Three Windows On Strategising

This latest blog looks outwards to explore what strategies ‘Meadian’ networks (and the individuals who make them up) employ to achieve positive social change. ‘Strategy’ – a noun – sometimes suggests a sense of concreteness and precise definition. I prefer the verbal form (in this case, present participle) strategising to convey the idea that rather, this is a continuing, creative process within these networks and strategy is always emerging as members seek to take and learn from action in the complex world of local communities.
I identify here what I call three windows on strategising which networks use to make sense of this environment and shape action within it. These windows are interdependent and each highlights particular aspects of the processes involved. In order to illuminate these connections, this blog focuses on the red inclusiva and their priority of seeking to advance inclusive education in Bucaramanga.
Window I: The consider – act – learn cycle
The diagram below captures as simply as I can the underlying logic of the continuing cycle of considering, acting and learning through which networks like the red inclusiva engage with each other and the external environment – in this example, especially the education system, including education policy, schools and the communities they serve – to advance their purpose.
(1) Members come together, (2) to share views on what is currently working and not working in their field of interest, informed by their own direct experience whether as students, parents or teachers, and (3) to clarify their vision of what would be better.
The gap between vision and reality provides the motivation for (4) searching for possible actions to reduce this gap (using the approaches described in Windows II and III).
In considering these options further, the network looks ‘inside’ to identify who among its members might best lead promising initiatives and ‘outside’ (5) to identify who might become allies in this work.
(6) Members individually or in small clusters, perhaps with allies, take action, small and large, to make progress and (7) use this experience to draw lessons for the next cycle, perhaps also attracting more people to the network who have been allies in this phase.



Through this ‘action learning’ process, the network also develops its capacity for future strategising through reflecting on the assets and alliances they bring to their mission, identifying more doors which open the way to promising opportunities and seeing ‘what works’ in specific interventions (for example, to widen student diversity in the classroom).
Window II: Linking assets, opportunities and tactics
To put this last point more succinctly, the action part of this cycle involves networks in identifying external opportunities for change where they have the assets to make a positive difference through intelligent tactics. The most useful account I have come across of how social movements make the links between assets, opportunities and tactics is in Marshall Ganz’s book Why David Sometimes Wins (2009).
As this title suggests, Ganz writes very much in the spirit of Margaret Mead. In the biblical story, the boy David successfully defeats the apparently much more powerful Goliath in mortal combat. David is a shepherd, not a soldier. But one of his assets is that he knows how to throw stones. (Some would say that he also had God on his side.) Wisely, his winning tactic was to change the nature of this conflict by deploying this asset before any exchange of blows. His opportunity was that Goliath wasn’t expecting this!
The red inclusiva is not likely to resort to violence. Three small stories illustrate how it is linking assets, opportunities and tactics:
• Gloria is both an excellent teacher and a charismatic woman. There is a national ‘best teacher’ competition in Colombia and Gloria entered in the ‘inclusive education’ category. She was the only teacher who reached the finals from her region. This news was strongly reported in the main Floridablanca newspaper. Gloria didn’t win but the experience greatly increased both her profile and that of inclusive education locally and subsequently made it easier for the red inclusiva to gain access to the Department of Education in this municipality.
• Elia is a very energetic volunteer for the Guanella Foundation which provides support to her son Santi. (Saint Luigi Guanella was an Italian priest who was canonised in 2011: perhaps we too have God on our side.) Supported by the red inclusiva, she has found her way – as a Guanella nominee – into the municipal disability reference group, also in Floridablanca.
• Sonia is another charismatic young woman with a severe visual impairment. Sonia has found a part-time job as personal assistant to the first disabled student accepted at an elite private school in the city: a teenager with an even more severe visual impairment. As an ‘expert by experience’, Sonia is both supporting this student and helping the school make the reasonable adjustments required for the student’s full participation. Together they are at least implicitly raising the question of why an elite school professing Christian virtue has only one disabled student.
There are many more stories like this involving all the red inclusiva members. Despite its small membership, it has a rich variety of assets and these are growing with the mature experience of working together. It has a strong narrative about its purpose, captured in its chosen identity. Its members are highly motivated and resilient. Through their multiple and different roles, members are well connected to potential allies and well-informed about what’s going on. Their inclusive way of working means that these assets are shared and they learn from each other’s experience. In particular, they are learning all the time about good tactics for opening doors to influence and making effective contributions, once ‘inside’.
Window III: Seeing the bigger picture
Over time, the red inclusiva aspires to bring together multiple interventions like those described above to promote a larger-scale shift towards inclusive education (and indeed more inclusive communities) in Bucaramanga. Learning by reflecting on their own experience but also by drawing on the international experience of advancing inclusive education, they appreciate that the whole system change required (i.e. in the culture of education, policies and practices) cannot be delivered by government alone, teachers alone or indeed students and their families alone. ‘Top down’ action i.e. to reform legislation, policies, resource allocation etc. cannot deliver radical changes in classroom experience without the positive participation of competent teachers and their students. Equally, ‘bottom up’ action, starting in the schools is unlikely to prove sustainable unless there is a receptive policy context – although more autonomous schools like Aldebarán can go a long way towards providing a model of inclusive classroom practice. And thinking more ‘laterally’, schools are embedded in the communities they serve so school innovation has to be based on partnership between teachers, students, parents and the wider networks of which they are a part.
To make sense of this complexity, ‘Meadian’ networks need at least a simple (and always evolving) ‘theory of change’ to inform and structure their strategising. I try to represent the framework being used by the red inclusiva very simply in the diagram below. (This framework is developed and illustrated in a pamphlet Heidy Araque and I prepared as a report on our journey through four countries of Latin America studying innovations in education in 2011 Advancing Inclusive Education for an Inclusive Society available at )


