Risk-Taking for Racial Justice: Building Networks That Support Us

This June, the Minneapolis St. Paul (MSP) Network Weavers Community of Practice hosted our semi-annual day long gathering. The topic was Risk-Taking for Racial Justice: Building Networks that Support Us. Our facilitation team collaboratively wrote this blog to share some of the learning and insights we gained from the event – we hope you enjoy!

Mishel House, Kirsten Johnson & Sindy Morales Garcia – Wilder Center for Communities, Scott Labott – Bush Foundation, Terri Thao & Chalonne Wilson – Nexus Community Partners, Susan Schuster – Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and Amanda Ziebell Mawanda – Propel Nonprofits

MSP Network Weavers Community of Practice

The MSP Network Weavers Community of Practice is a group of practitioners using network weaving tools in our work who come together twice a year to deepen our relationships and skillsets and expand our connections and perspectives. Our Community of Practice has made an explicit commitment to centering racial justice in our work and making our day-long gatherings places where can take a deep dive into challenging white supremacy through networks.

Kiara from LLC invited us to take a phone poll about how much our work was incorporating behaviors that support weaving networks to advance equity

This spring, Leadership Learning Community and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation partnered with our local Center for Health Equity at the Minnesota Department of Health to host a WEB Network gathering. In that conversation, Kiara from LLC invited us to take a phone poll about how much our work was incorporating behaviors that support weaving networks to advance equity. While we rated ourselves fairly high on things like building trusting relationships and talking about equity and distribution of power – we were quite low when it came to risk-taking. Our team felt like this presented us with an opportunity to help our local community of network weavers explore what risk-taking requires and why it is essential to advancing equity.

Our Invitation

Here’s the invitation we made to our local network weaving community about our June event: We’ll spend a full day together thinking about the relationship between Networks, Risk-Taking, and Racial Justice. We’ll talk about the importance of risk-taking to advance racial justice, about how networks can support us and hold us as we take risks to push against the status quo, and we’ll make space for peer assists so you can get support in thinking about the risks that will take your work for racial justice to the next level.

What does risk mean to you? What does it look like, sound like, feel like?

When we gathered in June, we began our day together with a Network Weaving 101 that we always offer to newcomers – reviewing some of the core concepts and values of network weaving. Then we gathered in circle for an opening where we shared some framing for the day and asked participants to draw on a sticky note in response to this prompt: What does risk mean to you? What does it look like, sound like, feel like?

We then each shared our post-its as we introduced ourselves – you can see a compilation of the drawings on the right. Once we had all shared we did some collective meaning making, talking about what stood out to us, what themes were emerging around risk – and what that brought to mind about risk-taking and racial justice.

The next part of our day involved hearing from a panel of story tellers sharing their stories of risk – and then taking time to self-organize into groups and share our own stories.

Telling Our Stories on Taking Risks for Racial Justice

There is power in telling stories and our panel was testament to the power of the personal story. Each panelist was asked to share an instance of taking a risk for racial justice from a personal and/or professional experience. Our panelists were three local leaders, all women of color, who have worked in the nonprofit and government sectors.

Panelists were asked the following questions as they told the stories of taking risks for racial justice:

  1. How did your network(s) support you?
  2. How did your network(s) mitigate the risk?
  3. Given your experience, what has this taught you about what to prune and/or cultivate in your networks? (or regarding your network practices).

The panelists shared the following:

  • Panelists felt comfortable taking risks because they knew they had a network of people to support them.
  • They built new networks over as a result of this work, but they also acknowledged the networks that were left behind.
  • Given the nature of this work, it is important to mix networks and be intentional as you go to people.
  • It is important to have empathy, compassion, caring for those who are the ones doing harm as you are seeking to educate or correct their harm: “Bless those who curse you.”

As panelists shared their stories of risk, we asked attendees that day to adhere to a double confidentiality to both 1) keep the names but share the stories and 2) give the panelists space since sharing these stories can be a reminder to painful experience and asking people directly about their experience might cause additional harm.

Our Harvest

We wrapped up with a collective harvest from our self-organized groups, in which we shared what we need to prune or cultivate in our networks in order to build the support we need to take risks for racial justice.

Chalonne wrote this powerful poem from our harvest:

Let Go. Take Risks. Let’s Grow
Let go of the naysayers,
The doubters, the haters.
Let go of the obligation to agree.
Certainly, let go of the idea of certainty.
Let go of the biases, the colonized mindset, the hierarchy.
That thinking and structure describes the problem only.
Let go of the ego and anger.
The fragility, the silence, and the notion of risk as danger.
Let’s grow a diversity of thoughts.
Let’s grow opportunities for reflection. Let’s grow lots!
Let’s grow more experiences to listen.
Practice stepping back, stepping up, and at times, stepping in.
Let’s grow time for deeper reflection.
Let’s grow bravery – solo and together. It’s for our protection.
Let’s grow our understanding of the harm of not speaking.
Let’s call out our network, no matter how far reaching.
Let go. Take risks. LET’S GROW!

Lessons Learned

Susan’s lessons learned:

  • Invest in your network. Your networks (and intentional network weaving) are important for growth and innovation. The experience we had together in June is only possible because we all made it a priority to come together on this topic, work and plan, and implement together.
  • A safe space to share, learn and ask questions is invaluable. A community of practice is just that – a community – and a place to practice. These are all too rare in our professional lives. We should grow and nurture these opportunities.
  • Innovation and Insights to the next step are messy. Embrace it. We had no idea how much we’d get out of our day together. Creating the next step is an art.

Taking a risk for racial justice matters, and telling your story inspires others to take risks and then tell their story.

