I’m so excited to share some new strategies and tools today in this post, as well as a brand new project that I’m piloting that builds on the ideas I share through this newsletter.
I am often asked about the single most important thing we can do to make real, meaningful change happen within institutions such as museums. And I always think back to these words from writer and activist adrienne maree brown from her pivotal book Emergent Strategy:
“Relationships are everything.”
This concept of deep relational work has grounded my own practice for many years. It has been central to my writing about how museums and nonprofits can be more human-centered and community-centered. When we focus on people and take the time to engage in meaningful, slow, and intentional processes of building and sustaining relationships, we can shape a better future for the institutions, organizations, and communities we work in.
In their book The Relationship Is the Project, a collective of community-based artists and activists from Australia really tackle this idea through their own practice.
“It seems simple to say that ‘the relationship is the project,’” writes cultural consultant Jade Lillie, “but it’s often the thing that gets lost amongst the deadlines, egos, lack of experience, shame, bias, time, external expectations and our busy lives.”
We are doing our best work when we’re developing and nurturing our relationships—it’s as simple as that.
But how can we keep this focus on relationships front and center in our practice? How can we stay grounded in a more people-centered approach to our work, and not let it get lost amidst everything we are trying to balance?
It begins with reimagining our work and simply bringing a focus to the human connections around us.
Mapping and Growing Our Relationships
Shining some light on these human connections was at the center of a series of mini-workshops I facilitated recently for the Museum Division Preconference of the National Art Education Association. Each of these workshops brought together a very small group of museum educators for a fast-paced session focused on our work as changemakers.
We discussed our varying comfort levels with change, and then I introduced one of my favorite strategies for building support for change: Mapping Relationships.
“Relational mapping,” as it is often called, is a form of rethinking our working structures.
It’s an exercise that helps us to reframe the way we think about our work to go beyond the traditional organizational charts. It pushes us to notice the connections, relationships, and communities we have formed with other people, regardless of the rigid reporting structures and silos within our organizations.
When we work to move away from our emphasis on traditional org charts based in oppressive hierarchies and power inequities, and instead focus on the human relationships we have in our work, we can begin to transform institutions and the existing power dynamics.
In the voice note available at the top of this post, I walk you through the exercise step by step.
Listen to the voice note, give the Mapping Relationships exercise a try, and share your experience with me and the Agents of Change community in the comments.
Here are some questions to think about as you work through it on your own.
What does it feel like to map out the relationships and human connections in your work?
What are some ways this practice might help you identify and develop new connections and relationships?
What impact might this focus on relationships have on your work? What about your organization’s broader work with local communities?
As you leave your comment, read and respond to those of others. Let’s learn together and strengthen our collective practice.
One final inspiring thought from adrienne maree brown:
“in community, our potential is truly realized. what we have to offer to each other is not merely critique, anger, commentary, ownership and false power. we have the capacity to hold each other, serve each other, heal each other, create for and with each other, forgive each other, and liberate ourselves and each other.”
We can all actively work to be in deeper relationship with others, be more vulnerable, and treat each other as the full, complete, and complex human beings we are.
Here are just a few resources for those interested in extending their learning and growth when it comes to relational work. Let me know if you find these useful.
“The Relationship Work of Systems Change,” Stanford Social Innovation Review
In this recent article, Katherine Milligan, Juanita Zerda, and John Kania of Collective Change Lab write about various key aspects of relational work for collective impact. In it, they state: “Sometimes we lose sight of a simple truth about systems: They are made up of people.”
Emergent Strategy, by adrienne maree brown
For me, this has been an essential resource when it comes to social justice practice and community organizing work. Inspired by Octavia Butler's explorations of our human relationship to change, brown’s book is a radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help guide designed to shape the futures we want to live.
The Relationship Is the Project, edited by Jade Lillie, Kate Larsen, Cara Kirkwood, and Jax Jacki Brown
This collection of essays and case studies by a group of Australian artists, curators, and cultural activists offers a great set of strategies for community-engaged practitioners in the arts. And I could not pass up a book with a title like this.
in relationship with others, adrienne maree brown
This short piece by brown offers some inspiring insights into the value of relationships and what beloved community means. She begins with these words: “the most important personal and political skill to develop is how to be in relationship to others.” Yes!