The Work of Networking: Intertwining Collaboration and Strengths
I write this reflective essay as a result of what I was taught through my own experience in the networks in which I participated in the last thirty years; most particularly from my experience with the ALForJA (Mesoamerican network of Popular education), created in 1981, of which I was coordinator until 1998.1
Our network was born from four fundamental points of confluence: a dynamic and convocational socio-political context (the Sandinista revolution and Central-American processes of the eighties); a practice and attitude of selfless commitment; a readiness for shared learning and an operational non-bureaucratic mode of action which enabled the teams of people of our institutions to begin to live intensely the experience of sharing the challenge of contributing to unprecedented development, through to the understanding and realisation of our practices and thoughts (I emphasise the idea of sharing a common challenge and generating a dynamic of mutual learning).
We had to be able to express ourselves in order to respond to the challenge which was overwhelming us each individually. And we did it with intensity, but slowly and conventionally, without hurrying organisational structures, generously sharing everything that each one of us had in his saddlebags, assuming enormous tasks and responsibilities with the conviction that together we could face them bravely. we created education and training programs, toured the rural and urban areas, did research, historical recovery, produced educational materials, workshops, seminars, meetings... we were intertwining collaboration and tying knots with our strengths, to the point that, without realising it or saying it, almost without intention, we wove together the Alforja (Saddlebag) Network as a space to meet in, work jointly and strategically project, until on a formal May 28, 1981, we gave it a name – through to this day, a story too long to be included in this writing...2
Since its founding, and with reference to other spaces in which I participated, I offer the following proposals to, hopefully, encourage critical and participatory group discussion on this topic:
- Working in a network is a way of doing things that presupposes the “weaving” of relationships, learning, collaboration, moving “from knot to knot” until a common space is created, open and diverse, in which many new initiatives, proposals and efforts can be included.
- Working in a network presupposes giving emphasis to the process of building meeting spaces and common action rather than to the organisational structure, which becomes secondary and depends on the dynamics of the processes and their needs (which are dynamic, multidimensional and complex). It is not, therefore, about creating networks in order to “launch” them and “fish” for others (individuals or institutions), but to call for participation in creative initiatives in the process of building the network dynamics.
- It is indispensable to have common strategic objectives or goals, which involve challenges to achieve through joint efforts. Strategic objectives or goals, means qualitatively different results from those we have today regarding a particular situation.
- the dynamic factor of networking is marked by the objectives or strategic goals, not the networking itself. It doesn’t matter what goes on inside the network, but what is achieved “from the network” out, its efficiency and effectiveness. So the shape and intensity the networking takes will depend on how we can affect change on the situation that serves as a starting point towards the objective.
- Networking means having various forms of operational coordination: in which each person brings what is most their own and of which they know best, through actions, projects and specific lines of work. without action, the “knots” in the network “loosen”.
- Networking means, in the end, respect for and taking advantage of diversity. It is a factor for strength, but only to the extent that this respect and advantage is not imposed to make one dominate the other. therefore, it is important to debate the planning and the foundations of the purposes and actions as well as the specialisation of tasks to enable the complementarity of efforts and capabilities.
Fishing net Source: Sandstein
- We should not assume that, in principle, all people and organisations gathered around a general purpose agree on everything. we must promote the explanation of all the ideas and visions to find the confluences that give an identity to the network. But also to learn and process the differences. Paying attention to them for resolving them can be a great strength, while ignoring them can be a big trap. Quick or “cheap consensus” is an enemy of networking. eventually, an unprocessed dissent can become a source of conflict that breaks out just because it was a tension held latent for a long time.
- On the other hand, we should strive to find all possible points of convergence, including “minimal points of agreement” based on the premise that no one has all the truth nor all the fault and, therefore, I must always pay attention to “the agreement” I can have from my position with another person or organisation.
- To promote a dynamic and a spirit of mutual learning. this implies a willingness to share what everyone knows, but also being disposed to listen and learn from what others know. It is important, therefore, to be reflexively critical and self-critical, which will enable us to not only exchange descriptions or accounts of individual experiences, but also to share the lessons that these experiences gave us. this task, the product of a process of systemisation – like a critical reflection on one’s own practice – is essential in order to sustain work in a network, and it enables the building up of knowledge which can be shared through the contributions each one makes. In this sense, networking means, in the language of Paulo Freire, the creation of conditions and dispositions for learning. create, with every practical context, a theoretical context which allows the production of a critical understanding of lived experience: its characteristics, interrelationships, roots and demands.
