Cultivating Learning and Design Spaces – Part 4

by Amy Czajkowski and Charles Gibbs

This is the fourth and final 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: Emergence and Consistency and Follow-through. Although this is the last post in the series of four, we will continue to post periodic blogs on this topic.

Emergence – Responding to Now

The practice of emergence is an essential expression of the belief that together we can learn and design our way into the future we desire. It is a practice that requires a shared and supple vision of what we wish to accomplish. It requires holding lightly the hard work of thorough preparation and inclusive planning to leave open space to learn and adapt as we move forward toward fulfillment of our vision. Rather than marching in lock-step according to a fixed plan, emergence invites the key question — Where do we go next from where we are now?

Emergence is creating and changing plans and action to respond to what we are learning and how we and our environment are changing. Since honoring emergence requires inviting an honest assessment of what’s happening, openness, flexibility and dedicated time in the schedule, it’s hard to be emergent in contexts where there is constant pressure and constraints to know, to plan, to accomplish already identified goals and outcomes. Perhaps the greatest gift of the global Covid-19 pandemic is that it’s stopped us in our tracks and forced us to be emergent. Of necessity, we’ve discovered that we can make changes, even really significant changes, in response to the conditions around us.

The notion of having to be in a workplace or classroom to work and learn, which before was so certain, has been thrown out the window. Face-to-face meetings and conferences, often involving international travel, have been replaced by convenings on internet platforms like Zoom. This hasn’t been without its challenges but we’ve also received surprising gifts like the freedom from exhausting commutes and the possibility of much greater inclusion when we eliminate the need for significant expenditures of money and time required by international travel. These times have required the practice of emergence in every aspect of our lives. And as we begin to move past the restrictions imposed by Covid, emergence will provide us the opportunity wisely to discern what of the pre-Covid past we wish to reclaim and which of the new practices caused by Covid we wish to carry forward into the always emerging future.  

Amy reflects, I learned most about programmatic emergent design in my work with Fambul Tok. The program was never static. It was always morphing in response to new information and changing contexts. The vision of people leading their own peacebuilding and development remained consistent but the processes and activities changed. When it became clear through an evaluation effort that women weren’t fully participating in inclusive committees in communities that were planning reconciliation ceremonies, the Peace Mothers was born to support women’s experience with leadership in community activity. When it became clear that it was not working for Catalyst for Peace to be a program partner and hold the responsibility of granting decisions and accountability with Fambul Tok, we outsourced many of the granting functions to another organization. When Ebola struck, the reconciliation process and structures were reconfigured to fight Ebola and deal with its aftermath. This was possible due to learning and reflection spaces built into the rhythm of the work and flexible funding that could respond to the learning. All of this was grounded in a commitment to ongoing emergence.

There are two principles I’ve noted that have helped contribute to emergence. The first is being exquisitely present to what is – the lived reality of now, the context, people, emotions, energy levels, conflicts, excitement and desires. This is not a mental space of what “should” be or what others want to hear (or what we think they want to hear) but what actually is. It takes slowing down and being courageous and perceptive to see and name what is.  The second is scheduling in space for the unforeseen. This may require additional physical space and staff or staff who can fluctuate their hours and a list of consultants who can be tapped to offer extra person power.  Believing in emergence isn’t enough; it requires these principles and related skills and resources dedicated to emergence. 

Consistency and Follow-through -Moving from Ideas to Action.

This is perhaps the most critical aspect of learning and design spaces but is the least sexy and requires a unique set of skills and proclivities. Once a program is underway and learning is taking place, the learning need to be tracked over time and on-going opportunities for design need to be scheduled and planned, ideas need to be implemented and changes need to happen to reflect the new ideas and design.

It takes stamina and consistency to keep the learning space open, the design responsive and the follow-through on track. There will always be pressure to fill the open space. The pull of accomplishment and outcomes, discomfort with slowing down and with the unknown, and urgent demands and internal and external pressure will all vie for the space. So it has to be someone’s job to keep the space open and make sure the space and what’s happening in it is visible, on people’s radar and keeps stakeholders/participants/co-creators coming back. The learning and design space also needs institutional, organizational or community support, which requires its own advocacy and on-going internal communication. 

Amy reflects, I have most recently witnessed this stamina in a learning and design space created by CFP in partnership with the Institute for State Effectiveness and Fambul Tok to support the implementation of the Wan Fambul National Framework, an effort to adopt a community-centered development process throughout the country based on the organizing process Fambul Tok developed with communities across Sierra Leone. The design of the implementation, both in creating implementation mechanisms within government and then doing the implementation across the country, requires structural and procedural changes. It’s challenging work. This learning and design space has been operating for several months experiencing steps forward and backward and new challenges and opportunities.  Although there is policy around the initiative that has been adopted by the government, change in structure and action has to follow. This learning and design space has required strong leadership, communication, clear roles and long-term commitment.

Learning and design processes also need follow-through and action. Otherwise, trust in the learning space and process will evaporate and ultimately, nothing will change. It takes doing something differently to create new habits and change patterns. Seeing, learning and thinking differently is just a start. For new designs to be implemented, they need follow up, accountability and the hard work of implementation that needs ongoing learning space where participants continue to figure out the appropriate design and action. Even with small steps, moving into action starts to make changes that are building blocks for greater change.

As this four-part series draws to a close, our hope is that sharing our insights represents, in its own way, a small step that might serve as a building block for a growing community of practitioners committed to expanded learning and practice in pursuit of positive, transformational change in communities and countries all over the world. We look forward to continuing the conversation.

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