I’m having an unusual birthday today.
Instead of getting a new tie or some other gift from the family and in addition to a dinner with my grandkids, I’m giving myself a present—the soft launch of a new political movement.
Actually, it’s pretty much a coincidence that I’m able to launch what I’m calling the Connecting the Dots Community on the same day that I turn 74.
Still, as part of my birthday celebration, I’d like to share the news.
Why We Need to Connect Some Dots
The United States finds itself in any number of binds as the 2020s head into their third year. The events of 2020 and 2021 have driven home just how serious the problems we face are in their own right. Racism. Climate change. Economic inequality. Polarization. And more.
As if the problems themselves weren’t challenging enough, we find ourselves adrift and ill-equipped to deal with them in at least two ways.
- they overlap in so many ways that they can’t be solved separately or quickly if we can solve them at all
- whatever progress we could make on any or all of them is stymied by the gridlock in Washington which means that leadership from our national government is sorely lacking, whoever happens to be in power at the moment
Given these and other problems that the reader could add, it would be absurd to argue that any individual or organization can point toward a single way forward that provides the answer for our countries problems. There is no single way out of the mess(es) we find ourselves in.
The Connecting the Dots community could move us forward at least these fronts by literally trying to do just that across issue-based and ideological lines on the issues befuddling the United States (and, in many cases, the rest of the world).
To see why that could make a difference, I first have to take you on a short detour.
Catalytic Convening for Large-Scale Change
I’ve come to see the power of dot connecting through my friendship with Dick O’Neill, whom I’ve known since our kindergarten days. Largely because I became a peacebuilder and he was a career naval officer, we drifted apart after college until our thirty-fifth high school reunion in 2000 when a classmate suggested I should look him up because she knew we had a lot in common and should work together.
I was confused. What someone who had built his career opposing wars possibly share with someone who had spent time on the staff of the Secretary of Defense?
I was also wrong.
We had a lot in common.
Until he retired a couple of years ago, Dick ran the Highlands Forum which convened diverse groups of thought leaders that helped top Pentagon leaders think outside the clichéd box. As we got to know each other again, we realized that our very different career trajectories had brought us very close to one another. Being outside the box at the Pentagon meant asking tough questions about what our country ws doing in general and about our actions after 9/11 which occurred a year after we reconnected. I, too, had realized that we peacebuilders could not simply be against wars. We had to offer something constructive to replace them with.
We also discovered that we had a common understanding about the social and economic changes that were creating a world of wicked problems and intersectionality. We both talked in terms of the need for a paradigm shift in the way people dealt with their problems and with each other in a world that was growing ever more complex and in which change was the only constant.
Our discussions were pretty abstract until 9/11. But the realization that we had to work together became clear two days later when he came to a launch party for a book I had just published on international peacebuilding. For reasons neither of us fully remembers, we ended up doing the Q and A part of the evening together, and no one could tell which of us was the career military officer and which of us was the career peacebuilder.
To make a long story short, Dick soon joined the Alliance for Peacebuilding Board of Directors and I got more involved with what he was doing with the Highlands Forum. We quickly discovered that the tools he had had developed at Highlands could be used to help people deal with just about any issue that needed new and innovative ideas. In the twenty years since then, we convened seemingly divergent groups of stakeholders in designing new initiatives at AfP and beyond that involved both the exploration of new ideas and the forging of unusually broad coalitions that bring strange political bedfellows together. Over the years, those discussions brought peacebuilders into productive and innovative discussions with members of the military, technologists, filmmakers, musicians, and others we had rarely worked with before.
By the time Dick retired, I began describing what we were doing as catalytic convening albeit in reverse order.
- We brought together diverse groups of people for what felt like unscripted conversations even though we often had an agenda of topics we wanted them to cover
- Especially when they met over an extended period of time, the attendees themselves came up with new ideas which they, together, could put into practice
The Challenge of the 2020s
Fast forward to 2021. The need for catalytic convening has grown exponentially.
As I suggested earlier, events in this decade so far have driven home the importance of intersectional work while at the same time shown us ways that many in “mainstream America” are more open than ever to taking dramatic new steps when it comes to race relations, climate change, gender, and more. At the same time, the political tensions and gridlock in Washington have shown us, we can not expect public policy makers at the national level to take the lead in taking any such bold new initiatives.
That’s why I’ve decided to create the Connecing the Dots community which will serve as a catalytic convener starting with the groups I’m already following and will be covering in my next book, not surprisingly, entitled Connecting the Dots.
Before digging into those plans in any detail, I should mention two assumptions I’m making that not all readers will necessarily share. First, we have some time before a climate change, democratic deterioration, or any other problem passes the point of no return. Second, in the meantime, we can build grass roots initiatives at least some of which cross partisan divides, restore a degree of trust, and lay the groundwork for both a less divided population and a governing elite that is better able to forge policy solutions.
To be fair, there have been some significant policy changes during this century for us to learn from, most notably the adoption of policies legalizing marriage equality. At the same tiem, those new public policies help make my case. They only became possible in part because of dramatic shifts in public opinion which were themselves a product of grassroots organization. It was only at that point that they grew into powerful movements in Washington, too.
