A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.
—WENDELL BERRY, “THE LOSS OF THE FUTURE”
Trust has become something of a buzzword. Most people will acknowledge that it’s important, yet many see it as a by-product of other activities, rather than something that should be cultivated deliberately. On the contrary, the web of connections that develops between participants is the invisible structure that holds impact networks together, and a failure to cultivate trusting relationships is where many networks fall short. Trust is the element that makes possible all of a network’s other virtues and accomplishments. Specifically:
Trust creates cohesion while a network’s more formal structures and processes are being formed. Given the benefits of defining an impact network’s structure as it develops (as opposed to defining its structure in advance, as in a hierarchy), networks are unlikely to have many formal agreements in the early stages of their evolution. During this time, it may be difficult for some participants to sit with the ambiguity.
Trusting in each other and in the network helps people to be more comfortable with emergence—to explore, experiment, reflect, and self-correct in real time. People also become more willing to share information and take risks. Trust is the glue that keeps a network together as participants develop additional structures for organizing themselves.
Trust increases the network’s collective intelligence and avoids the pitfalls of conformism and groupthink. Under the right conditions, networks are capable of thoughtful discernment and collective intelligence greater than that of any single individual. Lack of openness to others’ perspectives is arguably the greatest obstacle to a network’s ability to think and act intelligently. Our tendency, in the absence of trust, is to believe that our assumptions and projections are valid, that we know what others are thinking and feeling without asking them, and that maybe we are the only sane person in the room. Trust increases the likelihood that participants will listen with care, try on new perspectives, and engage with people they might consider to be very different from themselves.
Trust expands the range of possible conversations. People who trust each other are more forthright, more likely to share information, and more likely to show creativity in how they collaborate.1 With sufficient trust, people are better able to navigate through uncomfortable conversations and test each other’s assumptions without fear of harm. As a result, new perspectives are considered, and conflict becomes generative rather than destructive. The network’s ability to engage in constructive dialogue and make informed decisions grows as people feel free to speak their mind and acknowledge difficult realities or controversial points of view.
This shift has been critical to the success of the Clean Electronics Production Network (CEPN), a program of Green America’s Center for Sustainability Solutions, which has been supported by both Converge and the CoCreative consulting group. Participants of the CEPN include many major technology brands and environmental NGOs that are working together to address an issue that no single organization can solve on its own: moving toward zero exposure of workers to toxic chemicals in the electronics manufacturing process. Relationships between the electronics brands and NGOs were initially tense when the network launched in 2016. But over the past few years, “members have gotten to a point where they have enough trust to where they’re willing to share what’s working, what’s not working, and where they need help,” shares Pamela Brody-Heine, director of the CEPN. “Relationships have been transformed, and the communication between them is much more productive.”2
When working through networks, the time you spend cultivating relationships of trust is the greatest investment you can make—consider it a “return on relationships.” But before people are able to develop trust, they first need to be connected. New connections can be fostered through the practice of weaving.
There is an old saying, “The best fertilizer is the footsteps of the farmer.” In other words, it is the farmer’s constant presence in the field that makes all the difference. The same is true for networks. Leaders tend to a network by connecting directly with participants and connecting participants with one another. This is the practice of network weaving. Like the silk of a spider’s web or the threads of a tapestry, networks need to be woven together to develop a strong connective tissue that can weather the seasons of change. The concept of network weaving has Indigenous roots. The native Andeans understood that we live in a world “where we are all interwoven threads and stitches,” and “when we do not impose, control, or dominate, but when we allow, respectfully, the expression of the other . . . we weave together, without ceasing to be ourselves, now as jaqui: partner, community.”3
The people who work to foster relationships across networks are called network weavers. June Holley, author of Network Weaver Handbook, defines network weavers as those who explicitly work to make the networks around them healthier and more inclusive “by helping people identify their interests and challenges, connecting people strategically where there’s potential for mutual benefit, and serving as a catalyst” of self-organization.4
The act of weaving together a community—of stitching together individual parts into a larger whole—is the work of everyone in a network. All network participants have the opportunity and responsibility to weave new connections. This can be accomplished by taking the time to get to know people, introducing people to each other, listening deeply, and inviting others to collaborate in a variety of ways.
