By Bob Bertsch
Sometimes we need to be reminded about what is broken. Sometimes, when we are out there trying to improve ourselves, our communities, and our work, we can lose our connection with why we started down a particular path in the first place. As I worked through the courses in the 2022 Military Family Readiness Academy series, “Family Well-Being: Navigating the Social Justice Landscape,” I realized I had lost connection with my “why” or at least I had stopped naming it out loud.
I believe that building relationships with others will lead to meaningful collaborations to address complex issues from multiple, diverse perspectives. That belief is part of how and why we work as the OneOp Network Literacy team to explore practices that empower us (individually and collectively) to work together in new and better ways that decrease one person’s power over others, like organizing into networks. As I’ve been doing that work, I’ve continued to talk about the power of networks. What I’ve stopped naming, what I’ve lost connection with, is why we need new ways of organizing.
We need new ways of organizing, because our default organizational structures are broken, or maybe they aren’t not broken at all but are working the way they were designed to work. Either way, they are built on power over others, often organizing people into strata that codify who has power over whom. They are the foundation of systems of inequality, systems of oppression, and other systems specifically designed to do people harm. This is why we need new ways of organizing. It’s why these new ways of organizing shouldn’t be presented as alternatives to be tried out alongside current structures but positioned as a replacement for them.
In the first course in the Family Well-Being: Navigating the Social Justice Landscape series, “Introduction to Social Justice Lenses for Family Well-Being,” course author Shawn Trenell O’Neal highlights five principles of social justice: access, equity, diversity, participation, and human rights. When I saw these principles, I thought about how our default ways of organizing keep us from upholding these principles and how decentralized ways of organizing, like networks, are structured in ways that can help us live up to them:
- Access – Centralized organizational structures are designed to control access to information and to other people within the organization. Networks provide more access to information and to others in the organization. While access within a network is better, that doesn’t mean that people have access to the network itself, and it doesn’t mean networks are immune to bottlenecks or unequal power dynamics. It’s critical that decentralized organizations work to improve access within the organization and to the organization itself.
- Equity – Centralized organizations default to a one-size-fits-all approach in service to efficiency. Equity often relies on one person with power over another deciding to make an expedition to the rule. Networks are a collection of interconnected, individual relationships that, ideally, promote power-with (the power gained from connecting with other people), not power-over. Through these direct connections, networks can better address the context and specific needs of an individual, neighborhood, or community.
- Diversity – Centralized organizational structures create hierarchies and the patterns and practices of the organization reinforce the hierarchy. In predominantly White organizations, Whites tend to be concentrated at the top level, so those hierarchies become racialized and the organizational patterns and practices reinforce a racialized hierarchy (Wingfield and Alston, 2013). Because networks are decentralized, the hierarchy is not built-in. Networks can be predominantly White. They can be designed to be so and/or created to advance racist ideas and actions. However, networks that strive for inclusion do not have to fight against the uneven power dynamics reinforced by a hierarchical structure.
- Participation – The structure of centralized organizations is antithetical to participation by all members of the organization. Because power is held at the top of the hierarchy, well-meaning organizations are fighting against their structure when they try to get employees or community members engaged. This is another case in which networks and other decentralized organizations do not face the same structural barriers when they provide a path to the opportunity and platform to participate.
- Human Rights – Centralized organizations often emphasize power-over and, in an effort to maintain that power, discourage individual empowerment and, especially, the power that comes from connecting with one another. When people at the bottom of a hierarchy find power within themselves and with others, it threatens the power-over held at the top of the hierarchy. The structure of a network is interconnected and, ideally, power is distributed across the network. Networks can allow us to see ourselves as part of an interconnected system of living things, increasing our regard for the rights of other humans (and non-humans) that are a part of that system.
Networks are not perfect and decentralized ways of organizing present their own challenges, but we need to find ways to connect and collaborate with each other that aren’t centered on having power over others and that can embody the Principles of Social Justice. We can start by recognizing the systems of oppression that depend on power over others. The courses in the Family Well-Being: Navigating the Social Justice Landscape series are a great way to learn more about those systems. As I wrote above, “I believe that building relationships with others will lead to meaningful collaborations to address complex issues from multiple, diverse perspectives,” so I think that we will find the way forward together. If you’d like to continue this conversation, please join us in the Family Well-Being: Navigating the Social Justice Landscape group on LinkedIn.
Wingfield, A. H., & Alston, R. S. (2014). Maintaining Hierarchies in Predominantly White Organizations: A Theory of Racial Tasks. American Behavioral Scientist, 58(2), 274–287. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764213503329