A Co-Inspirational Feed-Back Loop with Eugene Cooke

A Co-Inspirational Feed-Back Loop with Eugene Cooke

Eugene Cooke is an Agroecologist and urban farmer with experience from California to Kenya. He’s the founder of Grow Where You Are, is currently located in Atlanta and is focused on food sovereignty. 

He’s also a member of a relatively large network funded and convened by one of our mapping clients. Meaning – he’s in a social system map that we’ve made & maintain. And because of that, I met him at our client’s annual conference, where I went to present their map for the second year in a row. 

Eugene and I met at a moment on my own path when I was deeply engaged in re-framing our approach to mapping, re-imagining my fundamental role relative to this work we do, and re-shaping how I talked about it when presenting maps to our client’s networks – and to everyone else as well.

“We’re in critical times and this is a tool that could greatly accelerate the necessary connections for a lot of shifts and changes of power dynamics,wealth and resources.”

Eugene is EXACTLY the kind of person I have in mind when imagining and designing the work we do: On the ground, doing the work. Deeply committed to transformation across multiple dimensions. Insightful about what it will take, and about himself, community, power, society, the environment and the interconnectedness of all of those. Someone who would recognize, value and act on the insights that a social system map is meant to discover and share. Someone whose transformation work would be enhanced, amplified, accelerated by the insights he could gain from our maps.

In what follows, when referring to ‘clients’, I’m distinguishing between those who hire/pay us and those in networks being supported in some way by those who hire/pay us. Clients write the checks, but it’s the Eugenes I’m trying to serve. 

So even when our clients love the work we do and get a lot from it as network leaders and conveners, I personally am not satisfied until I get the sense that the Eugenes of the network are also actively drawing insight from our maps. Insight that directly amplifies and accelerates their important work around justice, health & the environment. 

Eugene is interesting to me personally – he’s all kinds of wonderful & is doing important work. And he personifies the ‘Who’ our maps are for. 

But what made me want to interview him and write about our interview was the fact that his experience of his network and of that particular Social System Map he’s in changed from his first exposure to it to the second time he was exposed to it, and I wanted to learn more about that transition.


What Changed?

Eugene and I (with map) both attended the same annual network event two years in a row. The map was essentially the same in each instance. It had a larger population the second year, but nothing else was different.

As is often the case with large clients, I attended the whole 2-3 day conference with a mapping colleague. My colleague and I had a table set up, right outside the main conference room, where we each had a laptop plus big monitor and we spent our days hanging out with conference attendees one-on-one or in small groups, sharing the map with them, teaching them to navigate and read it, helping them think about how it could be useful.

In year one, my map-partner/colleague was a young woman of color. In year two, my partner was a young man of color. Each was very knowledgeable and very excited about the map, both of them are friendly, articulate, and outgoing – perfect for drawing people in.

In both years, ten minutes of the plenary session was allocated to presenting the map to the network – right before lunch on the first day. Each time, someone else presented with me, so my own part was about five minutes. 

Year over year, everything was pretty much the same relative to presenting the map. So what was different about Eugene’s experience?

“I didn’t understand it”

The first year, we made very little impression on Eugene. 

I didn’t understand it. It was visually interesting to me but it felt to me like data about things that had already happened, That’s not that exciting to me, but the visual of it was exciting. And then watching people engage with it in that room was exciting because there were people who were excited about it. It felt to me like it was supposed to be almost like some entertainment the first time I saw it.

It felt to me like a distraction, being able to see real-time changes was cool. . . But then I’m like, well what’s the point? the data may be true but it’s really not useful, you know what I mean?

Not only did we fail to help Eugene see the value of the map in our brief presentation that first year, we didn’t even inspire him to come and talk to us about it more. 

Contrast that to the second year, when, as I came down off the podium after my 5 minutes, Eugene was striding toward me between the tables. Upon reaching me, he grabbed my hand in a warm two-handed handshake and announced that we were going to have lunch together.

Eugene and my mapping-partner Donte and I ended up spending several hours talking and map-exploring together over the following hours & days of the conference. And not only did Eugene’s appreciation of the map shift, his experience of the network itself changed as a result. It’s that second shift – how he experienced his network – that I yearn to generate, so as I reflected later on our conversations, I needed to hear more about that.