Still, it is especially important for network leaders—and specifically, for those fulfilling the weaver role—to maintain a deliberate focus on creating connections across the whole network. By first connecting with participants, and then connecting participants with one another, weavers sense and anticipate the energy of the group while fostering greater levels of self-organizing.
Network weavers aim to connect with as many participants as possible, as frequently as is needed. The purpose of these interactions is to learn more about all of the participants, including what they care about, what they’re working on, how they’d like to communicate, and how they’d like to contribute to the network. These conversations build trust while surfacing opportunities to connect participants together to advance shared learning or action. They also help leaders and participants alike to develop a more holistic awareness about what’s happening across the network and to highlight issues that require special attention. Visit the Converge Network Toolkit for a list of Network Weaving Questions that weavers can use in their conversations with participants.
Defining a regular cadence of connection will go a long way toward maintaining a consistent practice of weaving. Sharon Farrell, a leader of the California Landscape Stewardship Network, has adopted the habit of holding time on her calendar on two days each week to call network participants she hasn’t spoken with in a while: “I’m a firm believer that if you create time for conversation, one that is an exchange and not just directed in one way, trust begins to build,” says Farrell.5
In smaller networks, it may be possible for weavers to connect with every participant at regular intervals. In larger networks, this is usually not practical; even so, it’s important to talk regularly with a good cross section of the network. In these cases, we recommend that weavers be both strategic and random with respect to who they talk to, and that they also provide avenues for participants to reach out to them directly.
A helpful strategy in large networks is to split up the list of participants between multiple weavers. This ensures that each participant has a designated person they can contact at any time with questions or concerns. Each member of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network has a specific point person (called their “network liaison”) who is responsible for checking in with them at least every few months and who they can reach out to at any time. “We rely on this practice as an important feedback loop for sensing in a complex domain,” shares Michelle Medley-Daniel, a leader and liaison in the network. “We adapt network values and offerings based on member feedback, and also adapt our understanding of the complex fire systems and ways to change them based on the information we get through these trusted relationships.”6
The second essential activity of network weaving is connecting participants with one another. Weavers are “skilled at discovering the needs of people in their networks,” observes Holley, “and then linking them to others in the network who can work with them to have those needs met.”7 Weavers connect participants together who are likely to benefit from the relationship, such as those who are working on similar issues or have resources or expertise that could support each other’s work. The key is to go the extra mile and help set the context for the conversation, explaining why you think they should know each other. Mapping the network with social network analysis (SNA), as described in chapter 10, will help weavers discover opportunities to build connectivity across the network most quickly and to identify people who perhaps should be connected but do not yet have a relationship.
As described above, while weaving is a central role of network leadership, weaving can also be carried out by anyone who notices opportunities to make introductions, deepen relationships, and bridge divides. The community development network Lawrence CommunityWorks, for example, recognizes weaving “as the principal and highest form of leadership in the network.” To honor this work, they present the Reviviendo Weaver Award to a network member each year.8 The award emphasizes an essential point: that everyone can be a weaver.
Trust isn’t just a noun, it’s also a verb—it is something you do. It’s a choice people can make. We either choose to trust someone or choose not to trust them (or we can let our implicit biases make the choice for us). While trust takes time to deepen, we’ve found that it is possible to develop a foundational level of trust in a relatively short time.
Trusting another person requires an initial leap of faith, as it’s impossible to know exactly how things will turn out. The unfortunate reality is that by choosing to trust, you expose yourself to being burned. Nearly everyone has been betrayed at some point in their lives, and it can hurt, a lot. It hurts so badly that we might even put up a barrier between ourselves and others so it will never happen again. For some people who have been oppressed or experienced trauma, including intergenerational trauma, trust cannot be easily given—it has to be earned.
