Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice (1998) was a revolution in my professional life. I had been working with groups and networks and local communities – that there might be communities that grew up around an aspect of human life was a revelation. Of course – only relationships sustained over time can develop and hold a practice!
Going back to Wenger recently, I was struck by the way I hadn’t really heard that. My attention had gone instead to the practices of the practice. The doable, describable stuff. The things a consultant can put into a report and get paid for.
But I see now that it’s the commitment to a shared enterprise that provides the social force for forming and maintaining the relationships within which practices develop. Whatever articulations of practice might be assembled by or in the midst of a community are interesting, but the relationships around the enterprise are primary. The repertoire of practice is the visible, tangible sign of the life of those relationships, not the life itself.
This is clearer to me now settled here in Riddells Creek, committed to the enterprise of living here. I am looking around for people who share that enterprise, people like Greg, at the head of this post.
Greg lives half a kilometre away, where the bitumen turns to dirt, the other end of BarrmBirrm, the place I look after. Like me, Greg walks through BarrmBirrm and notices things, and nudges things in what seems like a helpful direction. He’s a practical guy too, a 4WDer. He told me about the 4WD club that cleared out mechanical debris in the early days of the rescue BarrmBirrm from being ‘just bush’. I realised again there is network of care around BarrmBirrm, that might become a community of practice.
Then there’s the town itself. We have been meeting recently to make ‘a Climate Action Plan’.
I’m glad for the Shire’s sponsoring that effort, even though the idea of a plan seems to me almost entirely ill-directed, the future being inherently unstable and emergent from our efforts as residents. Agency is as likely set back by ‘a plan’ as it is advanced by it, though it’s true that is in our hands.
The workshops gave us interested residents a reason to gather in one place, and meet others who want to ‘do something.’ It won’t be enough, a plan. We need ongoing conversations, and I’m pleased that instead of complaining, I’ve set to running some of those, ones I wanted to put more time into myself.
I have been paid professionally to facilitate communities of practice, but it’s only living here in a small valley of the Macedon Ranges, a resident, that I’ve come to appreciate how ‘community’ is something felt and lived. The shared enterprise is primary; a wild diversity of resources contribute to the practice, but these…
‘… gain their coherence not in and of themselves as specific activities, symbols, or artifacts, but from the fact that they belong to the practice of a community pursuing an enterprise.’ (p 82)
This is a good thing to come to now, and I would have wished for it earlier, but you gotta be thankful whenever such things finally settle in!
In 2020, CLEA has been finding ways to strengthen networks between the initiators in community environment groups. Previous years have tested ways for committees of management (CoM) to work as peers to build the capacity of their groups. Finding a Landcare Network’s Question Without an Easy Answer,in the light of the Network’s likely future context, focused peer-to-peer (p2p) learning. This worked well while I facilitated, and when there was with a strong sponsor within the CoM, but attention to the Questions and to building capacity faded away when the sponsor left the CoM. Dacilitators do leave, and committee members change, often.
CLEA has also tested use of p2p learning in the State-level forums run by Victoria’s peak Landcare body. A little less chalk-and-talk and a bit more problem-solving between peers worked when I wasn’t there to shepherd through the use of p2p, but when I wasn’t the default reasserted itself: speakers and powerpoint presentations, with p2p at mealtimes.
Offered a fourth year of funding, I decided to have a crack at something that seemed simple enough – connecting the initiators in a community group to initiators in other groups. By initiators I mean the people who start things and keep them going. Most local Landcare groups have at most 3 or 4 initiators, Landcare Network Boards/CoMs will mostly be made up of initiators.
If the initiators could connect around their interests and find others like them, wouldn’t this speed up knowledge sharing, and support the enthusiasm people have for their shared interest?
To get started, CLEA 2020’s trial site has been Victoria’s North East region, where the rivers that flow out of the Australian Alps run through valleys out onto plains and eventually to the Murray River.
What follows is a brief account of how that I unfolded.
