•What Kind of Ecosystem Is Your School?
•Net EDU Project: Educational Ecosystems
•The Struggle of Two Missions
I’ll use education as the basic model for the discussion of the ecosystem idea since everyone has lived experience with it and advocating in education has been advocacy in which I have been deeply involved.
Ecosystems are self-evolving frameworks of many interactive parts and are a type of Complex Adaptive System (CAS). The parts act for their own benefit, so the stability of the CAS requires interactions in which the parts need each other to survive. This idea is equally true of Advocacy Target Ecosystems.
Model of an Advocacy Target Ecosystem:
Imagine two circles.
The inner circle is the education system that is your advocacy target. Within this circle, the strong relationships/processes that make up the target drive its ongoing behavior and purpose.
The outer circle includes all the peripheral organizations and communities that relate to the education system. They constitute weak relationships/processes that buffer the target system and effectively prevent the strong processes of the target from running away and undermining the ability of the target to fulfill its purposes.
These two subsystems make up the actual target ecosystem. Together, these two subsystems act as a roughly stable ongoing process. If we wish to change the target, we must engage these subsystems.
The standard way of engagement is to disrupt or destabilize processes in the subsystems, to force the target to respond to a change in its control. However, it is very difficult to destabilize or disrupt the strong processes without undermining the ability of a target to pursue its purpose. In fact, it is the gradual corruption of these strong processes that divorces the target from its reason for existing over time. (See The Struggle of Two Missions).
It is easier to disrupt or destabilize the weak processes.
Because they are weak processes, why would the target change its behavior to respond to a disruption or destabilization of its periphery?
The relationship between a target and its peripheral buffering weak processes (from the perspective of the target) is ideally one where the weak processes cycle through a repeatable set of predictable actions. If the predictable cycle breaks down, the target must invest energy in restoring the predictable cycle, even if it means changing in some small ways inside the subsystem of strong processes. It will expend this extra energy (from a capped total amount of energy that also supports its strong processes) in order to restore rough stability and continue as much as it can to behave as it did before.
So, advocates disrupt the weak processes by filing a complaint or calling for an IEPC or reaching out to stakeholders to which the strong subsystem can’t avoid responding. They try to leverage the target systems to make changes that expand the personal autonomy and possibility space of choice available to students and their families. This engagement is the standard way that advocates change target ecosystems.
There are many variations on this standard way of engaging a target ecosystem. And, the weak processes that stabilize and support the target consist of much more than rules and due process. There are many weak processes that support any target, and all of them are potentially subject to destabilization/disruption, forcing a response from the target. For an education target, these might include the school board, the various funding mechanisms necessary for the strong process subsystem, the political interface of the target in the larger community, target policy or action failures in any part of the strong process subsystem, and so on.
Our advocacy must become part of the weak process subsystem before it can be effective over the long term, and before we can be in a position to approach changing the strong well-protected processes of the target. This means that, in addition to our work to disrupt or destabilize weak processes, like the target, we must engage the weak processes and build ongoing relationships with them. We must become part of the target ecosystem to be able to effectively advocate.