Nurturing a Global Social Field

As an executive of a philanthropic and programmatic foundation, I have tried to attend to the field of philanthropy from a systemic perspective. I have often wondered if the current philanthropic system is inadvertently keeping overarching societal inequities in place. What might our economies and societies look like if the overarching direction of capital were to be flowing (rather than stagnant), if business were a force for good, and if we could connect and co-create across perceived boundaries? I have asked organizations and partners, how might we apply a systems view to our work — as individuals, as organizations and as sectors that care deeply about the betterment of people and planet?

Systems change allows us to “make sense of the complexity of the world [by looking] at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than splitting it down into its parts and looking at each in isolation,” Magnus Ramage and Karen Shipp shared in their work on systems thinkers. Systems change invites a shift in perspective from the parts to the whole and then challenges us to shift actions, structures and mindsets that hold the systems in place.

Photo by Amit Lahav

In looking at business and philanthropy from a systems change perspective, I wonder: how do we change a system when we know what the leverage points for change are but can’t seem to break old patterns? And, how do we surf the waves of change that seem to be coming at us faster and faster?

I am not the only one asking these questions. Over the years, as systems thinking has evolved, many have made use of these questions and variations of perspective. However, even when we gain new perspectives and see the challenges at hand, we still use the same methods of operating, or old patterns. These can include: a mindset of productivity, success driven metrics, hurtling towards pre-disposed outcomes, linear thinking, or believing if we can run fast enough or jump high enough, we won’t fall off the cliff. Even when we apply a systems view to a sector, organization or business, in attempting to change or undo the damage created by the system, we can end up falling into the same traps using the same patterns that created the system in the first place.

A Moment of Collapse?

Around the world, we are experiencing disruption, chaos and uncertainty, Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT and Founding Chair of Presencing Institute (PI) reminds us in his most recent article. Scharmer explores this time as a moment of civilizational collapse. This is underscored by what he refers to as the polycrisis and the findings of UNDP’s 2022 Human Development Report (HDR) which launched on September 8th titled, “Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives: Shaping our Future in a Transforming World.” The HDR articulates that humanity will continue to experience chaos and disruption, the pace of which is only likely to accelerate; and humanity needs to learn to live with uncertainty. It also says, while we know many of the solutions for solving the big crises of our time, we are failing to act on them. Now more than ever we need to address the root causes of these systemic failures.

Zooming out on the current crises and even small scale disruptions, is this moment of collapse a moment of transition? Can we see it as a time in which systems that don’t work (and haven’t for a long time) are cracking because they don’t meet the needs of a great many on our planet and are destroying human life on Earth? Perhaps this is a moment of transformation — of systems, organizations and consciousness, to step into the world we know is possible.

Systems Change in Action

Recently, I hosted the Presencing Institute’s (PI) Global Sensing Event to transition the season of online connection points and learning journeys which have been happening over the last year. It felt like both a culmination of many months and years of work but also an early stage beginning in the grand scheme of all that is emerging in the field of systems transformation.

During my early years with the Eileen Fisher Foundation, I worked to bring to life a recycled clothing initiative. The managing director at the time called me “the engine.” In many ways I could feel the future emerging by DOING what was needed. We were at the heart of shifting the narrative of a linear clothing story — clothing is made, worn and discarded — to a circular story: clothing is grown, designed to experience more than one life cycle and ideally decomposed or deconstructed to shift into the next evolution of materials. Our goals at the time were to use resale of clothing to support young women’s leadership and to keep clothing out of the landfill.

Photo from EILEEN FISHER Waste No More

Looking back, we were in the midst of a conversation shifting around sustainability. We were part of the early thinking about a circular economy from a whole-systems perspective and continued to evolve the sustainability dialogue. We now know that to sustain is no longer enough, we need to shift towards a regenerative economy and regenerative business models. Throughout our work on the recycled clothing initiative and with EILEEN FISHER Inc. leadership exploring how they measure impacts of business on people and planet, we regularly received input, connection, perspective and support from the Presencing Institute and colleagues who used a systems approach. We stepped outside of the old patterns and began to ask for clothing back from customers, effectively taking responsibility for the garments we had created. While we don’t have all the answers and success tends to mean better problems, we continue moving to the edges of the system to sense and act from a place of possibility.

