(P6): Figure-Ground and Change

A figure-ground image from the Pittsburgh zoo and the PPG Aquarium. It shows a tree as the figure and a gorilla and big cat as the ground.

The framework of Figure-Ground that arose out of Gestalt Theory is a useful metaphor for grasping the dual strategy of “System as Tool” and “Mutual Aid”.

The basic idea is that we focus on the figure rather than the ground because it is evolutionarily useful. But the figure doesn’t exist independently of the Ground. In fact, the Figure emerges from the ground and depends on the ground for its continuation.

If the context (The Ground) disappears, so does the focus (The Figure). What we think of as a thing (The Figure) emerges from the Ground and is maintained in existence by the Ground.

The “thing” that we focus on is a process and emerges.

So, the context must always be a part of our change strategy if we expect to change the system. If you abstract your change strategy so it only focuses on the target system, you will have less impact and unintended consequences that may eliminate or distort the change you wish to create.

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(P6): Basic Organizing Framework

A large number of wooden branches mutually supporting one another in a stack like that supporting a native american tipi.

The community of people with disabilities has used a strategy of iterative change to build rights and services entitlement for many decades. It is becoming less productive to focus solely on this strategy over time. There are many reasons for this:

  • For the last half-century, cultural and political change has pushed an agenda of ignoring the needs of others to gratify personal needs. This effort has degraded the economy and almost eliminated the resilience of individuals and their families. Most of us have little to fall back on financially or socially. Our entitlements have become what we depend on, and when those are threatened politically or financially, we don’t have any place to turn.
  • COVID-19 has exposed the brittleness of our community’s support in the larger society. Many of us will be scrambling for the near term just to stay alive. Regardless of how successful we are in adapting to the current social, political, and economic losses we will all experience, we will be eventually faced with creating some new support system largely without the help of those social, political, and economic institutions upon which we have depended in the past.
  • At the same time, many members of our community depend on technologically sophisticated and very expensive supports to maintain life. This is a chronic issue which COVID-19 is demonstrating in large during the current crisis.  We don’t have the option of ignoring or distancing ourselves from that reality. We will have to struggle with only partial success to maintain that lifeline to which we have become accustomed. In the long term, we will have to produce other ways of support that are not as fragile. We will have to do that ourselves because the larger society will fail in a variety of unpredictable ways over the next decade.
  • We can no longer depend on the System to support us. At the same time, we can’t avoid the System. Our strategy must be a bifurcated one:
    • Resistance to the loss of our rights and the destruction of our ability to live through the preservation and improvement of the System to the extent that is possible.
    • Building a much more sophisticated mutual aid network for our community that does not depend on the System for its funding or development.

We must also give up on the long-term notion of creating supports which are then absorbed by the System. Anything absorbed by the System will be subjected to the logic of the System and will have the same brittleness that the current System has. We must find a way to maintain what we need without allowing the System to reduce its effectiveness and make us dependent on the System’s current political whims.

If this goal seems impossible to you, you can begin to see the extent to which we have become dependent on systems that we do not control, and which are not accountable to us. The logic of these systems of support will never be accountable to us no matter how much we tweak them. We must view them as tools, not as solutions, tools which we use as we see fit. We must reach a point where we are not forced to submit to them.

This dual strategy can be viewed as the integration of:

  • The System as a Tool not a Solution.
  • The development of scalable Mutual Aid networks completely independent of the System.

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Part 6: Organizing for Change

A word Cloud of many, many terms related to complex adaptive systems. The most prominent are CAS, advocacy, change, system, target, relationships, constraints, target

How do the lessons of Complex Adaptive Systems impact Activist Organizing?

We have internalized the notion that the change framework for a society is a machine or, these days, a computer program. This internalization begins at an early age and is a constant meme in our environment. Because we view our society in this way, our efforts to change that society are reduced to tactical and operational plans that would only produce reliable and consistent effects in machines or computer programs or problems that are short enough or small enough so that it doesn’t matter how we view them.

But our society and all the important systems of support and oppression that people with disabilities face every day are not machines or computer programs. They are Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), and if we persist in not embracing this reality, our change efforts will fade as the ripples of a small pebble dropped in the ocean, or they will produce consequences we never intended, including a worse version of what we tried to change.

There is no way around this reality. A constant din of simple silver bullet change plans will not save us.

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(P5): Think Flow, Not Thing

A complex river channel formed by white water with eddies, small waterfalls, and pools

The human way of engaging reality is largely through habit. Two of the most basic habits of reality-engagement are to think of the world as made up of things or processes. I view these as cognitive shortcuts-as ways of simplifying our engagement to serve some personal purpose.

