Sunday, September 9, 2012

Emergence = Social Change and We're Not Even Talking About Jesus

Reposted from I love this paper about emergence theory in it's larger context, not even relating to Emergence Christianity.  This larger identity known as the Great Western Emergence is really uplifting in terms of social change and cultural shifts.


by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze ©2006

In spite of current ads and slogans, the world doesn't change one person at a time.  It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what's possible.  This is good news for those of us intent on changing the world and creating a positive futureRather than worry about critical mass, our work is to foster critical connections.  We don't need to convince large numbers of people to change; instead, we need to connect with kindred spirits.  Through these relationships, we will develop the new knowledge, practices, courage, and commitment that lead to broad-based change.

But networks aren't the whole story.  As networks grow and transform into active, working communities of practice, we discover how Life truly changes, which is through emergence.   When separate, local efforts connect with each other as networks, then strengthen as communities of practice, suddenly and surprisingly a new system emerges at a greater level of scale.  This system of influence possesses qualities and capacities that were unknown in the individuals.  It isn't that they were hidden; they simply don't exist until the system emerges.  They are properties of the system, not the individual, but once there, individuals possess them.  And the system that emerges always possesses greater power and influence than is possible through planned, incremental change. Emergence is how Life creates radical change and takes things to scale.

Emergence has a life-cycle.  It begins with networks, shifts to intentional communities of practice and evolves into powerful systems capable of global influence.  Since it's inception in 1992, The Berkana Institute has striven to learn how living systems work, how they emerge from networks to communities to systems of influence. In our global work--primarily with economically poor communities in many different nations--we have experimented actively with emergence in many different contexts.  We have demonstrated what's possible when we connect people across difference and distance.  By applying the lessons of living systems and working intentionally with emergence and it's life-cycle, we have become confident that local social innovations can be taken to scale and provide solutions to many of the world's most intractable issues.

Why we need to understand networks

Researchers and social activists are beginning to discover the power of networks and networking.  And there is a growing recognition that networks are the new form of organizing.  Evidence of self-organized networks is everywhere:  social activists, terrorist groups, drug cartels, street gangs, web-based interest groups.  While we now see these everywhere, it is not because they're a new form of organizing.  It's because we've removed our old paradigm blinders that look for hierarchy and control mechanisms in the belief that organization only happens through human will and intervention.

Networks are the only form of organization used by living systems on this planet.  These networks result from self-organization, where individuals  or species recognize their interdependence and organize in ways that support the diversity and viability of all.  Networks create the conditions for emergence, which is how Life changes.    Because networks are the first stage in emergence, it is essential that we understand their dynamics and how they develop into communities and then systems.

Yet much of the current work on networks displays old paradigm bias.  In social network analysis, physical representations of the network are created by mapping relationships.  This is useful for convincing people that networks exist, and people are often fascinated to see the network made visible. Other network analysts name roles played by members of the network or make distinctions between different parts of the network, such as core and periphery. It may not be the intent of these researchers, but their work is often used by leaders to find ways to manipulate the network, to use it in a traditional and controlling way.

What's missing in these analyses is an exploration of  the dynamics of networks.

  • Why do networks form?  What conditions that support their creation?
  • What keeps a network alive and growing?  What keeps members connected?
  • What type of leadership is required?  Why do people become leaders?
  • What type of leadership interferes with or destroys the network?
  • What happens after a healthy network forms? What's next?
  • If we understand these dynamics and the life-cycle of emergence, what can we do as leaders, activists and social entrepreneurs to intentionally foster emergence?

What is Emergence?

Emergence violates so many of our Western assumptions of how change happens that it often takes quite a while to understand it.  In nature, change never happens as a result of top-down, pre-conceived strategic plans, or from the mandate of any single individual or boss.  Change begins as local actions spring up simultaneously in many different areas.  If these changes remain disconnected, nothing happens beyond each locale.  However, when they become connected, local actions can emerge as a powerful system with influence at a more global or comprehensive level.  (Global here means a larger scale, not necessarily the entire planet.)

