still, an early practical challenge will be to demonstrate success at local levels that could then be adapted—and in some cases replicated—elsewhere. It is too early to predict what they will be like, but the initiative will fail unless we can create a number of “bright spots” that could spread around the country.
Keep Myself off Center Stage
I have been around for a long time.
This is the first time, however, that I’ve actually been in charge of anything larger than a classroom.
So, perhaps more than most, I have to keep reminding myself that this is not about me.
That’s especially true for this initiative, because connecting enough dots to change American cultural norms and public policy will take a long time. Even if we succeed beyond my wildest expectations, I do not expect to be around when and if the initiative succeeds.
In other words, however important I may be in getting the community off the ground, part of my job is to make certain that it reflects what the dots want and not whatever I think is cool.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.
Also published on Medium.