Viewing reality as things is a cognitive shortcut for dealing with stuff efficiently. If we are discussing something of a social/organizational or explanatory nature, we might use things to make it easy to explain or easy to decide.

But if we want to change a system, using things becomes increasingly non-productive because what we are talking about more and more resembles a complex adaptive system (CAS). Instead, effective advocacy must use processes to understand CAS and how to change them.

Because “things” are such a deep habit, it requires some effort to shift to a process view of advocacy. Processes are always networks, and a network view of strategy is very different from a static thing view. Things have boundaries and we stop thinking about a thing when we hit its boundary. Networks go on and on, and we don’t automatically stop thinking in this absence of a “boundary”. We decide to stop thinking about a process because continuing along the natural path of the network no longer serves our purpose or strategy.

Because it usually takes some effort to shift to a process view of advocacy, we must, as it were, build a habit of seeing processes. We have to more and more automatically see the network implications of the CAS we are trying to change. This requires reflection and practice and if my experience with doing this is any indication, it can be very frustrating to make this shift.

Mostly, I found trying to see network connections in stuff that I would otherwise think of as things to be an effective if slow, path for building the habit of thinking “process” instead of thinking “thing”.

But the most effective way of making this transition to understanding process is to engage people with lived experience of the system you are trying to change. The stories of their experiences will, if you listen carefully, break the hold of things that might be the habit of your thinking about your change target.

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Pandemic As A Fractal Disaster

A clipart image of a woman running with her hair on fire, tormented by various demands that she can't respond to effectively. They include email, Re:Re:Re:, 90, 17,Hey! Nobody told me that, How was I supposed to know that, Who has it?, and a polycom talking nonsense.

Making Choices in an Ocean of Uncertainty (Part 1)

The pandemic resulting from the spread of a novel virus, Covid-19, has pointed out many of the failures of not thinking, planning, or acting with an awareness of large systems and how they dynamically change over time. These failures occur every day in every system of support for people with disabilities, and they occur throughout the larger global complex adaptive system (CAS) that is our world. But we don’t normally see the failures except as small drops of irony. That is, we don’t see the ocean of uncertainty that is the reality of living out our lives in a Complex, Adaptive, System.

I don’t believe that any event in my life (over 7 decades) has shoved our collective face into these realities the way this virus has.

And in less than 3 months.

Much of this “in your face” quality of the pandemic is due to our “connected” world if connected is the right descriptor for experiences that can’t be avoided except in a sensory deprivation chamber, in a deep valley, underground, in Antarctica, with a face mask.

Pandemics always end, but while they are going on, they act like slow motion volcano eruptions, raining down ash on the just and unjust, rich and poor, and every other distinction we make among ourselves about our personal and social worth. Social, financial, and political choices that are usually buried or disguised become obvious. In the disability community, devaluing and destructive choices and matters of life and death become far more obvious and less hidden behind the walls of institutions and programs.

Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate. This is the dilemma we face, but it should not stop us from doing what we can to prepare. We need to reach out to everyone with words that inform, but not inflame. We need to encourage everyone to prepare, but not panic.” — Michael O. Leavitt, 2007 From Telliamed Revisited

The dilemma that Leavitt describes is certainly a real one, but it is also a dilemma not just because of the impact of a pandemic, but also because those who have taken on the authority for telling us about an appropriate response have long-standing, deeply political, and financial reasons to pretend that they are in control of the pandemic and that their simple, mechanical (maybe these days data-driven), operational policies will win the day. Messaging to communities that have always believed that every problem can be solved through an operational plan, a bigger version of replacing a leaky faucet through a DIY video, makes it easier to massage away the cramps that result from economic, social, and political failure and those pesky long term consequences when they inevitably occur.

The “message is the massage”, as it were.

Pandemics have lots of explicit characteristics that make them difficult to manage using the mechanical, operational planning, and contingency planning that passes for prevention and safety these days:

  • The dynamic process of a pandemic emerges from the relationship between people. Each and every contact has the capacity to spread the virus, but there is also no guarantee that the contact will, and in the immediacy of the contact, no way to tell what happened. There is no way to calculate the probability that any single contact will result in the spread, except over group and population averages that are nowhere near granular enough to track the actual dynamics of the pandemic. Your “track” of a pandemic is always well behind the reality because bugs are faster than we are and have a much longer track record of undoing our best plans for safety than we do for stopping them. This means that the evolution of the pandemic is, among other things, Fractal (everywhere at every level) and inherently uncertain.
  • You can’t negotiate with a virus. You can’t intimidate a virus. A virus is like a tiny Terminator. That means that none of the standard political memes and longstanding manipulation techniques available for everyday use will actually permit social, political, and financial elites to manage pandemics the way they manage everything else of importance to them.
  • Our society ordinarily uses the concept of Risk Management to deal with failure and disaster. Because the dynamic of a pandemic is a CAS, its actual path of destruction will remain uncertain until the current pandemic is over. Real Uncertainty is very, very different from calculable risk. In an uncertain ocean of possibility, every published Risk is wrong and is being used for some additional purpose besides authentically managing the actual pandemic.
  • As Italy has discovered in Lombardy, being supremely confident of your individual and community’s economic strength, high health status,  and social superiority doesn’t stop the corpses from decomposing in their homes, or the stereotyped social worth calculus of global medicine from throwing whole communities under the train.
  • So, in the rollup to the pandemic maximum (number of people affected, the peak of the Bell-Shaped Curve), all the numbers you are being told daily are underestimates (obviously). But it seems to me that most of the time people make decisions about their behavior on the numbers with which they are presented. How many people have been diagnosed today, and should I go to the store and buy food, or drop my child off at daycare one more day, or get drunk at the bar with my friends one more time? Our decisions are almost never made using an actual appreciation of the potential impact. Instead, we are conditioned to make choices that don’t match reality by the very efforts to educate us about what and how we should choose.
  • Although this should be obvious, it isn’t the lethality of Covid-9 that is the greatest threat. Although this virus is somewhere around 20 times as lethal as the annual flu, it doesn’t come close to our ancestral pandemics.  The problem is that our healthcare system is designed around the industrial notion of Just-In-Time supply, treatment, and disposition. If everyone who got the virus had the mild version, we would be able to manage the number pretty much no matter how many there were. But 15-20% of those who become ill (some estimates are as high as 40% for risk of complications) need more than basic illness care. We are all in real trouble if that population shows up in the emergency room on the same day. If the critical care system collapses, it won’t just be people with Covid-19 complications who will die. People with other conditions that ordinarily would have gotten competent treatment aren’t going to get it.

This is why the strategy for managing the pandemic is to first contain, then mitigate the results, as in #flattenthecurve. The goal is to avoid completely overwhelming the healthcare system, under the motto, “Flatten the Curve”; it is not an attempt to prevent death, which can’t be done, but to spread it out so that system failure doesn’t dramatically increase the number who die.

#flatten the curve is a genuine strategy. It is a framework for making decisions about the two things we can never control:

  • The unpredictable future;
  • The eternal scarcity of resources.

#flattenthecurve creates a space of possibilities where we can build and implement operational plans that are consistent with this strategy. Many such plans are being rolled out now. Because the pandemic is fractal, the operational plans resulting from the strategy have to be fractal as well. At every level, there are things we can do to support the strategy. We don’t necessarily need to wait to be told what to do, as long as what we do in our own lives and with those about whom we care is driven by the constraints of the #flattenthecurve possibility space.

If we avoid the collapse of healthcare, we will not only minimize death in the short term, but we will create a timeframe for the longer term that allows for better choices.

Because, like all strategies, #flattenthecurve isn’t a complete answer to a pandemic (there is no complete answer to a novel pandemic).

If we minimize the total number of people who actually get the virus this time around, we leave open the possibility, in fact, the inevitability, of an annual/multi-year cycle of recurrence, much like the annual flu season. But we also will have time for a genuinely effective vaccine, drugs that interfere with the ability for the virus to enter lung cells and cause damage, improved access to (hopefully) more sophisticated and cheaper ventilator systems, and a much deeper experience of acute and long term clinical care for the fallout from the virus.

If everyone on the planet had gotten the virus in one bell-shaped curve, we might have 140 million dead, and be treating the long term effects for many years. And there would be no resources for the mitigation and management possibilities mentioned above.

A well-chosen strategy doesn’t eliminate the reason for its necessity. Rather, it enables you to manage the current and future states of the original trigger for the common good.

We have lost touch with the idea that we should think about the long term together, instead of simply maximizing our individual gratification in the short term. I hope this pandemic proves to be a tonic for our social foresight about our common threats.

Because, as bad as this virus will be, there are far worse novelties that could arise, and we don’t have any idea which one will surface next.

Working together to build real safety and flexible response must be the lesson we take from this evolving experience that we all share, and we need to use this experience to dramatically improve how we manage our uncertain future.

(P5): Local Community Use of the Recovery Model for CAS Change

A diagram of a Community-Based Recovery Model. The core of the diagram is a red oval labeled Individuals and Families; The Connected  Yellow Ovals include Home: Permanent Housing; Health: Recovery, Health, and Wellness;  Purpose: Employment and Education; and Community: Social Inclusion.

