Deborah Fishman sits with David Brown.
This interview is part of the Network-Weaver Series.
[David Brown is Social Action Coordinator at JHub in London, working on the Jewish Social Action Forum’s Big Green Jewish and Fairtrade campaigns. He is also the European coordinator of SIACH: A Global Environment and Social Justice network, and was on the core volunteer team recently for Limmud Conference in the UK.]
What is a network?
I think of connections between people, projects, and organizations. It can be a group of people who happen to find themselves in the same space, organizationally or physically. Either a given area of content can attract people (I think about SIACH), or it can be getting people together and letting them define the content (like the ROI Community).
I come to the world of networks with a lot of stereotypes in mind. I always thought of it as very utilitarian and transactional – it’s schmooze, booze, and people talking while looking over their shoulders to see if they see someone more interesting to talk to.
For me, the antidote was a session led by Seth Cohen which I attended at ROI about purposefulness in connections: finding ways to connect that are meaningful and values-based. Seth asked participants to write down people they had been introduced to that they found interesting and have gone on to build worthwhile connections with, the people they had introduced to others, and who had introduced others to them (who were their ‘connectors/weavers’). I realized I had really benefited from being introduced to others, and decided that now it was time to more consciously start doing the introducing.
What was it like to start being a connector?
At the start, it felt uneasy. It still felt a bit transactional: I felt like I was using people for their particular expertise rather than thinking about them as whole people. But I found that if I consciously thought that every time I met someone I had to try to connect them to someone else, whether or not I stood to gain from it personally, then when I was doing it for my own initiatives I could feel more comfortable with that.
I started introducing people doing interesting stuff, and I saw how grateful those people were.
Do you think there are natural network-weavers?
I happen to be involved in situations where I’m meeting lots of people, and I feel that not to introduce them to each other would be wasteful. But people who are not in contact with lots of people don’t necessarily need to do it.
What for you has been the added value in being part of networks?
What I’ve found great about humanity is how diverse we are. Being part of networks connects me with that diversity – not only because of the range of people you meet, but in the way you get to know people as holistic and appreciate how different areas of their personality or passion overlap in the web of purposeful connections that they are a part of. You also get to understand the great stuff going on out there, which is very motivational.
My Jewish identity really comes from the opportunities I’ve had to connect with people around the world, which allowed me to hear different ways of being Jewish in the world, beyond my narrow one in Britain. I’ve also learned all kinds of skills – such as to be a better public speaker – and made some great friends out of it too.
Is there a goal to your network-weaving work?
Most of the time, it’s definitely connecting people around Jewish social justice. There’s an explosion of it globally, some examples being the growth of JHub resident organisations, AJWS’s growth over the past decade, as well as Orthodox groups getting involved such as Uri L’tzedek and B’maaglei Tzedek. Yet we’re a small people, with limited time and resources – if we’re able to connect people trying to achieve similar things, we will have a much greater impact.
More importantly, I want to see a vibrant Jewish people around the world. If we can showcase the diversity of Jewish expression within our web of networks, more people will be interested in being Jewish in exciting ways and have people with whom to develop these ways of being Jewish with.
How do you use network-weaving in your work at the Jewish Social Action Forum?
The Jewish Social Action Forum is a network which is focused on campaigns around issues such as poverty, race, asylum, and the environment. The goal is to get more people doing Jewishly-inspired social action. When it first started doing this work, JSAF found it needed to make stuff happen but hadn’t necessarily brought all members along with it. So we did a consultation with the members. We applied community organizing tools by investing in personal relationships first.
What challenges does network-weaving pose for you?
It’s important to spend time investing in strong relationships, yet I worry to what extent that keeps you from opening yourself up to new people – managing the balance of maintaining existing connections whilst being open to fresh ones is a challenge.
There are also challenges from the Jewish peoplehood aspect given the global nature of networks. I coordinate the European cohort within SIACH, and there are issues with a common language – not just a language to speak, but also literacy in terms of social media, Jewish text, and approaches to networks. Sometimes even when you think you’re speaking the same language, you’re not.
Finally, to sustain relationships, you need face time. It can’t all be virtual. Yet I think about the carbon footprint of the whole network crossing the world and the expense being prohibitive for some people and communities. Through ROI and Limmud, I recently traveled to Limmud OzFest in Melbourne; even though one of our current campaigns is Big Green Jewish, I flew to Australia. There’s a cost, economically and ecologically. It’s the same issue in Israel engagement: How do you sustain that connection to Israel without people flying back and forth?
How do you hope your networks will develop in the future?
Some networks are driven top-down, with key people in them driving them because they think they’re important. But if people really reflected on them, they would see the value. How do you shift them so everyone has access and is contributing? How do they become truly driven by the grassroots? I also think about creating webs of networks. What’s the art involved in integrating networks – and how can shared values be a part of that art?
This post is cross-posted on Deborah’s blog, hachavaya.blogspot.com, as a part of her ongoing conversation series with network-weavers about their best practices.