Impact networks in times of unparalleled division. A (radically honest) reframe.


Co-authored by Valerie Marouche & Louisa Mammeri.

Tl;dr: This article offers a critical perspective on the increasingly popular relational approach that nonprofit and philanthropic organisations adopt in creating impact networks that drive just and sustainable solutions at scale: in times of heightened emotional activation and unparalleled division, what do international impact networks need; and/or how must they evolve to be able to lean into uncertainty and live up to the values they proclaim?

As community weavers, we draw on established network research, firsthand practice, as well as emergent and black feminist approaches to offer insights and concrete suggestions on how to improve relational work to be more meaningful. We reflect on our own setbacks and have conducted interviews with other network weavers and members to further enrich the piece with real-world examples. 

Views reflected in this article are those of the authors.

“We gnawed on stones to open a space for jasmine.”

– Mahmoud Darwish

International impact networks1 can be powerful channels for purpose-driven individuals to come together and catalyse systemic change. In recent years, building communities that convene people from various disciplines and geographies around a shared purpose has been adopted more widely, often in alignment with what is called a “relational approach” towards advancing just and sustainable solutions at scale.2 The existence of the Wasan Network, the host of this blog is, of course, a beautiful manifestation of this development.

One of the guiding principles of a relational approach is to shift away from predetermined, output-oriented transactions that reflect existing power dynamics. Instead, the aspiration is to create open, vulnerable interactions that make way for novel alliances, relationships and support systems. These in turn accelerate culture shifts, collaboration and the pooling of resources. The approach has become popular among nonprofit and philanthropic institutions, too, which often play a crucial role in providing the necessary structure, guidance and funding for impact networks operating on these principles.3 The institutional support of financially well-resourced “backbone organisations” is often determining and conditional for the success of large scale, international network efforts.4 We ourselves, as community facilitators, have been promoting and implementing relational approaches with conviction and a sense of virtue. 

However, despite tremendous potential we had long observed signals that such networks may lack the capacity to navigate real ambiguity or hold space in times of entrenched conflict. These often appeared under the guise of neutrality: many networks are rooted in systems and held by institutions that ultimately need to maintain their power and influence to ensure their survival. 

Eventually, it is often these very systems that are benefitting firstly ourselves, as facilitators and members of such networks. Even with our best intentions, most of us know this to be the case: leeway tends to be limited when challenges to the institutions we depend upon are presented. This was to be accepted in order to keep up the relational work we so strongly believe in.  

That being said, the overwhelm many networks face when dealing with their role in upholding hegemonic systems has felt at no point more urgent to us to address than in the aftermath of October 7, 2023. With the on-going, unparalleled escalation of war and assault on civilian life in Palestine, Israel and Lebanon, significant shifts in many groups’ dynamics are leaving most feeling powerless and dealing with moral injury – a response to enacting or witnessing behaviours (or the lack thereof) that go against our values and moral beliefs.5 

Like many of our peers, we observe communities losing cohesion, pausing interactions or crumbling under the pressure of their proclaimed values. We, in turn, have become shattered. Maybe it is the nature of our moment and the absurdity of our witnessing that everything feels maddening and ridiculous and yet, we feel compelled to do something. We found that it is a duty to pick up the pieces and make sense of what these international impact communities are and what they need to lean into this current uncertainty and be up to the challenge of the times.

“To tell the truth is to become
Beautiful, to begin to love yourself,
Value yourself. And that’s political,
In its most profound way.”

– June Jordan

We seek to move into sense-making because we believe that if community is “a web of mutually caring relationships around a shared purpose,” as defined by our friends at the Together Institute6, there lies critical value in keeping dialogue and communication with those who do not share some or all of our convictions. Clearly, in the unmatched words of Audre Lorde, “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist”. 7

Yes, we seek to focus on how we can move forward together. After all, our existence is fractal: our friendships reflect our communities, and our communities reflect our societies. 