My starting focus: find what people in the region thought needed attention and with them, devise a way to address this. This is inquiry into a situation between people with differing perspectives. Year 4 of CLEA had the explicit question of how to support the development of peer-to-peer connection in networks, collective networks, the networks woven between individuals with a shared interest but located in different places in the region.
The specifics of what emerged in relation to strengthening networks you can find at the CLEA website,. Two conclusions: 1) there are four constraints that lock down community capacity and make community-based movements like Landcare look like another arm of government:
Little institutional investment in building movement capacity
Little interest by the movement itself in building its capacity
Little practitioner investment in building networks
Little community interest in diversity.
Conclusion 2: Prompt/support people to initiate the long conversations they want.
I wrote down more about what’s holding things back (see below), which is what everyone expects consultants do, but the other output was what I was most interested in as a practitioner, and that’s how to do 2. What I take to be a pretty good bet is to answer several questions:
What do you want to talk about, specifically, what do you want to take into a long conversation, and whom? Then what help do you need proposing that conversation?
I expect to have a crack at using these questions in the current Southern Rangelands Revitalisation Project, about which more if you get in touch ross.colliver(at)bigpond(dot)com.
Four constraints on strengthening knowledge networks in the community environment sector
Little institutional investment in building movement capacity
In the Natural Resource Management (NRM) sector, government funders want projects that deliver countable on-ground outcomes, by which they mean biophysical outputs. While staff job descriptions in the NRM sector include building capacity, at group, Landcare Network, regional or State level, their actual time is pulled toward putting together the next project bid, starting the next funded project, or tidying up the last finished project. Capacity build is on the list, but other necessities sit higher up the list.
The capacity of the Landcare movement is effectively no-one’s job. Facilitators have only the rudiments of community development in their biophysically-focused degrees. Regional Landcare Coordinators attend to their CMA’s demands, not the development of Landcare Networks or groups. Regional Landcare Facilitators focus on agricultural production. The State Landcare team has few staff and no budget for development. The Minister’s Office invents policy without troubling itself about implementation.
There’s no sustained budget at State level for the professional development of facilitators, and no career path. Facilitators migrate in and out of positions, and in and out of the sector. The one third or so who stay in their positions for a decade or more develop an intimate knowledge of their communities and the institutional world in which Landcare is embedded, but there’s no systematic harvesting and sharing of their knowledge. Facilitators are solo operators.
The lack of attention to capacity goes hand in hand with the stead decline in Government spending on NRM. Policy has become a rebranding of funding criteria every few years around the next set of new fixes, packaged in a new program identity. The ‘National Landcare Program’ neatly appropriates the work of the Landcare movement, and gives Landcarers a taste of what some indigenous custodians of Country might have felt when the previous Federal NRM program badged itself as ‘Caring for Country’.
Targets become ever-more specific, and administrative arrangements ever tighter. Timelines for submission, approval and implementation continue to fit the work demands of funders, not of groups working on ground. Paid staff like local facilitators keep the system turning over; committees wait in hope of the next funding round and the spike of activity it will bring to their membership.
NRM is organised around bureaucratic ways of working. It uses contractual relationships organised around targets set by others, not community ways of working, which depend on voluntary collaboration around shared responsibilities. Because they think their future depends on it, Landcare staff and committees spend a lot of time looking up into the mechanisms of funding, and much less time looking out into the dynamics of their communities. The funding criteria never ask for the social analysis behind a project, just the polygon, and the project reporting never asks for what is shifting in the community, just the headcount of biophysical outputs. So the view of a landscape as essentially a biophysical phenomena is maintained.
What happened to the people in the landscape? What happened to the concept of a social-ecological system, where each stream of living activity influences the other?
Landcare groups and Networks have become the service delivery arm of decisions made elsewhere, a cheap option for stretched government budgets, but not a support for creative communities who know what needs doing and can mobilise the necessary knowledge and effort.
