Empowering the Ronin Community

by Arika Virapongse, Alex Lancaster, and Jon Wilkins

It’s been a while between posts on the Ronin Institute Blog, and in between this post and the last one, the Covid-19 crisis has touched the lives of every one of us across the Ronin Institute and beyond. As a largely remotely-based community, we hope to help fill in those physical distancing gaps by providing a social and intellectual space for all Research Scholars to stay in touch and continue working toward building a resilient scholarly community. Ultimately this will allow us to connect, support and strengthen all the other communities in which we are embedded, as we collectively grapple with this crisis.

Well before this crisis had started, we had launched a process to create a new governance structure for the Ronin Institute to accommodate the increased scale and scope of the Institute. We have now come so far in that process that it’s hard to believe that we only started it 6 months ago, in September 2019. Our main achievements to date include:

  • A new governance structure for the Ronin Institute that was developed through a community-informed, iterative process
  • Arika Virapongse as our new (and first!) Community Director for Ronin 
  • Five active Working Groups: Governance, Communication, Infrastructure, Membership, and Research

In the rest of this post, we’d like to outline the philosophy guiding that process, what the new governance structure looks like, and specific new outcomes and initiatives that have been created.

Values and principles that guide our process

Ronin’s two core values have guided our development of the governance structure: 

Truth & Empathy

The ultimate goal of the Ronin Institute is to help scholars “Seek truth.” As Jon Wilkins says, “If you are doing scholarship, your job boils down to this: say things that you believe to be true.” Through the governance structure, we want to help support scholars in reaching this goal. 

Empathy underlies how we do things. The governance structure relies on people to make things work, so we want to constantly ask ourselves: Are we treating people fairly? For example, our volunteer structure emphasizes that volunteers should not be spending more than about 2 hours a week on Institutional activities, and they should only be doing things that they like and want to do. 

Two other principles also inform our decision-making: 

Minimal Viable Bureaucracy & Everybody Drives a Truck

  • Minimal Viable Bureaucracy” is aimed at keeping things as simple as possible for our current size and scale. What this bureaucracy looks like is different for 10 scholars, compared with 200. This also implies that we aim for resilience in our Institute by planning for periods of “richness” and “poverty”–in other words, enabling expansion when we have the resources for it, but also being willing (and able) to scale back when we need to. This concept, for example, informs our approach to adding new technological infrastructure to the Institute, as well as hiring help. 
  • Everybody drives a truck” (first introduced in Kitsune #3) is the idea that a community only thrives if everyone actively helps to advance our shared goals as an Institute. Importantly, it means that all decision-makers (and leadership) are also scholars. This concept informed our development of the Working Groups, as well as how we think about leadership across the Institute.

Because we want to create a governance structure that is right for Ronin–while being careful NOT to create top-heavy structures that emulate what has always been done (in traditional academic institutions)–we look towards our Research Scholars for help. We’ve been holding Governance WG meetings every month since September 2019, asking people to share their input, ideas, and people-power to create and implement this new governance structure for Ronin. 

The Ronin Institute: Grants Program & Community Program

After 6 months of community-informed governance development, enough momentum has been gathered to distinguish between two main programs within the Ronin Institute: 

  1. Grants and financial administration (led by Jon Wilkins)
  2. Community (led by Arika Virapongse). 

Grants and financial administration consists of all the fiduciary responsibilities related to accepting grants, disbursing funds to researchers, making financial decisions, and meeting the IRS legal requirements of a US-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization. 

The Community program consists of all the activities related to supporting Ronin Research Scholars’ participation in the community, as well as their scholarship activities within and outside of the Institute. This consists of things like bringing on new members to the Institute, Ronin seminars, the Kitsune newsletter, helping Scholars identify grant opportunities, Slack interaction, and developing new infrastructure to support Scholar interaction—-activities that are now all led by Ronin Working Groups (previously all of these activities were led by Jon). To push the Community program to the next level, a commitment to the coordination and implementation of this program is needed that goes beyond the several volunteer hours per week threshold. As a result, Arika recently accepted the new role of Community Director, a part time position that may ebb and grow as the Ronin community does. 

Working groups (WGs)

Today, we now have five working groups that each focus on a key element of the Ronin Institute Community:

Governance WG: 

  • Scope: Organizes the overall governance structure for Ronin, coordinates across all Working Groups, and creates decision-making structure for the Ronin Community.
  • Example activity: Structuring, activating, and enabling Working Groups 
  • WG leads: Arika Virapongse, Alex Lancaster, Jon Wilkins

Communication WG: 

  • Scope: Develops the approach and structure for how Ronin publicizes and disseminates information about the institute, both internally and externally
  • Example activity: Ronin Newsletter Kitsune
  • WG lead: Emily Monosson

Infrastructure WG: 

  • Scope: Coordinating, maintaining, and administering the technical aspects of Ronin. 
  • Example activity: Auditing existing platforms used by Ronin today, and helping to develop a system that allows these platforms to be used by multiple individuals (as opposed to one person using and managing them all, aka Jon)
  • WG lead: Alex Lancaster and Victoria Costa

Membership WG: 

  • Scope: Developing membership criteria and helping scholars participate as members.
  • Example activity: Coordinating the Ronin Seminar series. 
  • WG lead: Victoria Costa

Research WG: 

  • Scope: Helping scholars conduct research through Ronin
  • Example activity: Developing an IRB for Ronin
  • WG lead: Michelle Susberry Hill

If you are a Ronin Research Scholar and want to learn more about these WGs, join the Ronin Slack and check out the channels for the WGs, or contact arika.virapongse@ronininstitute.org for more info. The Ronin calendar also lists the meetings for WGs, and you are welcome to join them. 

What’s next? 

Expect to hear a lot more soon about how the Ronin Institute is growing. We’ll have an All Hands meeting scheduled in late April 2020 to get everyone caught up on what’s going on. Ronin seminars will be activated again within the next couple of months.

We are also just beginning to launch our Interest Groups (IG), which are groups of Ronin Scholars that self-organize around specific topics. For example, to help spark overlooked or unconventional research angles and collaborations in biology and public health for the Covid-19 crisis, the Covid19-biology IG was just recently formed (Ronin Slack channel #ig-covid19-biology). In the future, we hope to have more IGs that bring together our scholars in biological and physical sciences with those from social sciences and humanities to address the truly transdisciplinary nature of crises and contexts that are often missed in traditional academic silos.

You may have also come by this blog post via reading the first community-led Kitsune newsletter put together by Research Scholars Emily Monosson and Yasmina Jraissati.

Many thanks to all the Ronin Research Scholars who have made all of this happen! 

Scientiam Consecemus!

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