Next to being community members and facilitators, we’re doing so as two women with homes in Germany, roots in the Arab world, and friends and peers from Palestine, Israel and neighbouring countries, some of whom we met through the networks we are part of. Finally, we’re doing so as two women whose worldviews have been critically informed by black feminist approaches that reject binaries, opening up space for fluidity, shape-shifting, and ambiguity. Approaches that, hence, we believe are best fit to offer us lenses through which we can look at the complex kaleidoscope of what is happening. 

We have conducted a series of interviews with members and weavers of such networks, whose insights are reflected in this piece. We are aware that language is neither innocent nor neutral, but refrain from politicising this piece to the extent possible and focus on the on-going effects the current polarisation has on impact networks. 

We will share our early observations, reflections and dive deeper into the following recommendations on how to lean into this moment of profound societal shifts and upheaval:

  1. We need to honestly assess the nature and depth of our communities.
  2. We need to acknowledge that many communities are not fit for purpose (despite having been built with this intention in mind).
  3. We need to resource community organisers.
  4. We need to hold space for grief, tension and conflict transformation.
  5. We need to stay with the trouble and take action.
  6. We need to expand our practical toolkit through emergence and the sensuous (and not just talk about it).
  7. We need to allow communities to evolve – and to fall apart.
  8. We need radical honesty.

Our hope is to create a starting point, inviting in further critique and analysis around how we can rethink impact communities and reframe relational approaches that matter in times of division. 

We need to honestly assess the nature and depth of our communities.

We are aware that the question of what constitutes a “community” instead of a “network” has been subject to on-going conversation for almost two decades8: networks operate based on connectivity and act transactionally, whereas communities operate based on care and act relationally9. However, we believe that these differences in terminology often simply portray different scales of the same organisms, and thus, that our inquiry applies to what is commonly referred to as both networks and communities. We will therefore use the terms interchangeably – and ask for forgiveness from our peers.

Regardless, any approach addressing the current level of polarisation in our communities must reflect that they are made up of human beings and the relationships between them. The divisions within communities have brought to light the depth of their connection and, potentially, the sense of purpose, or lack thereof, that holds the community together.

The act of gathering in community produces relationships, purpose and society. In the current, contentious environment, however, the ways in which gatherings are held, hosted, and facilitated have become subject to political critique, influence and symbolism. Just as the personal is political, the relationships we cultivate (in networks and beyond) and how we cultivate them, are political, too.

“All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

Being part of impact communities (and gathering as such) is thereby not only an end in itself. At times of heightened external conflict, community members may turn to their peers with the intentions: 

  1. to process grief and rage;
  2. to grapple with the tension and conflict that is activated among community members;
  3. to inspire and channel the community to take action.

Only if we honestly assess the nature and depth of our networks and relationships can we understand whether we’re capable of serving these three overarching quests that members bring to their communities. The following insights will refer back to them with observations, questions and suggestions. 

We need to acknowledge that many communities are not fit for purpose (despite having been built with this intention in mind).

At this point it feels important to recall the belief that lies at the core of our self-identification as members of impact networks: that we are “the good people” – the changemakers, culture transformers, social innovators. Our cohesion holds as long as we all sense clarity on what this means and implies. This binary culture, however, fails us once an issue appears to be less clear-cut. 

Networks that demand neutrality or positivity to keep their core intact appeared to be overwhelmed by the current, high degree of emotional activation and trauma. Often, differences have been put aside in a concerted effort to not confront any issue that risks dividing the group, placing the community’s “survival” as its main priority – even at the risk of undermining its core purpose, resulting in a potential failure of the community to live up to its values. We must accept that such communities may simply not be ready to address polarising themes.

Distractions, such as focusing on unrelated issues or events, have initially helped such communities bypass conflict and avoid issues that pose a threat to coherence. Holding on to what has successfully created belonging, such as shared past experiences or adherence to a collective aspiration, can be another strategy to dissolve the cognitive dissonance members may carry. This, however, demands an active effort from all members to not disrupt the group, even if affected by the issue – acknowledging that it asks individuals to separate personal beliefs and needs from what is commonly agreed upon.