The Initial Turning Point

Until this particular conference, my approach to presenting maps to client networks had been to do what I was told to do by our client. Which was always – Get up there for 5-10 minutes and share what the map has taught us. Tell them what I see. Be the expert. As if I’d done a normal Social Network Analysis gig – map, analyze, generate a report with recommendations & present a summary of that report.

But in fact – that’s not what I do and it’s not what interests me. I’m trying to create a tool that helps a network see itself. I’m trying to increase collective-self awareness & understanding of human systems. What I see isn’t important, or even relevant. I’d even say that the metrics have only minimal relevance. What network members could learn to see and how that seeing could shift their behaviors and actions is what interests me. I don’t analyze maps and I never do written reports. If a client wants that, I’ll call in an expert.

And what I’d observed over and over was that presenting what I saw – posing as the expert and sharing some high-level metrics NEVER inspired those on the ground. At best, it attracted the occasional data-geek or researcher-type, but never the Eugenes of a network. 

Plus – I was always bored to death and felt completely in-authentic when presenting in that way – it’s no wonder no-one was moved.

But since that’s what clients always said they wanted, that’s what I had always done. And I usually felt exhausted, obscured, slightly embarrassed, and haunted by a sense of fraud & failure for the rest of the conference.

This particular time, however, I had decided not to follow instructions. My pain at the usual approach was so great that I had chosen to take a risk & change course entirely. 

This time, for the first time, instead of talking about what metrics I saw, I talked about the new visual language I felt was emerging through this kind of mapping. I talked about why we’d built sumApp, the overwhelming wealth of information their map already included, the untapped potential that map represented to me, and our collective need to learn to read this new visual language so that people could access the richness they’d created together.

Me showing up differently – stepping into my own truth – seemed to have done the trick. At least it was a key first step.

It was exciting to me that you were the person who created and helped design the software that we were using and you seemed genuinely excited about it. What I caught was that feeling of being around a creative person who’s created something that they think has the ability to be useful. So, I believed that.

Then the things that you said about the purpose of it that got me were that you were saying that you didn’t feel that it had been fully explored. And, so, that made me think well, dang, that’s my question! Because my question is – why would I use this? You know what I mean? So, in that regard, I said ok well let’s just talk directly because this is an opportunity. I don’t think I knew that you were the person who had created the software last time. But this time it was really clear to me and I said ok that’s who I need to talk to.

Eugene heard me. He couldn’t yet know exactly what I meant, but he knew I was striving for SOMETHING that he wanted to know more about. Which affirmed my emerging conviction that my job was not to ‘impart knowledge’, but to inspire the right people to come and have a deeper conversation. It’s about supporting the learning that serves their own and the network’s purposes, not me telling them what I know.


Hanging out together

Still, my five minutes on stage was just the hook – on it’s own, it didn’t change his thinking in any way. So when I interviewed him, I asked Eugene what he took away from the map explorations and conversations we had at our mapping table with Donte and others.

The first thing was: 

How to use it, which was helpful. Donte was kind of clicking on the pulldown menu so I was visually seeing what he was doing and at the same time you were talking about the possibilities of each one of these different fields and the sorting. So, the sorting was important, recognizing what fields had already been created, and that a field that I was looking for – the Funders and Investors – was already created. So, I realized wow I’ve had some aspect of all this information for a year and haven’t looked at it at all because I didn’t know how to look at it. I didn’t know where it was, which was something new to me.

And then the other part that really stuck with me is Donte explaining to me how being an entrepreneur transforms how we look at tools like this. He made it real clear. He was like, “yo, you know, you’re thinking and sounding like an entrepreneur.” And as two young businessmen listening and talking to each other and using this technology, he was really patient and saying, “really think this through. There’s ways that you can utilize this. There’s ways that this can be beneficial.”

Then there’s this subtle but important part about reading the social field:

I come into spaces very blind to certain dimensions of the social thing that’s happening and also hypersensitive to other dimensions of the social thing when it has to do with race or class; and I can misjudge those.

My own sensitivities are different than Eugene’s, but I too often have a very hard time reading and navigating the social field in large groups. It’s in the nature of short-term large group events that they warp our social senses in ways that can be uplifting or enhancing for some and off-putting or discouraging for others. 

