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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Building Bridges

I have been thinking a lot about what it means to lead. As an Executive Director I am always asking myself what am I trying to do? What do I want to inspire and how do I do that?

Recently having attended two education conferences, the NW Holistic Education Conference on Orcas Island at Salmonberry School and the AERO conference in Portland, I have begun to deeply participate in the question, what does being a leader even mean? I met many people at the conference who are trying to create the change they wish to see in the world. As I listened to their experiences and desires, passions and concerns, an idea began to take root and it has grown in me over the last few weeks. It is this: I am not a leader, I am a builder.

A bridge is built by first identifying a need; then forming a plan for the bridge, what kind of bridge will it be?; and when it comes time to build the bridge, you start with a fixed point on one side, but the other side is variable (you never know exactly where the bridge will land on the other side until you start to build it). A new and dear friend commented to me at the conference, “Oh, you are a bridge builder!” And then that little idea suddenly exploded into a tree.

The need: a fundamental change in the way people relate to themselves and the other people in their lives. A need to be in relationship to consciousness, to allow its un-obstructed manifestation through each of us, as each of us.

The bridge: is Natural Learning Relationships, no question.

Where we start: here, now, with what we have.

Then, I was invited to join all of you here, on the Cooperative Catalyst, to “change education as we speak”. I spent the first few weeks reading posts and getting to know this place. While reading, I came across this post reference where a man named Umair Haque wrote The Builder’s Maifesto and I was struck. In it he says: “Here’s the problem in a nutshell. What leaders “lead” are yesterday’s organizations. But yesterday’s organizations are broken. Today’s biggest human challenge isn’t leading broken organizations slightly better. It’s building better organizations in the first place. It isn’t about leadership: it’s about “buildership”, or what I often refer to as Constructivism. Leadership is the art of becoming, well, a leader. Constructivism, in contrast, is the art of becoming a builder — of new institutions.”

And so, my friends, I am coming to realize that I am not a leader, I am a builder, a builder of bridges. I am building a bridge from where we are today (a society in relationally confused hell), to one in which we care for our children and ourselves by being in relationship to consciousness, the way it is talked about here. What will that look like exactly? That is the beauty of it, we don’t have to know that now, we can just start building. And I truly hope that you all will join me in this effort, for if we just continue to lead the existing organizations, we will fail. We must build new bridges and we must abandon the old paradigm which is destined for more of the same. This does not mean that we have to walk out on every organization; in fact, I believe that if we simply change our perspectives, move to a new paradigm and begin to see ourselves as whole and filled with wisdom, then we will not be able to stop the tidal wave of well-being that will change everything.

About ambersk

During her 17 years with Summa, Amber has taught Natural Learning Relationships to hundreds of parents, led dozens of school groups in ropes course experiences, brought children from the inner city to the outdoors, and planned and executed Summa’s programs for families, Teachers, and children. She is now Executive Director and she lives in Portland with her husband and two daughters (Ruby 5 and Naomi 2).


10 thoughts on “Building Bridges

  1. Hi Amber,

    Welcome to the Coop and thanks for this terrific post. I am so glad that you made some strong connections at Salmonberry School’s conference. Speaking of bridge building, I am so happy that this has been a gathering where folks have made important connections. I hope it has helped to start you off on a new self-defined career in “buildership.”

    I love using metaphor in teaching. It can be an extremely powerful tool that tap into a capacity for deep insight for many people. I just read your post and am still thinking through the metaphor of bridges, and don’t mean to put a damper on this powerful vision in anyway but my very first impression is that I wonder if we can do even better. Bridges, to me – and maybe it’s just me, connote a steel girder stiffness and fixedness from pt. A to pt. B. It’s a good move you make to suggest that we just start building and don’t know exactly where we’ll land, but I don’t think that’s quite how bridge engineers actually do it.