Scott’s lessons learned:

  • Show up powerfully, not perfectly. The storytelling during our self-organized groups unearthed something big: Being a supporter of people in your network isn’t going to be clean. We can stay comfortable, particularly those of us that enjoy various forms of privilege. But being an active supporter of a diverse network—whether it’s friends or colleagues—means showing up powerfully.
  • Intention Matters. Grounding ourselves in purpose will guide risks we make for our networks. Throughout the day, I heard intentions ranging from advancing justice work to professional growth to love.
  • Your grandfather wouldn’t have used the term network, but he knew what it was.” We’re practicing something that looks differently across time, geography, and cultural landscapes. It is critical to acknowledge and honor the different ways in which people understand networks.

We are looking forward to building on the learning we did together in June – and taking risks for racial justice at our next MSP Community of Practice gathering on October 22nd, 2019! If you live locally, we’d love for you to join us. Contact sindy.moralesgarcia@wilder.org for more information.

The Staple Foods Network Project

Written by: MaryAnn Martinez

The History

In 2008, the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative began to assess what was necessary for a regional organic staple grain and bean value chain in Appalachia. Michelle Ajamian who, along with her partner Brandon, runs Shagbark Seed and Mill in Athens, OH, had the vision, and began to reach out and form relationships with others interested in staple foods. Ten years later, this informal collaborative had grown from a handful to several hundred farmers, bakers, millers, and others around the country who are focusing on local, heirloom and organic grains and beans. 

Now a for a bit of a necessary segue…..

Why a staple foods network?

For those readers who are not deep into sustainable agriculture, you may wonder why staple foods are important? Or even, what staple foods are? These next few bullets help delineate this, and also how staple foods relate to well-being, and equity bridging:

  • Staple grains, beans, and oil seeds are integral to a healthy human diet and food security; yet this market is dominated by an industrial global food market. 
  • Strengthening regional staple food networks supports equity, vibrant communities and food security.
  • Bioregional access to nutritious staple foods strengthens the health of citizens, the environment, and local economies.
  • Regional food networks encourage socially and environmentally responsible food production and processing based on reconnecting people to food in a place-based context.

So, given the importance of staple foods to health, and the lack of local and regional availability, it became obvious to those of us with an eye on our food system that this group needed to gain traction. Acknowledging that to shift the staple foods culture in this country from industrial to a values-based value chain, it is necessary to be intentional in facilitating change to foster collaboration in our efforts to gather and share collective knowledge, resources, and best practices around policy, food access, and business. Because I had been participating in the RWJF/LLC trainings and community of practice, and as a farmer, was interested in cultivating (pun intended) staple foods work, I was uniquely situated for acting on this opportunity. So, I approached Michele with the idea, and she rallied support from Slow Food Columbus and Bill Best (a local expert). Together we applied for, and received a seed fund grant to support the growth of the Staple Foods Network.

The Project

ASFN Snapshot February 2019

Survey in sumApp

The project began with a survey of the Staple Foods Collaborative Members. It was also at this time that we began referring to it as the Staple Foods Network, realizing that there were people involved from Maine to California, not just in Appalachia. 

Using a web-based application, Sum App, data was collected from individuals who self-identify as belonging to the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative. Through a participatory questionnaire, individuals answered demographic and relationship questions about their involvement, their expertise, and what they need help with. This part of the project went well with 73 out of 145 people responding, and a total of 586 connections made.

Mapping of the Network 

Data from the initial questionnaire phase was used to develop a map using Kumu software. Data was to be exported from the collector to the mapping software to create a visual display of who is connected to who in the network. This information was used to analyze the hubs, clusters and connections within the Staple Foods Collaborative. People can see who knows who, and what the opportunities and gaps are. One of the major themes that emerged from this mapping is that staple foods members are all across the country. This established a need for developing a communications platform, and some digital communications training, which will be of further assistance to staple foods network members in building community and open up opportunities to engage with each other, and initiate activities around mutual visions, values and goals.

Lessons Learned, or “Where Things Are At”

Ultimately, despite the initial enthusiasm of many, Michelle and I were predominantly driving this project, and we both have many other irons in the fire. Once Michelle was able to get a comprehensive data base together, I created the survey and we let it snowball out. However, after the initial launch, without someone to facilitate ongoing engagement, or provide structure and governance, things have lagged. Though we understand that creating a community of learning and practice would exponentially enhance the ability of all with a common interest in staple foods to address policy and business challenges, and open up opportunities, at this point we are lacking someone to facilitate this. 

Another challenge is getting people together for video conferencing and digital communications platform training. I can sum this up as many people have a fear of the unknown, and digital skill building with strangers is scary stuff . As a facilitator, it is important to acknowledge and bridge these differences between those of us who are comfortable in the digital world and those to whom this is new. Moving networks forward requires adding some tools to the toolbox and creating conditions to support these learning processes in a way that works for people whose voices are essential.

Slowly, progress is being made on getting a website together using the RWJF seed funds. However, without a curator it is unclear at this time who will be able to coordinate and engage the network long-term. A facilitator will be necessary to support innovation, and further regional, national and international networking opportunities for staple foods farmers, bakers, millers and others.

In summary, some progress has been made in connecting staple foods people, and creating a shared identity. However, in order to initiate activities to build community and circulate ideas and practices, a facilitator or “network guardian” is needed. However, valuable knowledge and experience was gathered regarding the obstacles and limits of network leadership and learning processes. This is relevant for data collection, research and future practice. 

About the Author

MaryAnn Martinez is a non-profit director and interdisciplinary food systems scholar. She is currently a PhD candidate at Antioch Graduate School of Leadership and Change. Her work is in place-based food systems, and community-based food networks as catalysts for social innovation and transformative change. In addition, MaryAnn has over 10 years of experience as a vegetable and livestock farmer, in both for-profit and social enterprises