I’ve logged quite a few miles in the past six months; twelve countries in eastern Europe, almost as many states in the US, three countries in the southern horn of Africa, as well some time in the UK and Canada. I’ve seen a lot of exciting things in that time: cities and countries that have come to flourish since the fall of communism, education projects that challenge the status quo and give young people new ways to create knowledge and test their ideas in the world, universities working with communities to solve problems through cooperative knowledge generation, even as those universities are drained of public resources.
Most of these examples suggest the resilience of systems, but what stands out perhaps even more indelibly are the ghostly images of just how fragile our systems are and how quickly they rise and fall. Sometimes we are able to recreate something from the collapsed shell, sometimes people make the choice to ignore the lingering shadows of the past, and sometimes the failure is so horrific, swift and utter that there is no going back.
This last scenario emerges from my visit to the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power facility in Ukraine. Visitors can enter the area with permission and an escort, but due to the massive amounts of residual radiation in the general area, an ‘exclusion zone’ that covers several hundred square kilometer remains in place. The city of Chernobyl, at the edge of the zone, is actually populated by a small, rotating population of Russian military troops who are responsible for keeping an eye on the failed reactor. At the edge of the city, there is a grim memorial to the 186 nearby villages that were completely abandoned because of the fallout from the plant. Much nearer to the reactor itself, the city of Pripyat is evidence to the folly and hubris of the project—a new town built expressly for the scientists, engineers and other workers who managed the facility; once home to almost 50,000 people, it now stands completely empty. The roadways and buildings—opera houses, grocery stores, tower blocks—all being rapidly retaken by the surrounding forest. Not far from Pripyat is the shell of the reactor itself, the damaged building shrouded in a rough concrete and lead ‘sarcophagus’ built hastily at the height of the emergency and already beginning to collapse in on itself after only 27 years. Nearby a giant EU-funded ‘containment dome’ is in the midst of construction. The giant steel and lead hoophouse is being built about a half kilometer from the reactor. When finished, it will be slid on train rails until it covers and encloses the reactor building. The dome is expected to last a maximum of 200 years. By comparison, the radiation in the core of the reactor will remain active for the next 48,000 years. And not only the reactor itself, but the entire area for miles around the site still sends Geiger counters into frenzies. While this specter will linger on forever in a literal sense, it is already fading from collective memory and political consciousness as Europe and America are moving ahead with the construction of new nuclear plants after a period of public resistance nuclear energy.
In that sense, some of ghosts are simply more convenient to forget than to contend with. In a recent visit to Bulgaria, I had the peculiar experience of visiting Buzhlaja, the once grand congress hall of the Bulgarian communist party. The huge building is better known to the few foreign visitors who manage to reach the site as the ‘spaceship’. It sits isolated on a barren mountaintop overlooking a vast expanse of the Thracian plain. When my sister and I told the hotel owner in the nearby town of Kazanluk about our plans to climb up the mountain to the distant structure that we could just make out from the balcony of her hotel, she quickly tried to dissuade us by proffering a list of every orthodox church and ancient tomb within a 75 miles radius.
Buzhlaja is a paradox for Bulgarians and they don’t quite know what to do with it or with the numerous other monuments from the communist period. Unlike many of its eastern European neighbors, Bulgarians look back at the Soviet period as a time of prosperity and comfort. Having been liberated by the Russians from a 500-year Turkish occupation in the late 1870s, the Bulgarians have a historical fondness for their Russian neighbors. Moreover, Bulgaria saw the Soviet Union as convenient alliance which brought stability to the chronically turbulent Balkan region. In many ways the country has struggled since 1989 and few there would argue that things are better now than they were behind the Iron Curtain—most would tell you flatly that things are worse. Even after several years as a member of the EU, the country has failed to gain traction. Thus structures like Buzhlaja present a challenge. There is a sense of wanting to be perceived as modern, European and capitalist—hence the guidance from the hotel manager that we would be better off spending our time elsewhere than at the symbolic heart of Buglarian communist history. This is a prevailing sentiment and as such the building is abandoned. It is now a shell of what it once was—windows blown out, mosaics crumbling, roof giving way to sky. To maintain the building would be too oppositional to the wider political zeitgeist. But there is also clearly no appetite to tear the structure down, nor the other hundreds of Soviet memorials and monuments that populate the country—in contrast to the gleeful destruction of these structures that happened in so many other eastern bloc countries. Instead they are quietly ignored as they fall into ruin. Quiet defiance of the inevitable. How hard to let go of a system that you perceive to have been better than your current and future options.