    So, I wonder what would be a post-modern alternative to bridges that captures some of the same critical attributes? My first take is, I like “webs.” Spider webs begin with a leap, as the spider throws herself determinedly into the wind. Truly not knowing where she’ll land, but with a definite form or “vision” in “mind.” Her work is of course intrinsically motivated and less cerebral, less ‘masculine’ somehow than bridge builders. It connects MULTIPLE points on fixed surfaces in a myriad of ways. It is incredibly strong – the material has greater tensile strength per mass than steel, yet as a whole it remains pliable and flexible. It is easily, and continually being refined and re-built by the spider. It is beautiful, and inspires a sense of wonder and awe. I wonder if, to use Rianne Eisler’s lens, a web might be a “partnership” alternative to a “dominator” bridge. Maybe this is too strong. And I really don’t mean to be overly critical. I LOVE the message in your post, Amber.

    My family and I are lucky enough to have a small spider who we watched build a large web in the corner of a kitchen window. Each day it was damaged by wind and insects and each night, the spider miraculously rebuilt it. Absolutely amazing process to watch.

    Not sure if the web metaphor works perfectly. Metaphors never do. But I like the complexity, multiplicity and beauty. What do you think?


    Posted by Paul Freedman | August 31, 2011, 10:41 am
    • Paul, I love this. I enjoy so much seeing how my ideas have found fertile ground in you and you have branched out into a very profound metaphor of your own. It is a microcosm for the kind of building i am talking about. In comparing metaphors, i like webs better too in the way you lay it out here. But one concern i have is their capacity for others to tread across them. A bridge is a clear path for “the masses” to move from one place to another. A web is a great metaphor for my own learning and life path, but it is created for the purpose of trapping food (hehehe), not for transporting large numbers of people. And i want to move large numbers of people, not just one, not just my dinner. So, where i love the non-linear nature of the web metaphor, the beauty of it and what it says about the builder (the spider), i wonder about the capacity that it has to carry people from their current perspective to a new perspective. All this may seem too abstract at this point. But I do mean to change the world and that is no easy feat, and some good ole steel clunker of a bridge may in fact be more easily recognized by others as a way across.

      David, the star trek reference made me laugh out loud. When I was in college we used to talk about inventing an “immediate transport” button, a button on your chest that when pressed would transport you to your destination instantaneously. And i love the idea that once the world is in on board (or across the bridge or web), then we will have no further need for clunky bridges, but let us never forget that the learning happens on the journey.

      So happy to know you both, thank you for the stimulating dialogue, what a gift!

      Posted by ambersk | August 31, 2011, 12:35 pm
  2. I like bridges and I like webs… I not sure if we need to pick one… I do see life more of a web because learning, relationships, and life is not linear… a bridge takes you straight across but a web is made up of lots of bridge and they intersect and some break but you can choose to rebuild them or start new ones instead… for many the shift from leadership to buildership or bridge building will be a huge process, for others they are ready to move even beyond that… I see Amber and Paul as being a web builder, hopefully me too… I do love to make connections… I see our children not even needing webs or bridge…I see them as transporters, like star trek but with consciousness. A post post modern world that both slows down and speeds up. Growth and development and change will speed up, making our dreams and visions come quicker, but our lives styles will slow down because we will not be in such a rush to get somewhere or be something… consuming will not be the task of life, as often it is now.

    Either way, I am happy that consciousness or the universe or who ever or what ever, decided it was time for all of us to meet here at this time and chat about how we can co-create a better world. I am glad the Goddard web brought me to Paul and thank you Paul for welcoming me to your web…. so I could meet Amber and her web….

    I kind of like the idea the one web is always connected to another we just don’t see that connected until we get closer…

    Join me on my web…not sure where we might go, but i bet it will be fun…


    Posted by dloitz | August 31, 2011, 11:20 am
  3. How about a large rocket ship… all aboard! Maybe one called the enterprise… just to continue on with the star trek lingo…


    Posted by dloitz | August 31, 2011, 1:04 pm
  4. Amber, This is really powerful for me too, to echo the other commenters here. “Buildership” suggests a much less top-down, unitary conception of all of us working together to get to the place, and how we have to jump a gap in our consciousness.

