Promoting leadership development is a long-time, tested strategy of philanthropy, and the concept of developing people is also not new to American Indian communities. Indian leadership is a complex matter – all at once encompassing the growth of individuals as well as those families and communities in which they live. Such other dimensions as spirituality also are involved. Indian leaders work within these multiple levels simultaneously in a dynamic process that considers individual autonomy as well as group well-being and harmony The process is all about honoring relationships; and the core work is staying committed to the process, which ultimately unleashes individuals’ gifts so that they can be shared to sustain the group.
— Minnesota Native American Leadership Collaboration, January 2015
While most philanthropies give to nonprofit organizations, Tiwahe Foundation over 20 years has invested directly in individuals and, by extension, their families and communities. Over all, 800 individuals have received grants for education, economic and community development, or culturally based activities.
Since 2011, we have explored how to weave these 800 change-makers and community builders into a broader network of Native American leaders statewide that can strategically increase our impact. For this purpose, Tiwahe Foundation and other philanthropic organizations formed the Minnesota Native American Leadership Collaborative.
There currently is a lack of infrastructure to bring people together and a general sense of disconnectedness. Yet, for reasons based in tribal culture (and, perhaps, in the very yearnings of human existence as revealed in emerging brain science), Native people crave relationships and connections with one another.
In the past three years, we led an effort to convene and survey Native alumni of various leadership programs sponsored by Collaborative members. An extensive mapping process revealed issues of importance as well as specific personal linkages that people seek. Finally, an initial cohort of leaders across these programs participated in a six-month process to explore the idea of “network weaving” around such shared issues as addressing trauma.
Key insights from the process showed the supremacy of relationships (they generally trump issues as the way to organize people) and the importance of nurturing relationships through in-person gatherings that feature experiential learning and culturally grounded practices.
In the Native worldview, an unbroken hoop of relationships forms a circle; and practicing such cultural values as giving makes the circle stronger. That is at the core of Tiwahe Foundation’s philosophy, and it applies also to a Native leadership network. When the Collaborative mapped connections among grassroots Native leaders in Minnesota, the corresponding visualization looked just like a “smart network” – or the web of relationships among scientists, for example, who exchange information in order to unleash innovation benefitting the entire collective.
For scientists, the motivation may be acknowledgement that no single person has sufficient data to find a solution by working alone. With Native people, to share and give back is a universal teaching that springs from one’s family upbringing and cultural traditions. When relationships are honored through such values as giving, then the circle is stronger, unleashing shared wisdom, innovation and energy, all of which power a continuous cycle of success.
Over the past five years, Tiwahe Foundation has been looking at how to build a collaborative, networked approach to self-determined leadership. Much like our micro-grants, our leadership network is developed by learning and hearing from our Alumni about what we can do to support a robust network.
Please take time to read our full report about our Minnesota Native Leadership Alumni project. Three things to highlight from this project is that we have a “Smart Network” to work and develop a successful network.
The overall map of the Native American alumni based on the survey (see Figure 1) shows a dense core of overlapping clusters. June Holley referred to this as a characteristic of a smart network that supports “good communication flow, supporting innovation and collaboration.” This rich and connected network among Native Americans in Minnesota is a springboard for building strong, sustained networks of collaborative action in the future.
Native American Leadership Network
To understand and see more clearly the nuances of the connections, the overall network was sorted in to sub-networks based on the questions about interests and characteristics. Figure 2 shows the primary area people indicated for which they were most passionate about using their leadership skills.
Over 24 different maps were generated by the combination of primary passions, opportunities for future collaboration and skill areas. Figure 3 shows the sub-network for those who selected Culture as their area of passion.
In 2015 we completed our mapping and decided to open up a Network weaving training to our Alumni. Topics covered in the training and coaching sessions included how to:
- Strategically connect with people who focus on and care about building networks that lead to change in the Native American community;
- Share experiences and ideas for transformative change;
- Work together in new ways, through experimentation;
- Build innovative and intentional networks that bring together diverse perspectives; and
- Generate action that leads to breakthroughs.
Overall Lessons Learned and Reflections
Many lessons were learned in this first intentional networking of Native American leadership alumni in Minnesota. Part of the learning was the necessity of experimentation within networks and part of it was learning through the process of helping individuals engage in a network.
- Overall, there was strong interest from alumni in the alumni mapping and network weaving. People wanted to be a part of it.