three pathways

The diagram highlights three inter-related pathways to educational change. Working locally, the red inclusiva has tried to raise community expectations for inclusive education, for example by:
 Supporting individuals, like Miguel Jr., to advance their claims to be included in the mainstream, in this example, at the University level.
 Fostering mutual aid and self-confidence among families, e.g. through the work of Fundown with children with Down’s Syndrome, so that they demand school admission.
 Raising public awareness e.g. through the press and T.V. and cultural events like those organised regularly by Aldebarán.

It has invested a lot in the professional development of teachers and school administrations, for example, by:
 Demonstrating more inclusive practice by what teachers like Gloria and Adriana do in their own classrooms and spreading good practice through teacher training at the University level.
 Helping schools prepare for the admission of individual students e.g. in the work Fundown does to ensure that its pre-school children with Down’s Syndrome ‘graduate’ into local primary schools.
 Leading professional development programmes (e.g. currently in the whole school district of Floridablanca) designed to equip teachers to lead the process of school transformation.

And it has contributed to policy reform, for example, by:
 Gaining representative roles in municipal disability reference groups (e.g. in Bucaramanga and Floridablanca).
 Including Department of Education officials in the district-wide professional development programmes.
 Joining in wider alliances (like the Red Santander) engaged in public policy advocacy.

Using this framework, the red inclusiva seeks to focus its efforts sufficiently intensively to make a real difference, for example in the life of one individual (e.g. Miguel Jr.) one classroom (e.g. Gloria’s) and one school (e.g. Aldebarán). But as a ‘Meadian’ network, it also faces the challenge of trying to achieve more extensive local change, without spreading its efforts ‘too thinly’. The next blog will explore what is involved in linking the intensive to the extensive.


Effective ways of working together

The previous blog in this series explored the personal attributes of members of what we might call ‘Meadian’ (after Margaret Mead) networks which encourage the perseverance required in efforts to achieve social change. It made the point that these are both attributes which members bring to their networks and also attributes which networks nurture in their members. In this latest blog, I reflect on the experience of the 10th May network and the red inclusiva among others to try to identify what is involved in these networks working together effectively and sustainably.
Just to recap a little, Meadian networks are voluntary and informal associations of more-or-less like-minded people working together in a spirit of equality. They are initiated and widened through personal invitation and constituted through relationships involving the ‘whole person’ not just as representatives of particular roles, even though members will, of course, all have external roles in families and more formal organisations as well as taking on different group roles within the network. There is no ‘boss’: networks are self-organising and all members may be called on (or call on themselves) to exercise leadership from time-to-time. Networks which survive take the time to build mutual trust, most often through sharing personal experiences face-to-face. They ensure in the way they work that everyone gets the ‘space’ to give and seek support, contribute to shaping and acting on their shared purpose and learning from their individual and shared initiatives.

