Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with Pamela Mang

Tap into the wisdom of Pamela Mang, who is, along with her colleagues at the Santa Fe firm Regenesis, actively partnering people and their place to regenerate ecosystems and the human spirit.

By Amy Nelson

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Principal/Designer, Regenesis Group

Pamela Mang spoke with us from her office at Regenesis Group. This innovative firm, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, offers an array of services to help clients “understand the land…engage the community…design in harmony with place” and “speak to the future.” A founding member of Regenesis, Pamela draws on 25 years in management consulting experience specializing in Living Systems Thinking and human development processes. She has worked in cross-cultural settings with up to five different nationalities at a time, helping people develop a common “language” based on systems thinking frameworks that facilitate cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary communication and collaboration. Her experience includes community relations, leadership and team development, design and implementation of effective meeting processes, strategic and operational planning, marketing and public relations. Pamela holds an undergraduate degree in International Relations and the Economics of Development from Stanford University. She did post-graduate work at Columbia University’s China Institute and was a founder of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

Can you tell me more about the phrase “…partnering people and their place to regenerate ecosystems and the human spirit,” which appears on the Regenesis web site? This sounds like a lofty mission. Can you tell me a little more about what this means and when you first started to think that it was possible?

Let’s start with the second part of your question. History says to us over and over again that it is not only possible — it is essential. The question that should entertain us is: why is it not possible today in Western culture? It’s not an equation of whether it is possible or not, it is simply our role, and we must return to it.

It might be helpful to unpack some of the key concepts in that phrase. At the heart is the concept of place, the hook on which all of the rest hangs. Place is intimate, personal, filled with meaning and potential. It grows out of the rich interrelationship of earth energies, biotic energies, and human cultural energies to create a living whole with its own distinctive nature and spirit. When we experience where we live and work as such a place, it becomes a powerful source for the continuing caring required to sustain sustainability.

Place is where we – Regenesis – see ourselves working. We never think of ourselves as working on a project or a problem per se. We view whatever project we’ve been called in on as an invitation to engage with the ecological, social and geographic whole that gives meaning and significance to, and is the source of potential for that project. The project then becomes an instrument for enabling the whole of its place to move to a richer and healthier expression of life. And in turn, a healthier whole grows the viability and vitality of the part (be it a river restoration or a housing development). And working in place, we work with people who, whether collectively or individually, are seeking to create or recreate a new way of being in their place. In many ways, I think it’s very similar with your readership. You don’t do restoration on a global, abstract scale; you do it in a place.

We’re starting to see more and more people writing and speaking to this notion of place, with increasing recognition of how critically important it is to sustainability. We see working in place as a gift, but only if we consciously recognize and hold it as the context and focus of all our work.

Unfortunately, we’re losing our places because we have divided them into abstractions called economies, cultures, societies and environments. Wendell Berry, a powerful but undervalued voice in our field, writes about the danger of abstraction:

“The evil of the industrial economy, capitalist or communist, is the abstractness inherent in its procedures – its inability to distinguish one place or person or creature from another… Abstraction is the enemy wherever it is found. The abstractions of sustainability can ruin the world just as surely as the abstractions of industrial economies. Local life may be as much in danger by those who would save the planet as by those who would conquer the world, for saving the planet calls for abstract purposes and central powers that cannot know, and thus will destroy, the integrity of local nature and local community.”

One of the biggest sources of hazard for the sustainability movement is that we still have not figured out how to sustain sustainability. The landscape is littered with wonderful projects that got started with full energy and lots of expertise and over time they gradually drifted into monotony and the spirit went out of them. How do we create the kind of spirit around our work that taps into a powerful enough source of caring that we can continue it and continuously regenerate it? How do we really tap into the wisdom that local cultures embody to work more effectively on the restoration projects, the development projects, etc.? This has tremendous implications for this issue of stakeholders.

By seeing the ultimate aim of all our work as the regeneration and evolution of increasingly vital, viable and inspiriting places, we can reverse this loss. The good work we can do needs to be done in place, where we can experience ourselves as being connected with and relevant to the natural and social world in which we live, as playing a meaningful role as co-creators. When we allow ourselves to be touched by the spirit of a place, we come alive. That is a source of power for us that can enable a continuing caring, as well as a source of local wisdom.

