Move As If Women Are Half the World and You Are Part of Something Larger

“One of the things we press on [children] is competition. You know, because we have so much bought into the idea that competition is a law of nature… And the only source of creativity. And incidentally, that is not a true biological fact. There is competition in — as part of evolutionary process, but there’s a tremendous amount of cooperation also involved, even at the cellular level… for millions of years, every cell in every leaf is actually a cooperative enterprise.” -Mary Catherine Bateson

Every time I hear the phrase “the future of work”, all I can think is that I don’t want to talk about artificial intelligence or virtual reality until the world starts taking women seriously. By this, I mean being willing to follow the leadership of women, especially women of color, rather than simply including women in dominant systems.

I don’t want to talk about design thinking or human-centered design or participatory leadership or any number of organizational change or problem solving methodologies either unless we’re talking about women, too.

And I don’t want to talk about cell phones or apps. My phone was likely made using child labor from Congo and Steve Jobs treated his employees horribly. I don’t care if he was a genius. And anyway, he couldn’t figure out socially responsible supply chains. We all have more work to do.

When you can’t hear the voices on the margins who are talking about issues of equity and justice, then of course there are so many other things to talk about. So while women’s leadership initiatives within organizations (or industries or cities) are good, I remain so much more interested in people of all genders working together to create new feminist “systems of influence.” This is where I try to put my own energy. I’m interested in what happens at the intersection of gender justice and “living systems”, as in the kind of open, emergent, unpredictable, self-organizing (and highly organized!) systems you see in nature. Nature — being as resilient as it is — I think can help us be better people, teammates, and team-to-team system level players as we aim to create more equitable and just systems. (I’m especially interested in that last idea since we have been trained so well in the U.S. to compete even when the context tells us that competition makes no sense).

If we want to take on big systems, the idea is, we have look at our practices for working within systems and relating with each other. From nature, we can learn new, more generative practices and behaviors and then make those ways of working more visible.

To begin to understand how living systems work, I like Donnella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems. I also like Kate Raworth’s definition of a system from her book Doughnut Economics:

“What is a system? Simply a set of things that are interconnected in way that produce distinct patterns of behavior — be they cells in an organism, protestors in a crowd, birds in a flock, members of a family or banks in a financial network. And it is the relationship between the individual parts — shaped by their stocks and flows, feedbacks, and delay — that give rise to their emergent behavior.”

As for how to work with emergence in our communities and institutions, I always go back to what I first learned at The Berkana Institute about how just like in nature, old systems die and new systems emerge through the self-organization of people who sense what is needed next. (See “Lifecycle of Emergence” by Deborah Frieze and Margaret Wheatley). New systems become powerful when people connect around shared purpose across organizations and fields to co-develop what’s next (much easier said than done even though we still do it all the time… good for us!).

And in working toward justice from a living systems perspective, adrienne maree brown is ahead of so many of us on this. In her book Emergent Strategy, she writes about the connection between living systems and justice explicitly:

“I first became aware of fractals in 2004 when I was doing electoral organizing, though I didn’t have the word for it. We were trying to impact the federal election to get George W. Bush out of office. And what I saw clearly was that at a local level, we — Americans — don’t know how to do democracy. We don’t know how to make decisions together, how to create generative compromises, how to advance policies that center justice. Most of our movements are reduced to advancing false solutions, things we can get corporate or governmental agreement on, which don’t actually get us to where we need to be. It was and is devastatingly clear to me that until we have some sense of how to live our solutions locally, we won’t be successful at implementing a just governance system regionally, nationally, or globally.”

Combining living systems thinking with the work and wisdom of Octavia Butler, adrienne maree brown calls her body of work “emergent strategy” and describes it as relational, adaptive, fractal, interdependent, decentralized, and transformative.

To me, a living systems perspective in equity and justice work is particularly helpful because it teaches us:

  • how to understand our place in a larger set of interacting relationships within a larger whole
  • how to take the focus off ourselves and our own hyper-individualistic careerism as we work for change
  • how to be responsive and adaptive to change and new information as we create new work and new systems
  • how to work with difference like it’s a good and generative thing
  • how to let problems be complex if they are complex (see Cynefin)

Along these lines, I’ve been tinkering with the following questions to prompt myself and others to work differently:

  • Do you know what drives your team/system-level behaviors in and outside of organizations? Is it knowledge? Money? Friendship? Competitiveness? Generosity? A little of everything?
  • What if there are other ways we can self-organize to support each other (the new system of influence) more wisely?
  • How might we put the whole ahead of ourselves in a culture that pushes individualism and careerism without losing our equity and justice analysis? (Because women will always need to get paid and economic justice and being given credit for one’s work is a real thing!)
  • How do we honor women and feminists of all genders as visible individual changemakers who are also part of a larger whole?
  • How and when do we learn to step forward and step back as we take care of the whole of our communities?
  • Whose needs, concerns, ideas, new businesses, and thought leadership contributions get centered? Why?
  • What the hell does it take for the dominant group to say, “I don’t know” and then follow the leadership of women, especially women of color?

