Chris is an experienced nonprofit and social change practitioner who has spent the last 15 years as a dedicated educator, network builder, and advocate for nonprofit organizations. He is a co-founder of Loup Design & Innovation and co-creator of the StoryEngine methodology. As Vice President, Mozilla Leadership Network, he oversaw the development and expansion of a global network of leaders who will build the values of the open internet into all aspects of human society. He has lead the organization’s efforts around network building, as well as bringing web literacy to the forefront of Mozilla’s issues agenda. Chris is also a podcaster and can be heard co-hosting on The Larry’s Pop Pod, It’s Just Business and more to come! A proud alum of James Madison, WXJM, The Bank Street College of Education, The New York Hall of Science, Stooz Records, and The Hecklers.
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Can you give me a broad overview of what you do and then describe how that intersected with Hive NYC?
My name is Chris Lawrence. For the last 15 plus years, I have worked at the intersection of education, digital literacy, the internet and social change. In 2008 I was working at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), focusing on expanding its digital learning and starting to connect with educators, thinkers, and radicals worldwide. While at NYSCI, I got involved with a project that had no name and was pretty amorphous. It was essentially a team going around to New York City cultural and education organizations and collecting people to join a design process with IDEO, The Parsons School of Design, and the MacArthur Foundation. These design sessions what kicked off what we now call the Hive Learning Network, NYC.
What this project, and the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning work in general, wanted to do was to look at the way in which the internet, society, and education were intermingling. It connected to a lot of what I was experiencing as an educator, internet user, and as an early adopter of different technology tools. I was thinking a lot about what that meant for education, how we interact with each other, and how we interact in teaching and learning environments. It felt like I’d found my people.
Years later, when an opportunity arose to join the project as a director, I jumped in. It just so happened to be the exact same moment that the grant and work shifted from Diana Rhoten and the Social Science Research Council to Mozilla,where I’d gone on to work. This was how I transitioned from an early member of this emerging network to staff.
While at Mozilla, there were lots of ways that the project grew and expanded within the context of Mozilla’s broader work in digital learning. There were also a lot of ways in which the theories, practices, and innovations that made up Hive were informing Mozilla’s work beyond education.
When I left Mozilla, I stayed connected to Hive NYC and have been working over the last year to help others think about what Hive wants to be as a completely decentralized, member-led network of practitioners in New York City.
Can you tell me about a moment with you felt a sense of success being a part of that network?
One of my favorite things about the internet is that it has been a great way to motivate people to connect face-to-face in the real world. And I don’t just mean Tinder, although it is a data point!
Hive’s mission and social infrastructure was best realized when we would do some kind of event — whether a practitioner meetup, a youth maker party, a Hive pop-up, or other kinds of teaching and learning opportunities.
One of the best examples of that was the World Maker Faire in New York City where Mozilla sponsored an entire tent. We curated it with members of Hive NYC and our broader learning community from as far away as India. We brought them together under one circus tent and had a strong presence at the faire. By cycling through 50 to 60 different people with network member programs, exhibit booths, and interactive activities from Friday to Sunday, you could really feel it all come together. It was very visceral — you could see, hear, touch, and smell it all happening at once. Lots of great conversations started there. At the time, I met someone from the New York City Council’s speakers team and that conversation bloomed into a long-running partnership for Mozilla.
I don’t know if that was the most proud I’ve ever been about the work, but you could feel both the ephemeral and practical parts of the network coming together. It was definitely a high water mark for me, and if I may be sold bold, the idea of Hive itself.
Can you describe a moment where you faced a challenge or felt frustrated by the network?
One of the most frustrating times has been the last year to 18 months. This has been a time of massive transition for the network. The network has always had organizations, foundations, fiscal partners, and anywhere from one to four different organizations helping to run it. That balance worked for a long time, but once some of those players — first MacArthur, then the New York Community Trust, and finally Mozilla — started to back away, we were left in shock.
The lowest moment was probably when we were making all of those announcements in the fall of 2017 and we didn’t have good answers to important questions. The members once felt so much support and confidence over the years knowing that there was money for staff and central management of the network. Having to relay the message that the funding and stability was going to go away was difficult because we also had to convey some excitement that we would have much more self-control, self-determination, and decentralization.
There was so much confusion during our goodbye holiday party because people weren’t sure what was going to happen. The message was unclear about if the network was going to continue, there was confusion about the announcements, about where time and energy and money were going, and about the work that was still lined up. It felt more like an ending than a celebration. There were no clear steps for communication.