Over the last few years, as a board member and Senior Faculty of PI, I have worked with other organizations and communities who are sensing the cracks and possibilities in their systems. Together, we are igniting large scale ecosystem activation across a global community of practitioners and changemakers.

Global Ecosystem Activation Goes Digital

During these years, with a production team that has worked with partners across the mindfulness, personal growth, technology and media spheres (including Eileen Fisher Foundation programs), we have explored ways to activate a budding global movement to allow for a global seeing and sensing, as well as to enable a capacity to actualize an emerging future, rather than continuously perpetuating patterns of the past.

Particularly during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, Scharmer and I, along with the production team and core PI team members, developed a 14 week journey called the Global Activation of Intention and Action (GAIA Journey). Over 250 people volunteered to support the program and over 15,000 attended the bi-weekly events across 8 language tracks. Together with faculty such as Vandana Shiva, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Nipun Mehta, Thomas Hübl, Frederic Laloux, Ubiraci Pataxo, Humberto Maturana, Peter Senge, Dayna Cunningham, Arawana Hayashi and many more, we explored the current moment of disruption, the framework of Awareness Based Systems Change and the spark that lives in each of us to move forward the regenerative possibilities in our world.

Images from the GAIA Journey on u-school.org

The program did not fall out of the sky. It was built on decades of work pulling together methods and tools, developing practice fields and labs around the world. It was built on a social field and relationships that had been cultivated over time. From a digital standpoint, PI had started a Global Classroom as early as 2007 to connect the community of those of us interested in this work. We watched videos together and connected in online calls (remember Skype?) in small groups, nurturing smaller social fields of connection as part of a larger ecosystem. During MIT’s launch of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Scharmer and a small but mighty core team were able to take the global classroom to the next level with what was to become one of the largest ever MOOCs, u-lab. Over the last near decade, u-lab has had over 200,000 registrants around the world.

The magic of u-lab has been people gathering together in Hubs to watch the livestreams and engage in the coursework to immediately activate their own interior capacities for awareness based systems change and become changemakers in their communities. The early u-lab became u-lab1x to continue engaging new participants and act as a refresher or connection point for engaged Theory U practitioners, but many practitioners were ready to take the next step — actualizing the future as it emerges. u-lab2x was born as a type of accelerator for changemakers to apply Awareness Based Systems Change to their own organizations, communities and selves. Approximately 300 teams have gathered every Spring to dive into these processes together.

In Awareness Based Systems Change work, we need to be able to see and sense a system together. Therefore, it has largely been a requirement to gather in person, in place. There is a magic when people come together and feel, in the moment, what is wanting to happen. For example, in EILEEN FISHER, when the design teams first started using these practices, the act of being in the same room, practicing generative listening (level 4 in the Theory U framework) and feeling each of the fabric samples together, reduced the amount of samples the company needed and streamlined the design process.

Places and people learn from one another. Over the years, the Presencing Institute team hosted a Global Forum to bring 250–300 changemakers together in person annually in both Boston and Berlin.. During the first moments of the pandemic, as we all remember, these in-person gatherings were not possible and pushed all of us to our edges to prototype the new.

Technology of Awareness Based Systems Change

I am no technology expert. As a millenial, I grew up with the advent of the internet (from dial up to wifi), the shift of rotary phones to cell phones (phone calls to text messages), innovations of GPS, cassettes to Spotify, VHS to streaming. You get the point. Much of my life has been shaped by ever changing technology and early adoption of modes of communication. The shift from calling cards costing $7.00/minute on international trips away from home to free video chats with multiple family members around the world at one time shifted how I could connect and be a bridge for worlds (like the old country) my ancestors thought they left behind. These shifts happening rapidly and throughout my formative years have been a prime ‘transferable skill’ preparing me for the facilitation of u-lab1x and 2x and the lift-off of the GAIA Journey.

From developing a small in-person leadership program to hosting online digital leadership capacity building, over the last decade, I’ve seen the leap of what’s possible in expanding our awareness to hold a much wider experience. We’ve piloted the use of multiple platforms and pushed them to their edges. In the GAIA Journey alone, we used Whatsapp/Facebook, established a Slack workspace for organizing across community members and threaded together Zoom rooms with streaming technologies to ensure small breakout groups and connectivity across a large collective social field. New platforms and digital solutions continue to evolve.