I’ve also been following living systems thinkers, equity and justice thinkers, and feminist thinkers to capture what feel like key generative practices (across different contexts and toward different purposes) that we can all use to create healthier systems. Some of these sets of recommendations below look like lists of actions and behaviors. Others like abstract ideas, very thoughtful intentions, and/or working principles. Sometimes it’s all about the “I”, other times about the “we”. To me, all of these practices feel useful. (Thank you to my colleagues Tuti Scott and Gwendolyn VanSant for sharing your lists of practices specifically for the Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum).

adrienne maree brown, from Emergent Strategy

  1. We are making an honest attempt to solve the most significant problems of our day.
  2. We are building a network of people and organizations that are developing long-term solutions based on the immediate confrontation of our most pressing problems.
  3. Wherever there is a problem, there are already people acting on the problem in some fashion. Understanding those actions is the starting point for developing effective strategies to resolve the problem, so we focus on the solutions, not the problems.
  4. We emphasize our own power and legitimacy.
  5. We presume our power, not our powerlessness.
  6. We are agents, not victims.
  7. We spend more time building than attacking.
  8. We focus on strategies rather than issues.
  9. The strongest solutions happen through the process, not in a moment at the end of the process.
  10. The most effective strategies for us are the ones that work in situations of scarce resources and intersecting systems of oppression because those solutions tend to be the most holistic and sustainable. Place is important. For the AMC, Detroit is important as a source of innovative, collaborative, low-resource solutions. Detroit gives the conference a sense of place, just as each of the conference participants bring their own sense of place with them to the conference.
  11. We encourage people to engage with their whole selves, not just with one part of their identity.
  12. We begin by listening.

Gloria Feldt, from 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power

1. Know your history. And you can create the future of your choice.

2. Define your own terms. Whoever sets the terms of the debate usually wins. By redefining power not as “Power-Over”, but as “Power-To” we shift from a culture of oppression to a culture of positive intention to make things better for everyone. “Power-To” is leadership.

3. Use what you’ve got. What you need is almost always there. See it and use it with courage. Because power unused is power useless.

4. Embrace controversy. It gives you a platform. Nudges you to clarity. It’s your teacher, your source of strength, your friend, especially if you are trying to make a change.

5. Carpe the chaos. Change creates chaos. Today’s changing gender roles and economic turbulence may feel chaotic and confusing. But chaos also means boundaries become more fluid. That’s when people are open to new ways of thinking, to innovation, and to new roles for women. Carpe the chaos, for in chaos is opportunity.

6. Wear the shirt of your convictions. What are your core values? What’s your vision? How can you make it happen? Stand in your power and realize your intentions.

7. Take action, create a movement. Things don’t just happen. People make them happen in a systematic way. And you can change systems. Apply the three movement building principles of Sister Courage (be a sister, act with courage, put them together to create a PLAN) and you will realize your vision at work, at home, or in public life.

8. Employ every medium. Use personal, social, and traditional media every step of the way. Use the medium of your own voice. And think of each of the power tools as a medium to be pressed into the service of your “Power-To”.

9. Tell your story. Your story is your truth. Your truth is your power. Telling your story authentically helps you lead (not follow) your dreams and have an unlimited life.

CV Harquail, from “Acknowledge, Affirm, and Amplify Good Business Practices: A Simple Generative Tip”

1. Acknowledge: Tell the business and the world what you admire about what the business is doing. Get specific. Are they highlighting their customers’ creativity as a way to create community? Upcycling otherwise discardable data to create value for everyone? Disclosing their mistakes in order to make real improvement?

2. Affirm: Tell the world why this particular action matters. Explain why it’s so positive and inspiring. Explain the impact it has on your business, thinking, customers, or network. Add thick value to your acknowledgment by offering at least one ‘why’. The ‘why’ pushes an idea deeper into someone’s attention.

3. Amplify: Tell the world how this information could be useful to them, and why they might want to try it or share it. Show them ways they might apply it to their own work. When people think an idea is useful to them, they get more invested in it. They are more likely to experiment with the idea and spread it by putting it into action. And they are more likely to share the idea with others, amplifying it out into their network.

Joanna Macy, drawn from Coming Back to Life, World Business Academy 1994

1. Attune to common intention. Intention is not a goal or plan you can formulate with precision. It is an open-ended aim; May we meet common needs and collaborate in new ways.

2. Welcome diversity. Self-organization of the whole requires differentiation of the parts. Each one’s role in this unfolding journey is unique.

3. Know that only the whole can repair itself. You cannot “fix” the world, but you can take part in its self-healing. Healing wounded relationships within you and between you is integral to the healing of our world.

4. Open to flows of information from the larger system. Do not resist painful information about the condition of your world, but understand that the plan you feel for the world springs from interconnectedness, and your willingness to experience it unblocks feedback that is important to the well-being of the whole.

5. Speak the truth of your experience of this world. If you have persistent responses to present conditions, assume that they are shared by others. Willing to drop old answers and old roles, give voices to the questions that arise in you.

6. Believe no one who claims to have the final answer. Such claims are a sign of ignorance and limited self-interest.

7. Work increasingly in teams or joint projects serving common intentions. Build community through shared tasks and rituals.

