Social change. Strategist, facilitator, researcher, writer. https://open-colab.org
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Think back to the first few weeks of the COVID pandemic and the way it turned the world upside down. That was probably sometime in March, depending on where you are in the world. Most organizations spent those first few weeks scrambling as they adjusted to Peak Uncertainty.

By late April or early May, we were still in a scramble but we started to get a bit of clarity on what some possible futures would look like. Around that time, I started to hear from teams trying to do scenario planning to deal with the upcoming periods of slightly less uncertainty. …


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JHU CSSE’s COVID-19 tracker, as of March 28 at 11:30am ET

I have a dozen things I need to do and a half-dozen more ideas for what I could do differently, alongside a crushing sense that three-quarters of it doesn’t matter in the face of a global pandemic—but I don’t know which three-quarters.

Then there’s the siren call of twitter and the news singing false promises: read a bit more, scroll a bit further, to find the fresh take that will give me greater clarity.

We have to acknowledge the psychic toll this moment is taking on each of us. At the first level, even if my daily life somehow continued unchanged, I’d see a tax on my bandwidth from the awareness of what was happening and the shift that knowledge demands in my mental models of the world. …


Diagram of flattening the curve
Diagram of flattening the curve
Source: CDC, Drew Harris, via NPR

There’s an important idea from the humanitarian sector that famines are not natural disasters. They’re not caused by crop loss or droughts or even a lack of food. There’s always enough food in this world: it’s just not reaching the people who need it.

Famines are caused by market failures, and government inability or unwillingness to respond. A drought may be natural, but a famine is man-made.

It’s slowly dawning on folks that the same is true of pandemics. There are lots of nasty bugs in the world. …


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Ask anyone if they have a strategy, and the answer is usually “yes”. But ask them to show it to you, and they might sheepishly admit it’s not written down. That doesn’t mean they were lying: whether unstated or unexamined, or even confused or illogical, there’s always some chain of reasoning connecting your actions to your goals — that’s the essence of strategy.

Whether you have it in a document, or whether the strategy-as-written matches the reality, are different questions.

We have a norm against unstated or unwritten strategies, but what’s the real value of documenting our strategy? On the plus side, it helps us examine the implicit: by externalizing the strategy, we can critique it, test it, adjust it. …


The social change sector circles the wagons when criticized by outsiders, but among ourselves, we cringe thinking of the ways we could do our work better. Often we’re constrained by legacy systems or too focused on delivering the work to make structural improvements. Fortunately, outside the public eye, countless organizations are working to change the way social change happens.

A few years ago, Feedback Labs asked me to look at the segment of this change infrastructure that was using network approaches to support social sector organizations. We identified about 20 organizations with relevant missions and models similar, ranging from the MIT Media Lab to CIVICUS to 3ie. (See the examples below for the full list.) We looked across this set to see if certain themes emerged. The core lessons from the research were only relevant to Feedback Labs, but we realized in recent conversations that the overall framework would be useful to others. …


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Photo by Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash

The social change sectors love learning. Being a learning organization, fostering learning, learning and adaptation, adaptive learning. It has many names, but comes back to a perennial thorny problem: how to improve our work.

The prickliest briar in the bunch is the question of learning culture. Whether at a venerable institution or a flashy startup, culture is everyone’s favorite intangible enabler of learning.

Unfortunately, there’s no obvious way to create a learning culture. You often have to approach the issue sideways: if you want your culture to value learning, you can do more by focusing on a culture of adaptation instead. …


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Toxic.

There’s this weird assertion I’ve seen floated in discussions of the #MeToo movement and feminism. It takes a few different forms, but the basic gist is that some people take umbrage at the term “toxic masculinity” as if it implies that all masculinity is toxic.

Here’s why that’s so wrong-headed: because adjectives. If all masculinity were toxic, you wouldn’t need to specify. Just like when my friend says he bought running shoes. He’s not saying all shoes are running shoes. He’s distinguishing them.

Toxic masculinity is a particular conception of manliness that tells a man he needs to dominate those around him, that everything in life is a competition, that he can’t show weakness or ask for help, that he should shun anything feminine (including emotions), and that he must constantly perform these traits lest others doubt his manhood. …


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Teens For Gun Reform. (Photo: Lorie Shaull.)

We didn’t find out about it on twitter. The victims weren’t broadcasting as it happened. I remember reading the newspaper in my parents’ kitchen the next day. Standing, pacing, in disbelief and disgust. I remember being dumbfounded.

Back then, people still referred to mass shootings as “going postal”—after a handful of high-profile workplace shootings by post office workers in the 80s and 90s.

After Columbine, nothing changed at my school across the country in Virginia. I don’t remember any discussions about violence prevention or new security policies. The most I remember was that a few school districts banned trench coats, following early reports that the shooters were members of a clique called the “Trenchcoat Mafia” (which turned out to be false, though I didn’t learn that until googling it just now). We mocked the idea that their attire had anything to do with it. …


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Choice is not an option. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Presidential budgets are wish lists with little chance of becoming a reality. But why would anyone wish to create a vast government-run food distribution program?

That’s exactly what one provision in Trump’s recently submitted budget would do, as outlined by Budget Director Mick Mulvaney on Monday.

He described a proposal to distribute boxes of food to people currently benefitting from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP — also known as food stamps). At the same time, the government would cut in half the funds currently given on debit cards, which SNAP participants use to buy whatever food they need.

For roughly 38 million people who rely on the program, the net effect would be to dictate half of the food they get, while also creating a government procurement and logistics nightmare. …


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#NoBanNoWall protest, New York City, 1/29/17. Photo: Dave Algoso. (CC BY 4.0)

Trump’s tactics of division can help us create something better—but can we pull it off?

We’ve reached the one-year mark. It feels like more, not just because the past year has been so eventful—to use a polite term—but because the assault on our democratic foundations started long before. Last November was when the big one hit. The foreshocks and aftershocks have been daily.

The 2016 campaign had already brought the dawning realization that political norms were crumbling. As a candidate, Donald Trump said things that should have ended his career or, at the least, led his co-partisans to abandon him in defense of their own political futures.

Yet he gained more allies than he lost. His disregard for honesty and decency attracted a sorry bunch: the Breitbarts, 4channers, alt-right, Russian Trolls, spineless former primary opponents, and less respectable parts of Fox News. They mounted up alongside their wild-haired warlord, riding toward a post-apocalyptic politics devoid of natural resources or human relationships, screaming to one another for validation—“Witness me!!” in the Mad Max parlance—as they made their mothers ashamed. Together, they stumbled into a victory that even they didn’t expect. …

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