Little interest by the movement itself in building its capacity
Why aren’t more Landcare’s leaders approaching movement capacity as a thing in itself, something that can be grown, just like interest in soil health, or perennials in pasture systems, or biolinks? Reading case examples of network development in June Holley’s work in the USA, and following conversations between people developing networks internationally (for example, at SumApp, and Commons Transition, I’ve started to ask why the same conversations don’t seem to be breaking out here, in Victoria.
After the heady years of Landcare’s early growth, many groups have now spent two decades limping from funding round to funding round, holding onto their local base but not often expanding it. For dedicated Landcare farmers, the big changes have been made, the hard work done: it’s time to retire. Urban refugees arrive chasing sustainability and lifestyle, not production, providing a flow of customers for Landcare to pass on the basics of land management, and the churn rate as lifestylers return to cities leaves space for a new crop of novices looking to learn the basics of land management, and keeps Landcare busy providing adult education for lifestylers.
In the meantime, basic land management knowledge has been drawn into production systems. Corporate and next-generation family farmers are now reinventing agriculture towards more tightly managed production systems. Driven by the pressures of a warming climate, they lean toward new technology solutions, and the ethos and the on-ground gains of 30+ years of Landcare are on shaky ground.
Landcare continues to break into new territory in the way farmers think about their land—soil health the last decade, possibly regenerative agriculture in the next—but Landcare’s social knowledge remains local and tacit. Fundamental challenges, such as how to organise projects when people are no longer willing to join committees, or how to connect to young people, are pursued by each group and Network, but not collectively across groups.
Stalwart Landcare activists, in the Victorian Landcare Council and now in LVI, have held the State Government to its funding of local facilitators, but there’s been no room to think about capacity beyond that core funding.
When capacity is considered, by the movement and by government institutions, it is thought of as training that adds to people’s skills and knowledge from some store of established expertise, rather than as peer-to-peer interaction that mobilise the capacity of people committed to common goals. The movement can be forgiven for treading this path, because this is an assumption shared by most educational institutions, professional associations and by many large organisations, despite the evidence that most of the learning people use in practice is gathered on the job, in action, with their peers.
What has gone missing is the idea that Landcare is a movement of people connected across localities, who know they are strong when they think and work as a movement.
Little practitioner investment in networks
In CLEA 2020, I invited people into a process of co-inquiry. How could networks for collective good be strengthened? In relation to climate change, what were they pursing, and what conversations did they see needed more attention? When I documented each interview in a gritty single page, and sent it to them for comments and sign-off, a quarter of my respondents answered without prompting. I chased the others and pushed the response rate to 50%. When I asked for their thoughts on a first cut on the the themes across the 13 interviews, the response rate was about the same.
Why didn’t the people I interviewed called me back when I emailed the next round of documentation or tentative conclusions ? Why without my calling back would the inquiry have stalled?
Landcare staff and committees are chronically over-worked. Covid-19 has had a numbing effect on communication per se, and on initiative. But why did I feel, when I got on the phone to a facilitator, that I was talking weird stuff?
Community developers have network building in their professional lexicon; State and national level environmental organisations (like ACF and Environment Victoria) have been cultivating locally-based activist networks quite explicitly for a decade. Community environmental work is all about networks, so why is there little interest in the ways networks are developing around landscape and agricultural issues, and in how they could be better used?
Maybe the idea of people connecting to other people has been swamped by digital networking, and we have become befuddled trying to keep up with a proliferating set of platforms and by the outright abuse of personal data by enormously powerful digital companies. Landcare shares in the folk wisdom of the importance of networks, and in contemporary attunement to networking in a digital age. But the actual practice of ‘networking’ in Landcare has been narrowed to stuffing more email addresses into Mailchimp and keeping your Facebook and Instagram account up to date.
At practitioner level, NRM remains resolutely biophysical. Landcare committees staff their positions from the hard sciences, not the social sciences. They recruit from the field of social activism or community development, out of necessity: when the working language of funding criteria is the language of polygons, not community segments, of workshops conducted, not emergent narratives, you hire someone who can talk that language.