Part of what Eugene’s experience was telling me was that if these kinds of maps are designed well & people are taught to use them, they could help us to penetrate through that layer of warping and enable us to take better advantage of those large-group times together and engage more strategically and more meaningfully. And that it depends on the information requested.

The way that that network map is set up right now feels, to me, like (and maybe I’m not so accurate) I’ve never been on LinkedIn but, from what I hear, the way people talk about LinkedIn it feels like that. It feels just like a smaller version of that because it’s really focused on career and education. That’s what it seems to be; like most of the information is around career and education, which I can understand how that would be the default in this group. For me, even just coming into that group, I come in there as an entrepreneur. I come in there as somebody who’s not lettered from a school or any of that kind of thing.

So, when I hear about our focus being health or culture, the education and the career things are not the things that are most interesting to me. So, the information that would be helpful for me would be things about the relative health of those individuals.

Similar health markers that they’re using in their job I think would be very interesting applied to our own group. It’s kind of a catch-22 because you don’t want to ask people what meds they’re on or any of that kind of thing but things about their physical activity, things about their eating habits, things about their entertainment choices, family dynamics, and lifestyle, even some history. That would be helpful to me because then I would be able to look on this map that is supposed to be about people who are leaders in these things and see if it’s even true in the first place.

Just because someone has graduated with this focus and works in this field, obviously doesn’t mean anything, you know? Because we have some very sick doctor

I would really focus on the health thing- the aspects of health. Because those could also be points of connection and they probably are. I mean, it’s very simple for me. When I go there, I look at this group and I say, ‘oh, these are all people who drink together.’ And I need to know that because. . . I can misjudge those [social dimensions].

I, often times, put my sensitivity in a place where this really just has to do with the fact that these people get together and drink together. That’s really what it is. So, I’ll come into an experience thinking we’re here to work this out or come up with solutions, and, no, they said that it was about that but they’re really just needing some time to let off steam and have some drinks.  

I think if we got people to speak more [in their map profiles] about how they live the things that they are wanting to be leaders in, then people could decide whether they want to interact with each other on other levels anyway. Because then we could connect over things that actually are intrinsic to health and not so much about a career opportunity or a business opportunity.


“WoW! I’ve had [access to] all this information for a year and haven’t looked at it. . . because I didn’t know how!”


Eugene told Donte and I that he hadn’t even planned to attend that second conference. He didn’t feel particularly connected to the network and didn’t think it would be worth his time. 

Often times [I’m on the outside edges of ] the map that I’m a part of, because of my not being so active in that group. But that changed [during the second conference] after listening to you, to be honest. It really did change.

Now that I was sitting with an intentional reason, I was actually reading where people are from, what they do, where they worked, what they’re doing now, why they’re in the network, what state they live in; that stuff became much more meaningful and interesting to me and it helped me formulate next steps.

Because I could actually see pictures of people, I could think about times when I’ve interacted with them (or not interacted with them) and recognize their face and said, oh yeah, I remember when we were standing next to each other on lunch or something simple that would, then, give me another reason to approach them again and say ‘hey I’m using this thing I’m looking at this tool I’m seeing this opportunity, is there a potential for that.’ So, the fact that it’s real personal to some degree, I mean it has people’s faces and information, that’s helpful.

As I sat with it on my own and just started looking at who I was connected to and doing that kind of research the questionI was left with was what do I do now? How do I more efficiently utilize this tool because there are goals that I’m there to reach as an individual. There’s goals that I’m there to reach for our collective, the ‘Grow Where You Are Collective’ and the work that we do. And then there’s these overarching goals: taking in the information that’s happening with the climate; taking in the information that’s happening geopolitically, socially, right in my community. 

So, I’m thinking: well, if these maps exist and they offer the ability to somehow connect more directly with the people that we think have influence over a particular part of our reality, I want to know how to use it better.


How Can We Do A Better Job of Leveraging These Maps?

I wanted to know, from Eugene’s perspective, what more should we be doing to help people have experiences like his.

More training

The way I think it can be most beneficial is what you’ve already done; which is you’ve made it to where we all have access to a certain amount of information somewhat equally. [But we need training to take advantage of it].

