Reflections on designing and developing a bioregional learning community

Erica Dorn
Feb 18 · 10 min read

How can a reimagined business education contribute to the regeneration and equity of our places? What are the skills, wisdom, and connections needed for humans on earth today?


The following are some of my process reflections after designing and facilitating an alternative business education program, as a bioregional learning community in New York’s Hudson Valley. I wrote these after a 3+ year journey serving as Managing Director of the Good Work Institute and before leaving on a cross-country bike trip. I have since returned to support long-term strategic planning and the design of new programs that transition the organization towards more participatory governance.

This post includes —

  • Some background about the seeds and inspiration for Good Work Institute
  • The theory of change design prompt and a case for regionality
  • The approach to education and curriculum design— Access and read the full curriculum from Fellowship Four here
  • Some information on how to curate and build a fellowship community
  • Open questions and some hard-learned lessons

My hope is that sharing these reflections can inspire anyone developing a place-based program for community of practice and fellowship.


First things first —

There are many people to thank for sharing their wisdom, knowledge, insights, love, and enthusiasm. My deepest gratitude to Matthew Stinchcomb, Grace Lodge, Caitlin Dourmashkin and the entire GWI team. Donna Schaper, Judy Wicks, Michael Jones, BALLE Be A Localist, Wendell Berry, Marge Piercy, Martin Ping, David Orr, john thackara, Shane Chase, Alexa Clay, Emily Chiappinelli, Rachel Greenwald, Rodrigo Camarena, Corrina Zuckerman, Chelsea Robinson, Erin Dixon, Gerald Mitchell, Schumacher Center for New Economics, Jen van der Meer, Lisa Jacobson, Alex Wright, Christine Lai, Skip and Laura at Omega, the team at Regenesis and Story of Place, Coro, Watershed Center, Isabel Carlisle and the Bioregional Learning Centre, Interaction Facilitation, and… All the courageous and beautiful Fellows who are creating and living a regenerative and equitable Hudson Valley now.

Background —

In 2015 Etsy.com granted stock to incubate a new private foundation — now known as The Good Work Institute. Over 3+ years we developed and executed on a theory of change that seeks to bring about regeneration and equity in the Hudson Valley bioregion by connecting and educating a network of local leaders, entrepreneurs, and place-makers.

The video below, made for me by Fellow Jesse Brown, captures the true essence of the program and the work it makes possible.

Directed, filmed, and edited by Isaac Green Diebboll. Music by Decora. In honor of the 35 Good Work: Hudson Valley Fellows of 2016 and their good work across the region.

The problem and the potential —

For me, the design prompt for how to bring enterprise education into alignment with a goal of regeneration was clear — diversify the social enterprise narrative. A narrative that had become based on a silicon valley ethos of disruption and scale and a hero-entrepreneur mentality. My experience is that business is at its core a social endeavor, especially when appropriately-scaled. In that sense, every business and every entrepreneur is social.

I saw the issue in business education often being the scale of business being out of connection to the people and places that it touches. When businesses focus on profit alone, they lose integrity and become extractive. When social enterprises put financial “self-sufficiency” over impact, they too can lose integrity. Which is why we advocate for appropriately-scaled, place-based enterprises that are part of an ecosystem of local enterprises. These enterprises see themselves as interconnected and think success must be shared.

A regenerative enterprise moves beyond sustainability and the triple bottom line to an equitable relationship with many forms of capital. Moreover, collectives and ecosystems of interconnected enterprises can have a net-positive social and ecological benefit — but we have to design for that, in a place and co-authored by that place’s community.

A ‘Local Living Economy,’ a term coined by Jane Jacobs, honors and recognizes that a vital and compassionate economy is made up of small interactions often facilitated by daily commercial relationship-based transactions within a community. FIELD at the Aspen Institute, Kauffman Foundation, and the Association of Enterprise Opportunity, report on outcomes that attest to the economic resilience of small enterprise ecosystems over the extractive nature of a single large enterprise. In 1973, in his book Small Is Beautiful, the economist E.F. Schumacher made the case for building economies comprised of a large number of small place-based enterprises.

In this moment of great transition and acceleration on earth, we endeavor to embrace a way of being and working that brings humans back into better relationship with everything to which we are connected. Satish Kumar, founder of Schumacher College and author of “You Are, Therefore I Am”, understood the deep interconnection between all of life as a driving force for good work — that our individual and collective actions create or destroy the world around us.

