Leadership Alumni Networks Making a Difference

Leadership Alumni Networks Making a Difference

For all justice-loving people who are curious about networks or what leadership program alumni can and are accomplishing by using network strategies, I am happy to share a recently released resource, “Leadership Program Alumni Networks, Catalysing Learning and Action for Equitable Systems Change.” This topic speaks to me personally, because as an alumni of one of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation’s signature leadership programs, I can honestly say I would never have been able to start or sustain an equity minded organization without support from many of the connections that I formed during my leadership experience.  

As my program was ending, people in California were faced with Proposition 187, an attempt to deny children of undocumented workers access to public education and health care. I invited all alumni in my region from different cohorts to a potluck to figure out what we could do together across our different organizations and sectors. I came to it with a top down campaign mentality and while pleased by a great turnout, I was disappointed, at first, that not everyone was on board to take up this one issue. I say ‘at first’ because over several months of potluck dinners I saw that people were forming smaller self-organized groups to work on different issues like a sustainability plan for Oakland, disability rights, and yes, prop 187. I was learning about networks not from books, but by observing how other alumni were connecting, taking action, and getting things in a more decentralized way. I have been a network convert ever since. 

In 2022, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation with a 90 year history of investing in leadership development and their alumni, paused their alumni investment strategy to engage in a learning journey, listening to the needs of their own alumni; and the alumni experiences of other funders and leadership programs. The Leadership Learning Community partnered with the Foundation on a research project to explore the pros and cons of different approaches to supporting leadership alumni; and to understand the unique benefits of network approaches and what they require, e.g., how is equity centered, how are power dynamics negotiated, how are decisions made, etc. 

The report focuses specifically on network approaches for a couple of reasons. Using a network approach to alumni organizing is a good fit for foundations, leadership programs and alumni themselves who are interested in how the connections among alumni can be leveraged to accelerate learning and drive action on social and racial justice issues. There is also less known about how to support emerging networks than more traditional association models which are well suited to providing continuing education, professional development and convenings. As a starting point, the publication offers a tool for figuring out if a network is the approach most aligned with your reasons for wanting to connect leadership program alumni. 

For those who need a little convincing, there are stories about the ways in which leadership program participants and alumni activated regional connections during the COVID-19 pandemic to respond rapidly to needs for hotspots for students, telemedicine centers in libraries, vaccines for clinical staff, mutual aid in a trans community and more. The report also includes national and global examples of networks effectively organizing around police killings, climate justice, food systems, elections and fundraising.

Network accomplishments can be attributed to basic principles which unleash the initiative of many more social actors than traditional forms of organizing by encouraging relationship building, peer learning, self-organizing, generosity, transparency and equity. The publication describes these basic principles and how to operationalize them in the ways in which networks organize and govern themselves. The publication is meant to guide you through a start up process, identifying important decision points (e.g., who wants the network, how do you assess readiness for a different way of working, how do you make power and authorities explicit), and by offering practical examples of how successful networks engage their members and share leadership and decision making. 

The intent of the publication is to help leadership programs serving hundreds and thousands of influential alumni, extend the impact of the program experience through powerful network connections. For those already dabbling or actively supporting networks, we hope you will benefit from the practical wisdom of other network activists. We would love to hear from you about your experiences as we build our shared understanding of how to harness the power of networks for social justice.

Download Catalyzing Learning and Action for Equitable Systems Change from Network Weaver HERE or directly from W.K. Kellogg Foundation HERE

Deborah Meehan was the founder and former Co-Executive Director of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC), an organization bringing together people who share a belief that inclusive, networked and collective leadership is needed for social and racial justice. Deborah created a consulting services arm of LLC and has conducted field research, activated leadership alumni networks, supported program design and evaluated programs for national and international leadership programs. Over the past 25 years she has authored many leadership publications on race, networks, large scale change and most recently, “Leadership Program Alumni Networks; Catalyzing Learning and Action for Equitable Systems Change.” Deborah now works as the lead consultant for Deborah Meehan Consulting.

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