So part of the gift of working in place is tapping into a source of caring, of spirit. Another part is we can be more intelligent in how we care for our biotic and social communities. Berry notes that “You can’t act locally by thinking globally. No one can make ecological good sense for the planet, but everyone can make ecological good sense locally if the affection, the scale, the knowledge, the tools and the skills are right.”

He further writes that “No human being will ever write a manual for how to operate spaceship Earth. That manual is being written by thousands upon thousands of local cultures.” The notion is that culture, if it’s a culture of place, is a repository for the memory of how to live appropriately in that place. When we lose local cultures, we lose that understanding and knowledge and we end up relying on abstractions and scientific principles and expertise that further separate the average citizen from their place and the feeling they make a difference.

The next key concept in the phrase is partnering. Place gives us a context for understanding our role as humans on the planet, and it’s really as a partner. For us it’s not just partnering to try to fix things or solve problems. We’re partnering because together we can create something of a much greater order of abundance. Partnering creates an entirely different mindset about how we think about our relationship to nature. As in a human relationship, good partners really understand each other at an essence level. Being a partner to our place requires appreciating and understanding the essence and potential of that place as a whole—its ecological as well as social dimensions, and what it can become if enabled to fully express that essence. When we understand that, we can see who we need to be in relation to that place, what our potential is.

Being a partner in evolution requires regenerative work. Living systems are so elegantly sustainable through time. They have, inherent to them, the capacity for continuously regenerating their life generating capacities and presence. So our work as partners aims to restore those capacities when they are missing or disrupted, whether in ecological or human living systems. A big part of that is finding ways to continuously, consciously regenerate ourselves and our thinking, to continuously see ourselves and our place in new ways, with new possibilities.

Finally, as to regenerating human spirit, even if we are called in to deal with a problem, we don’t start there. We start with a process envisioning a way to be in this place given an understanding of what it can become. When you lift up and engage people with that way of being as a possibility, they start from a different plane than if they started at the issue or problem, and with a new spirit.

Can you tell me briefly about Living Systems Thinking?

It’s a way of thinking, but it’s even more deeply about a way of being. Let’s look at systems thinking vs. conventional thinking. Conventional thinking is based on using our five senses to gather data. When this is the source of our thinking, we’re trapped in a world made up of separate physical objects, because that’s the way our senses perceive the world. We’re looking at something that has already come into existence and is now in a process of decay or degeneration. This elemental thinking is good for fixing problems. But if we’re continuously fixing problems, we’re never participating in creating something new into existence. And if we can’t “see” the larger systemic dynamics that are creating the problems, we can’t see what’s sourcing the problem or what are the systemic consequences of our solutions.

Systems thinking is much closer to understanding how the universe actually works, but it requires a different mind to “see” that reality. When we look through the elemental mind we see a world of things. When we look through the systems mind, which is our imaging mind, we “see” dynamic sets of interrelationships and patterned flows of energy that are continuously evolving toward increasing levels of complexity. We recognize the complexity and richness of life.

Living systems thinking shares that aspect of systems thinking, but unlike the cybernetics branch of systems thinking as a discipline, it is more focused on understanding how life works in a specific situation than on being more systemic in solving our problems. Living systems thinking enables us to align ourselves more effectively with the evolution that is going on (or wanting to go on) around us so we can enable, rather than disenable it. Most of the time we get in the way of nature’s desire to continue to evolve, but if we can understand better how that works, that’s when we can become effective partners.

You talked about tapping into the wisdom that exists in a place through interviews. How do you find people to interview, and how do you engage them?

We want to tap into whatever wisdom still exists in a place as a source of thinking about whatever evolution we’re trying to encourage. We track down the people who are sometimes the least likely to be considered because they are far from the realm of “expert.” They are usually the curmudgeons and characters, the grandmothers or grandkids who have sat at the grandmother’s knee and heard stories about a place. Even in the most disruptive and dysfunctional places, it’s amazing how many of these sources you can find. If you start to tap into that, you do two things. One: by appreciating them you start to reawaken in that place a remembering of who we are and what this place is. You also begin to gather an understanding of the place as a whole – what its path in the past has been and where it can be. This reshapes how you think about working with that place.