The question is: what mindset and source do we operate from in our usage of those platforms? The PI global community operates from a sense of shared awareness built on technology that allows for shared visibility in real time. In the early phases of u-lab, it was a one:many platform, people could only connect with the content. The hubs allowed for people to gather around practicing the content, and then online discussion boards allowed individuals and communities to see and sense each other. With the GAIA Journey and the online Global Forum, and the mass entrance onto Zoom, the global community was able, in real time, to experience one:many, many:many and many:one. Speakers from across the globe were able to join and share information or stories with thousands of people around the world at one time — and in an intimate experience of looking directly at the camera and seeing the gallery of windows into the global community. Those participants were able to talk with each other and explore what they saw, sensed and felt. People were able to share back with the speaker and they were able to share back across voice and video in real time. These concepts don’t seem new to us now after the 2020 transition, but that reality changed the way we interact with each other.

Photo by NASA

u-lab, GAIA Journey and the Global Forum have offered the global community a possibility our ancestors could never have imagined. Time and again I hear stories of people who have connected in digital experiences and made life-long friends, collaborators and co-founders for initiatives around the world. The ways we have come together in digital space will irrevocably change the way we live and work. Rather than attempting a ‘return’ to the way things were, can we welcome the changes and use them to address and de-escalate crises in real time or solve larger scale systemic issues by bringing in a wider lens?

Form Follows Function

During the preparation of our most recent session, I realized: this is just the beginning. The zoom rooms where we can see and sense each other, hybrid environments and the amplification of stories of regenerative possibilities around the world are just starting. In many ways, we are uncovering lines of connection that have been there all along — many we have felt but not yet seen. During GAIA, we were able to connect thousands around the world. However, we are still at the early phases of establishing the container (and the well-being of the teams) that it takes to hold these large scale digital experiences.

There are many learning opportunities for nurturing this global social field. Some of the questions we are asking ourselves: How much does it really cost to establish enabling infrastructures? How many people do we need to hold the energy of the social field? How do we use CRM info and data in a way that allows the community to connect with each other without buying into large scale misuses of data and respecting privacy? How do we invest in our own infrastructure inside a small non-profit structure? How to expand a lean team without losing the magic of family-feeling creativity? Even with all of these questions, in this early phase of using technology to further awareness based systems change, we are seeing tremendously exciting possibilities.

I reflect on what made it possible for me, a non-tech expert to do this work. As humans develop new technology, it’s up to us to decide how to use it (and of course, some of us are developing the technology around cultural patterns and shifts). The quality of how we develop and use technology is a direct function of our ability to let go of old patterns of thought and behavior, and to see/sense the future as it is emerging.

Global Sparks

The global sparks we’ve seen have been tremendous. Scharmer discussed in his most recent article, the concept of “Protect the Flame” as shared by Joseph Beuys in his final speech before his passing in 1986. Changemakers around the world are doing just that. When we articulated the call to the global community at the start of the pandemic, the response was an outpouring. 50 core volunteers (largely attendees of a recently completed Ecosystem Leadership Program) immediately came to the fore, and a total of 250 volunteers helped in ways large and small.

Language track leaders emerged not only to translate English streams, but to establish cultural and linguistic links/pathways to share knowledge globally. The Spanish language track, GAIA Espanol, for example, brought together a weekly meeting of people immersed in Theory U (Teoria U) in an inclusive infrastructure to explore themes ranging from indigenous leadership, climate crisis, inclusion, disability, and more across Latin America, Spain and the Spanish speakers around the world. Japanese, Mandarin, French, German, Dutch, Hebrew, Italian, as well as Ubuntu Lab (an organization based in Africa) tracks emerged, bringing forward their leaders and alignment with the Theory U framework. We established social solidarity circles as small holding spaces for exploration and micro-practices for participants to use in their own communities. We are still learning about the ways these infrastructures established sparks of transformation around the world.

Social Technologies

The technologies we are working with are not just digital, although the digital will continue to enable us to build expanded infrastructures for powerful global seeing and sensing. The technologies we are working with are also social. One of the first emergent questions when we brought large groups of the global community together was: when we experience a moment of disruption, how do we react? Do we shut down and turn away? Do we choose to move more deeply into the moment, seeing, sensing and feeling what is happening? Often, it can feel too painful to really see it and hold it, especially when we are feeling alone. Thomas Hübl joined our sessions to further explain the phenomena around collective trauma and collective healing.