- Currently, alumni and other Native American leaders in Minnesota do not feel well connected.
- The importance of building relationships and connecting via in-person, one-on-one, direct conversations cannot be stressed enough. It is the most important aspect of building networks, especially in Native communities. It was also the aspect that members of the Network Weaver Cohort identified as most important. A number of them noted that connecting by email was not enough; the in-person connection mattered the most and had the strongest impact.
- Along with the observation about the importance of meeting in person was an idea that it might be better to focus network-building first within a place-based community with clearer relationships and common needs, instead of networking across geographically dispersed communities.
- There are many individuals on the periphery of the networks of different areas of passion. The strength of future generative networks will depend on engaging those individuals.
- A strong network will require a strong infrastructure, including a key person to continue to support and organize the network. A generative network will not keep going on its own.
The three most important characteristics for a generative network are:
- Strong, mutually reciprocal personal relationships;
- Members have a sense of belonging and identity greater than themselves; and
- An openness to conduct many experiments.
- Networks operate at the nexus of human beings and complex social problems. As such, the need for flexibility and experimentation are paramount. Linear program models, regimented reporting structures and siloed programs do not work.
- To solve today’s challenges, networks of committed individuals must be strategic, intentional, and dynamic. The individuals involved must be governed equally by sovereignty and the good of the community.
- Relationships are the foundation of a generative network; however, the accomplishment of projects is the fuel, the energy that will keep the network alive.
These lessons learned coincide well with the eight insights that Peter Plastrik recommends for supporting smart networks aimed at innovation and shared action:
- Know the Network Difference. Networks have unique capabilities for achieving social impacts that distinguish them from other forms of social organizing.
- Design Thoughtfully. You don’t have to fly blind.
- Connect, Connect, Connect. The foundation of generative social-impact networks is the connectivity of its members to each other, which can be cultivated by network weavers.
- Anticipate a Network’s Evolution. A generative network’s capabilities, complexity, and potential for impact increase as the connectivity of its members deepens and the structure of their connectivity evolves.
- Enable and adapt. The growth and development of established networks depend on managing a set of inevitable challenges.
Assess to Improve. Monitoring and assessing is the basis for improving impact.
- Revisit design. Making an existing network more generative, with more engaged members and impact, requires resetting of key design decisions to boost members’ connectivity.
- Be Network-Centric. In addition to skills and knowledge, network builders hold a distinct net-centric point of view.
There is a strong need to continue to build on the momentum of interest and the current involvement of Indian leaders who have participated in the network mapping survey, the discussions at the NAP conference and other gatherings, and in the first Network Weaver Cohort.
- Refine curriculum & approach for network weavers coaching process, building it more intentionally around relationship-building and experimenting (as relevant to Native American change dynamics and to Plastrik’s network theory).
- Convene future cohorts of Native network weavers, utilizing more face-to-face meetings in rural and tribal communities in Minnesota.
- Utilize platforms such as Software for Good so that network weavers can more intentionally and strategically work together for change.
- Seek support for staffing and mini-grants for alumni-led projects.
- Intentionally make connections to “outliers” and others outside the first Alumni Mapping Project.
- Utilize social network mapping and other processes to demonstrate development of stronger relationships and connections over time.
Share lessons and strategies with other Native leadership programs in Minnesota and elsewhere.
Our group learned that emerging mainstream concepts of networks align with Indian cultural perspectives on individual, and group, development. Grappling with increasing complexity and data, scientists and others are utilizing networks in order to share knowledge and unleash innovation that benefits the collective. Similarly, Indian people see the circle (as their network) as a way to unleash their gifts, energy and innovation to benefit the whole. In Both cases, the networks depend on strong, mutually beneficial relationships – to facilitate sharing rather than hoarding information and resources.
With Indian people, to share and give back is a universal teaching that springs from one’s family upbringing and cultural traditions. This cultural worldview is captured most elegantly in the concept of the circle, which represents the relational situation of individuals within a continuous, unbroken collective. When relationships are honored through values-driven practice, then the circle is stronger, unleashing shared wisdom, innovation and energy, all of which power a continuous cycle of success.
Developing both individuals and the broader circle requires constant “parallel practice” of these values, traditions and beliefs. The resulting product can be innovation – as from a smart network — as well as a common spirit and inspired action that emerge when people share their full selves and passions.
— Minnesota Native American Leadership Collaboration, January 2015