At first glance, this might prove successful for the community to survive, but it comes with a risk that members are not living up to their times and responsibility, and rather engage in what we may call “hopeful complicity” – waiting for the issue to resolve itself with a positive outcome without adopting any agency in the matter. Meanwhile, members who feel alienated by the group’s distraction or neutrality might leave or silently withdraw to other groups in which they feel more held in their reality. 

We need to resource community organisers.

As impact networks, we contend our aspiration should be to evolve to higher levels of capability that manifest long-lasting systemic change. This requires networks to not bypass the frictions that underpin the polarisation observed within ourselves, as well as in the community.

In seeking to achieve such growth collectively, it is critical not to assume that, on its own – just because a network is made up of highly intelligent people with a deep sense of care toward each other – the community has the capacity to hold the enormous emotional shock and trauma caused. This is essential as such shock is often felt viscerally and physically, affecting how we communicate and process information.

As many others working in the field of community organising, we ourselves are trained and culturally sensible facilitators with extensive experience. Additionally, community leadership in any form consistently requires us to do the inner work of reflecting on our own biases, anxieties and blindspots.10 Still, few of us are trauma-specialised psychologists or experts in conflict transformation. It is pivotal to acknowledge where we, as community weavers, are insufficiently equipped to hold members safely and effectively, and therefore invaluable to both further resource those who lead the community, while at the same time inviting in external expertise. 

This includes involving trauma-informed facilitators, mediators or psychologists that can guide us, e.g., in communicating effectively and/or regulating our nervous systems. Other methodologies such as Lewis Deep Democracy, can further help look for the wisdom of minorities, who often carry a deep understanding of oppressive structures due to their own experience of marginalisation. 

As in all relationships, the maturity and resilience of our communities lies in our ability to deal with and move through conflict, instead of brushing over dissent. Effectively resourcing the community and employing adequate methodologies and tools will therefore ultimately determine the relevance and longevity of our networks. 

We need to hold space for grief, tension and conflict transformation.

In traumatic periods, individuals turn to their communities to find spaces to process, grieve and mourn. Validating emotions, when held in the right way, can become a healing collective experience. As community organisers it is our chance, in the horror we’re living, to at least lessen pain and suffering.

For communities seeking to meet the need for processing, we want to propose several, minimal-baseline principles that can elevate the communicative and relational infrastructure among members:

  1. (Re-)introduce and role model a practice of active listening and non-violent communication to proactively create an inclusive space.
  2. If setting guidelines, remain of utmost care and weariness to prevent perceptions of censorship.
  3. Do not tolerate the further spread of hatred and immediately call out hate speech or other demonstrations of discrimination and racism. 

At the same time, holding space carries inherent risks when, inversely, it is not facilitated responsibly. These risks include re-traumatizing, for example when the tone of the interactions is accusatory or affected members are delegitimized in their experience. It must be a non-negotiable aspiration to not inflict further experiences of exclusion or silencing through the community’s engagement. Similarly, such risks may manifest when members are invited to drop into their grief without being offered means to engage in healthy release, constructive conflict or generative action. 

Engaging in conflict within the community then presents several, partially paradoxical challenges:

  1. Sensibly determining what works for this community right now: It remains crucial to re-emphasise the high variability of needs across different communities. We need to process our collective grief and we need to engage in conflict to move forward – but those don’t necessarily belong in the same space and often require an initial moment of pause. While local communities have introduced daily neighbourhood check-ins and spiritual communities have held interfaith prayers, international networks often came together in circle practice or created spaces to educate and learn together. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. 
  2. Understanding how to role model respect for all lived experiences: Considering the significant trauma (both present and past) that has been activated in affected individuals, this sometimes implied that international communities held separate spaces of processing, i.e., one for Israelis and Jewish people, and another one for Palestinians and Arabs, before bringing them together. Simultaneously, it is important we also acknowledge the different levels of distress in the community. Not all members will feel equal amounts of tension, upset and disappointment due to varying degrees of personal connection and emotional affect to the subject of division. Yet, the onus of highlighting injustice must not sit only with those who are affected.
  3. Practising mindfulness where appropriate, but without shutting down authentic expressions of anger and grief: There is a delicate balance to maintain in advocating for mindfulness while acknowledging that overly simplistic calls for peace or meditations on unity have the potential to lead to further, sore sentiments of invalidation, ignorance, betrayal and erasure. To put this bluntly, we can’t expect people to meditate while their own, their families’ and/or colleagues’ homes are being bombed or their friends are taken hostage. 
  4. Calling out white fragility, with compassion: We should not allow feelings of discomfort that white people might experience when they witness discussions around racial inequality and injustice take centre stage and deflect from the cause at hand. We need to acknowledge that systems of oppression are inherent in our own existence. While doing so, we need to however be wary of excluding, or worse, pushing those people who are still grappling with this notion to the outskirts or outside of the community. We must remain alert to the injustices we are witnessing and take action within the realm of our possibility, while keeping humility and detaching from operating in ego-driven mindsets. 11
  5. Strengthening inner work: We need to find healthy and sustainable ways for all members of the community to process the wide variety of emotions that are felt, without repressing them–including, again, simplified calls for peace and moving on. Thereby, we can at least attempt to effectively funnel these emotions into behavioural changes. This likewise encompasses acknowledging and facing our own shortcomings and mistakes. However well-intentioned we are in origin, we must build awareness that these very intentions may be informed by our blind spots. 
  6. Encouraging storytelling, embodied practice and allowing members to take it back to their personal experience: Especially in communities less directly affected, storytelling, embodiment exercises and processing of personal experience can actively support members in moving through the discomfort they’re experiencing over their own emotions (especially guilt, shame, moral injury or helplessness).

We need to stay with the trouble and take action.

Beyond a doubt, engaging with deep friction and divisions in the group – in consideration of the aforementioned challenges – will be a taxing, demanding and exhausting process for any community. Offering pathways forward where appropriate, instead of disconnecting from what’s happening on the ground, can help us regain a sense of agency. When doing so, we must allow the conflict among members to surface while at the same time staying in connection. Indeed, there will be no healing without engaging with the division and tension in our communities.

Our discomfort should therefore not be a reason to shut down authentic expression, so long as it does not infringe others’ rights and dignity. Alas, we are human. Unhealthy expressions can and most likely will surface and consequently be perceived as hostile or undignified, sometimes causing community members to exit group conversations or lose faith in the integrity of the community entirely. 

In these moments, we are convinced it is important that we stay with the trouble. Sometimes, it is helpful to slow down (not halt) the pace in which we interact, and, as facilitators and members, revisit the patterns that we recognize in ourselves and others (e.g. hopes, desires, emotions). This act of going deeper into our relational architecture, Collin Dobbs suggests, opens up some space in which we can step back and “allow ourselves a little grace”12:  meaning that we stay engaged in conflict transformation and assert that even if we don’t have the answers now, we can at least openly state this overwhelm, live and struggle with the questions and iterate towards possible solutions – however distant and out of reach they may appear at present. 

In short, if there is but one demand the times pose to us, it is that we must not be lazy and look away. Halting engagement once the going gets tough would altogether defy the raison d’être of our networks. Only by staying and working towards shared understandings will we solidify our relationships and, more importantly, be able to collaborate toward alleviating and ending suffering. 

We need to expand our toolkit through emergence and the sensuous (and not just talk about it).

If our communities are to not fall apart, if we are to somehow move through conflict and evolve by doing so, the shift that the predicament of our time demands is enormous: we are not only asked to hold complexity, paradox and uncertainty, but eventually to embrace our non-dual identity as representatives and inherent parts of an oppressive system. How, possibly, could we make this shift? 

Audre Lorde13 famously wrote that “the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house,” if our aim is to bring about lasting change. 

