How to locate yourself within ecosystems of transformation 〰️

Strategist Jungwon Kim brings a holistic, mindful approach to building what comes next.

I first met Jungwon Kim when I hosted her as a Strange Foundation resident, back in October of 2020. At that time she was Head of Creative and Editorial at the Rainforest Alliance, where she worked to elevate the organization’s vision—a world where people and nature thrive in harmony—through impactful storytelling.

One balmy autumn day, I remember sharing a heartfelt conversation with her at the picnic table behind her residency cabin. While red leaves spiraled around us from the peaking Japanese maple tree above, I spilled my guts about how nervous I was about the idea of having a kid—something my partner and I were just beginning to think about, but which felt monumentally scary considering the state of the world. Jungwon has two daughters, and I remember feeling so soothed by her wisdom around parenting, and simply living, in these complicated times. When she talks, she is both calm and calming, and as a passionate leader and activist, she carries the burdens and challenges of her work with so much grace. 

I wanted to speak with Jungwon for Dark Properties mainly because she recently launched her own consulting practice, and I was eager to hear about her foray into self-driven work focused on climate and social impact. She makes me feel that it is indeed possible to bring a holistic approach to building a business, and to imbue an organization’s individual mission with a sense of collective impact. So without further introduction, here’s our conversation. I think it will be especially inspiring for you if you’re looking to find your own points of leverage as we all work to build the world that comes next.

— Willa

You recently launched a practice called Next Wave Consulting Group. What’s your vision for this new endeavor?

Next Wave develops integrated strategies for organizations, companies, and individuals who know another world is possible and embrace the call to build it. Our offerings range from communication and leadership strategy to identity, brand positioning, and organizational culture work. Everything we do is rooted in the understanding that true transformation requires us to practice the values of the world we envision.

Grace Lee Boggs said, “Transform yourself to transform your world.” This is the directive that follows from a true understanding of interdependence, and our responsibility to steward society and our planet accordingly. Bringing a client’s mission, vision, and values to life often requires intensive work to make sure they understand just what their role is, which ecosystems they belong to, and how they can develop a compelling narrative to tell their story. This ecosystem approach encourages clients to reject the hero or savior narrative, while encouraging theories of change grounded in reality, achievable objectives, distributed leadership, and collaboration.

When you’re working with a client, a lot of your work must involve locating them within the wider networks they operate within, and sort of connecting them to this larger narrative of impact. How do you do that?

A lot of it is based on research, specifically in terms of finding the other people and organizations working within their ecosystem. As one example, within regenerative and sustainable agriculture, there’s this incredible burgeoning network of farms that are either owned or run by Black and Indigenous farmers, or other people of color. They’re all working toward similar goals of equitable access to land and food justice for their communities. So for this client, I identified potential partners and hubs where other aligned individuals congregate and then made recommendations for collaboration. It’s all about reaching other stakeholders who are similarly invested in regenerative agriculture, and working in collaboration toward a shared vision.

Business strategy is usually approached in a competitive way, like, “Here’s why we’re the best,” even if you have to shove somebody else out of the way. Taking a collaborative, ecosystems-inspired approach to partnerships, branding, or marketing might feel radical to many. But you’ve found it to be effective?

Yes. Even if there is pressure to establish yourself as a market leader, there’s still a way to take an ecosystem approach that uplifts everyone—especially if your work is part of a corporate social responsibility initiative, or if your organization is especially mission-oriented.

Taking an ecosystem approach is about looking for synergies, making connections, and finding ways to talk about your work that put you in a larger conversation around building the future. When we’re all connected, our voices carry farther and we have more power to catalyze a paradigm shift.

It’s worth noting that everything you just said also applies to individual people. Right now, it’s important for everyone to think about the ecosystem(s) in which they operate, especially in terms of how their particular skills, or points of access, can be leveraged to help build what comes next.

Right now everything pushes us toward individualism and autonomy. “I want to live off the grid,” or “I want to be self-sufficient and financially independent by the time I’m 30,” and even just living in nuclear families far away from our extended family networks as a notion of freedom. It takes a lot for us to redirect away from that mindset, and from the unhealthy habits it encourages—like overworking and savior complex and ego-driven leadership.

We are living in an era of dramatically consolidated power across the technology sector, corporate media, and the government. Like frogs in a boiling pot, we’ve been slowly stewing in water that is getting hotter and hotter. In order to mount a serious challenge to that consolidation of power, we need to build our own muscles of collective awareness and action—the exact skills that have atrophied in our culture of rugged individualism.