I think of it as a series of conversations, each of which ripples outward. We start by developing an understanding the place—landscape and community as a living entity. Then we work with the client to get a sense of what is at the core of the project. When you put those two together, you begin to see where the opportunities are for real engagement. If, for example, it touches on marine life, we ask, what’s traditionally been the relationship of this culture and economy with the sea? Who is still around who makes their living that way or had relatives who did? In the St. Mary’s River Watershed in Maryland, we ended up finding a project at the University that had documented stories of the old waterman culture through taped interviews. This became a tremendous resource for us that led to many contacts. Many communities have people doing that kind of work.

As to how we engage them, we have to understand what the new, more holistic sciences are saying over and over again—that there is no way we can be an expert given the complexity of the way life works on the planet. Scientists can sometimes get caught in the trap of expertise. We try to start from a place of humility and a deep appreciation for the wisdom of place that comes from people who have lived and worked in place. When you approach people from that perspective, 99% of the time we find that people come alive. In most communities, people who hold this wisdom are largely overlooked because they are not seen as experts, they don’t have scientific language, and they don’t have positions of power. But they have a deep wisdom. Most people come to them to ask, “What’s your opinion on whether this should be this way or that way?” as opposed to starting with, “How does this place work? How have you seen it change over time? What is really critical for it being a healthy place to be?” Then, we bring the sciences in and adapt them to enable the evolution of that place. So the first step is recognizing these are not people we have to somehow “include.” They are the sources of new potential. They will have insights that we will never have coming from the outside. If we know how to ask the questions, we can unlock that wisdom and in the process, tap into their spirit.

Our readers are involved in conservation planning, ecological restoration and regenerative design. All of these types of work are processes. Stakeholder engagement is also a process. How should these processes overlap?

The question implies those are separate. Regeneration, which is a way of working, embraces them all. From the very beginning, we try to work in a way that is regenerating our understanding and other people’s understanding of a place. That can begin to build the capacity within the community to see new spirit and new potential in this place. The same thing is true with the biotic communities. Our overall aim for any work is, as stated earlier, “the regeneration and evolution of increasingly vital, viable and inspiriting places,” and that can only be accomplished if people have a stake in that aim. Stakeholder engagement is an essential component throughout, though its form changes as appropriate.

What about when this wisdom is conflicting? Our readers seemed frustrated with situations such as public meetings, where there can be many dissenting voices.

I think large community meetings and surveys are the least effective methods of engaging stakeholders. Large scale visioning processes end up with long, unintegrated lists of things, which further fragment and continue to make more abstract people’s connection to their place. Many communities have lost their civic processes, so people have no place to take the issues around which they’ve built energy. Any forum then becomes an opportunity to let loose that energy that’s been growing in them. When you begin with problems or issues, everyone starts from the world of division and separation.

[We use] the concept of “kitchen table conversations”– but never in an abstract way. It’s always holding the notion of partnering, going to someone because you honestly believe they have some insight and wisdom to share. You use the process of the conversation to help deepen an appreciation for and reawaken a connection to their place and what’s really at the core of that place…what really touches their heart about it and that vitalizes the larger process.

Frustration often results when we’re fixed on moving something forward. We have a job to do, a contract, a timeline, a problem to solve, and we’re the ones who know how to do it. If we start with that mindset, it is guaranteed to lead to frustration. People pick up on that and the situation will continue to deteriorate. If there is no way to avoid these large meetings at the beginning, then you must come with a very deep sense of compassion for this community as a whole, and for the people who stand up and speak. Try to hold the fact that, here’s somebody who cares. Here’s somebody who has energy about something. So let that steam blow off, and then come back around to them – not in the meeting, but individually – and express, “you are someone who has a lot of energy about this. We’d love to talk to you some more.” If they really aren’t connected and this was purely a forum for them to blow off steam on an unrelated issue, they’re going to melt away. But if you look at your project as working on the whole of the place, what seems unrelated may be a source of new potential.