Although Recovery is a model first developed for people with lived experience of mental illness, and although the word Recovery seems to point to the idea of cure as a solution to disability, as the model has developed, it is an excellent framework for small mutual support social groups to use person-centered planning to forge individual paths to personal autonomy and freedom of choice.

Recovery allows a person with the support of others who understand their lived experience of disability to manage those parts of life that interfere with that individual path. It doesn’t matter whether the interference is from a so-called “symptom” or a so-called “social determinant”. The process of finding a way to reduce or eliminate the constraint is the same.

The resources in the slide are only the tip of the iceberg in making use of the Recovery Model. The Guiding Principles of Recovery also clearly show the connection to the driving and organizing power of Person-Centered Planning:

Recovery:

  • emerges from hope
  • is person-driven
  • occurs via many pathways
  • is holistic
  • is supported by peers and allies
  • is supported through relationship and social networks
  • is culturally based and influenced
  • is supported by addressing trauma
  • involves individual, family, and community strengths and responsibility
  • is based on respect

This model is also useful for thinking about how to organize locally to produce a change in the CAS that enable or destabilize our personal and group advocacy efforts. The Recovery model should be a core of organizing locally regardless of the kind of lived experience that triggers an embrace of this model. It is also a key to building organized change through the collaboration of different disability communities (including the Substance Use Disorder community). With a common person-centered model of how we achieve together, we can be more effective advocates.

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(P5): The Heuristic of Disability Rights

A large crowd of persons using wheelchairs carrying an American-style flag with stars in the form of a wheelchair, charging across a hill.

The idea of Disability Rights has served as a heuristic for our community for centuries, in small local ways, and for the last half-century as a global organizing framework (a scaffold) for the pursuit of personal autonomy and real choice.

In the process, our community has deepened and enriched the idea of civil rights to embrace the many ways that the context of personal autonomy and choice has on making those values real in the world. More than just the concept of context framing the possibilities of freedom, we have concretely defined, repeatedly, the many real ways the nature of the context can limit or support personal autonomy.

In fact, this exploration of the ways that the larger social context, in both cultural assumptions, infrastructure, and ideas about the meaning of disability, is the most important way that personal autonomy and choice are constrained, far more than the particulars of any disability characteristic.

Our community has explored the possibility space of Disability Rights to expand the impact of our insights and our advocacy practice on the larger world. That effort has resulted in a significant increase in personal possibility over these decades and the increasing sophistication of our advocacy.

At the same time, the model we have used is increasingly brittle, given the larger political and economic evolution of our society, in particular, and globally. This kind of limitation is true of all heuristics. They are never silver bullets but must always be judged in terms of their current strategic effectiveness.

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(P5): Scaffolding

A large and tall building entirely surrounded by bamboo scaffolding

Whenever we work to change a system, we use some method of scaffolding as part of our strategic thinking, even if it is only our personal and implicit assumptions about how the problems we are trying to change actually exist in the real world.

If we carefully examine our thinking about scaffolding as a heuristic, we find that we can make better, deeper choices about how we affect change. Because there are many kinds of scaffolding (not just the ones we see on the streets), there has been increased work to parse out these types and evaluate their different impacts on change.

Dave Snowden and his colleagues have used ideas from others and their work on Cynefin to build a typology of scaffolding. I will offer a basic definition of each type, but you really need to dig into the resources above to internalize the usefulness of the concept in your advocacy.:

  • Old School Steel Scaffolding-the kind we see in building construction zones: This kind of scaffolding is designed to be reused, and consequently is lacking in broad flexibility. It is the materials equivalent of universal procedures for problem-solving or strategic planning or other “silver bullet” solutions.
  • Bamboo scaffolding, which is less rigid and more easily changed if circumstances dictate the need for a change during ongoing construction.
  • The idea of a Nutrient Lattice, supporting healing with, say, a piece of cartilage that allows burned skin to absorb what healing needs, and is then removed.
  • Lattices that leave something behind, like a heart patch that leaves active and new electrical tissue as it dissolves
  • The more sophisticated scaffolding/infrastructure needed to support extreme sports, like wild river kayaking. This scaffolding is itself a complex adaptive system. The possibility space includes personal skills development, equipment development, infrastructure development, and the creation and support of a social system of practitioners and allies to make the accomplishments of these sports real.

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(P5): Constraint as Leverage

A drawn diagram of a human arm showing bones, muscles, and tendons with the hand holding a ball.