While the case of Bulgaria may seem unique, the modern world itself is facing no less of a challenge and paradox. We are aware at so many levels of how unsustainable our current economic system is, particularly with regards to the environment. There is little doubt that our current practices will sooner or later result in catastrophic consequences for our planet and our progeny, but it is politically and emotionally convenient to ignore this looming threat. Like Bulgarians we are unwilling to lay down the system that we have become attached to even when we know it has failed—and because the alternatives seem even more dire. Politically we are uncomfortable acknowledging the failures and collapses of the current system. We have spent half of a decade now blaming political leaders for not being unable to fix the global recession—as though it were in their capacity do so. It is easier to lay blame than to face up to the fact that the era of cheap resources and fast growth, extended by a decades of credit and borrowing, is coming to an end.
For those who look unflinchingly into the future, there is great desire to understand and shape how our systems will emerge and evolve beyond this paradigm. My teaching work with the Future Generations Graduate School recently took me to Detroit. The masters students in the program were looking at Detroit as an example of a ‘post-development’ city, exploring the way that citizens organize and attempt to recreate a city socially and economically when the engine that drives progress fails. The world after development and big industry doesn't have to look like Bulgaria in the aftermath of communism. By contrast, Detroit is rife with many examples of urban innovation and repurposing. There were many inspiring examples of people working to reimagine their city at the cultural, agricultural and industrial levels, from urban gardening to community peace zones and high schools kitted out with MIT-style 'fab-labs'—design studios equipped with state-of-the-art 3-D printers and CNC machines, in what may be a first small step toward the decentralization industrial production, with the aim of creating more locally fabricated goods and parts. However, the larger powers at work seem resistant to this reorganization because of its implicit assumption that the Detroit cannot be rebuilt on the same model and system that has already failed. Indeed, the larger discourse on industrialism and capitalism must demonstrate that one of its birthplaces is not dead and will not die. As such there is much effort to reinvigorate Detroit by selling its assets to the lowest bidder. While this may clear the city’s debt there is little evidence that this will actually generate anything new. However, this evisceration of the city’s neighborhoods and cultural heritage could potentially drive out the good work that die-hard Detroiters are doing all over the city.
Encouragingly there are examples of this Detroit-style resilience showing up in other places as well, such as at the Emerging Leader Lab (ELL) program in Chatham, New York. In a nutshell, the ELL is a free school for social entrepreneurs that exists outside of the cash economy (see the three previous blogsposts for more about the ELL). The students there, through their projects, are imaging radically different organizational and economic structures. Their physical plant is emblematic of this thinking. They are housed in a defunct paper mill. The facility closed about 10 years ago and was purchased by a solar technology firm which now uses part of the factory to make solar cells and systems. However much of the massive physical plant remains unused so the company granted the ELL permission to use part of the building as their social enterprise hacker space. It is powerful to see quite literally the seeds of new paradigm taking roots in the derelict shell of the old one.
Our economic, industrial and political systems are fragile, as the examples above show. They can explode in an instant or collapse in the course of days and rarely is there an opportunity to return to the status quo ante. Rather than continuing to ignore these breakdowns, or misguidedly to expect from politicians for a deus ex machina solution, we should turn to the Detroits and the ELLs of the world for inspiration. We can look with optimism and creativity at the future, recreate our systems from the inside out, not expecting silver bullets, but acknowledging the need for new ideas that are rooted in place, using local resources and knowledge, building resilient systems and structures that are premised on continual regeneration and reimagining.
As my strongest personal interests are around learning and education, I also want to look at the ELL from a pedagogical perspective. One of the aspects that initially drew me to the ELL concept was that it was a residential learning community focused on generating ideas for social change. As I became more knowledgeable about the structure of the program, it resonated even more, given my work in guiding reflective practice work with community development and international development practitioners.
I was particularly impressed by the coaching aspect of the ELL. Each ‘maker’ in the program was paired with a professional life coach who accompanied them through the two month program, meeting each week by phone. The coaches also met together as group weekly via Google Hangout to share their reflections about the process and to discuss the best ways to support their participants. As part of my evaluation of the program I participated in these weekly calls and learned a great deal about the various trajectories of the makers.
