Rethinking Networking

On Wednesday, November 3, 2021, Connecticut Food System Alliance (CFSA) hosted the third session of this year’s virtual summit, Growing Together. During this session, titled Rethinking Networking, attendees engaged in activities and exercises organized by speaker Curtis Ogden, Senior Associate at the Institute for Social Change (IISC), that questioned current notions of networking.

About Curtis

Much of Curtis’ work with IISC entails consulting with multi-stakeholder networks to strengthen and transform food, public health, education, and economic development systems at local, state, regional, and national levels. He has worked with networks to launch and evolve through various stages of development.

Curtis writes regularly about networks and social change on IISC’s blog. In addition to his work at IISC, Curtis is on the advisory board of EmbraceRace, a member of the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics (RARE) and the Emerging Networks Governance Initiative (ENGI) and shares the Thomas W. Haas Professorship in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire where he is engaged in scholarship on the intersection of networks and racial equity.

What is a network?

Referenced here by Nonprofit Quarterly, “networks consist of entities (nodes) in relationship with one another, and the flows (ties) that exist between them. These ties can be thought of as conduits or channels. The network is made up, then, not only of connected entities but of the stuff that is transferred between and among them, creating a ‘circulation of’ and evolution of meaning.” Curtis drew from a set of quotes to understand our own perceptions about networks. Ideas about networks conjured different feelings from participants, from awkward conversations and exchanges at “networking” events to fungi and neural networks. When building a network for social change, it’s best to think more about building relationships and sharing instead of “networking.”

Ultimately, networks are about connectivity, trust, understanding, and building relationships. Through networks, individuals can find community, education, inspiration, collaboration, support, and more. There are values associated with networks.

Networks are not just for identifying connections. Defining a network can also help with identifying gaps. Organizations and individuals can compare their existing networks to a vision and/or goals to understand where they may be lacking. Targeted outreach, educational campaigns, and programs can assist in growing networks in areas with gaps in order to create a more holistic network with a shared vision.

Networks can be drawn as nodes representing individuals or entities and spokes connecting nodes, indicating a relationship. Some networks can look like a “hub and spoke” model, with one individual having many connections (pictured on the right).

Curtis emphasized that a strong network is not a “hub and spoke” model, where one central person has many connections, but a model where everyone is connected with one another (pictured on the right). This is a more sustainable approach, where the loss of one person (like the person in the center of the “hub and spoke” model) will not collapse the network.

Curtis provided this worksheet that can be helpful for identifying your network.

How can CFSA Cultivate a Network in Service of Systems Change?

Curtis introduced us to a framework to evaluate a policy advocacy network: the connectivity, alignment, and coordinated action framework. These are network modes that offer different opportunities for connection.

Connectivity, at the bottom of the pyramid, is the foundation for networking. The connectivity mode is where individuals and organizations can build connections, share knowledge, and develop an understanding of the state of the system. Alignment, in the middle of the pyramid, is where networks can share goals and visions informed by current reality and context. Coordinated Action, at the top of the pyramid, is a self-explanatory step where networks can see the shared goals and visions established in the alignment stage mobilized into coordinated actions around fundraising, advocacy, and other common ventures.

After building the network foundation, we can start to see network effects:

  • adapt and change to new conditions
  • achieve resilience
  • able to get new resources out (mutual aid)

So what can CFSA and individuals do?

  • CFSA’s Network Development Working Group will conduct a network analysis using Curtis’ “Who is in your network?” map. This will help CFSA identify gaps within the network to build a stronger, more interconnected network. 
  • CFSA can work with existing network partners to begin to move up the pyramid through connectivity and alignment eventually achieving coordinated action.
  • Individuals can also use this tool to identify the strengths and weaknesses within their personal networks!

Would you like to be a part of CFSA’s network? Email Marcella at communications@ctfoodsystemalliance.com to get on the listserv to receive updates on CFSA events and connect with other food system allies in the state!

%d bloggers like this: