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Collaboration through networking: Learnings from the social apostolate in Europe

15 July 2016
Jesuit Networking is an international initiative to support the emergence of collaborative bottom­up innovation for the universal Mission within the wider Jesuit apostolic body. Photo credit: Jesuit Networking

Jesuit Networking is an international initiative to support the emergence of collaborative bottom­up innovation for the universal Mission within the wider Jesuit apostolic body. In November 2015, the Networking for Justice gathering brought together the main global justice networks of the Social Apostolate of the Society of Jesus in Loyola, Spain to evaluate and promote networking as an important tool in the struggle for justice. Photo credit: Jesuit Networking

José Ignacio García, SJ (translated by Erika Meyer from the original Spanish)

Sometimes the most obvious journey is not always the easiest to accomplish.  This is the case with collaboration through networking.  Although we might be talking about similar institutions engaged in similar activities and all of them either Jesuit or Ignatian; and although you might think they form part of the same organization, the fact is that collaboration is not always a given.

Rather, in Europe, our tradition reflects little collaboration.  There is a certain degree of knowledge regarding its importance, but unfortunately we have to recognize that there has been little collaboration until a few years ago.

It is not easy to carry out an accurate analysis of the reasons that have kept us in a prolonged state of respectful inaction.  For years, we have launched “euro-groups” of all kinds: schools of philosophy, theology faculties, master of novices, primary and secondary schools, Jesuit students, the apostolate of prayer, specialists in ecumenism or university chaplains.

In the best cases, these groups have come to share “best practices” but it is very difficult to accept that they have been true “working groups” or active networks.  We have learned about one another, and that is where being “respectful” comes from, but we have not managed to work together, thus “inaction.”  Cultural and linguistic reasons as well as tradition may explain the difficulty in working together.  Unfortunately, we have transmitted the idea of groups that exist only to meet together and this has reduced even more the interest in moving towards greater collaboration.

However, about 10 years ago we have invested in some of these dynamics, and today, we have some groups in Europe that are showing great creativity and ability to work together.  In a two-minute video produced by Jesuit Networking, I share the various challenges to networking in Europe, not just in the social apostolate, and that these are realities we work with, not hindrances.

In the European social apostolate, there are currently two networks that show that it is possible to work in a different way.

First, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Europe, while retaining considerable autonomy in their respective national teams, conducts research on the situation of detention centers or on the vulnerability of asylum seekers across Europe.  JRS in Europe is able to carry out solid field research that enables them have a strong presence in Brussels, giving voice to those who are in detention or seeking asylum.

The second network that deserves to be highlighted is Xavier Network, formed by the Jesuit offices of mission and development NGOs in Europe.  This network shows how it is possible to take a qualitative leap and move to share best practices to assist in emergencies, volunteer training, carry out some joint projects and support advocacy initiatives.  Xavier Network is a valuable testament to how effective collaboration is possible.

What have we learned over the years while promoting networking?

First, we have to accept and recognize our diversity.  There is an unconscious tendency when networking toward uniformity.  Only when we are able to respect and appreciate our differences (language, size, capacity), then are we able to achieve active involvement.

Second, we need to identify feasible and ambitious goals.  We cannot promote collaboration to do small things, we need a certain degree of ambition – while at the same time feasible – so that we can move forward.

Third, we need to power the network (mainly in the form of communication) and there must be a node with sufficient resources and capacity to support the network, especially during those moments when some members of the network, due to difficulties, are less active.

Fourth, we must ensure that networks are on the horizon of the government of the Society of Jesus, such as Provincials, Conference of Provincials, etc.  If not, we run the risk of generating closed groups that are not interacting with the mission.

And finally, we need to support groups that have a strategic perspective: not all groups are equal nor will they reach the same level of collaboration, so we should offer more support to those that are interested and motivated.  The more bureaucratic response of trying to treat every network equally has proved a failure.

We need to identify the most proactive groups and support them more decisively.  These groups are the ones that must help us imagine a future where networking is the new norm.

This article originally appeared in Jesuit Networking.

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