By Susan Szpakowski
I take up the invitation to share my reflections with some hesitation. Jennifer and Annika were in the thick of WeavEast and have already articulated their nuanced and brave insights about the gap between the original vision and what played out over time. After helping shape the initial funding application, I wasn’t so centrally involved. But since How We Thrive was a beneficiary and partner of WeavEast, I will add a few reflections from the sidelines.
How We Thrive
In June 2018 a McConnell program officer attended the four-day gathering organized by How We Thrive and saw that we were trying to do a lot on a shoestring budget. He requested that support for HWT would be included in what became the WeavEast funding, and we received $35,000 annually for three years. HWT was not involved in WeavEast backbone support and decision-making, but we were part of an ecosystem of organizations with overlapping missions and relationships. In that capacity HWT listened for alignment and ways we could support. For example, I attended a WeavEast retreat in 2019, where the theme of narrative surfaced as a key leverage point for shifting systems, and this inspired HWT’s online Narrative Project which ran throughout most of 2020, co-hosted by some of the WeavEast fellows. More recently, we built on WeavEast conversations about food security, adding a narrative lens and running the Future of Food scenario project.
Because true transformation takes place on many levels at once, and because the times are urgent, we must slow down.
Polarities and tensions
Jennifer and Annika have already described the tensions between centralized (backbone) and distributed (network) leadership within WeavEast, and the erosion of trust from unacknowledged or shifting power dynamics. Annika pointed to the question of scale. I was also inspired by the vision that WeavEast could rapidly become an Atlantic-wide network, and I see the eagerness to scale as one of the ways that colonial conditioning has permeated my own thinking and the field of social innovation more broadly. Since earlier, more heady days, we are all learning that there aren’t shortcuts to getting to know one another’s stories and contexts, developing a ground of trust, decolonizing our own mental models, and growing something from the land up. The WeavEast funder wanted a reliable intermediary and a funding platform that would quickly grow to having Atlantic scope. As mostly white settlers, we were driven by big ideas and hopes for big influence and systemic impact supported by a big funder.
And yet, if you don’t move and you don’t try, things don’t evolve. As WeavEast swung between the poles of prematurely-distributed and too-centralized decision-making we could vividly see the downside of each. At one extreme the focus and energy became scattered, lacking coherence and systemic value. At the other, centralized management dampened a sense of ownership, trust, and the potential for a rich multiplicity of voices and worldviews.
There is no formula, no magic recipe in the messy middle. We have to learn our way into it by having the audacity and support to practice, make mistakes, try not get stuck in one pole or the other, and keep going.
In a new book, Adam Kahane shares his experience of keeping diverse stakeholders moving forward by cycling between what he calls horizontal and vertical facilitation, which are parallel to distributed and centralized leadership. In an interview for the book, Christiana Figueres says that such polarities “are actually two realities that we often have to hold in equal standing, and then examine the space in between, because it is that space between polarities that provides the fruitful ground for coming together.” This fruitful, unsettling ground is also the “messy middle” that Louise refers to. There is no formula, no magic recipe in the messy middle. We have to learn our way into it by having the audacity and support to practice, make mistakes, try not get stuck in one pole or the other, and keep going. I have witnessed a rise of this kind of leadership culture over the past few years, and that is no small thing.
As others have also noted, perhaps WeavEast’s greatest challenge was around power, which arrived with the money. An early response was to flatten hierarchy and let the network decide what to do based on an initial scan. The backbone was meant to be an administrative hub. But perhaps what the project needed was a strong holding space that wasn’t tied to a single organization — a leadership space that wasn’t a pyramid. For example, my own dream would be that such a space would be held by a group that included Indigenous Elders and Black leaders as well as social innovators from across the region. This group would come together to set the purpose and direction, while continuing to deepen relationships and learning from the field, including through prototypes. In the absence of something like this, the power defaulted to the backbone, which then tried to correct the situation by giving away its power through a small-grants process that didn’t satisfy anyone. As a partner trying to align with the activities of WeavEast, it wasn’t clear to me where to bring the learning. Project evaluation is helpful but does not in itself feed into a deep pool of shared meaning-making.
Still, by being able to play out our best efforts and ideals, we learned so much. As a coherence-lover, I dream of enlightened models of “holding the centre,” as I shared above. But in practice I wonder if sometimes it’s better to just let go so the system can shift and find new equilibrium with new patterns and players that de-center whiteness. Sometimes chaos and failure are good-enough allies.
Project evaluation is helpful but does not in itself feed into a deep pool of shared meaning-making.
I am grateful that we had this chance to learn, to see these dynamics in the mirror and take responsibility for them, without shaming and blaming ourselves or each other. The whole field has been learning and unlearning, including funders. Perhaps the biggest prize is an emerging leadership culture of mutual support. I also see success as the degree to which each of us has grown in our humility.
I was struck by Annika’s understatement that “the world is different now than when WeavEast began.” She continues, “We can’t continue to lean on good intentions — we know so much more about the inequities that have shaped our current reality and we need to hold ourselves accountable to changing the future trajectory.”
I agree whole-heartedly though I might choose a different word than trajectory, which suggests forward, better, higher. Today I took a walk in the forest, where the leaves are turning yellow, red, brown, and many are already forming a beautiful mosaic on the forest floor. They have done their job and soon they will be composted back into the soil. In 2014, when the Ivany Report was released, the prevailing narrative was that our region had an attitude problem. Fear of success and resistance to progress and upward mobility were holding us back. We were losing people to Central and Western Canada, which were shiny with sophistication and wealth.
Now there is a reverse migration and a reverse pull — towards the earth, simplicity, humility, and towards uncovering untold stories and difficult truths. The myth of white supremacy, the primacy of the GDP, and the innocent founding story of Canada are all composting, though their shapes and influence remain.
The field of social innovation was born on the ground of emergence, but now the times are calling for attending to what has been, and what needs to be, submerged. I appreciate Louise’s reminder that “scaling deeply” involves working below the surface. We’ve known for a long time that systems change isn’t linear; now we’re realizing it often isn’t even visible. Nor is it separate from our own inner identities and realities. Because true transformation takes place on many levels at once, and because the times are urgent, we must slow down.
As we compost WeavEast, I have no doubt that rich nutrients are being returned to the soil, along with many seeds. Elder Albert Marshall likes to remind us that we won’t be the ones to sit under the trees we plant today. I feel fortunate to have been able to plant some seeds and to have taken some small steps in becoming more self-aware of what I need to compost myself, as a European-born settler living on this beautiful, unceded land of the Mi’kmaq.
Susan Szpakowski is founder of How We Thrive (www.howwethrive.org).