The coaches shared a common belief that development of the makers’ individual projects was premised on the personal development and growth of the makers themselves. As such, the weekly phone calls between the coaches and their participants were as much focused on personal reflection as on the technical details of projects. As the ELL progressed, the connection between these two domains became clearer. Increased clarity about personal motivations was reflected in enhanced clarity about ideas. Increased clarity about values led to a heightened ability to articulate not only the structure of newly conceived organizations but also their potential social value.
The coaching space was only one of the learning dimensions of the program. Each morning all of the on- site participants—makers, facilitators and support team—met for four hours of collaborative group time. Here as well the focus was on project and personal development. Part of the time each morning was spent sorting through issues of group process and keeping communication open between members in order to keep the community running as smoothly and harmoniously as possible during a very intellectually, physically and emotionally intense program.
The remainder of the group time was dedicated to the curriculum of the ELL. The facilitators had key ideas and frameworks they wanted to share with the participants—these ideas were the conceptual soil for the ELL: ideas about the nature and function of the gift economy, liquid currencies, social development, value-driven entrepreneurship, methodologies for ideation, etc. Over time the curricular space became more collaborative. As participants became more comfortable in the learning community, they increasingly contributed to the topics and presentations that comprised the morning sessions.
Following the group time, the participants would spend a brief period reflecting about their goals for the day. Through the afternoon, into the evening, and often late into the night, the makers then set to focused work on their projects. During long stretches of the project time, the Lab would be mostly quiet as people worked at their stations. In the afternoon and evening, there were various impromptu meetings between and across projects as participants shared their latest accomplishments and sought feedback about ways forward. The projects were quite diverse—an internet portal and match-making site for intentional communities, a new open-source platform for knowledge mapping, developing the pedagogy and curriculum for a group of agile learn centers inspired by the agile learning movement in software engineering, and more. In spite of the diversity of projects, the intimate nature of the lab lent itself to continuous cross-pollination and collaboration.
In listening to and interviewing the makers and other participants during the evaluation process, I was struck not only to their commitment for proactive social change, but also their commitment to alternative forms of education, commitments born out intense frustration with the current state of higher education. Some of the makers had attended university, but other had eschewed it altogether, arguing that they could organize a better, more personalized educational program than any degree available at a university. Instead they were moving toward a bricolage approach to learning composed of numerous self-selected experiences.
DIY education, MOOCs and other online resources are a source of endless debate in the world of higher education. My concern with these processes is their general lack of relationships, with both peers and mentors. Content devoid of relationships and collective reflection is easily misconstrued. Moreover, the content itself cannot facilitate the growth and development of students. I found the ELL exciting because of its attempt to bring together the best of both worlds—a student-driven, largely self-organized curriculum that was situated with a dense network of social relationships generated by the residential community.
The ELL also lent itself to an added pedagogical dimension that is difficult achieve even within a formal education environment. This was the dimension of embodiment. As one of the support team members commented about the program, “We are doing it by be it.” While every classroom offers the opportunity to model more democratic and participatory ways of sharing and creating knowledge, there is little opportunity for enacting change at the organizational level. Students long for their universities to embody their personal ideals, such as around sustainability, but such goals are achieved only through years of slow change. However, in a program as small and as agile as the ELL, the facilitators and participants are able to design systems that are congruent with their ideals—in this case, modeling the gift economy, deciding through deliberative dialogues, and mandating full participation in the labor (cooking, cleaning, etc.) of the lab. The participants experienced firsthand the excitement—and also at times the frustration—of radical, immersive experimentation. But over the course of two months, iterative learning and rapid adaptation occurred until the group had created a functional organizational system which was a living, breathing embodiment of their values and aspirations for the world.
All said, the ELL was not simply a place of learning, but a space for being and becoming, which will likely have a strong and lasting impact on the participants, on their lives and on their work well into the future.
Following up on the previous post, I will say a bit more about the organizational structure of the ELL. As I explained before, the ELL is structured to exist outside of the cash economy, in the so called ‘gift economy.’ While there is much to be explored in that concept (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gift_economy and
http://www.artbrock.com/node/49), I will focus here on how the structure of the lab is an example of how the gift economy is understood to operate.