Alongside many others, we contend that, instead of the Master’s tools, it is emergent practice and strategy14 that has the capacity to hold pain and grief as well as possibility and hope, illuminating the cracks of our humanity that exist as a repository of imagination towards what can be built anew, if we want it so. Working with emergence gives us tools to grasp that change and transience are the only constants in life – and maybe that nothing is of value forever. 

Offering artistic and sensuous means of generative expression such as poetry, playfulness, intuition, stillness, warmth, passion, beauty15 – allowing creative cries for justice to pour out of our broken hearts – might seem trivial. But in reality it might be a poem or song that can hold us accountable to our shared humanity much more than an essay ever could, even if it is not the end-all, be-all strategy.

“Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down.”

– Mahmoud Darwish

Generative expression can serve as a means of strengthening that which reaches beyond our own immediate experience as a community and as a means of strengthening that which is a critical addition to enhance our primarily Europatriarchal ways of knowing. 

In the words of adrienne maree brown, this means overcoming that “many of us have been socialised to understand that constant growth, violent competition, and critical mass are the ways to create change. [.] emergence shows us that adaptation and evolution depend more upon critical, deep, and authentic connections, a thread that can be tugged for support and resilience.” 

While such ideas and language have become popularised in many of the communities we know, we tend to observe a severe lag in practical implementation that moves beyond jargonising and too-often-empty words. Some strategies to bridge this gap are illustrated in Blomkamp, Snow and Burkett’s piece, “From mouthset to mindset shifts in co-creating systems change.”16 

Still, many of us are diving head first into collecting more cognitive insight as a means to rationalise instead of internalising that it’s perhaps our emotional, embodied intelligence that will take us where we need to go. We need to expand our practical toolkits of navigating beyond those methods that were and continue to be informed by the beliefs and behaviours that got us into this current, messy reality in the first place.

We need to allow communities to evolve–and to fall apart.

Lastly, communities can consciously invite in transience in order to elevate their reason for being and purpose. 

Some communities have adaptability built into their DNA and might withstand extreme polarisation by being unafraid of allowing people to exit and enter. Such open systems and agile constellations can find inspiration in the organisation of ecovillages or indigenous communities, e.g. in East Africa with an underlying premise of “we part to meet and meet to part” (Mugove Walter Nyika)17

Adaptability then not only refers to composition, but also to the core of what binds a group together. In fact, such communities incorporate newness and let go of what and who does not fit its purpose any longer, evolving with what is present. 

Acknowledging the evolutionary nature of a community may be the key to fostering long-term relevance. In perceiving community purpose, strategy and composition as constantly evolving, borrowing the “Ecocycle Planning” tool from Liberating Structures18 can help shine light on what elements are ripe for creative destruction and thereby create space for renewal of the community.

Liberating Structures: Ecocycle Planning.
Co-developed by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz. Creative Commons License.

All of that being written, our observations and experience leads us to believe that not every network is meant to last. If a community’s foundation is so unfit for the challenges of our time and requires such significant transformation that it is rendered almost unrecognisable, ultimately, we need to allow it to fall apart.

Particularly when networks rarely plan or design for their own failure or irrelevance, it may help to remember that what applies to friendships or marriages also applies to communities – foreverness is a fallacy.

One of the frameworks of systems change that, we find, best illustrates this recognition of “death” and “decay” is Margaret Wheatley’s and the Berkana Institute’s “Two Loops Model”19: In recognising that dominant systems and paradigms can and will die, it asks us to find dignifying ways of offering hospice to what dissolves. Drawing inspiration from nature, we find that a transformative power lies dormant in the act of falling into smaller pieces and dissolving.

Illustration by Robinson, C. (2019). 20

Like mycelium breaking down matter into nourishment that it distributes through its intricate network, what’s dying can serve as seeds for what is coming next. Mycelial networks do this process without forgetting about the old. They foster intergenerational relationships by tapping into “ancient wisdom and connections that reside in older trees to benefit younger trees”.21 Knowing that valuable learnings and experiences remain stored in the networks’ relationships offers perhaps solace, if we support dissolution with care and intention. 