Hosting conversations which matter

How? We can identify two complementary sets of processes concerned respectively with hosting the network and facilitating conversations which matter which seem important to network effectiveness.
Helen Sanderson’s opening blog in this series is complimentary about the hosting of the 10th May gatherings in London. I think that she has in mind the ways in which people are made welcome and comfortable, not just the food and drink – but possibly both! Let’s ‘unpack’ this a little. Hosting involves (one website which explores this in detail can be found at ):
 Precisely, choosing pleasant places in which to meet and making people feel welcome. For example, the 10th May gathering takes place in the café of an important charitable foundation in London; the red inclusiva meets on the patio of the elegant house of three of its members, looking out onto a garden of orchids. In both the hosts endure that everyone is greeted personally and encouraged to join in.
 Ensuring that this is a welcome for diversity so that the networks are themselves ‘inclusive communities’. This means choosing accessible venues, assisting people who might face difficulties to get there (this can be as simple as those with cars bringing those who haven’t in Bucaramanga) and making the adjustments necessary for everyone to participate. For example the talented young woman who played the violin at a red inclusiva workshop and lip-reads in two languages can only use the latter skill if the lighting is good and the person speaking faces her directly. (Of course she also ensures that there aren’t two people speaking at once, a service to us all!)
 Shaping the meeting space to foster equal participation. For example, with the red inclusiva core group, which is usually around a dozen people, we sit in comfortable chairs arranged in a circle, a little like ‘sitting around the camp fire’ although in Bucaramanga there is no need for the fire. The 10th May gathering usually attracts 30 – 40 people in a café which thanks to chairs, tables and low partitions, has many ‘nooks and crannies’ for smaller groups to meet up but all with visibility of the whole, if we want to hold a plenary discussion.
 Providing orientation by getting agreement on the main purpose of the meeting (the invitation to the 10th May gathering includes a ‘big question’ for exploration) and establishing a simple process for everyone to contribute (expanded on below), while also remaining flexible so that what is shared emerges from what participants feel is important. For example, in meetings of the red inclusiva, not uncommonly someone arrives with an urgent need to share a story, either of some important opportunity which has been identified or to ask support in relation to a pressing dilemma.
 Ensuring that contributions are encouraged and appreciated, through attentive listening to individuals, while also attending to the well-being of the group as a whole.

All so as to provide a ‘safe space’ for mutual engagement.

Let’s turn to our second theme, using this ‘space’ to facilitate conversations which matter to the network and its members. There is a well-known training film in Britain (starring the comedy actor John Cleese) entitled Meetings, Bloody Meetings! This title captures the common frustration in organisations that many people spend lots of their time in meetings which rarely achieve what they set out to do.
Meetings of ‘Meadian’ networks can’t afford this frustration: after all, no-one is being paid to participate! Fortunately there are a variety of ways of organising conversations which are more effective for gatherings of different sizes. (Not for further discussion here but by way of illustration, my North American colleague, John O’Brien and I have reported on our work with a large network of people in an English County and the methods useful in building sustainable and inclusive communities: Conversations about Building Sustainable and Inclusive Communities and Six Practices. These are available online at Some of these methods are well-documented and indeed have whole books (and indeed websites) devoted to their elaboration. I’ll refer to a few of these but perhaps the initial point here is that, while it is important to learn from well-documented experience, it is also important to adapt these methods to the situation in question.
Let me illustrate with some examples. There is of course a whole profession of ‘facilitation’ but typically in these networks, any facilitation has to be done by people who are members of the group, not sitting ‘outside’ it. In any case there is considerable merit in a guide to facilitation which reverses a well-known saying into its title Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There! (Marvin Weisbord & Sandra Janoff, Berrett-Koehler, 2007). A central idea here is that professional facilitators often ‘over do it’ in their interventions, when a more gentle approach would enable the group to discover its own path.
Helen describes her experience of the last 10th May gathering. The design for this is a loose interpretation of the methods set out in The World Café (Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, Berrett-Koehler, 2005). We meet in an actual café; there is a ‘big question’ to focus an evening of small group discussion in the different ‘nooks and crannies’; a buffet supper where people have to get up to fetch small plates of successive food servings promotes several rotations in group membership so that everyone gets to talk with at least 15 or more other participants; and we come together towards the end of the evening as a total group to share insights we have drawn from reflecting on these multiple discussions and the patterns we have spotted in the different stories we have heard. In this example, each participant takes away what they want from these collective reflections to use in their own work.
The core of the red inclusiva is a smaller group. When we meet we do talk in 2s and 3s but much of our time the circle enables us to all participate in the same discussion. One way I think about this is as a virtual form of Open Space Technology (Harrison Owen, Berret-Koehler, 1997). The shared understanding of each other’s priorities and opportunities we gain from the face-to-face meetings provides a basis for members to ‘join up’ with others, typically in quite small clusters, to explore a common interest or problem, not just in the meetings but also (e.g. by telephone) outside the meetings, usually with some practical initiative in mind. (For example, producing proposals for developing the skills of teachers to deliver inclusive education for one of the municipalities.) The circle (there is a guide to this too, The Circle Way Christina Baldwin & Ann Linnea, Berrett-Koehler, 2010) then provides a vehicle for each cluster to update other members on progress in these initiatives and get their observations.

