Cultivating Learning and Design Spaces – Part 2

by Amy Czajkowski and Charles Gibbs

This is the second post of a four-part blog series exploring how to cultivate learning and design spaces for practitioners committed to community-centered peace and development. We understand such a space as one that invites knowledge, experience, wisdom and nuggets of insight from even the most painful experiences to address today’s questions and needs so we can create the new together. We are assuming that no one person has THE answers, but that together we can learn and design our way into the future we desire. In this post, we focus on two dimensions: Creating the Container and Slowing Down and Listening.

(c) Sara Terry for Catalyst for Peace

Creating the Container: The Importance of Being Intentional

Picture, if you will, a village of stick or mud-brick dwellings in proximity to a cluster of villages in remote, rural Sierra Leone, accessible only by foot or off-road vehicles. As the sun sets and darkness descends, a bonfire is kindled in the heart of the village. Around the fire are a few hundred women, men and children — all survivors of Sierra Leone’s civil war, each with a particular experience of being the victim of violence or the perpetrator of violence, or both. They are gathered with a desire to reconcile and heal the deep wounds that have divided their country and their villages — the first step toward the positive future they wish to co-create and inhabit. They will use a traditional cultural practice of reconciliation and healing called fambul tok, which in the native Krio means family talk.

These people didn’t arrive in this village by accident. A three-plus month process, carefully accompanied by Fambul Tok staff, evoked and relied on the people’s leadership and participation to create an inclusive, safe, sacred and trustworthy container for their work of healing and reconciliation. A space where they could learn together and together design the path to the future they wished to inhabit.

At CFP, we believe that every community seeking to work through the challenges of today to build a better tomorrow has within it, or has the capacity to create, a culturally appropriate equivalent of a fambul tok bonfire. The invitation and challenge is to take the time and care required to imagine and create an analogous container to be an inclusive, safe, sacred and trustworthy space to hold the work to be done.

The challenges and opportunities we face have a life and momentum of their own. Intervention is required to face the challenges (e,g. the aftermath of civil war in the case of Sierra Leone) in order to move in a new, more constructive direction (e.g. healing, reconciliation and community development). In our experience, co-creating, with the community, a container to hold a learning and design space is the foundation of such an intervention. From the outset in this process of co-creation, those who are cultivating learning and design space need to model a way of being that embodies the values and process we are working to embrace and create. It’s important for conveners to be clear about their own intentions. Are we embracing a spirit of openness and learning, or are we wishing people would listen to us and adopt our ideas?

Amy reflects, I have so often stopped myself as I’ve asked the question, “How do I/we get them to do X that will allow us to fulfill our mission?” This approach assumes we have or someone else has the answer that will work for everyone. At its worst, this approach is coercive. Inclusive consultations are necessary to begin co-creating a container for a learning and design space that is owned and led by the community. These consultations help to gage interest, to understand all the stakeholders who need to be involved, and what they need to be able to show up as fully as possible.

It is essential to invite others together transparently, to communicate the intention of the convening (e.g. to explore whether or not this community wishes to engage in a process of healing and reconciliation), its vision and who will be included. Ground and invite others to ground in their experience and knowledge while being expectant that something new will emerge through the collective body of experience. Going slow at the beginning sets the foundation for all that will come.

Part of the intentionality must be to invite what makes us most powerful as human beings: our wisdom, bravery, frankness; pain, wholeness, disagreement, ability to listen to and share lived experiences rather than disembodied concepts; honoring inner voice and ancient cultural wisdom. Most problem-solving spaces do not invite or encourage these key sensibilities and professional cultural norms often discourage them, so efforts to shift to a learning and design space, must be intentional. Inviting them into a co-created, generative, safe space is a key step to establishing an authentic and effective learning and design space.

Slowing Down and Listening

A key element of this co-creative work moving forward effectively is to slow down and listen deeply for the contribution we’re each uniquely and collectively called to make for a better today and tomorrow, and to take the first steps to make that real.

Learning space requires valuing and prioritizing the time and resources needed regularly to move out of the fast-moving stream of our work into a lake time of quieter, more expansive reflection and deepening. This may sound simple, but it’s difficult to do in the midst of the results focused, faced-paced organizational environments or formal meetings where we tick through agenda items, talk over each other and push our programs and ideas. Many of us feel like we’re not accomplishing anything when we slow down.

Amy reflects, my family recently adopted a high-spirited and high-energy Brittney Spaniel puppy who bites when he’s excited. The dog trainer we’ve been working with encouraged us to help him calm down as a key step to helping him stop biting. She told us that words wouldn’t help him; we had to show him calm. We had to slow down so he could slow down and start thinking clearly. He had to feel our calm energy not just hear the words, “calm down.” When he felt the calm, he could start hearing our requests to stop biting and engage a fuller part of his brain and being.

While we’re not dogs, it’s clear that, when we’re moving quickly and stuck in our heads, we’re not allowing for the space and pace that invites our full range of capacity, our ability to listen to ourselves and each other, to check in with our bodies, to listen to the wisdom of our hearts. A different quality of listening can happen when we slow down. During these slower times, we gain new perspective, informed by our evolving work, about where we’re headed and why and how; and, as we prepare to re-enter the fast-moving stream, to make adjustments based on the insights of our lake time.

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