President's Corner

Moving Toward a Moment of Emergence

November 7, 2011

Luz Vega-Marquis
By Luz Vega-Marquis
President and CEO

After 10 years of building our approach and our network, we are positioned to play an important role in changing the systems in our country.

In my report to you one year ago, I wrote:

Equal Voice is a framework for spurring innovation, which we have seen in our grantees and in our own work. Our next step, as we turn this momentous corner, is to focus our thinking on the key challenge of how to advance Equal Voice and to maximize its impact on framing our work. This will require a focus on three key areas:

  • Accountability: How will we hold ourselves and our grantee partners accountable?
  • Structure: What structure will sustain and build upon our efforts?
  • Power: How can we leverage our collective power to advance Equal Voice?

During the past year, we have invested in planning that surfaced ideas and directions for building the accountability, structure and power that we need to realize the potential of Equal Voice as a force for change. The efforts to consolidate the first 10 years of our work and to prepare for the future come at a perilous time in our country. Families have suffered during the past decade, and all evidence suggests that we may be entering one of the worst periods for poor families in our country’s history.

I am convinced that we are ready for this moment. After 10 years of refining our approach and building our portfolio of partners and our strategies, we are positioned to contribute to fundamental change in our country’s declining systems; systems that were created for a different era and that are no match for today’s challenges.

Margaret Wheatley, a writer and expert on change theory, wrote:

“The world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who share a common cause and vision of what’s possible … From these relationships, emergence becomes possible. Emergence is the process by which all large-scale change happens on this planet. Separate, local efforts connect and strengthen their interactions and interdependencies. What emerges as these become stronger is a system of influence; a powerful cultural shift that then greatly influences behaviors and defines accepted practices”

Are we entering a time of emergence? Are the voices of poor families, of our grantee partners, and of those who share our vision poised to spark a cultural shift? As Wheatley explains, emergence is a process. It begins with networking, connecting people beyond their existing spheres of activity and influence. The next stage is when people realize they can create more benefit by working together, and relationships shift from casual interactions to commitments to working together in a formal way.

We have witnessed this arc among our grantee partners during the past 10 years. Realizing that they were not alone was a first and profound step for our grantees. The Foundation’s relationship building and support moved them to the point of asking for a way to work together, and many have converged on their own as evidenced by the 30 established Equal Voice networks. As we round the corner, it is extraordinary that some of our grantee partners have rounded the corner ahead of us.

Equal Voice for Southern California Families, the Los Angeles area alliance of Marguerite Casey Foundation grantees, has emerged as a powerful network of individual organizations that came together on their own and built a multi-year plan to advance a common regional policy agenda. Last month, I met with the member organizations in Los Angeles to learn about their plans, and I was so impressed with their unity and their focus, and with their commitment to transcending issues, race, egos and other traditional lines of division in the interest of ensuring that families have an equal voice. The Los Angeles Equal Voice network is an example of a thriving alliance that Marguerite Casey Foundation helped to create, and that we will build upon in the future.

David Snowden and Mary E. Boone, renowned organizational change and complexity theorists, wrote that in complex situations:

“Instead of attempting to impose a course of action, leaders must patiently allow the path forward to reveal itself. They need to probe first, then sense, and then respond.”

Ask. Listen. Act. Snowden and Boone would assert that Marguerite Casey Foundation’s job, as a steward in a complex situation, is to create environments that allow patterns to emerge, that increase levels of interaction and communication, and that use methods to generate ideas by opening discussion, setting boundaries and expectations, encouraging dissent and diversity, managing conditions, and monitoring for emergence, the time at which forces intersect to create opportunities for breakthrough change.

Our Equal Voice Five-Year Operational Plan is the blueprint for this job. It will guide our coordinated, intentional and strategic actions to allow us to achieve the greatest possible impacts in five key areas: organizational capacity, leadership development, network development, policy impact and family engagement. At the same time, we will pursue our work with the flexibility and openness to opportunities that have been hallmarks of our first 10 years.

Snowden and Boone wrote, “Best practice is, by definition, past practice.” Complex situations, organizations and networks demand openness to experimentation and the search for new practices. Our Equal Voice framework- from its inception as a campaign to its adoption as the core elements in the Foundation’s five -year blueprint — reflects a commitment to forging new ways of working and to embracing innovation and risks.

At 10 years of age, the Foundation constantly raises its internal expectations, sets higher standards, and demands better performance from itself and from its partners. Our planning efforts have unearthed some areas in which we know we need to change, including how to better coordinate our efforts internally and externally; how to build our capacity to connect what works within our networks; and how we can best wield communications to amplify the work of our grantee partners and the voices of their constituents.

Our commitment to constant improvement will continue. Our families need this commitment from us. After 10 years of building our approach and our network, we are positioned to play an important role in changing the systems in our country, in meeting the challenges of our time, and in raising the expectations of what our country can be for every family. We are ready for this moment of change.

Equal Voice Plan

I am pleased to include the draft of the Equal Voice Five-Year Operational Plan for your review. The plan articulates the themes and ideas that emerged from the research phase of the planning process, and provides a blueprint of strategies for Marguerite Casey Foundation to follow during 2012 — 2016 in pursuit of three core outcomes:

I. A multi-layered Equal Voice coordinating structure at the national and local levels that has a
governance body, membership benefits, and political clout

II. A visible, engaged constituency of families and grantee organizations

Ill. Organizational integration of Equal Voice within Marguerite Casey Foundation

The Equal Voice Five-Year Operational Plan will provide us with the focus, intentionality and coordination that we need to maximize our resources, and to ensure that all of our internal and external efforts align with our vision.

Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street

As I write, the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to spread, drawing thousands of people to the streets in dozens of cities, including the street below my window in Seattle, and leveraging increased attention to the widening economic divide the United States. The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon reflects the concept of emergence; perhaps we are at the moment in which a critical mass of people have recognized that escalating income and wealth inequalities undermine the commonly accepted core assumptions of justice and equal opportunity in our country — and that change is necessary.

I find hope in the hunger for change and in the ability of this grassroots-driven movement to influence the public discourse. Increased discussion in the media and among elected officials and politicians about the role of corporations in public policy, the impunity of the financial industry, and the vast income and wealth gaps is a sign of the potential for shifting the dialogue in our country toward the needs of low-income families and for changes in systems that are not working.

At the same time, the Occupy Wall Street movement raises many questions: How has this movement taken root and spread in so many cities? How can this type of movement be funneled into tangible outcomes; to move from sentiments to actions to policy changes? How do we align (or not align) with such a movement? What role do the demographics of the protestors (many messages and signs indicate a highly educated and under-employed base) play in their success with attracting attention? Where are the intersections between this and the Tea Party (possibly, the dissatisfaction with the power of corporations and government policies that protect them, or the demand for more responsive and democratic representation at all levels of government?) and is it possible to bring them together?

Occupy Wall Street is fast-moving and is still in the process of solidifying. Undoubtedly, much more will happen between now and our meeting in November. I look forward to discussing it, to hearing your perspectives, and to exploring what it may mean for our work.

Conclusion and Questions

I look forward to our discussion in November, and I am pleased to leave you with the following

  1. Is Marguerite Casey Foundation — is the United States — at a moment in which large-scale social change is possible?
  2. What more can Marguerite Casey Foundation do to position itself to achieve the greatest possible change to benefit families?
  3. What do you want to see Marguerite Casey Foundation do better in the future?

Moving Toward a Moment of Emergence