Last month, as part of a project we are working on with our friends at the Young Foundation, we were asked to share some reflections on our work designing and holding learning network space for people working in social change contexts over the last few years.
We wanted to share some that thinking, which focused on the network spaces we’ve created that bring together both the formal and less formal spaces of civic action, including the Community Leadership Academy with Local Trust, Civic Futures and the London Engagement Collaborative with the GLA, WeWalworth with Pembroke House and Southwark Council, All In with Eastlight Community Homes, and a number of smaller similar projects.
The missions, visions, and purposes of those projects have ranged according to who they’ve been commissioned by, who they seek to serve, and the change they seek to catalyse, but there have been threads that are common to all of them, and that reflect the particular challenges of convening groups of people over the last several years through the cascading crises of the early 2020s.
Looking across those projects as a group, and thinking about what we would apply into new work together, we shared 7 thoughts on creating meaningful learning space, summarised here:
A Bigger Invitation: Each project has started with an invitation that has connected the space with a macro story that people have identified with, and that has generated interest and energy. For example connecting people into the wider story of community-led change for the CLA, or the future of London’s civil society through Civic Futures. One of our most enduring organising principles at Koreo is that the need for these learning spaces is always reflected in the number of people who respond to these invitations. That’s the case even when they are completely open as opposed to prescriptive, for example in the first year of Civic Futures: “Civic Futures starts by asking how we can build shared wisdom in making the transition to a better future? How do we best bring together some of the amazing people active across London to learn from and support each other in building that future?”.
Equalising Space: Recognising the need to create accessible, inclusive space doesn’t always mean it happens. We have been on a learning journey about what it means to create spaces that are accessible to people regardless of their starting point, that leave no-one behind, and that enable everyone to make their best contribution and maximise their learning. In some projects that has meant paying some participants for their time, in others it has meant changing design and delivery, in all of them it has meant developing a space which honours the different forms of knowledge, wisdom and expertise people bring into these experiences and brings them together. Recognising that this is a constant journey of learning and adaptation rooted in a consistent vision of justice, what’s been clear is that where our practice hasn’t matched our ambition around that vision the project has been the poorer for it, and has kept it at the top of our agenda.
Understanding ‘Practical’: Regardless of who is taking part in them, across these projects we consistently have met scepticism for anything that isn’t immediately applicable into practical action. We understand that impulse in the context of the urgency people feel about the issues they and their communities face, and have sought to keep action and reflection in a creative tension, recognising that both are required for change. We’ve taken different approaches to this across projects, but we have consistently explored the need to expand an understanding of what constitutes the ‘practical’, to support people to value the time in the uncomfortable space of not knowing, and have developed our ability to contextualise a range of learning processes as tangible enough to speak to even the most action-oriented people.
Identifying Enabling Constraints: In terms of making things ‘practical’, we’ve valued an increasingly nuanced understanding of constraints, and in particular how constraints can enable meaningful action and learning. Open space has been valuable, but where we’ve given the right scaffolding of resources, space, and connections, people have been able to combine deep reflection with rapid learning and action. This work leans heavily on Dave Snowden (The Cynefin Wiki entry on constraints), and has particularly helped us to think about how to design and organise portfolios of learning probes. A deeper understanding of how different constraints show up has enabled an approach which prioritises emergence over control, and has supported a belief in the value of bringing people together through these spaces.
Centring Reflective Practice: Creating space for reflection runs through all our work, and coaching approaches are consistently at the heart of how we work with people both individually and in groups. Good reflective space remains a luxury for most of the people we have worked with through these projects, and remains a revelation when it is held sensitively. We’ve also learnt how swiftly reflective muscle can be built, whether through 1–2–1 coaching, peer coaching, group sensemaking, or solo reflection time. We’ll write more about coaching in community contexts as part of our thoughts on the Community Leadership Academy.
Relational Approaches: It will be no surprise to anyone that people often join learning spaces primarily for the connection with other people who are engaged in similar work, and that has only deepened through the last 3 years. In that context, we have unapologetically prioritised designing spaces which enable the development of meaningful relationships across different geographies, concerns and issues. In particular, peer learning approaches to problem-solving have given people the foundations on which to develop relationships which always outlast any given programme of work.
Designing for Distribution: All of these projects work with individuals as a way of catalysing collective change. That is both the huge potential and one of the huge drawbacks of the way leadership programmes are often conceived and commissioned. Everyone commissioning this work is interested in the systemic impacts of their investment, and without intentional design for distribution (accountability groups, storytelling approaches, collective experimentation) the risk is the work, and the value of the work, stays in the room. We’ve tried accountability partners and triads, we’ve tried targeted takeaway tasks, we’ve tried altering our approach to cohort design, with each having strengths and weaknesses. We’ve also explored where the boundaries of attribution and responsibility can be usefully drawn, and again will be sharing more on that.
Putting this collection of reflections together reinforces to me both how much rich learning there’s been for us from the last couple of years from this work, but also how partial/incomplete a list it is. So we’ll treat this list as a starting point for our reflection, and there are many themes in the above which we’ll follow up in longer posts or pieces over the coming months.
For anyone interested in further reading about creating space for learning and transformation, some further reading might be the fourth post in the Spaces for Growth series we published with Graham Leicester and Maureen O’Hara in 2021.
And finally, a reminder that RADAR, Koreo’s bi-weekly reading list for social change goes out every other Friday and you can sign up at the bottom of the page here.