After decades studying and working for social change, Dick and I both understand that any such movement never gets built spontaneously. They all included a form of catalytic convening in which leaders built broad coalitions that sought to change cultural norms as well as—and often before—they advocated for specific policy shifts. They also include an interplay between grassroots activists and national or regional leaders who, together, mobilize activists while deepening their understanding and commitment to the movement by helping it build local based that will allow it to have an impact on policy makers sooner rather than later. For good or ill, that is harder but all the more important to do when it comes to the kinds of complex issues and interdependent society we face today.
That all leads me to the conclusion that an expanded and more focused version of catalytic convening can help Americans make those dents and begin solving some of the many divisions we face that lead to what Evan Osnos refers to as the wildfires that are plaguing our political lie.
By bringing these kinds of organizations together, our goal is to:
- add to the impact they already have had
- expand their collective impact by working together and creating wholly new projects starting with a handful of carefully selected communities
- create the potential to add more organizations, more issues, and more communities until we reach the point that they have an impact at the national level
The Connecting the Dots Community
That’s why I made the Connecting the Dots Community my birthday present to myself .
It will initially be composed of organizations that I already work with because they will be included in my book. Each of them typically work within a single issue “silo” but their leaders know that they have to work intersectionally. Like the local peacebuilders which are all the rage in my own silo these days, they all also understand that any movement for dramatic social change has to start with a strong grassroots base because you have to be able to make a difference locally before you can begin shifting either cultural norms or public policy at the national level. All, finally, understand that given the realities of the 2020s, any successful movement will have to be based “inside the system” and seek to expand the coalition of individuals and groups who are willing to end up on the “right side of history.”
I’m in the process of building a team of advisors which I hope will include Dick O’Neill, whose health will not allow him to play a more active role in something we’ve dreamed about for years.
We will start with something like ten organizations which were chosen because they all have some sort of local presence and national (in some cases global) aspirations. All, too, have experience in their own right as convening organizations, and most have catalyzed projects along the way even if they don’t use the term catalytic convening in describing themselves. Finally, they all have not only expressed an interest in doing intersectional work but have begun working with me along those lines.
We will start small because we have to.
It would also be the height of presumption for me to say that my friends and I know exactly what this community will accomplish or lay out a clear set of deliverables for it to accomplish. Indeed, given the face that we are living through a decade defined by overlapping or intersectional issues, wicked problems, and accelerating rates of change, the best available theories of change suggest starting with with “bright spots” at the community level and build from there.
As a result, we will spend the first few months in virtual meetings and agree on a set of goals that would reflect the diversity of the entire group and not just what I think is the most promising path(s) forward. Then, we anticipate working in four areas during 2022 and create the equivalent of beachheads from which we can expand later.
Expand existing projects. I chose the initial groups because they are already connecting dots in meaningful ways and have plans in the works to collaborate with at least one of the other partners. In this initial phase, the organizations would meet together and identify ways that their existing projects could incorporate two or more of the other partners.
Start Two Integrated Local Projects. In one form or another, all of the organizations I’ve chosen to work with are national networks. All, however, understand that the successful social change today has to be build from the grassroots upward and therefore work closely with their silo’s equivalent of the local peacebuilders mentioned above.
So far, that work has largely been idiosyncratic. Each works in communities it is already connected to and rarely does so in ways that cross either ideological or issue-based lines.
Therefore, we will create at least new projects from scratch in two middle-sized urban areas in which one or more of the members has a strong local base off of which we can build out to other issues. One will be in a blue part of the country, the other in a red state.
Create a web presence. Connecting the dots may someday become a stand-alone initiative, but it will not become one in 2022 even in a best case scenario. However, it will need a web presence. Therefore, my next step after finishing this post will be to create a Substack newsletter, thedotconnecters.substack.com. This post will also become its first issue in the next day or so. Later in the week, I will add a connecting the dots section above the fold on the landing page of my personal site, www.charleshauss.info. As the project evolves, I assume that the member organizations will begin featuring it on their own sites as well.
Start going to scale. I am starting small and initially limiting myself to organizations that have shown interest in the project. We all know that we will have to add more “dots” in at least two ways. First, we expect to identify other national level organizations that share the commitment to radical change achieved primarily by working “within the system.” Second, we also assume that we will attract locally based organizations in each of the communities we work in.
Together, we expect to be able to take these initiatives to scale in three overlapping, but intellectually separable ways as outlined in this chart. That starts with an “inward” journey of self-awareness as each organization will have to come to deepen its understanding of how best to connect dots. As already suggested, we will be expanding the work “outward” to include additional locations and organizations. Finally, in time, we will begin to have the kind of impact nationally or “upward” that we usually have in mind when we talk about going to scale.
But Think Big
While it would be presumptuous to anticipate what the community will be like in 2023 and beyond, I do hope we accomplish the following by the end of 2022 which leave us positioned to grow even faster in the rest of this decade:
- doubled the number of organizations that are part of the convening, including some that focus on other issues as their jumping off point
- begun plans to work in at least four more communities
- initiated discussions about a national strategy with other networks, media outlets, higher education, and more
- developed a strategy for expansion for the rest of the decade
If you are interested in joining the community or just want to learn more, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.