It felt like the network wasn’t truly self-determined. The feeling was that all these people who had given their time, energy, and dedication over the years were marginalized.
But with all of this tumult, what has emerged actually might have produced for me the greatest moment of pride in my 11 year journey with this project. Just recently, Hive NYC, after a year planning and stewardship from The Partner for Afterschool Education, has re-launched as a completely member-led network managed by a council. In January 2019 there was a State of the Hive Meet-Up and it had as much energy, passion, and forward thinking as I have seen with the network in three years. It was exhilarating, honestly. We (Loup) contributed by helping to create a timeline for the network and facilitate a lightweight activity that had the effect of honoring the past but propelling the network into the future. It was Hive-y in that it was heartfelt, and was both analog and digital while embodying a zine-like feel.
Can you tell me about a moment where you experienced Hive working unlike any other community-based program you’ve been a part of?
There’s a great degree of fellowship, camaraderie, and professional connection amongst the members. They have always been linked by where they were in their careers within their organizations, and by what they wanted to do in the world. There is a type of character profile among the people who built Hive’s value over the years even though they all came from wildly different backgrounds — they were the rabble-rousers, the artists, the free thinkers and the builders. In this respect, members as they relate to each other are a community. So that fellowship to one another made it a unique experience for me personally. But the project and its benefit to larger ecosystem of education in NYC and beyond is as a network.
People conflate ideas of community and network and think that they’re interchangeable, but they’re not. Communities are strong because of their similarity in their bonds and they tend to circle and look inward. Networks — and I’m not saying these are mutually exclusive or that one’s better than the other, I’m just articulating where I think a difference is — intentionally look outward and leverage difference to augment and gain strength over time. And so many people when they do this kind of work miss the nuance of the difference and they’ll use community and network interchangeably in the space of two sentences. That really misses the power and the weaknesses of both systems. So it starts with understanding that a network is actually going to be seeking out difference to build its strength.
Successful networks understand the difference between strong and weak bonds and that weak bonds are actually incredibly powerful and useful. To then take those networks to be high-performing, you actually want the nodes in the network, whether they be people or organizations or a mix, to understand how to toggle between being strong and weak. A strong network is going to know when those things turn on or off, depending on the problem, depending on the opportunity, and so on. A network is strong when you have many dormant, weak connections that can flip back on. Hive NYC, as a project able to advance a field, did so because of these networked practices.
Hive was able to balance both being a community (to each other) and a network (to the world) and use that paradox as a strength. There were strong alignments with identity, mission, and values, but diverse perspectives, content areas, backgrounds, and professional contexts. Any time Hive was working like that, understanding what bonds people and what strengthens diversity, is probably when it was working at its best. I don’t see many projects able to understand and do both quite as well as Hive NYC.
What is it like to manage that paradox from an organizational perspective?
One of Hive’s missions was to fuel innovation in the digital learning space. That attracts people who are going to take risks, who won’t care about how things were done in the past, and who are going to bring fresh ideas.
That was essential to the types of work and impact that the network wanted to have, not only for each other, but for the youth that were served, and also for organizational growth. That was a huge strength.
However, that’s also the type of group that can be hard to manage, contain, or fully understand because they’re often very opinionated and mission-driven. From an organizational standpoint, that can be harder to manage. I find it exhilarating and I like to do it, but it doesn’t minimize the managerial challenge.
When you’ve got organizations like the MacArthur Foundation, the New York Community Trust, and Mozilla, they have institutional priorities that can at times feel distant from individual members. That wild independent streak can make it hard to organize around shared goals, especially when they are partially prioritized by these removed institutionalized mandates.
I straddled many different worlds in this project and in my professional career, and it was a struggle to balance that independent spirit of the members with the priorities of those organizations. There were many times where we didn’t get things right and, in my own reflection, we should have let member’s voices lead the way rather than trying to compromise between these organizations and a decentralized network.
Can you tell me about a moment when your organization benefited because of its involvement in the network?
The network is a real equalizer for cultural institutions and youth organizations, especially in an ecosystem the size of New York City. As an example, the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) is somewhat isolated in Queens and not centralized on “museum mile” in Manhattan like many other museums. But it is a real testament to the network that an organization like NYSCI is a leader, innovator, and a dedicated member. Both as a peer and a director, I’ve heard that kind of sentiment about the platform Hive NYC has given small and medium-sized organizations all over the city. My time at NYSCI as a member of Hive NYC helped me understand that.
When I think about working for Mozilla through most of the life of the network and being the person who made that transition, it’s undeniable how much the Hive network influenced the Mozilla Foundation in terms of finding its strategy and doing good work in the world while figuring out what it wanted to be.
