From Downward Mobility to Interdependence

Where I find myself right now

I grew up in Catholic social justice circles and Dean Brackley, SJ (NYT, NCR) was one of our saints. I started reading his book, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, when I was a teenager after returning from a summer in El Salvador. I was intrigued by what he wrote about “Downward Mobility” because it resonated with my lived experience and with how my parents raised me. 

“I invite you to discover your vocation in downward mobility.  It’s a scary request… The world is obsessed with wealth and security and upward mobility and prestige. But let us teach solidarity, walking with the victims, serving and loving.  I offer this for you to consider – downward mobility. And I would say in this enterprise there is a great deal of hope.”

Dean Brakley, SJ as quoted by Chris Kerr in this post.

This feels real for me right now, because I’m stepping out of my role as Executive Director… I think.  

Over the next 3 weeks (and likely the 12 weeks after that), I’m having difficult conversations with my colleagues (and later with our Board) about my role, expectations, compensation, accountability, and what I’m stepping into next (which is still very uncertain — and part of why I’m both scared and excited to be sharing this with you right now). Part of what makes this exciting is that this is part of a natural evolution — and something that I’ve wanted for a long-time: to be able to have a team of leaders that are fully capable of leading and owning all the work and doing it better than I was able to (and we’ve gotten to that place over the past 6 months). It’s also exciting, because this is a natural part of explicit steps we started taking 18 months ago to become “shared leadership” / “hierarchy-lite” organization. After reading about self-management and other resources, we implemented new decision-making processes around performance management, evaluation, transitioned to full financial and salary transparency, and we’ve gradually, but consistently been moving towards shared ownership of the organization by a growing number of colleagues. 

Through this work and our other work, I’ve grown to trust my colleagues and I know they value me, but there have also been a decent number of negative experiences along the way, including some tensions that have come to the forefront this past several weeks. Some colleagues have felt and shared with me painful moments of exclusion, harm, grief and other negative experiences. Some of this has been caused by poor decisions I’ve made (mostly when I spread myself too thin and just plow ahead valuing the outcomes more than the collaborative journey to get there). Other parts of this have been caused by the hierarchical structure we’ve had and other organizational dynamics where I’ve had to be less accountable to my colleagues (more accountable to the Board), and where the team has had less “shared ownership” over the bodies of work that I’ve led which have felt longer-term and less in their purview until more recently. 

Together, as we’ve started these difficult conversations, we’re beginning to see that now that we’ve grown to 8 full-time staff and 3-6 other “entrepreneurs-in-residence” — it’s quite difficult to maintain meaningful emotional partnership with the key colleagues owning the core of our work, while also leading many partnerships and relationships that could be vital to our future work in new regions and in new ventures. That said, if I want all of us to truly be in a position to co-own the co-op, it’s critical for my colleagues to genuinely feel shared ownership over the expansion, fundraising, and other activities I lead as well as the ~30% of the organizational resources that I’m stewarding. (I see how in the past 6-12 months this has been quite hard for me, given the number of significant new partnerships, implementation and funding relationships in new regions I’ve been investing in and how that’s pulled me away so significantly from the group of colleagues who co-owns the organization with me).

Since I’ve failed to do this shared leadership & shared ownership well this past few months, I’m feeling scared as I enter this period of figuring out my new role with my colleagues. I’m also feeling the possibilities offered by a sense of our ability to lean into “interdependence” as a new operating value in our organizational culture. Part of my ability to feel hopeful is that I’ve felt affirmed by one colleagues in particular (as a “vision-caster” and “coach”) And because of his gratitude and ability to name specific things he feels I offer, I find myself feeling much more able to put my trust in the process my colleagues are creating and our ability to figure this out.

Interdependence & the Movement Ecology We Need

I both love and have struggled with my partnership with Metro IAF.

My close relationship with Metro IAF leaders is the primary reason we’ve had success in starting a co-op over the past 10 years. Their power is undeniable. In the past few months, Metro IAF has helped our co-op to expand to working with organizations in 6 new states for our co-op PPE purchasing efforts

Diagram of the 160 organizations that participated in our June 9 group PPE purchase, which included 30,000 masks from Carolina Textile District PPE (of which Molly, Sara, Kathryn from this workshop are key leaders).

But IAF’s narrative power in capturing our collective imagination is weak. 

Sex & Startups, on the other hand, has narrative power and they’ve galvanized the Zebras Unite movement and harnessed online tools to build local communities of more than 6,000 members over the past 3 years. (Zebras Fix what Unicorns Break, New Stripes for Zebras Unite and more here.)  

Using Ayni Institute’s Movement Ecology framework, I’d say Zebras Unite has been in the mass protest category. However, as of this week, they’re now in the process of transitioning to a multi-stakeholder cooperative and so I’d put them in the building alternatives category. 

