Trust in Networks is Fundamental to Social Change

Trust in Networks is Fundamental to Social Change

Trust is a core principle – in Chaos Theory, we’d call trust within human systems a powerful ‘Strange Attractor.’ 

The purpose of a Change Network is to amplify the flow of knowledge, information, resources, skills, and assets throughout all parts of the network – especially to where they can do the most good. To put everything we can contribute, collectively, into the shifts we’re trying to make – so that change is faster, more meaningful & relevant, and spreads further.

And as one who struggles greatly with trust – it’s glaringly obvious – without trust, nothing significant moves. It’s that simple, and abundantly clear.

But whenever the word comes up in community-work, I cringe a little. Especially in groups with different cultures and privilege gaps. Because what, really, are people espousing?

What do we mean when we say ‘trust’?

What IS it we’re trying to create together? And who gets to decide?

In her ‘Network Weaver’s Handbook‘ June Holley says:

“‘We must trust each other for this to work’ is a dangerous statement. Dangerous because it too often implies that trust is easily or instantly developed. Actually, we have little awareness of how authentic trust is built.”

In fact, I’m a little afraid of saying what comes next – so this constitutes a small act of trust that I’ll be forgiven for writing what can’t help but come across as snarky, judgmental, condescending – tho it’s meant more as a contribution – some clues about where to start when things aren’t moving along as hoped-for.

But in my mostly-white, well-educated, middle-class, do-gooder, some-brand-of-spiritual, conflict-averse, organizational-consultant-filled ‘Minnesota nice’ universe, I often feel like the operating definition of trust is stiflingly narrow, superficial, insensitive and – ultimately dominating and destructive. I trust that’s no-one’s intention, but intentions are rarely enough.

I’ve often felt like I’m being told or seen others being told: ‘never challenge me’, ‘never create a conflict I have to sit in the middle of’ and ‘never do anything I wouldn’t do, because that frightens me.’

In other words – Trust as ‘no overt challenge to anyone’s (especially the speaker’s) cherished beliefs & behaviors.’ (or even, ‘trust’ as the tool for shutting out what anyone who is different is trying to contribute, ‘trust’ as the reframing of ‘intended contribution’ to ‘attack’). The rare exceptions make the norm more glaring.

I’m exaggerating (just a little ) and maybe it’s just my own trust issues filter, but what I often hear when the topic of trust comes up – is ‘YOU need to trust ME (precisely as I am behaving in this moment, even if it’s not what you find trust-worthy, and without discussion of said behavior). Or else it’s ‘I CANNOT trust YOU unless YOU be different than you are (and don’t bother explaining or clarifying yourself, because my mild manner proves my rightness & you are broken, crazy, mean, not spiritual enough’).

I almost never hear ‘How can I earn YOUR trust?’ or ‘How are MY social norms excluding, devaluing, controlling YOU?’ I never hear ‘I DON’T KNOW HOW to trust what’s going on, but I don’t want to shut it down – I want help understanding it so I can learn to react to this sort of situation differently.” (all of these, I notice, require real vulnerability. . . )

Presuming upon trust is hazardous

My own (admittedly still sometimes hyper-vigilant) gut often says ‘in this context Trust means ‘don’t push members of the dominant culture out of their comfort zones’.

The dominants are usually the only ones who feel safe enough to express when & what they don’t trust. For everyone else, just showing up as ‘different’ is uncomfortable enough. Expressing mistrust of dominant norms – I can attest – is hazardous – and that perceived call to safeguard privileged comfort zones just pushes the mistrust further below the surface – making it that much harder to correlate with more mundane problems and that much harder to heal.

As a person who grew up in poverty & chaos – expecting to trust, deep down, still feels like a privilege & a luxury to me. I envy (and occasionally resent) people with stable lives, trustworthy families & trustworthy friends – people who feel safe in community & actually believe others will support them when needed. They have a beautiful Ease the rest of us lack. My years of working on my own trust-worthiness and trust issues has taught me to recognize both the presence and the absence of that Ease in others. And to mourn the amount of time I’ve engaged in the world without it.

To me, trust is rare, super-hard-won and precious, whether I’m earning it or bestowing it. A most fragile gift we are lucky to share (though luck has nothing to do with it).

Trust is not something we can demand from one another. It’s not something we can decide to feel because it’s expected of us. We can TRY to feel it, we can PRETEND that we feel it – and what a mess THAT creates!!

Trust is also absolutely NOT an effective tool for controlling others, or for keeping ourselves safe. But, too often, that seems either it’s unconscious purpose or it’s unintended consequence.

Because of the rarity of trust in my own life (in both directions, I freely admit), I may know some things about trust that those who take it for granted can’t know. It’s a reality I’ve had to study, struggle with, learn to apprehend & to value. Which is why I can say, with conviction – that beautiful Ease people have when they trust, not only is it palpable & lovely – it makes all sorts of magic possible.

I’ve lived in enough of both trust & not-trust to know this – trust is what makes transformation possible. It helps things fall into place. It creates a flow of value and met-needs so much greater than anything we can create without it.

But within a broader culture of separation & domination & exploitation – trust is hard to muster, it takes work.

Approaching trust with humility

So when we’re aiming to build change networks, I think we’d all benefit from a far more patient & nuanced understanding of Trust. As something emergent, not manufactured. And understanding that especially, especially, especially when we belong to the dominant culture of any given context, or wherever we have rank or privilege, there are more layers to it than we can perceive on our own.

Let’s learn – from scratch and not from what we were raised with – how to earn it from one another and/or how to give it to one another- knowing there is no direct path or single route, that for every small group and ‘two-sie’ it’s different, and that, especially for those who have historically been excluded, it’s asking a lot).

Let’s learn to recognize its presence, and not accidentally spoil the trust we’ve been given.

Let’s also learn to recognize the lack of trust and to honor its absence – because that lack comes from real stuff. We can’t pooh-poo away mistrust with platitudes & empty promises, and until we can see where Trust isn’t, we can’t begin to revive it.

Of course, there are more elements to network weaving and more elements to social change. But when we lose track of or trivialize this foundation, all those other elements are going to be less effective.

Trust makes it’s own, often uncomfortable, demands

This post was meant to be a single brief paragraph introducing some thoughts on kinds of trust that we can learn to work on. I guess my own trust issues needed to be heard from before they were ready to let me be more pragmatic.

Originally Published by Christine Capra on October 12, 2015 at

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