There’s a difference between women stepping up into leadership and women stepping up into leadership together. I’m infinitely more interested in the latter because it means finding ways to work together while allowing for deep points of difference. It also means creating new knowledge together, which is energizing for everyone.
My first real foray into this kind of collective leadership was in the fall of 2010. I sat on the floor at Sky Lake Lodge in Rosendale, New York and watched Walk Out Walk Onco-author Deborah Frieze teach a model for systems change called The Two Loops. Just a couple of years after the 2008 economic crash, I was grateful for mentors and teachers like Deborah who could see a way out of the mess. The moment felt similar to the moment we’re in now. Everything was a disaster, major systems had just appeared to be broken, and so it also became true that everything was possible.
Twenty or thirty of us had gathered together for an international Berkana Institute event called “Weaving the Web.” Our job at the time was to find connections across our buckets of work and create new connections to push our collective work forward. I liked The Two Loops because it felt like a shiny new tool for good, old fashioned community organizing. Here was a way to talk about what it means to act as an emergent, collective body rather than a group of individuals. I knew in my gut that that the world needed more “weavers” of knowledge, not just new ideas. And I liked the idea of weaving because it meant working with what we already had. (Again, we had only recently found out that something that we thought was solid about our economy was actually built on air). This wasn’t my first introduction to living systems thinking — in short, how to learn from nature about how to be more resilient — but it was the first time I saw it taught so simply and effectively.
You can watch the Two Loops video here, but the basic premise is that there are systems that no longer work anymore (can you think of a few now?) and new, more effective systems inevitably emerging. Trailblazing individuals and organizations who are creating what’s next make their greatest impact when they connect with each other to create new systems of influence. When trailblazers connect meaningfully around their shared work (while honoring each other’s unique contributions), they refine and improve each other’s strategies. The Two Loops model is valuable because it quickly gets you out of your own head and makes the larger systems you work within — sometimes blindly — visible. With larger systems in view, you can make different, wiser choices about where to put your energy. For activists who feel alone, it also connects you to your larger community. In so many ways, it expands your field of vision.
Six years later, I’m just as interested in living systems and resilience. Except now I’m committed to helping build not just new systems of influence, but women-led systems of influence. Instead of forever seeking to “empower” women, for example, some of the most important work ahead of us, I believe, is to follow the leadership of women who are already out there leading, creating new systems. For women leaders, once our basic needs are met, it is to fully embrace our power to create the kind of world we want to live in and to do so with an explicit focus on coalition building. We must work together and learn from each other if we want to genuinely co-create new systems of influence.
In truth, gender equity activists collaborate all the time. Collaboration is a shared value among so many people I know and have had the privilege to work with. But true co-creative, collaboration isn’t easy. Just like every other marginalized and oppressed group of people on the planet, women have been set up to compete for attention and resources because our work has been historically undervalued, de-valued, or not valued at all. There’s only so much to go around, we think, not realizing that this way of thinking and building and organizing is a trap. So we work alone too often. We pretend to have the answers instead of listening to others and putting our heads together with other players in the field. Or we do the opposite and look to others for what we should do instead of trusting our own knowing.
What we can do instead is choose not to play the game as we’ve learned it. We can choose to bring an ecosystem/living systems view to our leadership and organizing, which opens up new possibilities for everyone.
Here are three benefits of this approach:
An living systems view of the women’s leadership movement…
1) Encourages individual actors to share information, helping everyone learn faster
From a living systems perspective, almost every individual and organization has something unique to contribute to women’s leadership field. It’s unwise to hide what you’re doing (because you think someone will to steal your idea) since transparency is what helps collaborators to find each other. In short, when you find someone else doing something similar to what you do, consider this extremely good news. You either have new partners in your work or at the very least, your work is going to get clearer and better.
2) Honors the perspectives and centers the contributions of historically marginalized groups
When it is clear that everyone has something to contribute to the women’s leadership field (or any field, for that matter), historically marginalized groups aren’t just “included” in existing, dominant systems and previous ways of doing things; their knowledge is understood to be essential to the health of the whole. Young people’s contributions are also more valued. The contributions of people who work 10 or 25 hours per week are valued as much as people who work 80 hours per week. Why? Information and knowledge are what count. There will always be a certain amount of politics involved in organizing, but politics takes at least more of a back seat because just it isn’t as important as what is emerging by way of new information and new learning across the field.
3) Uses the full strength of the field
Good leadership in any field means knowing when to step forward, when to step back, and when to throw your weight behind another person or group’s good leadership. Along these lines, every movement will always need trailblazing individuals. Still, strong relationships and meaningful collaborations among trailblazers are what will tip the scale from one system (reality) to the next, giving the new emerging system of influence its weight.
As Gloria Steinem shared recently, the (women-led) future is happening whether people like it or not. I believe a shift toward gender equity and gender parity in leadership at all levels (see Take The Lead) is indeed happening. The future will and won’t be “coordinated.” Nevertheless, in our everyday organizing, we need all the new tools and language we can get to help us create the future we want for ourselves and our communities. This where living systems can help the movement for gender equity and gender parity in leadership.