However, we also do not want to rule out a more sombre, less theorised outcome: we don’t know if, when and how impact networks that are ill-prepared for the task might fall apart. 

We do observe that some have become silent or muted. Others have stopped mentioning the issue that has polarised the groups. Many members are left disappointed and withdraw to more familiar groups or identity-based coalitions, imposing the question of what were to happen if, despite the potential for a paradigm shift, for a renewed, stronger core, we are left with something that in fact comes closer to “nothing”, a hollower version of the old paradigm – as the new paradigm? 

The question remains if we can trust this process enough to stay with it, even if it looks like it’s falling apart. 

We don’t have an answer, of course. But we know that if it is “the love of community that makes us work tirelessly with broken hearts” (adrienne maree brown), we feel that we owe it to ourselves to not let hollower versions of old paradigms become a plausible outcome for the challenge of our times. 

We pay gratitude to Gigi Hepp, Mohamed El Mongy and Pelin Turgut for their time in exploring these themes with us in preparation of the article, as well as to Clara Polina Vogt and Gigi Hepp for sharing their thoughts on earlier drafts. Many others have contributed but prefer to not be named.

About the authors

Valerie Marouche is a Berlin-based experience designer, facilitator, community weaver and strategist. She previously forged partnerships and co-created a global impact network for a corporate foundation, where she was also part of designing and realising a variety of transformative leadership programs. Her independent work sits at the intersection of social transformation, creative, embodied practice and human connection – focusing on supporting social and environmental causes. A lifelong desire to make people feel present and alive led her to co-found o jardim, a residency where creatives of all disciplines, ages and cultures come together to pause and experiment with novel ways of being and creating. She remains connected to the field of philanthropy as a freelance consultant and active member of various international impact and practitioner communities, such as the Wasan Network.

Louisa Mammeri is a Berlin-born and currently Bangkok-based community weaver that works towards more integrated and transformative ways of knowing and doing through relational approaches. She has previously helped re-ignite and cultivate a network of leaders from different disciplines in North Africa and West Asia for a corporate foundation. Whilst staying closely connected to this and other international impact networks, she now fosters organisational learning through community building at the United Nations in the Asia-Pacific. Her underlying belief is: By cultivating spaces in which, liberated from established hierarchies, we weave signals from the margins and non-obvious partners into learning communities, we have the potential to craft new narratives that help us reframe large scale transitions of our time. The views represented in this article are her own.

Epilogue: We need radical honesty.

Earlier versions of this article were shared with a few trusted peers for reflections and comments. One of the most resonant pieces of feedback was that “all the time reading, I wished you had the courage to be more provocative and not actually scared of offending the people in your circles.” 

The final version had subsequently been edited for more honesty. Indeed, we believe that radical honesty may be the last, most crucial ingredient that relational work in the space of international impact networks needs today.

If nothing else, we believe that there must be value in openly acknowledging our failures. Now that the inadequacies of our networks have been named and laid bare, sometimes painfully so, we can let go of overly hopeful and romanticised understandings of what relational work entails. 

In their place, space was freed up to get to the bottom of what went wrong and what relational work and collective liberation really ask of us: to, at minimum, internalise that without conflict, there will be no healing. To deeply come to terms with our roles in upholding harmful systems. To acknowledge that community work in its current form, as our attempt to overcome such systems, might itself be ephemeral. To remember that we cannot claim to know what awaits us on the other side of transformation, only make sense of the path that might take us there. To accept that relational work isn’t infallible and that instead of itself being the future we envision, it is just one of the building blocks on our way. 

At the same time, space was freed up for agency. We need to take this moment unwaveringly seriously and accept that our success depends entirely on our ability to learn from this failure, and to forgive each other and ourselves. We can only do so by committing to a better, a bolder move forward. As the authors, more radical honesty was our personal first step.


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