From a functional perspective, the ELL is a social-enterprise start-up organized around a short-term intentional community. The participants in the program—the ‘makers’ as they are called—bring an idea for a social organization to the lab to develop over the course of the intensive eight week program. There is a selection process to participate; the participants submit applications describing their ideas and backgrounds. However, the program itself is completely free. The cohort is small, around 10-12 makers are selected.
Although a great deal of the learning within the program is horizontal, between the participants themselves, the makers are well supported in their efforts to develop their ideas. At the core of the organizational structure of the lab is a pair of facilitators. The facilitators for the Lab in Chatham were Art Brock and Eric Harris-Braun, who are the originators of the ELL concept. This is the second time they have run a lab in Chatham. Both are well known theorists and activists in arena of the gift economy. They consider the facilitators to be the ‘coherence holders’ for the process, having a general idea of how the emergent learning process should evolve over the course of the program. While there is clearly a leadership role played by the facilitators, in practice they worked hard to create a horizontal, participative learning space where all of the collaborators, regardless of role, work on equal footing.
Within the lab space, there is also a small support team who coordinate logistics and look after the wider community interactions and relationships. They solicit and manage food pick-ups from the farming community, organize work crews for cooking and cleaning and host public events to familiarize people in Chatham with the work of the lab. The support team is a mixture of past ELL participants and likely-future participants who are still in the nascent stages of developing their ideas.
The makers, facilitators and support team make up the core of the residential community who live in Chatham and spend 12-14 hours a day at the lab space during the program. However, there are also other several groups who play an active role in supporting the lab. Most obviously, there are the people of Chatham, New York. They are the foundation of the program and key to the functionality of the ELL as a gift economy enterprise. The lab is able to function without a budget and with very limited costs because of the support of the community. The workspace for the lab is a retired paper mill that has been purchased and partially rehabbed by a solar-cell company called Sun Dog Solar (http://www.sundogsolar.net/). They provide the Lab with around 3500 feet of unused office space in the mill. ELL participants have been slowly cleaning and remodeling the building into functional office and workshop space. Food for the program is likewise provided by the community. ELL has networked with a variety of farmers and shops in area and these collectively provide more than enough food to meet the needs of the some 20 people who are typically on site each day. Moreover, because only a very small number of people involved in the program are from Chatham, the community also supports the program by providing housing. Some dozen families in the nearby Quaker community opened their doors and provided beds and breakfasts to the out-of-town participants. The Quakers also provided several veggie-diesel cars (that run on reclaimed cooking oil) to the group so that participants could carpool to and from the Sun Dog facility each day.
Finally there were also a two, more broadly-situated groups who supported the work of the ELL at a distance. These were the source team and the coaching team. The source team acted as a backstop for the facilitators, providing ideas on curriculum and techniques for supporting group process. They provided outside eyes and advice to help the facilitators hold coherence during the program. Finally there was an external coaching team. The each of the makers was paired by the ELL with their own professional life coach, who supported participants in both project and personal development. Through the coaches, the makers were also able to have an outside perspective on their work and progress. The participants typically met by phone or Skype with their makers once or twice per week.
These various elements were the ensemble components which comprised the ELL and supported its functioning. All of the parties involved donated their time and services to the program, enabling the program to operate with no cash budget and no formalized organizational identity. In spite of all the ways such an all-volunteer/all-gift program could come undone, the ELL has achieved two successful iterations and is organizing a third cohort for fall 2013. As well three replications of the program are being planned in various parts of the US for 2014. Through the success of the ELL, these replications and the ongoing work of ELL alumni, Brock and Harris-Braun hope to build proof-of-concept for gift economy organizations and networks.
In the next post, I will a focus more specifically on the learning and pedagogical dimensions of the ELL program.
Recently I had the opportunity to travel to up-state New York to support some evaluation and learning with a new education project called the Emerging Leader Labs, or more simply the ELL (http://emergingleaderlabs.org/). It’s an unusual amalgam of ideas and aspirations.
At a first and most obvious level, the ELL is an incubator for social-enterprise start-ups. Young people in their twenties and thirties come to the lab with an idea for a new organization or as the leaders of organizations that are in their very early stages of operation.
A more distinctive feature of the ELL is that it is also a residential learning community. The participants—or ‘makers’ as they are called in ELL-speak—agree to live in community with each other and work full-time on their projects throughout the eight-week intensive program.