Let me give you an example. We were recently asked to do a farm plan for a National Park Service monument, a trading post, that wanted to revive the original farm that had been abandoned decades ago. They recognized the need to connect with the local Native American community, and they wanted to find a way to make it self-supporting. They said, if you can create a farm plan, we’ll get a farmer from the local community to farm it and he can make a living and we’ll have our living museum. We said no, you can’t do that because you will continuously have to put new energy and resources into it if it’s treated as an isolated element of the larger community. Let’s step back and look at the whole that this is a part of. We started talking to a few people in the community, looking for what were the sources of energy, where you could really feel that people had commitment and excitement and were actively working to create something positive for their community. And we asked, how can those “nodes” or “attractor points” be connected into a web that both used and served this farm?

We found a teacher at the high school who was working with Future Farmers of America to connect kids to more traditional, agricultural ways. A woman [at the local hospital] had started a diabetes education program. One part of that program was to shift diet, and she was hoping to get people gardening again. Instead of seeing them as separate from the farm, we began to talk to them about what they were trying to do and together we painted a picture where the farm became a source of energy and opportunity for each of their programs. They then began to connect to each other in terms of how they could support each other in what they were doing. We didn’t even start the farm plan until all of those initial connections had been made. Out of those conversations emerged a farm plan that could actually serve as a place for kids to carry out the kinds of agricultural practices and for the hospital to engage people in growing native crops and learning to change their diets. And now community institutions had a stake in maintaining the farm. Essentially, it created a whole new system around the farm that helped revitalize the sense of connection to that place and an agricultural tradition.

Cost was another obstacle to stakeholder engagement cited by many of our readers. On the Regenesis web site, you mention that one of the results of engaging the community is a “decrease in process costs and approval time.” How do you assure people that the cost they must outlay for stakeholder engagement is worth it and then some?

We’ve consistently found this to be true. Engaging people in the community in a way that they see a whole new set of possibilities for what they care about helps, but it’s not the only source. We start with connecting ourselves, and through that process anybody who gets involved with the project, with a much deeper understanding of who this place is, how it works and how we can live in it in a way that seeds itself toward increasing health. The case that gets made as a result of that is so much more extensive, grounded and whole, that when it’s presented to regulators, it goes beyond what they were expecting. It usually ends up educating them about the fact that their regulations are limited and aren’t actually going to be helpful in terms of the larger evolution that’s possible.

Most regulations are intended to limit and stop harmful behavior. Harmful behavior is identified when a problem comes up. The problem is a result of a past set of conditions. So we’re constantly working on the past instead of creating a future. We help people see that if we focus on creating the future, the problems get fixed and they get fixed much more effectively and permanently. So it’s both the wholeness of the understanding of that place and the focus on its potential, combined with the way we have engaged people that creates a difference.

We have heard that you are not afraid to get personal, and that you have been known to spend time in a client’s home to better understand what motivates him/her on a personal level. You mentioned “kitchen table conversations.” Say you’re working on a master plan for a university, and you want to engage residents, students, faculty, etc., how can you conduct such intimate conversations with so many people and different types of people?

Part of it is how you structure it from the beginning. The other part of if it is what you are having those conversations around. If you’re starting off the conversations at the traditional, architectural programming level, which is “what are all of the functions you need or want to be doing in the future and therefore what’s needed?” you are in the world of things, which is where we have most of our arguments. It’s the state of mind and being that you bring into this that can shift how people engage with it. It’s so critical. It feels subtle to people, yet when they experience this, it’s makes an enormous difference. Rather than looking at the university as a collection of things—buildings, infrastructure, classrooms, etc., it’s getting people to think about what’s really the essence of this university as a living system. Why have you come to this university to teach here, be a student here, to be an administrator here? What is it that is really core to this place, and how has that touched you? What’s the core set of qualities that make this place really special? That’s what we call looking for the essence of the place, and that then becomes the source for reconciling differences.