Metro IAF, on the other hand is in the structure organizing category (see definition, here, which I think is illustrative of why this work is vital). While Metro IAF has contributed to building important alternatives, and doing on-going personal transformation, it’s their structure organizing that is their dominant mode.

Excerpt from page 15 of Ayni’s Funding Social Movement’s guide

My argument (building on Ayni’s) is that to be effective over the long term, we need all three thirds of this circle. And within the “Changing Dominant Institutions” third — we need all three — Mass Protest, Structure organizing & Inside Game.

More specifically, to be effective in seizing the moment we have with the set of interrelated economic, racial & other crises, we need real connective tissue between different parts of the ecology.

I believe we need a shared ownership movement that has meaningful relationships between leaders of mass protests (like Black Lives Matter, the Poor People’s Campaign (Rev. Barber picking up on Martin Luther King), Occupy Wall Street, Zebras Unite), structure organizing (like Metro IAF, Faith in Action, SEIU, WeOwnIt), inside game (like Biden Campaign folks, NCBA, New America), alternatives (like ROC USA, The Industrial Commons and other shared ownership enterprises, employee ownership and worker-owned co-ops, credit unions that live their potential…), and personal transformation groups (like leadership development from WeOwnIt, Slow Money, Liberation theology, Center for Action and Contemplation and socially-focused organizations that attend to peoples direct needs and project a vision of change rippling slowly outward as individual lives are improved).  (See my yellow Felipe’s Movement Ecology map below.)

Why do we need this connective tissue? 

When Hosni Mubarak was ousted as President of Egypt in 2011 because of mass protests, the leaders of those mass protests weren’t connected to the leaders of structure organizing groups or alternatives or personal transformation groups. Though structure organizing groups were very interested in getting involved and supporting the leaders of the mass protests, Mark and Paul Engler write in their book This is an Uprising, the leaders clashed too much and they weren’t able to build enough trust, so that when President Mubarak did step down, there wasn’t enough connective tissue in the movement ecology to draw on the power and strength of organization that structure organizing groups had — or the power for personal transformation groups — to rebuild the constitution and a new form of governance for the country.  This Egypt example is one of a couple dozen that are written about at length in This is an Uprising. 

How do we create this connective tissue that’s needed? 

I’m not sure, but I believe it’s in spaces like this workshop that we begin to get to know kindred spirits and identify ways we might be able to see value in each other’s work. I believe we need tangible actions that we can take together that give us a common experience, even if those actions are small. These specific experiences build trust and possibilities. 

I know first hand, from my experience inside Metro IAF over the past 10 years — that it’s difficult for established organizations to see the need for this kind of connective tissue. 

Metro IAF’s leadership is focused on their theory of change and it’s hard for them to see and build the trust needed to meaningful work with others from other modes. Trust is a difficult and slow asset to build. We must therefore, “Move at the Speed of Trust”  as adrienne maree brown teaches in her Emergent Strategy principles (summary of her book here).

As we think about this work, I share a map of my movement ecology.

As I go through this workshop alongside you — as a participant — I’m eager for your feedback and coaching, and reflecting back to me what you see. I’m eager to build more connective tissue between parts of the movement. And I ask for your prayers as my colleagues and I discern interdependence are the intersection of the what work I, the organization, and our movement, are most being called to in this time.

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Reflectsion Script

Published by Felipe Witchger

Felipe actualizes organizer-entrepreneurs for new economic praxis. He facilitates collaboration between community institutions for more equitable community wealth building. By developing leaders and allies, Felipe believes marginalized communities can build the power they need to change institutions, systems, and our culture. Felipe also loves building sandcastles.

3 thoughts on “From Downward Mobility to Interdependence

  1. Felipe – You pose the question “How do we create this connective tissue that’s needed?” I see you showing us a way. Like you, I believe trust is foundational, and I think when we are able to be open, vulnerable, and genuine with each other that can really take trust-building from 0 to 60 fast. Thank you for trusting us with the fullness of the challenging and nuanced situation you are currently grappling with. By sharing, I feel your humanity a bit more and feel like I can share mine. What a gift!

    Your post made we wonder if the connective tissue might need to look and feel different depending on what pieces of the ecosystem its connecting. Can we dive a layer deeper and ask “What is the connective tissue that’s needed to connect mass protests to alternatives … from alternatives to structure organizing etc?

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  2. Felipe, you are already doing what you aspire to–building trust. Like Sarah, I am appreciative of the way your team extended trust to include me in the mix; I feel so at home I’m like a kid in a candy shop again! I’d love to learn from your leadership transition of your leadership model as I’m experiencing something similar and would love to take some 1:1 time to build that “connective tissue” as we mirror to each other what that experience is like for each of us. I find one of the most difficult tasks in social change is keeping Personal Transformation (practices like contemplation/meditation in all its forms) and Alternative and Institutional in a dynamic Trinitarian relationship (see Rohr’s “The Divine Dance.”). As part of that trust building, what have you found encourages folks to share more of the soul’s journey (as distinguished from religion)?

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