I think of the people who we brought to MozFest, who ran MozFest tracks, who contributed to the development of Webmaker tools, that helped shape web literacy and generally advanced the idea of open through their work — they all contributed to and influenced the Mozilla Foundation in meaningful ways. How Mozilla thought about learning, about equity, and about using open practices in settings that weren’t in technology or software development was influenced by the network and its practices.
You can still see traces of this even as Mozilla evolves its strategy and continues to think about what it wants to be in the world. It’s undeniable that the work of Hive and the broader Digital Media & Learning ecosystem influenced that trajectory.
Could you tell me about one or two significant relationships or connections that emerged out of your involvement with Hive?
It’s less about one person or one relationship and more about the volume of deep relationships that I’ve been able to maintain. One thing that I love about networks is that they allow for strong and weak connections — it’s a toggle switch between those two things that I find exciting. Nothing’s ever a only a strong or weak bond. A network is as strong as those switchers. Relationships matter. So if you’re doing network work either on a small or large scale where you’re not investing in relationships and human connections, then then they tend to fail.
Since 2008, I’ve had a network of peers to reach out to. That has been huge. People who were allowed to experiment, received early funding, and given a voice through Hive are now doing incredible work in this sector and to be a part of that is thrilling.
It’s hard to zero in on specific people but one might be Michael Preston, who runs Computer Science for All, who we worked with for many years. He’s been a constant inspiration with his thoughtfulness with the way he’s been able to work in challenging settings like the Department of Education in NYC, or the world of Computer Science academia and still make advancements on the values Hive NYC has incubated and advocated for. He spent important time with Hive and Mozilla and I think that relationship helped create the networked impact he has had on how people think about computer science and digital learning. There’s a real reciprocity there that I find super exciting and a key value of the network.
Many of Loup’s published StoryEngine interviews have examples of how relationships created through a network positively influence and inform not just projects, but people’s individual growth.
Can you share something you’ve learned from being involved in Hive that you’ve incorporated into your regular practice?
The biggest thing that has affected my practice is how much social infrastructure matters, both digital and analog. It’s the sort of thing that’s dismissed so often in this type of work. It takes time, regularity, and trust, but you can do it with network thinking.
If you don’t invest in it by giving regularity to communication, interaction, joy, serendipity, and intentions, none of these projects last. They become transactional for the members and participants. When money or energy goes away, the project will go away.
It’s something that people want wants to be able jump over and unfortunately digital tools make it much easier to do it wrong. Having a listserv or regular emails sent out doesn’t make for social infrastructure. The people involved in the network design, management, and its values have to be all in on those pieces of social infrastructure.
Hive NYC is going into 2019 with no money, no central organization, and yet 100% of respondents to a recent survey say that they want to keep going. That’s a big validation of the time and effort spent on building the social infrastructure.
What’s your boiled down definition of what social infrastructure means?
It’s regular, intentional, and facilitated interactions, whether digital or analog, preferably a combination of the two. Those are the pieces of social infrastructure — they’re things that you can depend on. I can depend on the fact that monthly meetups will happen; I can depend on the fact that utilizing a particular avenue will get my questions answered; I can depend on the fact that it’s somebody’s job to keep me informed.
People are able to rely on it and leverage that infrastructure to provide value to members. At its core, it’s an opportunity for people to teach and learn with each other regularly in real time. This is ephemeral stuff and that’s why so many people dismiss it or think it unimportant. It is vitally important important if this is the kind of work and project that you want to build. And giving structure to the ephemeral is essential.
I was massively influenced by open education and open classroom movements of the last 80 years and by open software movements. The misconception in both arenas is that a democratic classroom is just a madhouse with no planning and that an open source project involves people doing whatever they want and it’s loosey-goosey. In fact, the exact opposite is the case.
If you want to have a successful project that’s still outcome-based but has the values of open and democratic processes, the structure, planning, and resilience of the facilitators must be locked down.
Some funders may wonder how to measure the impact of investing in social infrastructure, which as you’ve said, is often intangible and ethereal. How would you answer a challenge like that?
That’s a tough one. Network science is a relatively new discipline and is rapidly evolving. Software is helping to push that thinking and provides lots of good models. The best way to measure its impact is to be conscious of the purpose of the network.
In Hive’s case, its purpose was to have engaged practitioners and more innovations, prototypes, and programs for youth so that the field of digital learning in New York City was improved.