Deepa Iyer’s seminal Social Change Ecosystem model feels important to reference here. It articulates and illustrates how different social-change roles connect. It also takes us out of the individual-focused mindset, which can feel disempowering and competitive.

If somebody is reading this thinking, “I’d like my work to push towards a better world, but I’m not really sure how to get there…” Do you have any tips? How can they get more aligned with this “better world we know is possible?”

Often when I work with clients, I begin with 10 minutes of guided meditation. This is because mindfulness practices help us to create more spaciousness, and a sense of perspective and discernment to break the habits of frantic activity and speed.

When we’re overworking ourselves, we get in the habit of reacting to things right away. To break the habit of ego-driven actions, we need to cultivate wisdom.

I am such a firm believer in the practice of taking time to zoom out, because when you do that, you clear the clutter from your thinking and develop your intuition. That’s wisdom. Your next move will be so much more strategic when you’re operating from that space of being in touch with yourself, and being present in your body and with the people around you.

In your work, you must come across some pretty compelling clients. Are there any stories you can share about projects you’ve worked on that made you feel hopeful?

One of my clients is an incredible group of feminist peace builders who are focused on the human impact of militarism around the world. In the United States, we’re seeing almost a trillion dollars going to our military this year alone. It’s an astounding number—especially when we think about our climate crisis and how much we need to invest in order to sustain livable conditions for future generations.

One of the really exciting things about working with this particular client is that through my ecosystem-mapping process, we came across so many other organizations that are also working on the issue of demilitarization. We also discovered promising narrative strategies around the climate angle. Saying, “We should demilitarize for the sake of peace” has become easy to dismiss. But if we begin to reframe that narrative as, “We literally cannot afford the immense climate impact of increasing militarization around the world,” it lends another layer of specificity and urgency that is more likely to motivate action.

Tying it back to the consolidation of power: This is a moment when we must wake up to our collective power and begin to rebuild the capacity for vigorous collaboration. We are facing immense problems, yet we’ve also already identified the solutions. Moving our world in a new direction will become easier and more manageable if we’re all working towards these fixes together and not in these atomized, individualistic silos.

It’s worth noting that in order to rebuild these collective muscles, we have to start by exercising them. And in order to carve out the time to do that, you may actually have to stop doing something else—which, coming back to the conditions that we’re all operating in, can feel impossible. You start to see how all these systems of oppression just pile up on each other. So my last question is, how can we carve out time and energy to do this work?

It’s a huge challenge. For people who have to work three jobs to afford an apartment in the city, it’s really impossible to carve out any extra time. That’s where race, class, privilege, and access to power combine to keep reinforcing the rat race of having to work so much just to survive.

One of the things I’ve learned from consulting is that for businesses and organizations, creating spaciousness correlates to scaling goals and objectives to realistic levels. At the individual level, if we consume less, we don’t have to work quite as much. When you’re working too much, you have to consume more just to get through the day. You don’t have time to cook your own meals, you need a costly vacation because you’re so burned out. It’s a vicious cycle. But at the same time, once you become aware of the cycle, you can break it. 

I do feel like we’re seeing some awakening around changing patterns of consumption. On the other hand, we are also seeing people hoarding wealth like never before. I don’t really know how to reconcile those things. Maybe just to say there’s a larger number of people who are waking up to a different way of being, and now our task is to figure out how to hold the wealth hoarders accountable. And that to me goes back to the question of spiritual work. Why are certain people motivated to hoard wealth? What is the hole inside their soul that they’re trying to fill? What compels Jeff Bezos to just keep accumulating more wealth than he’ll ever be able to spend in a hundred lifetimes?

Jeff Bezos, is he in therapy? [Laughs]

I don’t know. [Laughs] But I do think that is a question that we have to address as a society. How do we prevent people from developing this illness, greed, and inability to empathize with the larger world? How do we interrupt the culture of colonial capitalism and extraction and individualism? With the philosophical turn away from collective consciousness and toward individualism, something went wrong, and we need to redirect ourselves if we want to survive as a species. Now is a time of great, great unlearning.

Dark Properties is a newsletter connecting personal and planetary ecologies, by writer, editor, and gardener Willa Köerner. Each dispatch aims to brighten our vision for the future(s) we can collectively grow. You can learn more here, and read past dispatches here.