These powerful emergent phenomena appear suddenly and surprisingly.  Think about how the Berlin Wall suddenly came down, how the Soviet Union ended, how corporate power quickly came to dominate globally.  In each case, there were many local actions and decisions, most of which were invisible and unknown to each other, and none of which was powerful enough by itself to create change.  But when these local changes coalesced, new power emerged.  What could not be accomplished by diplomacy, politics, protests, or strategy suddenly happened.  And when each materialized, most were surprised.  Emergent phenomena always have these characteristics: They exert much more power than the sum of their parts; they always possess new capacities different from the local actions that engendered them; they always surprise us by their appearance.

It is important to note that emergence always results in a powerful system that has many more capacities than could ever be predicted by analyzing the individual parts. We see this in the behavior of hive insects such as bees and termites.  Individual ants possess none of the intelligence or skills that are in the hive.  No matter how intently scientists study the behavior of individual ants, they can never see the behavior of the hive.  Yet once the hive forms, each ant acts with the intelligence and skillfulness of the whole.

This aspect of emergence has profound implications for social entrepreneurs.  Instead of developing them individually as leaders and skillful practitioners, we would do better to connect them to like-minded others and create the conditions for emergence.  The skills and capacities needed by them will be found in the system that emerges, not in better training programs.

Because emergence only happens through connections, Berkana has developed a four stage model that catalyzes connections as the means to achieve global level change.  Our philosophy is to “Act locally, connect regionally, learn globally.”  We focus on discovering pioneering efforts and naming them as such.  We then connect these efforts to other similar work globally.  We nourish this network in many ways, but most essentially through creating opportunities for learning and sharing of experiences and shifting into communities of practice.  We also illuminate the work of these pioneering efforts so that many more people will learn from them.  We are attempting to work intentionally with emergence so that small, local efforts can become a global force for change.


The Life-Cycle of Emergence

Stage One: Networks.
  We live in a time when coalitions, alliances and networks are forming as the means to create societal change.  There are ever more networks and now, networks of networks.  These networks are essential for people finding like-minded others, the first stage in the life-cycle of emergence.  It's important to note that networks are only the beginning.  They are based on self-interest--people usually network together for their own benefit and to develop their own work.  Networks tend to have fluid membership; people move in and out of them based on how much they personally benefit from participating.

Stage Two: Communities of Practice
. Networks make it possible for people to find others engaged in similar work.  The second stage of emergence is the development of communities of practice (CofPs).  Many such smaller, individuated communities can spring from a robust network.  CofPs are also self-organized. People share a common work and realize there is great benefit to being in relationship.  They use this community to share what they know, to support one another, and to intentionally create new knowledge for their field of practice.  These CofPs differ from networks in significant ways.  They are communities, which means that people make a commitment to be there for each other;  they participate not only for their own needs, but to serve the needs of others.

In a community of practice, the focus extends beyond the needs of the group.  There is an intentional commitment to advance the field of practice, and to share those discoveries with a wider audience. They make their resources and knowledge available to anyone , especially those doing related work.

The speed with which people learn and grow in a community of practice is noteworthy. Good ideas move rapidly amongst members. New knowledge and practices are implemented quickly.  The speed at which knowledge development and exchange happens is crucial, because local regions and the world need this knowledge and wisdom now.

Stage Three: Systems of Influence.
The third stage in emergence can never be predicted. It is the sudden appearance of a system that has real power and influence. Pioneering efforts that hovered at the periphery suddenly become the norm. The practices developed by courageous communities become the accepted standard.
People no longer hesitate about adopting these approaches and methods and they learn them easily Policy and funding debates now include the perspectives and experiences of these pioneers.  They become leaders in the field and are acknowledged as the wisdom keepers for their particular issue.  And critics who said it could never be done suddenly become chief supporters (often saying they knew it all along.)

Emergence is the fundamental scientific explanation for how local changes can materialize as global systems of influence.  As a change theory, it offers methods and practices to accomplish the systems-wide changes that are so needed at this time.   As leaders and communities of concerned people, we need to intentionally work with emergence so that our efforts will result in a truly hopeful future.   No matter what other change strategies we have learned or favored, emergence is the only way change really happens on this planet.   And that is very good news.