That meant that you always need to take a step back and take an ecosystem level approach. Too often, people want to zero in on data points within this kind of work, which is fine. When people wanted to do that, I’d encourage them to look at other projects and find out what they learned. At the ecosystem level, over years, they should be looking at the broader world that they’d like to see change.
There are lots of quantifiable methods like keeping track of the money and projects that are being put into an ecosystem. That sort of data has been collected and regurgitated many times. You can also track where organizations, institutions and even individuals have shifted their priorities or invest resources. You can track the conversation and where that has moved and the sophistication (or lack thereof) of how issues are discussed and understood. All of this is useful to a point, but when you look back at ten years of the project’s history, you get a sense of how the ecosystem has shifted, how conditions have changed and quantifying these state changes and network effect is difficult and also a bit pointless. I am tired of living under a constant tyranny of numbers.
During a summer workshop that Loup ran for Hive, a long-time member remarked that the real struggle for Hive NYC’s continued existence is finding out what it wants to be in a world that it helped create. That struck me because it’s important to ask whether or not it’s still needed and important. Sometimes there’s a time to close up shop, but it’s also important to acknowledge the success that we helped create. What does that mean for its future and how can it be done in a way that honors those involved?
Over ten years, you start to ask how many other cultural institutions have programs, staff members, and resources working at the intersection of our digital lives and learning. The reality is that investment has increased substantially. Hive was the laboratory that allowed a lot of innovation to exist and thrive. Even with a skeptical eye, there is a more diverse view of digital tools and learning in NYC. Hive NYC had an important role in that.
What happens to these networks when there is a climate of uncertainty, or when a funder pulls their support?
When you do peer practitioner work — especially across organizations — and invest a lot of time and energy into bonding with participants, that means that the potential letdown can be tough. It can be damaging, engender cynicism, and be long-lasting.
When you’re building systems that rely on trust, emotional connection, and affinity, when some of those things change, it causes more social and emotional damage because of the value. That was a learning experience for me. To see it play out in a system was eye-opening.
When you have money, you can set things up for the future and plan for a time when that money may not be there. I don’t blame organizations for changing their priorities, I understand that because it’s reality. I’ve been on both sides.
If I’m in any organizations doing these projects in the future, it’s key to realize that you are only ever a steward. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be opinionated, but stewardship is the most important piece and at some point that’ll have to be handed off. What are you building that can outlive your organizational stewardship and how do you honor membership voices and agency in the future of that network?
Folks who have stuck with Hive NYC have changed those coats a number of times. What makes me sad is when those people look back with cynicism. I’ve learned that if you’re not raising the voices of your participants and members and it feels to much like organizational priorities from on high, then that investment is always going to be somewhat tainted.
There’s always an organization that’s stepping up with money and human resources, and taking on administrative and managerial tasks. Those people and organizations have to be doing that as a stewardship, as a time of service, and not as something being built for themselves or for a wider strategic goal. Otherwise, don’t do those kinds of projects.
Do you see this network-centric approach taking root in other places? Is it becoming a more mainstream practice or do you think it’s more aspirational than reality?
I’m a little bit pessimistic in that funders and organizations that have the power to make these things happen won’t have the energy to stick with it long-term. That’s a big worry for me. That makes it hard because there’s so much interest and then it’s gone.
As people are more empowered in this sort of work, this way of operating is going to become even more emergent, but it will be more decentralized and reliant on the strengths of individual nodes than on organizational hubs.
That was a learning experience for Hive. To some degree, we stopped investing in the organizations even though we loved them and they were helpful. We focused more on the people because they’re going to change jobs and priorities. If they see Hive or other vibrant peer networks as important to their personal professional journeys, then our investment in them is going to get a big return. The strength of the network will be in those nodes. That was a big switch in our thinking.
What’s exciting to me is that a lot of organizations that have traditionally been membership-based, like professional organizations, academic content area organizations, and different affinity groups, are realizing that highly transactional arrangements are deeply unsatisfying for members and for the organization themselves.
They’re starting to realize that these techniques — network theory, peer practitioner relationships, and social infrastructure — map well in places where there’s a more autocratic infrastructure. I’m excited about connecting more of these practices to organizations and networks that want to provide better value in their system. That’s an exciting way forward.
Anything more that you want to tell me about your involvement with Hive?
It’s been the pivotal project of my professional life. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get frustrated, bored, or look for new challenges, but it has been a real-world laboratory for my ideas and to work on those with other people — for example, testing out a tool for digital lessons or large systems design and organizational management. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.
This content is copyright Chris Lawrence and is licensed for use by others under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.