What’s lacking is a sensibility about the social that operates as an explicit practice of social influence.
Little community interest in diversity
Is there something in rural communities in Victoria that runs against the deliberate cultivation of networks? Taking the NE region as an instance, is there a culture that is suspicious of difference, of differing persons, a culture that values sticking with the dominant ‘us’, rather than valuing and happily embracing the various minorities of ‘them’.
In CLEA 2020, those I interviewed might have been convinced about climate change, but they were also apprehensive about public discussion of climate change, fearing a tongue-lashing from climate deniers if they speak out in public. They wanted to stay away from explicit attention to differences of view. Framed in this way, the slight mutual disdain between full-time producers and part-time farmers, and between urban residents and the farming community, starts to be a pattern. People draw away from differences, and retreat back into their familiar social identify, rather than being curious about the different other.
Landcare groups could engage these differences directly, but this is difficult territory. They don’t want to upset people, or be seen as divisive, so the differences sit there, out of public discussion. Perhaps the conservatism of rural communities is keeping Landcare away from the conscious use of networks to provide a platform for marginal points of view.
Knowing the constraints is a starting point for finding and joining forces with the strengths that can break through the constraints. To read what CLEA is doing on this, check out recent posts at www.lviclea.org.o
1. Nora Bateson on the current situation vis-a-vis systems change. Bateson makes explicit aspects of systems change practice not often voiced: the experience of not fitting in, on the one hand, and of realising how much do you fit in day-by-day, caught in the double bind of this era …
“that continuance of our species requires discontinuance of current means of survival. Business as usual is a swift endgame. Yet the rent must be paid, and breakfast must be possible. To live through next week is to take part in systems that are destructive to the future.”
With the suffering of feeling how one is entrained with dominant systems comes the possibility of mutual learning. “Non feeling is a non option”, says Bateson. “If the interaction is not funny, angry, curious, confused, indignant, and at least a little bit destructive… it is not worth ten minutes now.”
In the midst of hurt and suffering, Bateson says the place to go is the place of mutual learning: “In the warm data of our interactions is where entirely unanticipated possibilities are to be found.”
2. Richard D Bartlett’s architecture for sustaining change (https://medium.com/enspiral-tales/courage-before-hope-a-proposal-to-weave-emotional-and-economic-microsolidarity-87bc81372a09). Bartlett came out of the Occupy movement looking for better ways to make change. In ‘Courage before Hope’, he offers a nested set of social structures intended to support reflexivity and meaning making. His starting point is late capitalism as a relational field. He presents his architecture in the interests of mutual learning, and I like that he speaks out of a different sub-culture, concisely and personally, a hard combination to pull off.
3. ‘Thought in the Act’, Erin Manning and Brian Massumi, philosopher/artists, Montreal. I’m reading Part II, which chronicles their intentions, practices and learning from the Senselab, where they investigate the nexus between research and practice. They enjoy giving content and output the slip and setting up events for provoking creative process. they articulate practices as propositions, such as: ‘Give play to affective affinities’; or ‘Practice care and generosity impersonally, as event-based political virtues.’
They like inventing their own language, and write complexity into every sentence, but I read their stuff in small doses, and let it assimilate.
It’s mid-summer and the weather is mild, the birdsong sweet, the bushfire season just begun. I’ve been hearing about the thinning of bird populations at Ann Jones’ Off-Track (ABC Radio National) and reading about it in the New York Review of Books (“What’s Happening to the Bees and Butterflies?”). Industrial expansion is eating into the inter-tidal zone where migratory birds feed, and the immediacy of their critique take me back to an old dilemma: How do the few people passionate about any matter (like declining bird populations) keep in touch with and support each other? I chanced upon the stories I mentioned, above, but how would I find others interested in loss of habitat for migratory birds, or thinning of bird populations? Or how to monitor the thickness of the bird populations in my own locality?