When we experience something painful, our nervous system may shut down. We call that experience the past, but it is as if we have paused a television show mid-stream and thrown the entire TV in the ocean. We may not see the program paused at the bottom of the ocean, but a part of our energetic field is still paying to keep that TV on pause and in the shadows. The experience of what we do to keep those televisions on is what Scharmer calls Absencing. In those moments, we succumb to the fear, to the voice that tells us not to look, to shut down, to numb. Yet, there is something powerful that happens when we see and sense together. When we pull the TV out of the water and we, with tools and resources, take a look and process the painful parts of the experience.

One such moment of real time practice was exploring the history of racism with Dr. Angel Acosta and Thomas Hübl immediately following the death of George Floyd. In real time, the world witnessed a police officer kneeling on the neck of a Black man for nine minutes ensuring his death. The incident pointed to larger forms of systemic and structural violence that have continued to persist in our societies, despite a desire to wipe them under the rug as actions of the past. Together, we saw, sensed and felt the pain, the horror of what we have done to each other and to our world as an imperfect species. In various cultures around the world, these atrocities may look different or have different stories but the collective experience is similar. We feel shame, we don’t want to see it, we numb ourselves. Yet, as a collective, we can begin to reckon with our past, and presence these parts of ourselves. We can accept the reality and essence of our humanness. This process on a collective level, is also just beginning.

The Social Arts have been emerging as tools that enable us to see and sense more deeply. Visual Practice and Generative Scribing established by Kelvy Bird is one such method. Social Presencing Theater, founded by Arawana Hayashi, is another that invites the body in as a tool and a guide to sense the emerging future. Both Social Arts appeared deeply in the GAIA journey, with Kelvy, Olaf Baldini and other artists around the world sharing outstanding imagery reflecting back in each session an invitation to notice what the global community was seeing, sensing and feeling in real time. Kelvy’s image itself, life-size, created in her office using materials from the prior decade of PI core team and Global Forum convenings, was in itself a masterpiece.

Image created by Kelvy Bird for GAIA Journey

These two Social Arts have opened pathways for more to come forward including: Social Poetics, as many experienced during the Global Forum by John Stubley, Generative Sound with Antonio Moya in GAIA and the Global Forum (and Edinson Castano in the GAIA Espanol track). The practical application of Social Arts and evolutions of these practices are also in their early phases.

Sprouts Through the Rubble

Where we go from here is up to us. I write these reflections less than 24 hours after a cultural icon has passed, the 96 year old longest reigning Queen of Great Britain who presided over the fall of an Empire. For most of the human beings on Earth at this time, we have not known a world without her living presence. Her death will mark many significant shifts around the world. While many are in mourning, we may want to mourn the life of a woman who was born into a particular destiny, and not the institution that condoned abuses of power and a colonized world. She has been celebrated as a bastion of stability or the one constant in an inconstant world.

Perhaps her passing can represent a shift to an era of what I call the ‘Common Queen.’ The return of the Queen within each of us — the one who, wearing her own crown, stands in compassion with an open heart to the world around her, curiosity with an open mind to new ideas, and courage with an open will, to step forward no matter how difficult the path may seem. What would the world look like if we each stepped into our gifts and highest contribution to the world? What if we supported each other to do just that?

There are no shortages of global crises to deflate us. As we see and feel what’s happening around the world in real time, and with live commentary from anyone with a twitter account, the volatility will continue to have an effect on us. The question is: how do we respond? Do we wait for the next monarch, or knight in shining armor out there to come and save us? Or do we put on our own crowns and find the Common Queen within. The more I clear my own personal abilities to see and sense, the more I feel and the more I hurt with the world. Yet, that ability to feel is also our ability to heal. It is what will invite us to see the sprouts through the rubble.

As Scharmer shared during the Global Sensing session, when systems collapse, what we are left with is our relationships to each other, and to mother nature. What’s needed now is to nurture those relationships, to use technologies for good — to build resilience and connect across perceived boundaries and to work towards wellbeing for planet earth and her people.

Special thanks to Emma Paine and Sheila Klatzky for reviewing and providing helpful edits to this lengthy article.

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Antoinette Klatzky

Antoinette Klatzky

Executive Director, Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute. Host/Co-Producer, Women Together. antoinetteklatzky.com