April 22, 2013

Find and Replace: Muscle Memory for Sustainability

Jargon is a fact of life.  I think it can be handy as a verbal short-hand when we're talking shop with insiders.  But I also think that it's a good idea to step back now and then to ask if our jargon words have become so comfortable that they are masking some assumptions that might deserve a second look.

Sustainable and sustainability are twin brother jargon words that deserve a second look.  I heard sustainable and sustainability so often at a recent philanthropic conference that they became distracting.  I began to listen for them and keep score of how many times I had heard them, and became so preoccupied with listening and scoring that I zoned out on the presentation.  I wondered if it was just me. But when I checked out the Communications Network's Jargon Finder, there it was, with an interesting discussion of the journey of sustainable from the domain of environmentalists and economists to the philanthropic jargon world.
Suddenly, no one wanted a sturdy or durable program any more, they wanted a sustainable one. Expenditures could no longer merely be affordable, they had to be sustainable. Skills taught in school couldn’t just be lasting, they had to be sustainable. Anything, in short, that made it past autumn’s first frost was now sustainable.
As I was listening and keeping score, I was thinking about the implications of sustainable for the big thinking on small grants world.  Each time sustainable or its twin showed up, what I heard was something about "permanence".  And often "permanence" was about something that was fixed and was expected to stay fixed - or about an organization that was good at fixing and was expected to keep fixing, whenever fixing is needed.

I do indeed appreciate the question behind the question that is being asked when people ask about sustainability.  What is the investment that we are making setting up that will continue into the future - in a way that at least maintains the change that has been achieved with the investment?  And, I also appreciate the critical role that a staffed presence - a backbone organization - can play. But what I don't get is how these interpretations of sustainability jive with my experience of community and the energy that I see at the community level when I am looking through my big thinking on small grants lens.

When I think about community and the places I've lived over my lifetime, I think about ebbs and flows, comings and goings.  People moving in and out, people more present and less present because of family obligations, job demands or personal burdens such as addictions or depression.  I think of a dynamic environment where change is the norm.  I also think about ways that communities welcome people, what the new people who are entering bring, and how community traditions make their way into community culture - that invisible "way of doing" that people learn from each other.

When I think about the big thinking on small grants world - investing in groups that people form to move an idea into action in their own community - I don't think about the anything as steady or permanent except the "way of doing" that involves people who feel powerful and have the experience of acting together.  I don't think of the same people always acting together or the same groups always in the forefront.  I think about people being invited into the action by friends and neighbors, learning what to do and seeing what is possible in themselves and with others.  I think about people who have experience with one group taking that experience to another, new or existing - inspiring action and leading the way.  I think about my own experience, comparing how things work in my personal-life world versus the world I imagine when I'm around tables with professionals.

I want to suggest that instead of striving for sustainable, we should think about helping people and communities build muscle memory for working together so that when the opportunity arises, people know how to surface ideas, form groups and move the best ideas into action using the resources that they have and can find.  Our friends at Wikipedia say that muscle memory involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, and that when a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems.  Imagine a community where people have strong active citizen muscle memory and value it enough as part of their "way of doing" that they keep it strong.  That's a community where I want to be.  It's a place where I can live my life with the peace of mind that we can handle the ebbs and flow, that there are built-in ways for new people to grab on and feel that they belong, where we understand that we need everyone - especially those who are often invisible - and where we understand the power that we have to challenge injustice and have a voice.

If we scan our language and do a search and replace - replacing sustainability with building community muscle memory, what does that really mean for how we think about our work?  What do people, groups and communities need to build their active citizen muscle memory? Here's the beginning of a list of ideas with an invitation for you to add your ideas:
  • Opportunities to work out - moving ideas into action together.  Small grants programs that are designed with a patient money, long-distance running approach rather than a time-limited quick spring approach, are great tools for expanding opportunities for people to work out in a way that builds community muscle memory.  For those who poo-poo those first small grants that support a group of neighbors with their first project - asking about the impact of this micro-investment in the big world - you might think about the importance of making the commitment to go to the gym, and actually going. That's huge.
  • Some personal trainers who inspire people to work harder by exposing them to real life stories of what is possible with a little more exercise, and provide some tip for building muscle.  These trainers could be known as friend, neighbor, teacher, young person, pastor, grassroots leader, technical assistance provider, and even program officer.
  • Storytellers who come in many shapes and sizes who provide regular reminders of who we are, how we do things, and how powerful we are when we are together so that people don't forget and that new people can learn. Storytellers might be artists, historians, photographers, poets, and journalists also known as neighbors, friends, young people, the strangers among us and people who work at powerful, permanent institutions who do their work in a way that uses stories to strengthen community muscle memory.
Join in with a comment and more ideas to add to this list.  Heading to the gym.....


  1. We hear the word a lot in international development circles as well. I think you'll enjoy this graphic Janis: http://www.how-matters.org/2012/04/18/sustainability-some-clarity-please/

  2. Yes, I love this graphic. I also love discovering once again that we are traveling down the same road and that this road is becoming a highway with all the people who are now on the journey.