My day job is the social project of taking situations of social concern and learning like crazy. A first step is to find the people who give a damn, and the places they interact, because it’s here, in the interplay between knowledgeable and caring people, that knowledge is held and created. What we know is made in the intersubjective space, and though the myopia of me, me, me obscures this.
The internet was going to connect us to each other. It’s speciality unless adroitly managed, seems to be divergence, not places to converse. Example: I went looking for more on the “Australasian flyway”, the vast route between the poles that Ann Jones is investigating, I put the word ‘Australasian beltway” into Google. Did you know that on January 12, 2015, someone posted a comment on Australia’s Highway 1 as a beltway, a road that encircles a geographic area, noting that this road is the longest beltway in the world.This piece of Oz-trivia was on a site Greater Greater Washington,a website for
“a community of people who want to live and work in communities with sidewalks, bike lanes, and frequent transit; with grocery stores, parks, and plenty of housing choices at attainable prices; that is accessible and welcoming to people of all income levels and backgrounds.”
The posting on the patchwork of Highway 1 spoke of someone with a fine-grained understanding of a macro-level transport phenomena, and I marveled how the web makes space for specialist interests. If I was into the transport infrastructure system of Washington DC, I’d hang about on that website, and see what else that person was saying, and who else was there. Maybe we could talk. Maybe we could meet up.
I’m in the ‘natural resource management’ sector, and the social side of that what’s more, a practitioner of the frail arts of supporting social learning. Where do my people hang out? I try the digital, but each time my net has few pickings. Think lateral, I tell myself, and I’ve ended up the P2P, Commons transition world. NRM people on the social side don’t seem to convene online, and I wonder why. Perhaps we’re each so exhausted from holding our ground in the war of attrition that email has become, that we don’t build other facilities. The Landcare Share Centre, the Victorian Landcare Magazine, the Landcare Gateway, LAL’s Landcare in Focus, the video stories appearing on the websites of CMAs – these are signposts pointing to the creative people in Landcare, but not places to talk.
Yes, the face-to-face is the gold standard, the place where the intersubjective space is most generous and productive. But the fast, light connections of the internet might let us at least find people interested in similar interests, obsessions and questions. Craving lightness, weightlessness, Laurie Anderson’s poignant question – “How do we begin again?” – pushes me back down into the ground. I want to wind down a bit, but as a Baby-Boomer, I feel some responsibility for the last 50 years of destruction. To carry my responsibilities, I need company. How to find it is one of my Questions Without an Easy Answer.
It’s reporting time for the CLEA project, a 3 year Victorian Landcare Council project funded by the Natural Resources Conservation League and the VLC. The task is to find ways to support peer learning and mentoring between grassroots environment groups, specifically around what it takes to organise community action, collaborate with partners, and influence decision makers. The social knowledge in Landcare drives its contribution and its evolution in communities.
At the end of Year 2, the NRCL asked us “to reflect on what your group has learnt in regard to building capacity” and “any changes you have made/will make to the project as a result”. Hmmm – now that’s a good invitation! Here are three lessons from the year.
Lesson #1. Landcare Network Committees of Management need on-going support to become nodes of peer learning
CLEA’s strategy has been to develop CoMs as nodes of peer learning within a network of Landcare peers across the State. Progress is slow, because it is fitted in around short-term business, and the sometimes irregular meetings of CoMs. Even when there is strong commitment to addressing a Question Without Easy Answers, Coordinators still need discussion with CLEA to talk about what has happened and what they need to do next. They need support and a nudge to keep moving.
Mid Loddon Landcare Network Committee of Management
Lesson #2. Capacity building around organising, collaborating and influencing is constrained by: a) the old imaginary of Landcare as planting trees; b) weak institutional support for social knowledge in natural resource management; and c) the isolation of the social innovators in Landcare
See here for more on these constraints. The implication is that it’s absolutely critical to connect the social innovators in Landcare – the people who are remaking Landcare, small piece by small piece, in the face of long-term shifts in the social and political context.
