Supporting a Thriving Forest – Network Talk

Over the course of the last year, I’ve been avidly exploring the theory and reality of what it means to build a network for social change.

This work has entailed exploring and applying principles from Network Weaving (see June Holley’s website and related published resources on the topic here) and Collective Impact (an approach describing five interconnected components for collaboration, coined by John Kania and Mark Kramer – read a bit more about it here).

Recently, I shared some of my learning and reflections with the Elora Environment Centre (EEC) in my capacity as Communications Coordinator with the Back to Nature Network (B2N). The EEC has been actively creating grassroots change for years now; consequently, I appreciated having the opportunity to hear their reactions and responses to my talk.

Below are a few excerpts from my talk.


  • Imagine that, in this dark room, where a collection of other people are gathered, there’s a person who could be the start of a fantastic new direction in the cause that you care about
  • Right now, however, you only know that you’re in a room of other people – you don’t know who they are, what they care about, or how to reach them
  • There are varying levels of awareness that you can have when you’re a part of a network of people – you might be totally in the dark, or you may not be able to see the forest of relationships because of the trees
  • You’ve probably heard the expression – ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ – before
  • Well, today, we’re going to explore how our relationships with other people can be clarified and more clearly seen
  • When we find others who care about the same causes that we care about, we want to come out of the darkness of ‘not knowing’ what the territory of our relationships with other people looks like, and start to identify our entire network of social connections
  • These are the connections which make up the rich and bio-diverse social ‘forest’ of our world


  • Today, I want us to actively explore what it looks like to build a thriving forest of interconnections where the hard work of collaboration results in big steps forward on the issues we collectively care about
  • If you look around you at the room of everyone present here tonight, you can see that we’re all like a single tree standing isolated, perhaps surrounded by concrete and very vulnerable to being cut down or a lack of water – totally separate from one another!
  • So I’m going to pretend that I’ve come to each of you to find out more about what you’re good at doing, and where you need help
  • This is the work of a ‘Network Weaver‘ – Network Weavers are people who intentionally and informally weave new and richer connections between and among people, groups, and entities in networks


  • Let’s have a quick debrief on that activity – we shifted from disconnected trees to a web of interconnected people; just look around you now at the strong interconnections with others in the room!
  • Now we are like a very strong forest – connected through our roots and able to share nutrients, water, and other life-supporting functions
  • In network building, we call this process of identifying the interconnections ‘network mapping’ – making visible our tangible, available talents and building relationships with others in the room
  • Now, networks will tend to have dense clusters of people who have more connections, contrasting with those on the periphery or ‘edges’ of the network – they have yet to be meaningfully engaged, but could offer valuable contributions
  • And in my work as a Network Weaver, I would not want to be the only one connecting everyone here over time
  • I’d want to do some peer learning to share with you my experiences of being a strong network weaver – modelling how to listen, learn, and share
  • With time, I would want to see each individual here tonight listening and connecting up people to spread capacity throughout the network


  • Now, it seems obvious that we should be working together – we hear, time and time again, the refrain to not be working in silos, to avoid reinventing the wheel, and many more
  • But – I bet that you didn’t come here to connect with anyone else in this audience
  • That’s because connecting with other people is hard work
  • It appears easier and often faster to move ahead on issues without having to seek consensus within the group
  • It’s also easier to avoid sharing your fears and thoughts transparently with others that you’re working with
  • However – there are very good reasons for working together, two of which I’ll discuss here


  • First, complex challenges, such as species extinction or disconnection from nature, are multi-faceted and require a collective response across different sectors
  • Imagine that if we remained vulnerable as a single, isolated tree, before we are all connected to the others in the room
  • We would be cut off from not only sharing our skills to build relationships – we would also be cut off from discussing our understanding of what the problem is and who is involved
  • A healthy network makes the time to collectively reflect on these questions, because sharing our own view of the problem and regularly communicating about what we’re doing can help to identify where small collaborations might start and grow to have a big impact on the problem that we’re facing


  • For example – to challenge community isolation, a self-organized group of four community members in Kitchener, Ontario, took the initiative to get together and plan the KW-Book-mo-Bike project
  • This is a cargo bicycle which acts as a community resource for groups or neighbourhoods to borrow  – they can then use it to start a conversation around any subject that the community cares about, for example, to promote literacy or talk about cycling
  • I love this example because it’s a group of people who came together informally over time – each of their meetings had concerns about community at the core, and they each wanted to bring community members together for more conversations and events
  • Their meetings were also personally enriching – one of the organizers, Liana, shared with me her experience of getting together with others in the group around a late-night camp fire, or going for a hike, while they defined different elements of the project


  • Now, a second reason for working together is funding –
  • We all know that we need money to move movements forward, and we are being asked to do more and have more impact with less available funds
  • Funding is definitely a changing landscape, with funding applications today most commonly asking ‘who else are you working with?’
  • And for good reason – networks together get things done, and the strong, positive working relationships between organizations can result in longer-term benefits to the issue or cause in which funders want to see change


  • For example, the Ontario Trillium Foundation is specifically funding collective impact approaches
  • These grants have three stages which are based on the five characteristics of the collective impact model –
  • First, organizations sharing a common cause get together to clearly articulate and define the complex issue that they aim to address
  • Second, these cross-sector partners must confirm their common agenda and develop a collective work plan, create a governance model, and identify a backbone support structure
  • Lastly, delivery and action can take place after all of the important relationships have been established and secured


  • When I connected us all together at the beginning of our gathering here today, I was acting out something that we’ve believed in organizationally at the Back to Nature Network since our inception – that we need to help facilitate connections between people to grow the movement of reconnecting children and families to nature
  • So today, in this room here, you could start to build a network by:
    • Finding one other person in the room who shares your interest in getting more people out (for example) to go hiking at the Elora Gorge Conservation Area
    • Start a small, trust-building project; say one of you has skills with social media, so you set up a Facebook Event page, while another of you offers skills in, say, ‘Forest Bathing’ (Shinrin Yoku) as the focus of the walk
    • Because of the Facebook Event page, people in the community start to connect with each other, and draw in more people with skills – for example, you decide to form a Working Group to create a video of the benefits of Shinrin Yoku in Elora Gorge Conservation Area with other people around the world
  • It’s entirely possible that as you hear this, you realize that network building is nothing new, and this has already happened in your community or personal life
  • The forward momentum in intentionally building a network comes from seeing the opportunity to work with one other person (called a ‘twosie’ in network weaving), seeing the opportunity to connect up others, and knowing how that will influence your movement and the issues you care about


  • To finish up the talk today, I’d like to leave you with one final thought:

“If we aspire to work together with others, we are already offering a hopeful and joyful note because we believe that change can happen from the grassroots locally, and that our hard work of building connections will have big results on the issues that we care about.”

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mary LeGault says:

    Thanks Maria. Very interesting, is this part of your work at RBG? You have great insight and a way of expressing it.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. marialegault says:

    Thank you for reading, and for the kind words, Grandma! Yes, this is a part of my work at RBG 🙂 I’ve got a saved copy of the live talk to share with you, too. Take care!

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