There’s a sort of catch-22 at the core of this whole Social System Mapping vision. 

We’re so used to being asked for data from experts, evaluators, presenters and so on – data we perceive as useful to THEM, for who knows what purposes. Not data that’s important for us. 

So most of us don’t truly think of data as something potentially meaningful for our own use – something we could share, in an easily-retrievable organized way to strengthen our ties and power our collaborations. Some might say social media does that – but social media is pretty much the absolute opposite – especially because we can’t see the interpersonal connections. Most people don’t think of ‘our network data’ as a commons we could contribute to, shepherd and get value from. But it could be.

So – we can’t simply say ‘this data is for YOU’, because that doesn’t really mean anything. We need to do more to help people understand what that means – even before they input their data. In an ideal world, we’d have that discussion even before we define what data to ask for. 

Were the people filling out the survey knowing that they were filling out a network mapping survey? Or did they think they were filling out a survey that was just individual, about them, that was just going to get kind of filed?

I think one thing that would be really helpful is bringing representatives from other maps and have them talk about , a map that’s been going for 2 years, 5 years, 3 years and have them talk about some of the key successes. Really diverse types of maps. Maps that are like those barge people [A group I’d told him about]. Stuff that’s not in our sector at all. If there’s investment maps or if there’s some youths using the maps somehow.


Help people develop maps in their home communities

Here’s a thing I find painful: 

Some people DO get it. Often the most historically marginalized get it best. And when we’re in the context of a large, national, well-funded network, what they tell me is that they need this kind of intervention in their home communities. The connections and learning they get about the network at the national level are valuable. But they’d find it even more valuable on the ground, at home, where they’re doing their work. Where the idea of ‘our data’ as commons would be even more relevant. And they often don’t have the resources to do that.

And even though we strive to make the technical bar as low as possible with sumApp, and to make it really affordable – it still takes time and a bunch of specific skills to do this work. And a) there aren’t yet enough of us who know how to do this work. And b) even if they had the skills, so many don’t have the time – they’re already stretched too thin. And c) often those who need it most don’t have the money to hire the handful of us who COULD help them.

I end up feeling like I’m waving a carrot in a horse’s face, and as soon as she takes a step forward to nibble on it – I yank it away. I find that happening more and more lately, and it hurts my heart.

So first, universally, network members need more training in reading & sensemaking with these maps.

And then, the Eugenes of the world need more support for hiring others to help make maps for them or – even better, more support for developing the training, visioning, mapping, and sensemaking capacities locally, so they can create and sustain their maps themselves.


Dreaming together 

It’s easy to imagine all this mapping data being used to generate an Orwellian/Black Mirror nightmare world. I get that kind of response a lot – but then, unbounded social media has already done that, hasn’t it? Avoidance doesn’t protect us.

I see social system mapping as an effort to harness that Orwellian power, but point it in the other direction – away from separation and authoritarian control, and towards connection and self-organizing. Which can only happen if the data itself and the data-gathering choices are in the hands of the community. And maybe I’m being delusional – like thinking you could change a system by working your way to the center of it & then doing something heroic – but I’ve staked pretty much everything on the belief that there’s potential in this.

And even if I’m wrong, it’s still really interesting to think about what could be possible – if relationship data were held in safe community containers.

A way so many people have been lost in the criminal justice system, how so many people have been lost in healthcare systems, in poverty systems, is because they’re not a part of any kind of network where they can be traced and found and say, “I sent in a complaint or this thing has happened and it went from here to here to here,” or “be careful because I’m a person who, just because you took me into this hospital, you’d better look on this map and understand who I am. You may not know who I am but I’m actually connected to this person and this person and this person.” 

When they took Minister Farrakhan into the hospital some years ago over his prostate issue and it became necessary to do surgery or some type of treatment, they put him in the hospital and the doctor showed up and representatives of the nation of Islam showed up in the hospital room and said, “let’s be clear about something, if something happens to him, we have a team that’s prepared on the legal levels, as well as the front door street level, as well as you trying to get from the hospital to your car and back to your house level.” And that network shifted how he was treated. Whereas, a woman who volunteers with us, her mother went to the hospital a couple of days ago and they didn’t treat her with any respect and she’s now dead.