Lesson #3. Use what’s there, don’t build from scratch
In Year 1, CLEA decided to focus on Landcare Network CoMs as a place for peer-to-peer learning, because they are peers talking to each other, regularly. No need to invent new meetings – just use what’s there. This year, research with VLC delegates showed that there are people already connecting those who want support and expertise with those who can give it. We called them Network Builders. We need to cooperate across levels of governance to support those Network Builders. What they will do is move knowledge and make support available, when and where it’s needed.
Year 2 has also brought the painful realisation that not many people read this blog (!), and that it is smarter to find ways to use established communication channels than to set up a new one and try to pull people to it.
It’s our last day in north central NSW, a land of wide open plains, and in the old days, as the poet Dorothea Mackellar had it, “of droughts and flooding rains”. We’ve seen precious little sign of the flooding rains. Irrigators own 75% of the water, and the rivers are now channels to move water around to the imperatives of the market.
The modestly good news is that under the new Basin Plan, 25% of flow must be allocated to environmental uses. I’m here in a project organised by the Murray Darling Basin Authority to trial a process for indigenous assessment of the health of river places that will put in front of water planners the priorities of Aboriginal communities.
I’m facilitating the action research, and I’m driving the bus.
I work my way carefully along the dirt track to the junction of two rivers, the first of two sites we’ll visit this morning. We’re close to the main town, at a place where local people have gathered and lived for a long time, and to which they return for picnics and swimming and fishing.
We spill out of the bus and the 4WD, stretching legs and lighting up, and settle into the comfortable twos and threes that have taken shape over the week. Conversations begin.
As usual, I bring my sense of being out of place culturally. But I’ve come to know these people a bit, and they me. I feel more at ease and more present in the relationships, listening and joining in without forcing things. There is a gentleness at work between us, and I notice that stories about the place are coming more easily. I wonder why.
We’ve gathered each morning, packed the vehicles, debated again where we’ll go first, and then there’s been the driving, yarning, standing together looking at a changed river, with all the sadness this brings, but a river nonetheless on Country, with its history, memories and obligations. We’ve gained a sense of each as a particular person, with a particular relationship to Country.
I’ve worried that our carefully designed form, with its many questions, is using indigenous knowledge as feedstock for another exercise in meeting the terms set by the centre. I’ve seen it in mainstream agricultural communities—the decision criteria set by management leach all the nuance out of people’s living knowledge of a landscape, leaving a skeleton of “facts”.
But we’ve been together, on Country, and the intimacy that’s developed between us seems to form a safe space where memory can surface stories of the place – stories of big floods, of swimming here as a kid, of what my mother told me about the old days, stories of how good the fishing used to be.
In these stories is the knowledge for making authoritative cultural assessment. Knowledge is held in story, and but stories aren’t shared with just anyone. Our process has been tuned to this, seeking people’s free, prior and informed consent at each step in the project. We built on relationships developed over years between MDBA staff and Aboriginal people. We developed the project in collaboration with the indigenous nations organisations in the Basin. We visited communities to invite them into the project well before we showed up to run the assessment week.
If I was writing a report, I might talk about the importance of trust, but if I speak from my own experience of the work, it feels like intimacy. I could call it trust, but the word “intimacy” has more feeling in it, more blood and more risk.
The intimacy seems to hold as much for relationships between members of the Assessment Team as it does with us white fellas. The team are from different families, young people and older people, people who have always lived here and those who moved here through marriage or work. A week of assessing places on the rivers have brought us all closer together.
In natural resource management, it’s often said that we need to integrate local and scientific knowledge. In the intimacy of this group of people feeling out a river and assessing it, what I find is an openness to differing ways of knowing, and to what those differences might bring to our shared knowing, if we are gently present to each other.
The Wettenhall funded “Taking Landcare Planning to the Next Level” is winding up. the workshops with Goulburn Broken Landcare were a stunning success, and the big question is what next. I’ve a report of findings and broad recommendations in draft, and I’m working out what specific new projects might be ventured.