One of the problems of the machine assumption about systems and the barrier assumption about constraints is that they fail to realize the possibilities that constraints in a CAS have as points of initiating change. In a CAS various constraints act as potential points of leverage. Physical and Occupational therapists understand this concept of leverage as a deep part of their professional learning and work.

In a machine, a point of constraint has a single or a small number of potential uses as leverage. In our bodies, and in CAS generally, points of leverage operate in a Possibility Space, so that many currently unrealized uses of leverage are possible. This possibility space in us also involves our brain.

If you remember the discussion of how infants develop in a possibility space, you will remember that there is a lot more to development than the acquisition of a skill outcome. At every step, every experience of the child contributes to the development of the child’s ability to engage the possibility space. They also create new relationships with that space and what/who is in it, so the possibilities of the space expand as a direct result of developmental action.

Here, that means that using leverage and learning from its use enlarges the possibilities in the space and constitutes a core of what an enabling relationship means.

We need to internalize the idea that constraint=leverage by reflecting on the possibilities of any constraint we find in our work,.

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(P5): Creating Possibility Spaces

An ocean tidal pool as an example of a possibility space.

Possibility Spaces are generated by Governing Constraints-not directly, as in a machine, but by, as it were, increasing the likelihood of interaction among what is within the possibility space. The Tidal Pool in the image is a sort of perfect example of the possibility space concept. The life generated in, and adapted to, a tidal pool is uniquely resilient to change, and elegantly adaptive in its response to change because of the exposure to constantly shifting disturbances. Such resilience is the promise of the concept of the “possibility space”.

Possibility spaces are entities that allow the creation of new enabling relationships and the destabilizing of existing relationships:

American Racism: American Racism began (well before there was an America) as an economic machine that generated vast profits for those who could create and maintain the enslavement of human beings and their exploitation for personal gain. But the evolution and expansion of its successful implementation also provided a space for antiracist initiatives. The important thing to grasp from this is that all possibility spaces have within them the possibility of change if we are willing to build enabling relationships that reflect human values and destabilize the ones that don’t. Such resistance doesn’t dissolve the possibility space, but it does force it to evolve and makes it less resilient.

Only a new possibility space can “replace” the existing one. And governing constraints are viciously resilient. Thus, resistance is not a strategy, however necessary it might be to resist. Resistance does force the existing possibility space to age. But, creating a new possibility space is tough.

Jazz: Wynton Marsalis describes the underlying dynamic of improvisational jazz as the abstraction of a melody line, a chord structure, and a rhythm to create an improvisation(s) that asks, “How might these components of a musical entity have played out differently in real-time?” This is an excellent description of a possibility space. This general frame provides a neat way to envision any possibility space as a force for creative and positive advocacy.

The Unavoidable Exhaustion of a Possibility Space: As a possibility space ages, the old enabling relationships (the ones that justified the creation of the governing constraint) become increasingly narrow and the existing relationships become increasingly brittle making small collapses more likely, and resistance more productive.

Assumptions that Weaken Possibility Spaces: When we assume that a system is a machine, we undermine the “possibilities” in the Possibility Space of our advocacy work. The systems we are trying to change commonly operate with the aphorism, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras”. This assumption is also very common in healthcare, and I believe it accounts for a fair number of misdiagnoses and medical mistakes. The reasoning of the aphorism is that the problem you face right now is more likely to be common than uncommon. That sounds reasonable.  But it is based on the idea that the problem space is a set of discrete machine parts. You identify the right part and then replace it.

We don’t actually make a kind of probabilistic judgment that there is a higher likelihood of horses than zebras. We pick horses as the problem and ignore any other possibility until we have completely failed with the horse “hypothesis”. This behavior is reinforced by systems of care or supports that are designed to reduce cost first and use fail-first and cost-based step methodologies as the core of our decision-making. Evidence-based frameworks, treatment protocols, and the euphemism, “Standard of Care”, are all conceptually related to the hoofbeat aphorism. These mindsets guarantee mistakes.

These issues affect our advocacy approaches as well. We become more predictable when we use the same techniques repeatedly to solve advocacy issues. Our targets adapt at various levels (local policies, hearing decisions, court cases, efforts to weaken laws, etc.). Our Advocacy Possibility Space shrinks over time, requiring more resources and more energy to accomplish less valued outcomes.

At the same time, if we use our creativity in pulling together advocacy actions, we can reasonably assume that the system will see horses rather than our advocacy zebra. This can be a real advantage. But it points out that one of our advantages as advocates is the use of novel interaction to destabilize a weak constraint in our target. Novel intentions and valued outcomes create their own possibility spaces and provide us with a new way of looking at the current Advocacy Possibility Space.

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