And yet, it’s hard to work with people you don’t trust. People collaborate based on relationships, not solely on ideas. Networks run on trust.
There are four primary ingredients that increase the likelihood that people will choose to trust one another, despite all the uncertainty that relationships bring:9
Choosing to trust people is, in part, a judgment that they will be true to their word and follow through on their commitments. Trust grows through action. When people help each other by offering support or contributing to a project, it builds a foundation of goodwill. And when people prove their reliability time and time again by continuing to show up, stick around, and follow through, trust grows to a level of resilience that can withstand significant disruption.
Reliability doesn’t mean that people always have to respond positively to a request for support. It’s important that people feel free to decline when they don’t have the ability or capacity to help. Without space for “no,” there is no weight behind “yes.” Being reliable just means that when you say “yes,” you will do your best to follow through and keep others informed if something goes wrong. On the flip side, reliability also means that when you decline, others will respect and hold you accountable to that “no” as well.
Inevitably, in any relationship, miscommunications and moments of tension will arise. People may strongly disagree with one another about what to do next. Without sufficient trust, these disruptions can derail the relationship and stall action. Overcoming these rocky periods requires openness—the willingness to be honest and share what’s on your mind, as well as the ability to listen deeply and consider new perspectives.
In the absence of openness, our true emotions and opinions are often guarded or hidden under a professional mask. We also remain closed to new information, stubbornly holding on to past beliefs and closing off new possibilities. To be open is to be willing to share honest thoughts and feelings, even if it’s uncomfortable. By being open, we acknowledge interdependence and invite reciprocity. It’s sometimes assumed that being open with one another comes later, after trust has been developed, but openness is also a great catalyst of trust.
At times, being open may simply be too risky. This is particularly true for those who have been oppressed or experienced significant trauma. They know firsthand that people can and do use their power to exploit others for personal gain rather than collective good. For this reason, make sure to allow people the space they need to engage or not, and to honor distance where appropriate. When openness is not yet possible, a mutual commitment to care may be a first step.
For many, trust does not come easily, because past transgressions have revealed time and time again that people are not to be trusted. Often, the first step toward choosing trust comes when people recognize that others hold a mutual concern for something they care about. Even if it’s hard to trust another person directly, it might be easier to trust the love that someone has for their community or region, or for the network.
Critically, demonstrating care also involves acknowledging and then repairing harm. This may mean creating opportunities for those who have been harmed to share their experiences of past harms, and for those who have historically benefited from resources, unjust laws, and the displacement of others to listen, acknowledge the reality of those harmed, take action to repair the harm, and be accountable for doing whatever is necessary to ensure that harm will not be committed again.10
I saw this process in action when working with Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and a founding member of the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network. The Amah Mutsun Tribe occupied the San Juan Valley for thousands of years before Spanish colonizers arrived in the late 1700s and forcibly removed them from their land. The Amah Mutsun were further persecuted in the 1800s by state-sanctioned violence conducted by the US government and the State of California. Then, in the early 1900s, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band’s federal recognition was not granted, based on a report from the California Bureau of Indian Affairs that stated, “These Indians have been well cared for by Catholic priests and no land is required.”11
Despite generations of oppression, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band lives on as a community of nearly six hundred members, and they continue to be active in stewarding their native land using practices handed down from their ancestors. In 2013, they formally established the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, one of the first of its kind, to care for the land and restore access to their ancestral territory for stewardship, ceremony, and learning.12
It would be entirely understandable if the Amah Mutsun chose not to trust the large and wealthy organizations that now inhabit the region. When Lopez engaged with other organizational leaders in the network, however, he recognized the care that others felt for the land. That mutual care was the first step toward building a relationship of trust regarding stewardship of the region. “We’ve always had a hard time trusting institutions,” Lopez says. “By being a part of this network, and through the collaborative efforts we’ve been a part of, I now have relationships with all the groups here. And I recognize that people in conservation share the Native Americans’ love for the land and want to take care of it, although we are still cautious. We are learning to trust. That’s a change for me.”13