CLEA (Community Learning for Environmental Action) is well underway, with a trial of QWEA completed, and a first round of interviews with exec and staff of Landcare networks, and the beginning of a regular email letter with links to the CLEA blog, and CLEA holdings. I”m getting ready for a curated issue on a theme, and asking how to avoid simply becoming a warehouse.
There are several spin-off projects in the queue: taking the Goulburn Broken Landcare material on Questions Without Easy Answers and seeding out the questions and answers through the region; costing what it would take to contract a journalist to interview around a theme in a region, probably the Corangamite region.
New preoccupations, as I pull mroe stories out of the interviews I’ve done, is how to get autonomous production of stories at regional level, and how to link inquirers.
Moragh Mackay and I took systemic inquiry to the big smoke, with the two current regional inquiries sitting down with people at State/Federal level in Victoria interested in improving NRM governance. A great crew cam together to put on the event – Catherine Allen, Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt Univesity, and Ray Ison, Phil Wallis and Seanna Davidson from the Systemic Governance Research Program, Monash University Sustainability. We put out an invitation, and ended up with about 20 of us in the room.
People really like being about to sit down with others and talk. We surfaced severn possibilities for further inquiry:
How can we measure the social side of NRM?
What narrative will legitimate investment in the capacity of land managers?
What would be a good process for planning for biodiversity in Victoria?
How can the performance of NRM organisations be assessed?
How can the language of goals, targets and outcomes used in NRM be improved?
How can we interact with the NRM funding environment in ways that minimise competition and enhance co-operation?
How can we do NRM planning in ways that are fit-for-purpose in a climate-changing world?
Talk about questions without easy answers! For those who came, the ball’s in their court now. We’re inviting people to be self-organising – if they want to keep talking about these things, get it organised, and we’ll show up. Or hire us to organised it.
Meanwhile, on the ground, Riddells Creek Landcare’s multichannel communication strategy is bedded in, with a monthly posting to the local rag, Riddell Roundup, to the RCL blog, and hard copy hand out of the same story on the desk at the Riddells Creek farmers market every two months.
That’s a lot of writing and webby cross-weaving! I’m very happy most of the time. Occassionally I think maybe I’ve wandered right off the map.
Finding others with similar interests remains a major focus for me.
Some years ago, running action learning in the Water and Rivers Commission in WA, I developed a bunch of materials and thinking around the idea of intelligent enterprise. What might that be? Recent work with Landcare is the same question in a different context, where the issue is more starkly how to mobilise distributed intelligence.
When you have a strong question, a Question Without Easy Answers, it’s a law of the the universe that such a question spawns other questions, and attracts many answers.
Distributed means that the context varies at each point in the field of intelligence. But when we talk with each other, how do we take in the context of the person speaking, when our own is either so different as to make it hard to enter the other’s, or so similar that we fail to see that water we’re swimming in?
Case example: Last December, the Latrobe environmental philosophy group that Freya Mathews convenes met to wrap up the year, not discussing a text, as we usually do, but with a round where we each describe one current project. One of our elders, the woman in who’s house met, kept time, 20 minutes each:
Mayer, who walked up the Yarra, is now exploring the state of loving attention that happens in writing, and when being in nature, and in meditation.
A Brazilian guy going back to home to talk with indigenous philosophers, and analyse what happens when those sages’ voices are brought to the Western World.
Alexis reading the British naturalist Wallace ( he of the Wallace Line and contemporary of Darwin), to understand his presentation of himself as a man of science. In the 19th century, this included a deep draft of emotional and moral sensibility. How did Wallace respond, Alexis is asking, to the realisation in the science of the time that species die out?
And on we went, seven of us in all, with our two elders attending, Freya alert to when some angle of inquiry was overlooked.