I’ve seen in my own family how different members of my family are treated in the hospital if I make sure that I’m constantly there and vigilant and involved. It shouldn’t have to be like that. But if these network maps could serve these types of purposes so that as soon as a person is brought into a detention center or a police department or a hospital or a birthing center; as soon as they come in, that network becomes a visual map for that person. Even if it’s just something that I’m carrying around on my own phone. And then I’m checked into the police department or the hospital and it’s: “make sure you understand. There’s a councilman one step away from me or there’s a lawyer two steps away from me.”

I see those kind of protective things and then I also see the whole redistribution of wealth and landholdings and all that can also happen in that. I understand that a lot of people who are donors to foundations who are wanting to be invisible or people who inherit wealth that they actually want to transition over to other people, their biggest thing is not knowing whether this is a credible person to deal with or not. Not knowing if this person is a criminal themselves or if they’re going to put themselves in danger and really they just have the assets that they want to shift into the hands of people who don’t have assets, but how do you know? 

So, what I’m seeing in these maps, since they’re all digitized anyway, if there’s a way to do land transactions, if there’s a way to do record expunges, and get folks out of fraudulent incarceration. A lot of things that I think could happen through a map like this, especially if the map itself becomes a way of doing digital transactions.  And media people! Journalists need to be using these kinds of maps. anything from voting or polling or democratic process or even socialism or global news I think that a map of independent journalists, especially if they had it within their own control and they had a map towards not only financial supporters but sources of information, sources of people who are strictly doing the data collection that they may need. Seems like that could work really well for journalism. Also for climate researchers and scientists.


A Potential Superpower

Revisiting Eugene’s words as I write this, I recall my own dreams around what could be possible if generative social-impact networks had access to the degree of shared common knowledge that a social system map can provide. I recall why I went careening into this weird adventure we’ve been on for several years now. And it feels, as I listen to Eugene, like a superpower. 

A superpower people are yearning for – the ability to KNOW, really quickly, the networks they’re embedded in – so they can leverage that information for their own important shared goals and overarching social goals, such as social protection, shifting power, redistributing resources, re-generating the environment. It’s a yearning we all have, to cut through the small-talk and understand how we all fit into, and COULD fit into the crucial realities at hand. I sense this yearning – in myself, and coming from others – for both the higher level consciousness that Glenda Eoyang referred to as Eagle Eyes combined with Mouse Eyes – relative to the social dynamics we’re most interested in transforming. The ability to zoom in & out rapidly to navigate the social reality we’re embedded in and strategize our way through it.

It feels a little inflated and delusional to write that. But then. . . 

We all know – language is power. Maps have always granted power to their holders. Information is power. And these are maps that speak a new visual language packed with information. 

But whether or not this potential superpower ever makes a difference in the real world depends upon whether or not we’re able to put it into the hands of the people on the ground who are working on transformation. It should not be – in my only-partly-humble opinion – a potential and a superpower left in the hands of an elite few.


My Own Take-Aways

Eugene and I created an inspiring feed-back loop. I inspired him, he re-inspired me. 

Part of how I inspired him means that I held out another carrot & pulled it away – leaving him in need of support for a local map, and leaving me the pain in my heart that drives my push to build capacity.

He strengthened my conviction that: 

  1. There’s still a whole lot of work to be done on the technical front – which we will continue to do.
  2. Our main focus needs to shift to capacity-building so that more and more people are able to do this work.
  3. We need to find new ways of helping to get local, relevant maps into the hands of under-funded generative social-impact networks.
  4. We need to work harder at convincing foundation clients to do more engagement and training around the maps they have us create for their networks. 
  5. We also need to find ways to convince them to fund/support capacity-building and home-community maps within their networks.

So – Wherever you fit into this field, if you also sense a potential superpower emerging and agree that it needs to be in the hands of those doing the hard work on the ground, I invite you to support those take-aways above in whatever manner you’re able. 

And if Eugene’s experience has inspired you – I especially invite you to think about ways to help Eugene’s home network end up with a social system map of their own, in a way that builds capacity for everyone involved – so that we can expand this inspirational feed-back loop beyond just the two of us.

You can learn more about and support Eugene’s work here.

Originally published at Greater Than The Sum

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