The next blog will explore further what is involved in networks like these looking outwards and strategising as collective agents of positive social change.

Seven personal attributes which encourage perseverance

On my most recent flight to Colombia I read Margaret Wheatley’s 2010 book Perseverance. (It’s a long flight and a short book!) Margaret seeks to explore what it is about individuals which enable them to ‘stick at it’ through thick and thin in networks seeking to promote social change. It struck me that this is a good question to ask about networks I know, including the 10th May gathering discussed in Helen Sanderson’s opening blog in this series and the Bucaramanga red inclusiva whose story I have tried to tell in more detail.

Both these examples are impressive in this respect. Some of the 10th May participants have been working together in various roles to promote social justice with and for disabled people for more than thirty years. Fortunately they have been joined by new colleagues along the way. As I say in the case study, the core members of the red inclusiva have already been together in their network for five years and look like showing similar longevity.

Partly of course this persistence stems from personal identity. Both the disabled people and the family members, for example, are in this for life. But there are plenty of other people who share this identity but haven’t found themselves connected to others in similar networks, working for wider change.

As other blogs in this series will explore, sustained networking of this kind depends on agreeing an inspiring purpose, finding ways of working together which value everyone’s contribution and gaining reinforcement through effective action. In this blog, the focus is on the personal attributes and attitudes which network members bring to their work together. This does not mean that everyone demonstrates these attributes in equal measure or all the time. Nor are these attributes independent of the network: rather they are cultivated in each of us through our continuing participation. Reflecting especially on the experience of these networks, I have drawn out seven key attributes which seem important to encouraging perseverance. I have tried to ‘name’ each in a single heading.
I. Responsibility. In both the 10th May network and the red inclusiva, it is popular to refer to a saying associated with Alice Walker, We are the people we have been waiting for. This nicely captures the idea that we can’t rely on others to create a better world, we have to take responsibility ourselves for doing the right thing for our communities.
II. Direction. Social change of the kind pursued through these networks is both long-term and wide-ranging. Common effort requires not so much a single task or set of tasks, but rather a sense of direction out of which more concrete action can emerge. Members need to feel that it is good to be doing this, even though we don’t yet know precisely where it will lead.
III. Engagement. Beyond responsibility and direction, perseverance requires a way of engaging with each other and external challenges which link heart, head and hand. This work is not a job and members are typically not being paid, at least for their network participation. Rather they are sticking at this because it appeals to their heart (love of humanity, concern for each other), their head (vision of a better future, ideas about what would make a difference) and hand (doing things which start to demonstrate this better future).
IV. Mutuality. Mutuality is part of this ‘whole person’ engagement. A willingness to welcome diversity within the network; listen carefully to where other members are ‘coming from’ and make space for them to share important experiences; and to take up different group roles at different times in the interests of the common good.
V. Resilience. Of course, social change networks try to focus effort where progress seems possible but need to adapt to disappointments, taking encouragement from the fact of trying and recognition (with Mao Tse-tung) that the journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step.
VI. Imagination. Positive action depends on a capacity to visualise how things may be different, understand how things are connected in the local environment and spot opportunities for successful interventions. It also involves ‘seeing’ how the whole can be more than the sum of the parts.
VII. Reflectivity. That is, the capacity to continually face up to the reality of what is happening in our communities, share experience honestly and be open to learning from these experiences so as to advance personal and network understanding.

How networks can foster these attributes and create the conditions for members to work together effectively is the subject of the next blog.

Networking for a purpose

Clearly, in exploring what is involved in networks coming together and organising to achieve social change, a central question concerns the way in which members define their shared purpose. In the story of the Bucaramanga red inclusiva, members began as friends and colleagues in different roles but with a common interest in helping to ensure that disabled people and their families get better lives, an interest summarized in the goal of achieving social inclusion. Of course, what they mean by this has evolved over time as they have worked together for change. An effective network can ‘live’ with members holding overlapping but not necessarily identical definitions and priorities.