Next morning, in that lovely reverie s possible on a Saturday morning, what came to me was the value of encountering great differences when there’s an underpinning similarity in sensibilities. Delicious.
Next case example, also from the end of 2014: a gathering of landcare in the Goulburn Broken region, which surfaced five Questions Without Easy Answers, setting us up for inquiry till we reconvene early February 2015 for answers. I was thrilled we made it this far in just one session, but one moment in particular stayed with me.
Discussing what was needed next for Landcare, one woman pointed out that accountability for projects and expenditure needed to be well managed. I found myself interjecting to say that flexibility is necessary too, at least with projects where the purpose is to create something new that works, and in exploratory projects born out of and run by a community.
CLEA is one such project – how to mobilise distributed intelligence is a question for exploration and innovation. The paths of such projects can be mapped out in advance somewhat, the deliverables pencilled in, but ink them in and you kill the innovation.
So the distributed intelligence question spawns another question – how can government bureaucracies, with their accountabilities and command-and-control cultures, support innovation? This is a question I find genuingly perplexing.
Working out the first experiments for CLEA, a network supporting peer learning and mentoring for community environmental action, I have decided that I can’t do it on my own.
Not news to anyone else, but when you’re engaged as a consultant, and have already generated lots of ideas for a project, it’s easy to get carried away assuming that you have to do it on your own – while knowing that you can’t and dreading the grind of doing it on your own!
This project will create a platform for talk between Landcare volunteers and staff about organising, collaborating and influencing. It’s a place to talk about the social side of Landcare, and it’s on the social side of organising local action and forming alliances between players in the NRM space that Landcare excels. The Victorian Landcare Council, which is sponsoring CLEA, wants to add to that mix greater facility in influencing decision makers, specifically politicians and the urban electorate, where Landcare can no longer assume support.
It’s all in the conversations
How to do support such a network? Not by rushing around collecting stories and pumping them out, but by giving those who already speak out in the Landcare community simple tools and a platform for doing so, from many points in the landscape. And alongside the tools for telling your story and expressing your opinion, the tools for building an audience. A gentle nurturing of the community of practice, between the over-committed. It’s all in the conversations – though I can’t say that now without a wince, after Rob Sitch’s “Utopia”.
So I’ve put out a call for help with developing my own digital toolkit, taking myself as a somewhat represesentative sample of such Landcare persons. I need, for example, to ramp up my own mail lists – I’ve been much influenced by Brett de Hoedt’s post on the power of email.
If you want to join in, drop me a line firstname.lastname@example.org
The Commonwealth’s new National Landcare Programme seeks greater ‘community engagement and participation.”
I had the opportunity to sit in with a peer inquiry group set up by Dr Lisa Adams, the National Rabbit Facilitator, with people working in northern Victoria. Membership was Landcare staff, CMA engagement staff, and one Landcare community member with a leadership role in her community.
Amidst the incredibly demanding situations discussed, the group touched on the renewed desire of government agencies to engage with communities, and the way that might not be easy for bureaucracies to undertake.The Consultation Paper for the new National Landcare Programme, which follows through on Minister Hunt’s promise to “put Landcare back at the centre of the Government’s land management programme”, asked some searching questions about the mechanisms that will actually do this (see VLC Policy Briefing #18, with links to the full VLC submission and the Consultation Paper).
As these practitioners talked, what came to mind was Ruth Eversole’s sensitive probing of the “deep tension between the traditional hierarchical ways of organising that characterise government bureaucracies, and the mandate to create more networked, horizontal interactions with diverse groups outside of government.” Government programs like to organise community action the way governments organise things. Their staff are often blind to the way communities go about organising their own action, and blind to their own assumption government programs’ ways of organising are the only worthwhile way to drive change.
This blindness will affect the possibility of transforming NRM governance. It is practitioners like this, working each day on the faultline between community and government, who will either make some headway with this transformation, or get caught in an awful grinding of gears. Probably a bit of both.
They’ll certainly need to take time to talk within their peers, in collaborative inquiry.