Margaret Wheatley is a well-respected writer, speaker, and teacher for how we can accomplish our work, sustain our relationships, and willingly step forward to serve in this troubling time. She has written six books: Walk Out Walk On (with Deborah Frieze, 2011); Perseverance (2010); Leadership and the New Science; Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future; A Simpler Way (with Myron Rogers); and Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. Each of her books has been translated into several languages; Leadership and the New Science appears in 18 languages. She is co-founder and President emerita of The Berkana Institute, which works in partnership with a rich diversity of people and communities around the world, especially in the Global South. These communities find their health and resilience by discovering the wisdom and wealth already present in their people, traditions and environment ( Wheatley received her doctorate in Organizational Behavior and Change from Harvard University, and a Masters in Media Ecology from New York University. She's been an organizational consultant since 1973, a global citizen since her youth, a professor in two graduate business programs, a prolific writer, and a happy mother and grandmother. She has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. You may read her complete bio at, and may download any of her many articles (free) at

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All photos by Margaret Wheatley.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Emergents Need to Embrace Anti Oppression with Inclusivity and Humility

If Wild Goose West is any indication, the Emergent movement is looking more and more like a gathering of the proverbial tribes right now. For more than ten years this movement has been emerging, but now it looks more like a converging of cultures. 

While we acknowledge and understand the history that (post) Evangelicals founded this movement, we are now in a time where new people and cultures are coming into the conversation and we are going to evolve into a broader shared identity than the label "Evangelical."

Since I should only really tell my story, I'll use me as an example. I have been around the Emergent movement for a little more than a year now and I come to the conversation with influences like New Age, Buddhism, Activism and Nonviolence. I am not even close to identifying with the word Evangelical and so even as a middle class white woman, I am looking for my place in our shared identity.  Here's my story in a nutshell.

I broke up with Jesus in high school when an evangelical bible study teacher told my best friend that her father who was dead and Muslim, was in hell. It took me 20 years and several Rob Bell books to get over the wounds from Christianity that I found in myself and others. I called my sister in tears when I realized I could call myself a Christian again.  She said something that moved me. "Honey you have always had Jesus, you just let other people define him for you."  As Yvette Flunder would say, I had "get back my God", get back my Jesus, before I could be a part of this conversation.  So I know a little something about needing to have old wounds acknowledged in order to feel safe in this emerging conversation.  And while as a white woman in the US, I can never know what it is to be colonized and marginalized, I have reason to understand why inclusivity and oppression must be integral to everything we do.

All social justice movements have to deal with the fallout of historical oppression.  In 1999, racial justice teacher and activist, Elizabeth Betita Martinez wrote an open letter to the Global Justice Movement after the largely white protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization.  It cast ripples of disgruntled reactions, push back and waves of white guilt across the movement.  Some NGO's had to completely dismantle their boards and rebuild.  Clearly, we're not the first to deal with this wave of consciousness and we could learn a lot if we're open and willing to listen.

Where Was the Color in Seattle? Looking for Reasons Why the Great Battle Was So White

Since we follow Jesus, this movement is, in the context of this society, and by HIS very nature, about social justice and hospitality. It's the integrity and backbone of our movement as Christians. I'm not a big Bible quoter and certainly no scholar,  but I am a fan of the times when Jesus embraced someone of a different culture, breaking customs and norms to show them grace, love and inclusion. One such example in the Gospel of John, is the interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (from The Message.)

7-8 A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” (His disciples had gone to the village to buy food for lunch.)
The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”

This year at the Wild Goose Festival, the programming exhibited a strong, integrated and reoccurring thread of anti oppression work. I attended multiple sessions, led by people of color (POC). I actually heard the history timeline of the colonization of the first nations people and land of where we camping twice, once from main stage and again in a session.  First nations people began and concluded the festival from the main stage and I will never forget the talk on Radical Inclusion by Yvette Flunder on the main stage.