As the network was forming, it was essential for other leaders in the region to listen to Lopez’s account of the experiences of the Amah Mutsun, to acknowledge the harms of the past and present, and to take steps to ensure that the harms would not be replicated in the future. In one example, Lopez and the Amah Mutsun Land Trust began working closely with California State Parks and the San Mateo Resource Conservation District to develop a proposal to restore the ecological vitality of the Quiroste Valley. Critically, the project was to be led by trained stewards from the Amah Mutsun Tribe, who would apply the stewarding techniques of their ancestors. While the Parks Department and the Resource Conservation District provided valuable support, the Amah Mutsun held final decision-making authority to guide the effort.14
Early on in the project, it appeared that the work might be stalled. The proposal had been blocked in the California Coastal Commission’s approval process. At first it was unclear whether the project would be allowed to proceed, but in a matter of days, many influential organizations in the network reached out to the Coastal Commission with their support. With so many advocates championing the cause, the final permit was approved in 2018. The result for the Amah Mutsun “was more than a homecoming,” writes Lexi Pandell of Bay Nature magazine. “It was a return to a spiritual calling to care for the land and a means to repair some of the damage colonization wrought and reclaim a people’s identity.”15
To appreciate one another is to accept people as they are and to value different ways of being, knowing, and doing. People often come to networks with very different backgrounds, identities, experiences, and beliefs. A prerequisite to building trust between diverse groups is that diversity is recognized as a critical part of what makes networks thrive; after all, so much of the potential of network building comes from bridging connections across divides.
In practice, a culture of appreciation is one where many different styles and skills are valued and integrated. Deep trust is possible only when people are able to bring their whole selves to the network and contribute their gifts in whatever way they choose. To create a space where all participants are able to contribute fully, it is necessary to ensure that the dominant culture’s norms are not centered to the exclusion of others—in the United States, this means decentering whiteness such that other ways of being, knowing, and doing can flourish.
At an individual level, sharing appreciations also helps to get people out of their heads and into a heart-centered space, creating room for deeper connections to form. This is why we often have people offer appreciations at the end of a convening, asking them to reflect on “who or what are you appreciating right now?” Sharing appreciations in this way serves to reinforce the prosocial behaviors that the network wants to promote.
The most dependable way to build trust and set the stage for courageous conversations is to take the time to understand each other’s internal context. We typically only get to see each other’s external context: what people look like, what they say or do, their title and organization, and their online persona. But in order to form a deeper connection with other people, it is necessary to take the time to get to know their internal context: the why behind their actions, their underlying values and motivations, and the experiences that make them who they are. Without taking the time to understand a person’s internal context, it is far too easy to make biased assumptions about their intentions.16
One of the most intimate things that participants can do to reveal their internal context is to share personal stories. Stories deepen the listener’s understanding and appreciation of who the storyteller is—as a person, as a soul—rather than seeing the person only in the context of their work. We know almost nothing about another person without taking the time to hear their story. We judge people we only just met. We make assumptions. “We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues,” writes Malcolm Gladwell in Talking to Strangers. But in truth we’re quite bad at judging other people’s character.17 Stories have a way of opening people up and connecting them together.
One storytelling tool we have found to be particularly effective is called True Stories, adapted from a practice used by Dorothy Stoneman, the founder of YouthBuild. We’ve led this exercise hundreds of times in a wide variety of contexts, from Montgomery, Alabama, to Nairobi, Kenya, to Shanghai, China. Every single time, it dramatically shifts the dynamics in the room.
In this exercise, participants are evenly distributed into groups of three to five people. They are then asked to sit facing each other and invited to recount a life experience that made them who they are. The particular framing question can be adapted to fit the context. For example, people might be asked to share the story of a particular period of their life, the story of a mentor who had a big influence on them, or the story of how they came to do the work they’re doing today. Each person has a specific amount of time to tell their story, during which they will be the only one speaking (we usually provide four to seven minutes per story, depending on how much time we have for the exercise). We challenge participants to go as deep as they can without feeling like they’re oversharing. Then, for the next two minutes, listeners offer their reflections on that story—what resonated with them, what surprised them, and what stood out. Once the first person has finished telling their story and received feedback from their group, the next person tells their story, and the process continues. In total, the exercise takes about 45 minutes. You can access the full instructions for True Stories in the Converge Network Toolkit.