    Appreciative of this idea now taking root in me,


    Posted by Kirsten | August 31, 2011, 4:37 pm
  5. I do recommend reading the post reference by Amber of Umair Haque’s The Builder’s Maifesto. It is far reaching and calls into questions more assumptions than just leadership….I still thinking about today. I think it can go farther like we have said here…but for many it will be a whole shift… I hope it is shared more…He call into question a lot of leaders that are seen to be models of ;leadership excellence including Obama, and Bill Gates.


    Posted by dloitz | August 31, 2011, 6:03 pm
  6. I appreciate and have learned from this dialogue. But I am confused on one point. Bridges need firm foundations on land and under water. Webs need points of adherence. Are you saying that he bridge includes the foundation, the roadway, and the purpose of moving across? And that the web includes the points of adherence as well as the the strands? If so, can you be more specific as to the qualities of the foundation? Is understanding Natural Learning Relationships the roadway and the foundation?

    Paul, at Salmonberry you had an alternative school going and then paused and inquired into the meaning and purpose of the school. I appreciated that you never said “look at our programs” or “see how great our students are.” I came to Orcas this past summer because people were willing to look at fundamental issues about meaning and consciousness. Is the inquiry the point of adherence? Or the commitment to alternative schooling? Or the Salmonberry way? Or something else?

    Who is spinning the web? The post modern belief that every story counts, that every position or insight has equal importance seems absurd to me. The idea that there is no grand narrative is a grand narrative. The web has a spinner and the spinner has a vision, a purpose, an insight. Certainly the spinner determines the points of adherence.

    You and Amber are the center of your work. The inquiry, the prioritization of meaning, the unwillingness to depend upon programs as sufficient are inspirational to me . It is that inspiration that moves me,that roots me, that allows me to trust your bridge, to be part of your web.

    David, if children are transporters that why are we doing the work we are doing? And how will their transporting be actualized throughout their childhood? Who then needs to be led, or to have a bridge, or to be part of the web?

    We are here, we are in the center of our work, we will know freedom by the responsibility we take, and the social outcome–the bridge that we build or the web that we create-will be as meaningful as the foundation upon which we build; on our willingness to access our vocation, our inner calling; and then collaborate with others who support that aim, knowing that supporters may be from diverse fields and without disrespecting those who do not. Our freedom, our joy and our power will not be known by whether masses cross our bridge but by whether we held fast to our inner knowing and so didn’t build on a shaky foundation.

    I have trouble with calling ourselves anything. Leaders, followers, bridge builders and web spinners objectify, no matter how carefully we use them. And objectification goes entirely against my calling. I fill the role necessary to meet the calling. So, I guess in the end, I don’t trust metaphors. I prefer to get the nitty gritty of who we are, how we know, how we make decisions.Visualizing myself in a specific social role is just not part of the message I hear.To say it another way, roles come and go, filled in accordance with the moment.

    Thank you. That I have rewritten this comment four times shows that I have been stimulated in new ways.

    Posted by Ba Luvmour | September 1, 2011, 5:49 pm
  7. Hey Ba,

    Not sure we need metaphors either, but alas we love to communicate and play… that is all I think we are doing here on this blog and in life really… We call it what we like, or not…but I think sometimes calling it something and going from there helps. I got in a 2 hour conversation about the word teacher two days ago… we ended up pretty much where we started…but we went very far and I learned a lot.

    Sometimes all of us can get a little to attached to your self knowledge, our fact knowledge and experience knowledge… all these have a places but really often it is just good to be in the moment, and forget it all and just have fun in the sand box… Darn I do like metaphors.

    I am glad you came to play, what do you want to build, I have extra shoves and probably and extra peanut butter and jelly sandwich around here somewhere…

    Posted by dloitz | September 1, 2011, 7:15 pm


  1. Pingback: Building Bridges | Cooperative Catalyst | - August 30, 2011

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