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🌿 Build Open Works

C. Wess Daniels
C. Wess Daniels
Greetings Friends,
I have a great newsletter for you this week packed full of goodies, including a new chat group for all of you newsletter readers, my recent interview on the Profane Faith Podcast with Hip-Hop Scholar and Theologian, Dan White Hodge, and a reflection on what it means to build an open work. It is so packed full you may want to add it to a read later service or set it aside for a time when you have a coffee or tea in hand and can take some time.
A couple weeks back my good Friend and Quaker minister, Mike Huber, posed a question to me about growth and change. He writes (shared here with his permission):
I wonder if it’s possible to create a structure that invites change and growth. I think centering the community in queries (rather than doctrines) is one way of inviting new insight.
I think of that quip: “First they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they say ‘we’ve always known this was true.’” We tend to envision our prophets as writing eternal truths on tablets of unchanging stone. In science, new research always builds on old research, but in ethics or cosmology, we want Truth to emerge fully formed (like Athena from the head of Zeus).
I love this question because it gets at something I am particularly interested in; how do we build into our communities and institutions ways that foster higher rates of ownership (i.e. overall well-being of the group), participation, and renewal?
Mike’s question suggests it is not simply enough to have a good attitude towards change, but that we can create structures that allow our communities to be more open.
He suggests one possible response being the use of queries, open-ended questions that are meant to “expand rather than restrict the arena of exploration,” according to Parker Palmer. I agree with Mike on the use of queries to center the direction of community over doctrines, and below I explore a few other ways of thinking about the “architecture of openness.”
Taking a cue from all of this, I realized I could do this in the way I write this newsletter. Therefore, you can expect each newsletter to open with a query or story that will help invite our own growth and change.
Today’s is from Mike:
Query: I wonder if it’s possible to create a structure that invites change and growth. 
Please feel free to join the telegram group to discuss this question further, or respond to this email and let me know of your thoughts and questions that arise from this. Please send in your questions, maybe yours will guide the next newsletter! :)
Thanks - Wess