So it is with the larger network which meets on the 10th May each year in London, described in Helen Sanderson’s blog which started this series. I am a member (honorary, in the Colombian example) of both these networks and can perhaps address my first question, ‘What are promising ways of defining purpose in new times?’ by commenting on how my own response to this question has evolved, not least through working in Colombia over the past six years.

My own interest in inclusion started further back: my birth was the occasion for my profoundly disabled sister, Patricia, to be admitted as a child to institutional care in the United Kingdom – a rather extreme form of exclusion. Pat’s separation from family and community lasted a long time, 51 years in fact, and it wasn’t until 1997 that she moved with a few friends to ‘an ordinary house in an ordinary street’ and thus in some sense at least ‘came home’. Both as a brother but also as a social scientist interested in policy change, we could say that much of my adult life has been concerned with how we could bring about this small revolution, not just for her but for tens of thousands of other people who shared similar experiences.

A key part of this effort involved finding ways to express our aspirations which were right in themselves and also offered a currency for building support for change among a wide range of allies. By the end of the 1970s, we understood the importance of expressing our goals concretely in terms of how things would be different in the lives of individuals. An early idea was to try to define what constitutes valued experiences for all of us, for example through the five-point star of: belonging, choosing, contributing, sharing ordinary places and being respected. Turning this into a popular slogan, we launched a national programme of policy advocacy and practice development under the heading An Ordinary Life which has served our purpose well.

Much more recently, since 2006, we have been able to appeal to ‘higher authority’ in the form of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which, starting from a human rights perspective, provides a powerful and comprehensive vision of the opportunities and support which should be available to disabled people and their families, based on a principled commitment to equal citizenship.

This Convention is not just a statement of rights: it is also a broad route map for government leadership in implementation. Looking across the many different areas of life it addresses (education, community living, employment, etc.), we can identify three inter-related building blocks for advancing equal citizenship (shown
diagrammatically at )

Action is required to promote:

Self determination (‘I can say what matters to me and how I want to live’)
Inclusion (‘I’m included in my family and community and benefit from the services other people use’); and
Personalised support (‘I get the assistance I need to live as I want’).

Inclusion in everyday life is a key goal but it requires simultaneous attention to the two other key building blocks. Similarly, the 2011 journey (reported more fully at ) which Heidy Araque and I made through four Latin American countries to examine progress in advancing inclusive education pointed to the importance of crafting strategies which combine action through civil society (e.g. community advocacy for every child to be welcome in the local school), government (e.g. setting inclusion as the policy objective) and service systems (e.g. ensuring that teachers are well-prepared to lead the transformation of their own schools).

This work also made us think about the importance of positive approaches to diversity more generally. Inclusion in education or indeed in society can’t be just about action addressed to particular sub-groups in the population (e.g. disabled people) even though it may be important to identify what kind of adjustments individuals with specific impairments will require to participate fully. Rather we are talking about changes in culture, policy and practice (‘system change’) which make everyone welcome, across distinctions of gender, ethnicity, income, disability etc. Inclusion for all.

But inclusion in what? Increasingly I have come to see that the goal of equal citizenship for disabled and other potentially marginalised people is essential but not sufficient. R.D. Laing makes a distinction between being ‘out of formation’ and being ‘off course’. Currently our societies, especially in the economically richer countries are way off course in failing to face up to the critical 21st Century challenge of living in harmony with our planet so as to achieve a sustainable future.

In networking for change, we need to advance sustainability and inclusion. (I make this argument more fully in Building Community for the Great Transition ) A better future for all of us will require deep change in the relationship between the environment, economy and society. At heart, we need to move away from materialism towards an alternative set of values grounded in family, friendship and community in which we redefine prosperity as residing in the quality of our lives, the health and happiness of our families, and the capacity of our communities to ‘live well’ together. In Latin America, the philosophy of buen vivir captures exactly this spirit.

Clearly it is in the interests of disabled people and other marginalised groups to be part of the broader movement required to achieve this transformation: this is about all our futures. Equally our communities need to respect diversity and welcome everyone’s contribution if these broader strategies are to succeed. Radical action is more likely where it is possible to forge alliances among different interests and establish convergence on shared priorities.

Put differently, I now argue that the networks like those in which I am a member can usefully define their over-arching purpose as ensuring that social justice and inclusion are central to the action we need in all our communities to secure a sustainable future. In Education for a Better Tomorrow Heidy and I have started to sketch what this might mean in more detail for the transformation of our schools. (Heidy’s Spanish presentation of this paper in Palmira is available on film at The English version can be found at Education%20for%20a%20Better%20Tomorrow%2C%20English%20version..pdf )