Learning from Starfish

Jun 6, 2009

I’ve been working inside of at risk neighborhoods on and off for 10 years.  In the beginning it was about my fascination with the wisdom, survival strategies and the humility of the resident leadership I was meeting.  I was developing my own perspective of why we’ve been asked to go out among the poor. For me there was no shortage of valuable life lessons.  Later it became about partnering with the leadership from these neighborhoods to develop organizations that are sustainable and can scale their efforts. 

I  first met Rod Beckstrom 3 years ago.  We talked about his recent book, The Starfish and The Spider, Web site: http// www.starfishandspider.com. He and his associate Ori Brafman created a fantastic read on how decentralized organizations are changing the face of business and society~that like starfish, these decentralized organizations without a form of central command, are becoming one of our greatest global opportunities and challenges.  You see, starfish are made up of cells that are networked.  For the starfish to move, one of the arms must convince the other arms to move.  There is no one person in charge.  Furthermore, if you cut off the arm of a starfish, it will grow back.  If you cut off all of the arms of a starfish, they will all grow back.  The book highlights how the internet has become a breeding ground for leaderless organizations, how the Apaches managed to fend off the Spanish army for two hundred years and how organizations like AA have thrived and met the needs of millions with only a shared ideology and without a leader.  

 Our country is most familiar with centralized institutions and organizations.  Our culture has grown up with a hierarchy of power that has shaped our paridigm for designing structures, systems and strategies to effectively compete or conquer an enemy.  Our focus is largely on  the executive leadership. 

 What happens when that leadership isn’t centralized?

My frame of reference quickly went to what I’ve learned about the decentralized business model gangs employ to grow sustainable organizations within our society.  I believe they are our country’s biggest competitor when you begin to approach restoring and building communities that have become burdened with significant poverty statistics.  Without getting into the discussion of inclusion, or lack thereof, those of us in the business of community building spend countless time and brainpower trying to conceive of an organizational structure and approach to addressing poverty that will work.  What we haven’t given enough thought to is that the decentralized structure of gangs is working, and working incredibly well. Today, gangs are meeting the felt needs of our most vulnerable youth, recruiting them to join, providing for them, influencing their life habits, empowering and equipping them to lead and building  loyalty that sustains relationships. They are self organizing, provide equal access, connections and ’skin in the game’ for their membership. What if we were doing as good of a job building networks of people inside of at risk communities that were influencing their membership for the common good?   

In Fresno California, the Fresno Street Saints, Web site http://www.fresnostreetsaints.org are doing just that and are leveraging the wisdom, talent and skills of the residents themselves to build them.

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