One important consideration in choosing a storytelling activity, as noted above, is to remember that some participants have experienced significant trauma and oppression in their lives. As changemakers and facilitators, we must balance the desire to promote openness among participants with the potential for triggering trauma. In the containers we create, participants always have the option to pass and to choose how deep they go in sharing a personal story.
Sharing stories is as much about listening as it is about storytelling. Trust develops when participants deeply hear and empathize with each other, holding each other’s story with respect.
Merely listening attentively is insufficient, because it means you are staying in your own frame of reference, hearing the other person’s words as colored by your own filters and inferences. Instead, empathetic listening is what’s needed to hold your own biases at bay (as much as possible) and to more fully understand the world as another person sees it.18 When you listen empathetically, the mirror neurons in your brain light up such that you physiologically experience the things the storyteller is describing.19
Meanwhile, listening with great care also has the power to create safety and change the conversation itself. Good listening affects not only the listener but also what the speaker shares. When people feel heard and held, they are more likely to feel comfortable in showing vulnerability, which can open the door for a deeper connection. The experience of understanding more about another person’s inner context through empathetic listening, and simultaneously the experience of being fully heard, bonds people together like almost nothing else.
Trust creates a foundation of mutual respect upon which participants can hold whatever conversations they need to have to begin working together. In forming a network, we don’t build trust so that people will like each other or agree with each other. Rather, we build trust so that people can disagree and still effectively work through conflict.
Generative conflict—conflict that is constructive rather than destructive—is central to progress. Great teams, relationships, organizations, and networks create a culture of respect that allows people to safely express disagreement. Think about how you solve problems in your own brain—it probably involves weighing competing ideas in order to come up with an optimal solution. When groups master the ability to explicitly consider multiple sides of an issue in a respectful way, the result is faster learning and better decisions.
One network that embodies this mindset is the Cancer Free Economy Network (CFEN). CFEN consists of forty member organizations and a dozen individual members from across the environmental and social justice, health, science, policy, legal, labor, business, and communications sectors. Together, they are collectively expanding the movement to protect people from harmful chemicals, bringing cancer prevention to the forefront for many leading cancer and health organizations. What makes the network work is “the level of trust and mutual respect and understanding that this group has built up over time,” says Debra Erenberg, the network’s strategic director. “There are some very real differences between people who participate in terms of their lived experience, their background, their jobs, and the way they see the world. But people have come together and agreed on a common goal. They genuinely want to hear each other’s perspectives and learn from one another. They don’t always agree, but they can respectfully disagree and move things forward in a way that is really special.”20
As networks evolve, participants are likely to face a number of important and potentially contentious conversations about the network’s strategy, priorities, and activities. The moment of truth for participants is whether or not they trust each other enough to express feelings of anger or frustration, as well as satisfaction and joy, without fear of ridicule or group reprisal.21
Many helpful terms have been introduced to normalize conflict and make it something that is accepted, not avoided. Lisa Brush, CEO and founder of the Stewardship Network, uses the expression “conflict wisdom.”22 Jerry Hirshberg, founder and president of Nissan Design International, coined the phrase “creative abrasion.”23 Priya Parker uses the term “good controversy,” reminding us that “harmony is not necessarily the highest, and certainly not the only, value in gathering.” Good controversy leads groups to push beyond the status quo, advances creative thinking, and helps networks grow. Embracing good controversy is not easy, and it requires courage. “But when it works, it is clarifying and cleansing—and a forceful antidote to bullshit,” Parker writes.24
Engaging in courageous conversations with respect and candor is a necessary part of working in networks. Conversations should not be avoided just because they’re hard. If participants are unable or feel unsafe to discuss challenging issues, trust will be stunted, decisions will be delayed, and the network will flounder. As the writer, poet, and activist James Baldwin understood, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”25
An early step before engaging in courageous conversations is to first establish group agreements. When created with care, group agreements help create a welcoming space where every participant can engage.