- It is very important to promote processes and mechanisms of accumulation of experience: maintain records and collectivise memories of accomplishments, synthesise the agreements, to record the consistency of evaluations and plans. Many times, because these procedures are not undertaken, errors are repeated and new “steps” are not built which can lead to new challenges.
- The network construction process is not linear or regular, it is asymmetric and variable. It is therefore essential to maintain a very intense communicative dynamic that feeds the ability to be in contact, to provide and receive contributions, using all possible ways and means: written, electronic, personal meetings, etc., in order to “follow the pulse” of events and collectivise the proposals and decisions.
- Take care that everything done is transparent to all, without the fear of making errors or difficulties visible. networking is not possible if it is not based on mutual trust. But trust is not given freely, trust is built as part of a relationship (and it can also be lost). Honesty, openness and willingness to abide criticism consolidate relations in a network.
- I consider it necessary to have forms and levels of organisation and coordination. networking does not work by itself, but as a result of initiatives, proposals, reactions, agreements and disagreements, which are capable of being structured into action plans. the more the tasks of organisation and coordination are distributed, with more sharing of responsibilities, the more the networking will be dynamic and will be “owned” by all those involved. However, it is essential to have axes or central areas of reference – which are not points of authoritarian or permanent decision-making – in order to have ties and contact to a common point of reference. I do not believe in dispersed networks of isolated initiatives that occasionally use a common umbrella and pretend to be “democratic” and that do not accept anyone taking joint initiatives with with a common message and comprehensive coordination. I believe in horizontal relationships, democratic and mutually demanding where everybody contributes on an equal footing, but where there are also roles (and responsibilities that need to be accountable) of leadership, animation, direction, articulation and decision.
- In networking there are also power relationships, the same as in all areas of life. But these power relationships need not be those prevailing in our capitalist societies: unfair, exclusionary and authoritarian. they can be synergistic power relationships, that is to say, where the power of each feeds more power into others and into the group, where capacities grow, with opportunities for all persons and groups which participate, not just for a group that exercises power and imposes its decisions; relationships where the combination of our capabilities results in more possibilities for action than would be possible in isolation and in which we emerge fortified and enriched from each encounter and each task, with new resources to address new and more complex challenges.
- In summary, networking involves a culture and a vision of transformation and its expression. thus, we can talk about a network as an organisational culture, not just as a general or theoretical notion, but as communal creation that crosses through the domains of personal life and institutional work. In short, networking requires us to do our part the best we can, thus contributing to our own personal growth. In this way we may also be able to transform ourselves as individuals, to the extent that we are committed to transformational processes of social, economic, political and cultural relations in the various contexts in which we live.
The challenges of this era are immense and go far beyond the traditional struggle for justice, equity, peace and human rights. In this 21st century, marked by contradictions and planetary dynamics characterised by the dominance of an economic, social, political and cultural model which cannot be universal and is not sustainable, with a major crisis each day, there is a need for us to believe that another world is possible, that we also work toward a different political culture and build different power relationships everywhere we meet. the Indignants3 movements that have broken out across the planet are a clear expression of this.4
With a different ethic, with its centre in human and planetary consciousness, networking can become an effective and efficient option for making changes locally and globally. From community work, sectoral organisation, the establishment of worldwide electronic communications, the formation of organisations, institutions and social movements, networking (person to person or connected in cyberspace), is given to us as a significant possibility to address social exclusion in every corner of our planet.
1 ALFORJA is not an acronym. It is what they call those double bags (leather, straw or fabric) that the peasants of many countries carry on their shoulders or on horses, mules or donkeys, carrying their supplies, tools, seeds, books... meaning an instrument for going from one place to another which inspired us to name our network after it.
2 Currently the network consists of CEASPA (center for Studies and Social Action in Panama) which is the regional headquarters; CEP (centre for Studies and Publications Alforja of costa rica); CANTERA (center for Popular education and communication of nicaragua); CENCOPH (centre for Popular communication of Honduras); FunProcooP (Foundation for the Promotion of cooperatives of el Salvador); SERJUS (Legal and Social Services of guatemala); IMDEC (Mexican Institute for community development of guadalajara). View: www.redalforja.net
4 e.g. www.tomalaplaza.net