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  • Palma Joy Strand

From a Hummingbird to a Wave: Civity and System Change

Updated: Sep 19, 2019


Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her vision and creation of the Green Belt Movement, which empowers people to plant trees in parts of Africa where deforestation is affecting people’s daily lives and environments. Starting in 1977 with a few rural women in Maathai’s native Kenya, the Green Belt Movement has trained and empowered more than 30,000 women, who together have planted more than 50 million trees.


Before her death in 2011, Maathai recorded a short video, “Be a Hummingbird.” “We are constantly being bombarded,” she begins, “by problems that we face, and sometimes we can get completely overwhelmed.”


She tells the story of a hummingbird confronted by a huge forest fire. While the larger animals are “transfixed” and look on helplessly as the forest burns, the hummingbird flits back and forth from the river to the forest bringing a drop of water each time. Though the bird is small and the problem big, it tells the larger animals, “I’m doing the best I can.”


Maathai draws this moral from the story: “I may feel insignificant, but I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching…I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can.”

The act of engaging in civity relationships, like the action of Maathai’s hummingbird, seems small. Transforming our culture, like Maathai’s forest fire, seems large and overwhelming.


We know, however, that each of us has what anti-racism psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum calls a “sphere of influence.” Each of us is situated within the larger social network; each of us has relational links to many other individuals.


We also know that actions and attitudes that one of us takes or expresses ripple out through our social networks not only to the people we know, but to the people they know, and to the people that the people in that second group know. As James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis document in Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, the network effects of our actions ripple out to “three degrees.”


When one hummingbird takes flight, others are drawn to take flight also. When one of us takes the initiative with civity relationships, others reciprocate and civity grows.

If culture is the experienced collective reality that emerges from shared understanding and mutually reinforcing actions, then each of us contributes to the culture we live in.


We create culture at the same time that we experience it. And because each of us contributes, each of us has the power to shape and change culture within our sphere of influence, in our localized part of the vast social network that links all of us.


We have found in our civity workshops and trainings that people are hungry for relationality and connection with other members of their communities, and this yearning extends to “others”, those who are socially designated as different.


Highlighting civity relationships and providing a few do-able strategies empowers on-the-ground leaders to integrate civity into their everyday work and lives. As individuals act in their spheres of influence, ripples spread.


Steven Johnson, in Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, writes:

"Most new movements start this way: hundreds or thousands of individuals and groups, working in different fields and different locations, start thinking about change using a common language, without necessarily recognizing those shared values. You just start following your own vector, propelled along by people in your immediate vicinity. And then one day, you look up and realize that all those individual trajectories have turned into a wave."


If all of us hummingbirds do the best we can, we create a wave. This can be a forest wave, as with Maathai and trees. Or it can be a culture wave, as with civity.


Individual actions have system-level effects.

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