I've been mulling over the term "embedded", and its implications for persons or entities described as such. The word is much in vogue since the Department of Defense started embedding reporters with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Embedded" has connotations of an enveloping or impacted nature: the head of a deer tick embedded in skin, fossils embedded in sediment, a foreign body in a larger mass.
Websters Revised Unabridged Dictionary 1913 edition offers two meanings for the adjective "embedded." It could describe something "enclosed firmly in a surrounding mass" or "inserted as an integral part of a surrounding whole." The first definition could easily describe the reporter assigned to a combat infantry unit, or the pit of a plum. The second implies a closer association, more organic in nature and perhaps symbiotic. Embedded meanings of this sort season my prose, and used to be the bread and butter of English majors before Academia barred its willing throat to the nihilist vampires of deconstruction.
The embedded thing risks blurring the lines between itself and its environment. That is one of the main reasons why United States Foreign Service personnel rotate from one posting to another every two or three years. The government justifies this practice because it allows flexibility to respond to changing overseas priorities and keeps the work fresh for those in the field. It also rather conveniently keeps diplomats from "going native" and identifying too closely with local concerns over our national interests. Relationships need to be reestablished with every new rotation and this leaves a relatively small window of opportunity for effective and sustainable partnerships to develop before the next transition. Add to that the inevitable changes in foreign policy that come with each new US administration, and you have a system that reinforces a sharp and clear line between "us" and "them".
Embedding reporters with military units in the field, conversely, is a public relations and propaganda policy that deliberately reinforces their identification with the armed forces and their mission. Nothing bonds a journalist closer to those in uniform than coming under fire and relying on soldiers for protection. If truth is the first casualty of war, objectivity follows close on its heels. The view in combat is very narrow and it is difficult to navigate in the fog of war. As important as telling the soldiers' story is, a reporter embedded in this sense risks becoming synonymous with "compromised" or "biased."
I am in a professional situation that could also be described as "embedded", although given its contemporary connotation I get nervous groans from my colleagues when I offer that analogy. I am a new employee of a national conservation organization, The Trust for Public Land, leading a joint program between TPL and the Housatonic Valley Association or HVA. Each organization brings its own unique strengths and capabilities to the partnership and derives benefits from its association. Because of the nature of community-based conservation work, my position is based locally, rather in the state TPL office in New Haven. I have an office within the HVA building and interact daily with my colleagues in this office, which fosters a sense of shared endeavor and teamwork on the ground. It reinforces the partnership and deepens my understanding of HVA's interests and how the partnership can make the best use of shared organizational resources.
From a purely practical standpoint, being based within the local infrastructure of HVA solves a lot of problems for TPL, which prior to my hire did not have its own local presence. It also avoids other tensions which could have arisen had TPL decided to plant its own flag and try and rally all the local conservation groups in the area -over a score by my last count- around a Litchfield Hills Greenprint banner. As things stand, the project will have plenty of work to do to to forge a shared conservation vision and effective collaboration among these various conservation players with similar orientations but different mandates.
Still, my TPL identity is newly formed and is not the first thing out of my mouth when I'm working within the Greenprint area. My business cards, which have yet to arrive, have a distinct, Greenprint brand identity and list the two organizations that sponsor the project on the reverse side. Neither organization wants the Greenprint to spin off entirely on its own, but see it more as the intersection of two, linking rings - not fetters - that together will be able to galvanize support for conservation efforts to keep pace with development pressure in this area. In this project model, I am more like the solder that holds the links together than an embedded object.
What I admire most about TPL is its comfort with my close association with our conservation partner. In other instances, a large conservation organization might well be nervous that I would not be able to see the big picture outside the Greenprint area and lose my sense of objectivity. While it may take some time for all participants in this project to see it as an integrated whole rather than primarily from the standpoint of either organization, I believe it can become that kind of partnership. Embedded in that sense can be transformative and mutually sustaining, and that is a risk I'll gladly take.