In development we often get lost in fascination with all of the do-dads, the physical amenities and lose what a place really is about. Development becomes a continuous process of small compromises as we start with an ideal and then meet the physical reality. When we are working with a collective appreciation of what core to a project and a place, what is real, we can find creative reconciling solutions. So you start with connecting people at a spirit and essence level with what needs to be preserved and enhanced for the university as a whole to evolve its distinct identity and ability serve all its stakeholders.

You don’t have to go out and touch everybody. If you start with a few key people and small groups, they seed the larger field with that renewed sense of connection because it is so inspiriting they can’t not share it. If you think about yourself as creating an energy field that’s most conducive to being creative and being able to help this place express its nature more fully, then it’s almost like you don’t have to do the work. The people you engage in that way become sources of that way of being in the place. When they go out and connect with people, they’re starting to bring new eyes and new experiences of that place. Then you can move to your larger meeting – once that energy shift is starting to occur. It continues to grow. It’s what brings a place alive ultimately.

So if you are working in a place in which you want to tap into the local wisdom of many and reignite the human spirit, it’s okay to start small?

I would say it’s not just okay. It’s the only practical way to actually work on it — particularly if there has already been pre-established divisions and dissentions. What we’re working on is changing who we are in that place. That’s a much deeper process that requires real engagement. It may take longer but it’s much longer lasting and more profound transformation occurs out of that.

It’s also good to hear, because our readers consistently cited cost and manpower as obstacles to engaging stakeholders.

It has enormous rewards. You’re looking for those repositories of local wisdom. You’re also looking to engage people in a regenerated image of how to be in this place. You’re then looking to connect people to a deeper understanding of what their role can be. So you engage students not for their opinions about how many walkways are needed. You start by saying, “If this is what this place is about and what it could become if it were really whole and generative for all its members, what’s the role the student plays? How would you want to be invited in to play? What would enable you to play that role?”

David Orr talks about the difference between residents and inhabitants, and that all residency requires “is cash and a map.” We have a lot of residents in our society these days. If we can help them change into inhabitants, with a deep sense of affection, understanding and caring, it immediately shifts the whole conversation and the way we can work together.

I’m assuming, then, that you would consider those initial conversations to be the most effective way to engage stakeholders. Is that true?

Yes. One-on-one or small group conversations that are not about soliciting opinions, but about tapping into the wisdom and awakening caring and a sense of possibility. It’s coming and saying, “We’re working on something important. Work with us.” It’s a process of co-commitment. That, to me, is what ‘engage’ means.

There’s a wide venue of options for reengaging people with their place as something they care about and want to play a role in. Art, storytelling and poetry, for example. Children are also an extraordinary way to engage a community. If you have an opportunity to work with a school or after school group to create a subsystem of your project that’s an educational opportunity for kids, they go back and talk to their parents. You suddenly have these little seeds spreading out into the community. In working on restoring an eroding city arroyo, we partnered with a neighboring elementary school. We hired an environmental educator to take the kids through a parallel process to what we were doing. They did an assessment and presented it to parents at the school. Then they developed a conceptual master plan and did a modeling of that. It was a magical process.

You have worked with many different cultures in many different countries. Is there anything in particular we can learn from another cultures regarding stakeholder engagement?

If I were to say a culture that we could learn from, I would say look to the growing understanding of how indigenous people and communities work with place. We’ve tended to either dismiss or romanticize that relationship, but there is beginning to be a body of work by Westerners and indigenous scholars that is translating that into terms we can actually understand from our Western mind. There’s a book called 1491: Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, which is an amazing depiction of what the world looked like before Columbus and what an extraordinarily human-shaped landscape it was. The Amazon basin as we know it today was greatly shaped by human intervention. M. Kat Anderson wrote a book called Tending the Wild: Native American Management of California’s Natural Resources, which is a very detailed study of how California native Americans worked in partnership to create the abundance of the landscape we know as California out of a deep understanding of how those places work as well as appreciation of them. If we can begin to understand the power of playing that role, I think we will be better able to shape models that are appropriate to our modern day world but carry that underlying patterning of reciprocal and inspiriting relationships.

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