8. Be generous with your strengths and skills, they are not your private property. They grow from being shared. They include both your knowing and unknowing and the gifts you accept from the ancestors and all beings.

9. Draw forth the strengths of others by your own acknowledgement of them. Never prejudge what a person can contribute, but be ready for surprise and fresh forms of energy.

10. You do not need to see the results of your work. Your actions have unanticipated and far-reaching effects that are not likely to be visible in your lifetime.

11. Putting forth great effort, let there also be serenity in all your doing; for you are held within the web of life, within flows of energy and intelligence far exceeding your own.

Donella Meadows, “Dancing with Systems”

1. Get the beat.

2. Listen to the wisdom of the system.

3. Expose your mental models to the open air.

4. Stay humble. Stay a learner.

5. Honor and protect information.

6. Locate responsibility in the system.

7. Make feedback policies for feedback systems.

8. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.

9. Go for the good of the whole.

10. Expand time horizons.

11. Expand thought horizons.

12. Expand the boundary of caring.

13. Celebrate complexity.

14. Hold fast to the goal of goodness.

My list of practices from “Flip the Pattern of Erasing Women, Give Women Credit for their Work Every Chance You Get.”

1. Give credit. It’s simple, it’s professional, and it only takes a few extra minutes.

2. Ask to be credited for your work. If you’re a woman, know that every time you stand up for yourself and your work, you’re standing up for other women and their work, too.

3. Assume good intentions when someone appears to be using your work, but isn’t giving you credit. Reach out and ask them to do so. Keep in mind, too, that sometimes what feels like someone running with your work is just another person waking up to the same idea at the same time.

4. Similarly, reject knee-jerk competition. When you see someone else doing what you’re doing, consider this good news. You either have a new partner in your work or your work is going to get clearer and better. There is enough to go around.

5. Elevate the conversation of “giving credit to someone” to one about how entire communities of people (and their knowledge) get erased from history if we aren’t careful.

6. Trust abundance. Trust that for every person stealing your work, or appearing to steal your work, there’s a more positive connection or collaboration out there.

7. Keep doing good work, keep creating. Don’t let unfair behaviors get you down.

8. Focus more on changing individual and organizational behaviors and patterns and less on individuals and their actions. Don’t play into fear or blame, and don’t believe the story that work is all about individual careerism. Last I checked, most people care about other people. We want to give each other credit, support each other, and send each other in the direction of the real person who can help them.

Tuti Scott, from the workshop “Team Practices for Gender Lens Philanthropy & Investing”

1. We play to each other’s strengths.

2. We celebrate “wins” of all sizes and forms.

3. We communicate our values frequently, both internally and externally.

4. We demonstrate the impact of gifts made and received.

5. We demonstrate our unique value.

6. We share our vision and approach with pride.

7. We stay passionate about our cause, especially when inviting partnership.

8. We acknowledge moments, contributions, and life changes.

9. We create environments where people can invest with ease and grace.

10. We own our mistakes.

11. We celebrate lessons learned.

12. We listen to learn.

13. We act with gratitude and empathy.

Gwendolyn VanSant, from her piece, “Liberation from a Living System View: Women, Leadership, & Feminism

1. Identify diverse leadership in values, current social identities, and individual identities that have a historical oppression to transcend (gender and race in particular)

2. Create access in small ways and large ways (matching your resource level of capacity) to education, health, mobility, and resources

3. Create pathways of accessible, equitable education to all sectors and know that there is no “right” audience. Individuals impacted (children, women, African Americans, people living with generational poverty or with disability, LGBTQ, etc.) need the same education as educators, doctors, corporate executives and lawyers. The learners become seen as one in the same repairing generations of exclusion.

4. Create large (systemic) movements and small (interpersonal) moments of reparation in working towards restorative justice and equity

5. Amplify underrepresented perspective, voice, and experience

6. Act/do as if positive social impact for all is our collective goal

7. Work together in order to change and transform the world and work separately in order to work and change yourself

8. Build trust and relationships by joining in (i.e. not taking over, saving or advising)

9. Build on what is working and what connects our work

10. Identify shared values across difference and make them explicit

11. Establish accountability as a core practice (i.e. practice non-violence)

12. Hold attribution as a core practice (i.e. practice non-stealing)

13. Lead with a clear edge of no harm (intentional or unintentional) and zero tolerance for extractive behavior to another group

14. Establish and continually sharpen a shared vision of liberation and equity and what it requires

15. Eradicate oppressive identities such as Whiteness that shape our daily lives (acknowledge first and then eradicate)

I’m reminded of Donella Meadows’ words:

“Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there… Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own. Instead of becoming a champion for one possible explanation or hypothesis or model, collect as many as possible. Consider all of them plausible until you find some evidence that causes you to rule one out.”

I used to look at all of these lists and wish so many of us, myself included, did more of these things. Now I look at these lists and see that while we all have so much more work to do, we are doing many of these things all the time. Through practice, I am keeping a critical mind while focusing on generative practices and noticing emergence when it happens. I am practicing catching moments and stories when we can see it all happening so clearly.