To generate a list of potential agreements, consider asking participants to reflect on the following question: “What do you need from the people in this group for you to be able to participate fully?”26 Start by providing time for personal reflection, and then invite participants to share their thoughts, first in small groups and then in the full group. People might offer statements like “I need to know that the things I share will be kept confidential.” A corresponding group agreement around confidentiality might be, “Take the lesson, leave the details.” Others might say that they have a hard time sitting for long periods of time and need to be able to take breaks. A corresponding group agreement might be, “Practice self-care.”
Consider building on an existing collection of group guidelines that have worked well in multicultural settings, such as the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing,27 conversation guidelines for brave spaces,28 the Living Room Conversations agreements,29 or VISIONS, Inc.’s guidelines for effective cross-cultural dialogue.30 With group agreements, participants are usually more comfortable raising new perspectives, disagreeing with one another, and engaging in the kind of generative conflict that is necessary for good decision-making. Visit the Converge Network Toolkit for a list of our favorite Group Agreements for Networks.
It’s good practice to check in regularly on how well group agreements have been attended to and to provide opportunities for participants to reflect on which group agreements they may want to commit to practicing further. For instance, as the gathering is getting started, you might ask participants to read through the group agreements and pick one in particular that they’d like to lean into over the course of the day. Then, at the end of the day, you can invite them to share in pairs how it went and what they will carry forward from the experience. Similarly, you can prompt the network to reflect as a whole on which agreements it is particularly good at incorporating and which agreements would benefit from greater attention.
Love is at the root of almost everything that makes human systems vibrant, healthy, and just. I’m not talking about romantic love, but rather the kind of platonic, universal love that someone can have for the planet, for themselves, for their friends, and for their community.
At the individual level, love can yield significant and wide-ranging benefits. According to the clinical psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, an orientation to love makes people “more flexible, attuned to others, creative, and wise,” as well as more resourceful.31 At the collective level, love has the power to rewire the underlying dynamics of systems.32 A collective orientation toward love creates nurturing and regenerative systems. Love opens groups to recognize each other’s experiences and perspectives. It invites people to bring their whole selves to the party, warts and all. Love has the ability to connect and transform.
Fear, on the other hand, has the power to separate and destroy. An orientation toward fear leads to an exploitative and degenerative system. Fear of the unknown prompts people to create rigid rules and procedures in an attempt to establish as much certainty and control as possible. A fear of being vulnerable stops them from engaging with an open heart, instead walling themselves off from the intimate and at times difficult conversations that open new possibilities.
Years ago, when I worked in Fresno, California, I saw a love-based transformation happen firsthand. Participants who once were strangers, or even perceived enemies, discovered that despite their differences, they shared a deep love for their community. That shared love created a foundation for how they engaged with one another. They laughed together, they cried together, they looked out for each other, they formed bonds that carried forward well past the expiration of their formal network experience.
How, then, do we instill the concept of love in collaborative spaces, even among those who might shy away from using the term itself? A first step is to create just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive spaces that acknowledge power and privilege and that center the voices of historically underrepresented or marginalized communities. Rev. Starsky Wilson points out that justice is inseparable from love: “As we live out justice we are speaking love . . . justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public . . . justice is a structural and systematic approach to loving those with whom we come into contact and serve.”33
Fostering a shift toward love might include clarifying a shared sense of purpose, cultivating meaningful relationships of trust, sharing stories, honoring difference, and cultivating an open-heartedness to listening, learning, and appreciating one another’s unique gifts.34 Each one of these practices will foster more connected, more purposeful, and more committed spaces. Shifting the system to an orientation of love and away from an orientation of fear will transform its resulting dynamics in ways that were previously unimaginable. What’s love got to do with it, then?35 As it turns out, just about everything.