Wild Goose organizers understand that we've inherited a history of oppression that has to be acknowledged to be inclusive of folks from colonized or oppressed ethnicities.  Sorry to quote Billy Joel here but "we didn't start the fire" but guess what, it is still burning.  Some of us are warmed and privileged by this fire, while some of us have been used as kindling. Do we think POC are going to invite their families and friends to this conversation if they feel like a basic acknowledegement of anti oppression and inclusivity are not being practiced?

Would we invite our friends to a party where we feel like they might be offended? People of color in our movement know how to be allies to their folks at home and already work as translators between their various cultures.  They aren't going to create an invitation to their communities unless it feels safe to do so. If we embrace this work, our Emergent minded friends of color will likely be more inclined to promote Emergent gatherings to their communities. 

We have to embrace this emphasis and inclusion of anti-oppression content and organizing in all of our events and gatherings. Randy Woodley's recent call to action for white speakers to boycott "all white" conferences (Read the Call to Action here) is a powerful and direct challenge to us to get more intentional about about how we work.  He writes in his blog:

"I’m putting out a challenge to all White Christian speakers to boycott every “Whites Only” conference or meeting. Simply refuse to speak unless there is significant minority representation that goes beyond tokenism. And if you are an attendee, you can make a change by not supporting the hypocrisy of exclusivity and tokenism. Simply write the organizers and scheduled speakers and tell them how you feel. If they don’t respond, don’t buy a ticket and don’t attend. It’s got to start somewhere. How about with you?"

What an incredible opportunity to rise to the challenge and ensure that no one ever feels the need to exclude themselves from Emergent events due to a lack of consciousness around inclusivity and race.

We have amazing POC in this movement stepping up to teach us how to behave.  Bruce Reyes-Chow session on Race Wild Goose West was entirely comprised of him quoting things white people say that are not helpful to having productive conversations about race, and him explaining why.  He's one of many POC reaching out to us in this movement to teach us and bring us all together.  It's better if we white folks approach the topic with an open mind.  We should check their ego, come with a humble heart and be receptive to learning.

Bruce Reyes-Chow's 10 Unhelpful Things We Say About Race 

So very selfishly (so I can keep showing up at Emergent gatherings, my lifeblood) I humbly beg my privileged white identified brothers and sisters that when a person of color engages us in a conversation about how things could be different somehow please, please, please engage in the following as applicable, and in any order:

listen, trust outside of your own experience, become willing to look at your own behavior, pray about it, acknowledge when you can see their point, make amends, seek to lift up the voices of POC and often make them louder, remember that we can be the corrective to oppression by putting more emphasis on it, spend some time on it, take an oppression 101 class, look to our allies of color who are trying to lead us in this work, check each others behavior with love, never say you aren't a racist if you were raised in the US, (it's a racist country historically, racism is alive and well today and it's in us), so don't expect yourself to never express a behavior rooted in racism - it happens so forgive yourself, correct the behavior and move along . . . .

To our conference planners, event organizers and conveners movement wide, please . . . . 

. . . embrace this work, try really really hard to never have panels of all white people, set aside scholarship money for youth of color for admission fees, flights and hotels, plan for inclusivity from the beginning of your conference planning so you don't end up scrambling for a brown person the week before your panel which becomes tokenistic, have POC in on the organizing of the event and in a leadership position from day one . . .

To all the leaders who are still asking the question "how do we diversify?" please stop thinking this way.  Instead let's ask ourselves what needs to happen in us in order to provide an invitation that isn't tokenistic in nature, but instead rooted in an authentic and holistic sense of shared and mutual liberation. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of what needs to happen, merely a start, and a invitation to engage in this conversation. If any community of people can handle this challenge with grace, it's the Emerging Church movement. We have the model of Jesus to look to and we have the Holy Spirit working in us.  By the grace of God, may we all feel invited and welcomed to this conversation and live out this powerful opportunity to become a corrective to colonization and oppression.

Thanks, Holly Roach

Holly is a long time activist who ran away with the film industry for seven years.  She's currently back to community organizing in her neighborhood on the south side of Santa Fe and lives to soak up all things Emergent.