reimagining organizing, movements and leadership (a brief report back)

this past weekend was reimagining organizing, movements and leadership in detroit. once we heard that author and thinker margaret wheatley was going to be in kalamazoo and was willing to come to detroit, we built the event as a way to immerse her in our work here in detroit, and immerse detroit in the ideas wheatley has been speaking to for the past 20 years.

wheatley’s book leadership in the new science was written 20 years ago, the same year detroit summer was founded. grace lee boggs read the work a few years ago and started incorporating some of the key ideas into her speeches and writing. hip-hop artist invincible got inspired by these speeches and began crafting a multi-media music project to connect complex science, social justice and hip-hop.

some of the key ideas uplifted were:

– how do we transition from a newtonian way of understanding the world (that things happen in a linear way, that it’s all about getting mass, getting as many people as possible to do one thing) to a quantum leap, or a complex, way of understanding things (that lots of small, seemingly disconnected actions can spark or emerge a transformation)?

– critical connections, deep trusting connections between points in a system, are more crucial to social change than critical mass. my friend gibran talks about the integrity of the connection between the nodes of a network being as important as the strength (or brilliance, or charisma) of the nodes themselves.

– thinking of change in the sense of fractals…fractals show us that the same patterns that exist on the smallest scale exist on the largest scale. in terms of the social changes we are working for, how can we try to create massive systems which we do not have an experience of at any scale? another way of thinking of this is that the pattern at the largest level can only be what it is at the smallest level. if we are chaotic within ourselves, our society will be chaotic. if we are fearful, gossiping, angry, dysfunctional, wounded at the small scale, then that is the society we will inhabit. this is a scientific impetus to transform ourselves to transform the world.

– emergence and feedback loops. for years i have raged against plans, because it feels like we spend a lot of time making plans that don’t adapt for, or account for, the constantly changing landscape. emergence felt like a balm to my brain when i learned about it – it’s the process in nature that explains the beautiful movements of flocks of birds and schools of fish.

a few days before the event, we got news that wheatley had come down with pneumonia and wasn’t going to make it. while we sent her healing energy, we had to reflect that just a month ago, we had supported another gathering that the boggs center organized, where the special guest, vandana shiva, had also gotten ill just before the gathering and was unable to come.

our local conclusion from this was that we must have all we need to have these conversations in detroit already. but luckily we had structured the events to mostly focus on detroiters getting to interact with each other.

we had an initial intimate dinner for members of various networks in detroit to come in contact with each other and see what questions they share. the questions focused on transitions of leadership, how to face urgency with integrity, how we heal – moving from fragmentation to wholeness – in the process of the doing the work, bridging the gaps (real or perceived) between new and old paradigms, and how to make organizing a “path of least resistance” the most natural thing a community can do?

yesterday we had a large public event that opened with beth james blessing the space as an indigenous and african-american professor and healer from detroit.

grace lee boggs and invincible grounded us in the ideas above before a three-part fishbowl conversation where detroit-based organizers discussed the relevance of these ideas for our work here.

then we jumped into an assessment process where folks looked at the organizations and networks they are part of, and then at their own personal lives, to see how visionary they are now, and what the next step in transformation might be.

the assessment process yielded powerful conversations in small groups and pairs – it is always beautiful to me to watch folks open up, listen deeply, come into self-awareness and see the possibility of their lives and their work.

afterwards there was a youth-only event, a collaboration with the monthly detroit future youth network. the youth event, which included an exercise where the youth got to feel what it was like to be in a flock, was a space for young people working in networks across detroit to talk about their visions for leadership. they talked about how their work in movement could be focused on building each other up, rather than tearing each other down.

finally there was a series of performances, started off with invincible’s complex movements (where i got to wear a projection dress!!). then there was an open mic with a magnificent competition between the youth and adults. one of the highlights was a young woman named talitha who did a song about how fly she was. the chorus was “duh-duh-duh-duh-duh – it’s me!!”…and it’s been in my head the whole day.

watching young people in detroit burst with love and excitement about the community they are in, watching them build confidence on the stage, seeing the incredible life in them – it is restorative in and of itself.

with all of the adaptation and emergence in creating a wholeness out of wheatley’s absence, there were definitely moments where we had to release expectations and be present to a new situation. a few times i found myself frustrated that i wasn’t able to communicate clearly enough these ideas which excite me so, and which i feel i see in practice in detroit every day.

but the beauty was how open and raw people were about the fact that we all have limitations. we kept coming back to a quote from the late jimmy boggs – “you’re nobody until you are in relationship with a bunch of somebodies.” and ultimately that’s what we were doing – modeling relational intelligence, creating safe space, and all doing our best.

it was leaderful, and it was beautiful.