Reflection: Build An Open Work
An Open Work
An Open Work
Is it possible to create structures that invite change and growth? I think the answer is yes, but it goes against much of the way we are used to, and how so many of our communities and organizations function. The Quaker tradition, of which I am a part, offers a glimpse at the possibilities, as well as the challenges, of a long-term tradition that seeks this kind of “architecture of openness,” or what Umberto Eco calls an opera aperta, an “open work.”
I wrote in depth about open works in my book, a Convergent Model of Renewal, but to simplify here an open work has three components:
  1. It is many voiced. It draws on the collective intelligence of the crowd/community/tradition. It is holistic in its approach to knowing rather than being one singular voice/text/role for truth. Within a model of collective intelligence all are apprentices.
  2. It is decentralized. It is rooted in knowledge as participatory, shared, experienced through living and practice rather than “abstract and known.” In an open work, the process of making decisions is itself a tool for building community.
  3. It is structured in a way that anticipates and welcomes change. There is a big difference between proprietary and open-source software. One is locked down, only a few have access to the source code. The other is structured in such a way that it anticipates many different streams of source code and is programmed to handle such diverse flows.
I see these threads coming together in many different areas of life from faith communities, to social media, education, and the arts.
Open Works and The Quaker Tradition
The Quaker tradition, with all of its beauty and imperfection, has many places where there is an “architecture of openness.” For instance, there is a practice of making large-scale decisions through group discernment we call “a sense of the meeting.” This process is structured in such a way that it anticipates and allows for change along the three lines suggested above: all members of the community are able to speak into the process; God’s voice is discerned through a well-defined process of listening, speaking, clerking, and minute taking; and decisions are committed to through a “sense of the meeting” (the closest analog would be something like consensus in secular spaces) allowing the group to adapt and change from the bottom up. Very often these “business meetings” are based in the open-ended questions (queries) suggested at the opening of this newsletter.
Another example within the Quaker tradition is the practice of worshipping through listening to God in silence. This is sometimes called “silent worship,” “unprogrammed worship,” or “expectant waiting worship.” I, and many other Friends, prefer open worship. This is intentional. “Silent worship,” and these other descriptors, in my opinion, obfuscate the openness and participatory nature of the worship, especially to people new to Quaker practice. “Silent worship,” sounds far less like an open work and much more like a closed one, especially in a day when silence can often be seen as abdicating one’s responsibility. Worship in faith communities, including liturgy, singing, preaching, and more can remain closed or be redesigned as open works that allow for growth and change, not to mention far more participation.
Other Examples of Open Works:
Consider things like wikipedia, which was intentionally modeled after Quaker decision-making processes. YouTube started out as an open work because it was an empty platform. Users had to create its content, allowing users to shape the overall culture of the platform. There are plenty of social movements from Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street that are open works. Critical Mass, the large bicycle protest movement that started in SF, was known to wait until everyone showed up for a ride to determine what the ride’s theme was going to be and where they would ride. It was literally “a work in movement.”
A number of years ago, Radiohead released separate stubs for one of its songs, nude, and invited their fans to remix the song however they wanted, upload it to a site, and share it with others.
Chicago artist Theaster Gates has applied the concept of open works to architecture (see his Apple TV+ episode in the new series Home).
Or how about the old Choose Your Own Adventure books? They had a hint of an open work as well. Similarly, Mike Huber sent me a link to Quaker Voluntary Service webpage (I shared this in the last issue of the newsletter) pertaining to racial Justice. What is your right next step? is a kind of “choose your own adventure” webpage created by Liz Nicholson, inviting people to consider “what is your right next step” when it comes to racial justice, giving them multiple options and entry points.
Godly Play, a Montessori based Sunday School curriculum that many in the Episcopal and Quaker communities love, is an open work in the field of education. It is hands-on, experiential, participative, and story-based model of teaching. Children who participate in “Godly Play,” are drawn into the story empathetically and invited to consider questions like, “I wonder where you are in this story?”
Stories far more than doctrines, expository teaching, or even “values-based” teaching are open works. They allow for multiple entry points. They allow for open-ended questions to emerge, as well as multiple perspectives and interpretations. Godly Play utilizes wondering questions that allow Children, and adults alike, to enter the story and experience spiritual practice in a way that is open and playful.
A Nuselog is an Organic Open Work
A Nuselog is an Organic Open Work
Finally, there are plenty of examples of open work in nature. Maybe all of nature is itself an open work? The example that I love is the Nurselog. I often think of a nurselog as a metaphor of renewal and remix, but it is so because it is an organic open work. A tree falls in the forest and becomes a nursery for new life. That new life is not predetermined and adapts to what is needed and available within the ecosystem of the wilderness.
From these examples we can say that open works invite participation. They anticipate and encourage change and openness. They are intentionally “hackable” and geared towards iteration.
I don’t know about you but I want to build and be a part of open works. How can we go about building them?
Build Open Works
Here are a few thoughts for how to build open works:
  1. Ask about the organizations and structures we are in. Look at the very “source code,” it is inviting deep ownership and participation? Is it open to revision? What is assumed within the “code.” What would need to change, even if a complete re-engineering, to allow for this?
  2. Consider processes that encourage many voices in key areas where participation and openness can be improved. Invite leadership from others, especially those who look at things differently from you. Be willing to allow things to be done, said, and practiced differently from how you would do it.
  3. Find and participate in things that are open works so you can learn from them.
  4. Use Questions, drawings, stories, practices as a way of prompting openness.
  5. Create spaces where experimentation, and failure, are expected. You may not be able to overhaul the whole thing at once. Sometimes creating an alternative “open space” is a great place to start.
❓Queries for Your Reflection
  • What are other examples of open works that you are familiar with or see in the world now as you look around?
  • What gets in the way of structuring our communities and organizations in ways that foster true openness and participation?
  • I wonder if it’s possible to create a structure that invites change and growth. 
🌱🌲 Nurselog Note of the Week
The Nurselog is my “digital garden,” a kind of personal wiki with notes and ideas of things that I am working on and/or find interesting. This week’s note is: Convergent Model of Renewal
🎧 Interview on Profane Faith
Message: “S.4 E.31 The Book of Revelation as Resistance: Dr. C. Wess Daniels” from Daniel Hodge – White Hodge Podcasts
🔗 Dress Down Friday Links
Robert Reich interview Rev. Dr. William Barber
I Got COVID-19 at Work. I Won’t Be the Last One. - OtherWords
The Power of Ritual
🗣Join the Discussion
I’ve started two new discussion groups on telegram (a privacy focused, cross-platform messaging app).
Resisting Empire, Remixing Faith Online Chat - One for you, dear readers of this newsletter. This is a place where you can share feedback, ask questions, meet other really interesting folks, and share things you think would be of interest to this group.
Hey/Camp - The second is for uses of and (hey/camp). A users group for sharing tips and tricks around email and project management for folks who use these services.
🐦 Tweet of the Week
Cressa Maeve Beer
I made a short film about coming out. Happy Pride. Protect Trans kids.
📆 Upcoming Events
Live Every Sunday Evening on Facebook: Freedom Church of the Poor (6pm EST)
Live Every Sunday Evening on Facebook: Freedom Church of the Poor (6pm EST)
💚🧠 Final Thought
c wess daniels (he/him)♏️
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain.” - James Baldwin

In the window of @ScupBooks in #Greensboro
As always, thank you for reading. And if you like this please share the love with others!
Wess Daniels
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C. Wess Daniels
C. Wess Daniels @cwdaniels

Old and New (Spiritual) Technologies For Life Today in the Face of Empire. Renewal and change in the hopes of mobilizing communities for love & liberation.

Wess Daniels
Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College

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