There is also a third level at which the program operates; the ELL is a complex experiment in the arena of the gift economy. That is, the project exists almost entirely without money or financing. In order to function, the program is dependent upon the generosity of the local community for its facilities, food, housing and transportation.
This is where the ELL becomes especially interesting. I had become aware of the ELL in 2012 when the first iteration of the program was already underway. When I learned that it was happening again this summer, I contacted the organizers to see if Empyrean Research could support the project by providing external evaluation. Once involved in the ELL, I realized that I was looking at the project from the wrong end of the telescope—the community-supported dimension wasn’t a creative way to finance a social enterprise incubator, rather the gift economy aspect was the core purpose of the program: to be a living example of these ideas and practices.
Moreover, through the incubator, the ELL is also generating new organizations which also function in outside of the monetary economy. As ELL co-creator Art Brock told me during my visit, “We are modeling the gift economy through the ELL. At the same time, we know that many of the organizations that the participants are trying to create may not survive in the regular money economy. From working here in the ELL environment, they understand that it is possible to exist outside of it.”
In the typical social enterprise discourse, organizations look to create income while simultaneously addressing a social problem. At the more ‘enterprise’-heavy end of the discourse, it’s defined as ‘doing well by doing good.’ As social entrepreneurship becomes increasingly recognized and promoted, more and more non-profits are being challenging to think in this way as well—a way that pushes them more into a private sector, income-generating paradigm. While this model has generated a great deal of excitement in some circles, if you think--as I do--that the current economic paradigm is a key driver of many of the current global problems, it is harder to see how broadening its influence into other sectors is likely to bring transformative change.
As such I have often struggled with theory and practice of social entrepreneurship. It can stimulate innovative thinking in generating new models and practices for change. However it can also conflate small-s sustainability (financial) with big-s sustainability (environmental and systemic). Social enterprises which generate their own revenue can be just as invested in the current economic systems as global corporations, thus limiting this ability to critique the status quo and to search for alternatives for deep change.
The ELL was a radical and exciting departure from the conventional approach to social enterprise development. By placing itself fully in the gift economy, it squared the circle by pivoting the social enterprise discourse away from a focus on financial models into a more clear focus on embodying solutions and responses to problems. The ELL approach and curriculum carries with it an implicit critique of the current economic system. As such, the start-ups within the ELL are quite radical in their orientation. They are not Band-aids for current problems, but seeds and fractal beginnings of alternative systems.
In the next several posts, I will say a bit more about how the ELL functions, as an organization and as a learning environment.
Welcome to Empyrean Research.
We’re new kids on the block but we come with lots of experience and motivation to help groups and communities that are in need and to work with organizations that want to go in new directions.
I am the director at Empyrean Research. I come to this work with a background in community development, international development and academia. I have worked inside universities and think tanks. And while these organizations do a lot of good in their own way, they are like giant tanker ships. They ply the deep waters and dock at the large ports—but they never reach the small islands, the out of the way harbors, or the inland areas far from the coast.
I created Empyrean Research to give my collaborators and me the freedom to reach those other waters--by which I mean those communities and organizations that may be too small or too remote to have regular access to university researchers or think tank consultants.
We work with the those who are struggling to make change wherever they are anywhere in the world:
We bring research tools and methods to help your organizations become more successful at creating good change in your community. We work in participatory ways using collaborative research methods. Don’t worry: the idea isn't to do research on your community or even for your group, but to do it with you-- to arrive at a better understanding by working and learning together so that in the end we leave your organization with the capacity to carry out similar analysis in the future on your own.
We also work with larger institutions that are looking for better ways to engage with and support their communities:
We provide models and tools for building better partnerships and collaborations. We help governments link more effectively with citizen groups and civil society, universities to engage better with their surrounding communities and businesses to create more meaningful corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs.
Our commitment is to careful listening and original thinking. We are not replicating or scaling up a one-size-fits-all model from some other context. We design context-specific research models and processes that are premised on the needs and realities of your community and your organization.
Through our projects we work to create transformative knowledge. We believe that transformative knowledge rarely comes from the outside—rather it comes from changes in assumptions and relationships inside of a community or organization. Our goal is to create within your group those new kinds of transformative understandings that open up new possibilities for action and change.
Please explore our website and the growing body of posts on this blog to learn more about how we work here at Empyrean Research. We look forward to your inquiries about how we can support your organization and your community.
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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