Systems built to conquer, divide, and control are no longer serving the human, nor the more-than-human world. We must bring about a new rhythm that brings us into a state of motion that is collaborative and has the potential to regenerate all life.

Where to Start —
Appropriate Scale and Place — A Case for Regionality

At the Good Work Institute, our expressed ‘Theory of Change’ was to connect and educate leaders of all ages and stages of work, from all industries and sectors of the regional economy. We coalesced around a shared vision and develop the individual and collective skills needed to work collaboratively towards a more equitable and regenerative region.

We piloted our first reimagined business education program in Brooklyn, New York with 22 entrepreneurs, and later placed our work at a regional level in the Hudson Valley. We’d seen far fewer regional programs and many more hyper-local or global-scale programs; there seemed to be an unmet need to connect people at a regional scale.

I continue to see a clear case for why regionally-scaled design can have powerful impacts. Among fellows who completed the program, one of the most commonly stated benefits is a greater understanding and deeper appreciation of the people and places of Hudson Valley.

One of the strongest outcomes of the program is the sense of connection, knowledge, and belonging to the region that is developed.

We wove human development practices like daily reflection, exploration and education into social, economic and natural systems-thinking. Throughout the program we spent time learning from nature, partaking in group and individual reflective workshopping, and developing the ever-essential skill to be better collaborators. Fellows co-developed and piloted regenerative solutions to the pressing challenges and opportunities in the Hudson Valley. Most importantly, participants formed deep and lasting connections with their fellow local stewards, and joined an ever-growing and diverse network of people working for a positive future for the Hudson Valley.

Approach to Education —

All of our fellowships were designed to be emergent, participatory, and experiential, and to work on the levels of self, enterprise, and place.

Emergent design allows for maximum amount of relevant content to arise from the group — with a high degree of flexibility to optimize for unearthing individual and collective wisdom.

Participatory frameworks allow for fellows to co-author the program. With this in mind, we hold space for every voice to be heard and acknowledge the teacher and the student in each of us. Without the participatory design of the curriculum, the educational experience and outcomes are less relevant and timely to the unique needs of each participant. (see Place Tours as an example of participatory design)

The experiential nature of the fellowship is designed to move beyond the abstract and theoretical. Participants are learning by doing and simultaneously applying lessons and practices from the sessions to develop their capacity to effectively lead and contribute on the levels of self, community, and place.

Writing and Co-Creating a Curriculum —Access and read full curriculum from Fellowship Four here

Curriculums are complex systems unto themselves that require ongoing shaping and adjustment. The description and purpose statement for the fellowship has evolved slightly each time. We’ve generally used the POP format from Coro for designing sessions, which includes a three-part purpose statement, stated outcomes, and process. Furthermore, because we evolved the desired learning outcomes each time, we also changed the evaluation methodology (happy to share more about that with anyone interested).

To begin, we always took our ideas on tour by setting up meetings with various partners in the region to gather feedback, get gut reactions to the program design, and most importantly, generate community interest and develop authorship of the program together. Partnerships are so important for delivering a relevant curriculum to a dynamic community (more on this in the cohort curation section later).

We also held ‘open houses’ with various partners to promote, recruit, and answer questions about the program.

Good Work Fellows from the pilot program at Etsy in NYC

Cohort Selection and Curation —

Good Work Fellows represent a diversity of lived perspectives from across a region. Cohorts ranged from 20–40 fellows of all ages from all industries, sectors, and stages of business. They were and continue to be entrepreneurs, placemakers, community leaders, and artists committed to working in ways that are regenerative and equitable.

Fellows draw on their lived experience to lift up a deeper understanding of the Hudson Valley and then design and act upon opportunities to reach the potential they see in their places.

Again, take a look at the entire curriculum to see the full process. One of the most unique and essential aspects of the curriculum is the process by which fellows work together in smaller groups to lift up the story of their places — always seeking unheard voices and new perspectives to enrich our understanding of the place and its potential. Take a look at the Place Story project here. Meet the past fellows of the Good Work Institute fellowship.

Harder lessons learned / open questions:

Co-creative vs. directive: In general, less is more. Perhaps, Otto Scharmer said it best “content is overrated”. That said, my experience has been to plan and envision the entire fellowship and each meeting as if you were writing a screenplay and then let go and support emergence. Each cohort and fellow has a unique learning style and we’ve found that there are varying degrees of comfort with openness to what wants to emerge versus clearly stated directives in the program. Furthermore, our audience are leaders, entrepreneurial and civic minded people, who aren’t asking to be told what to do, but at the same time, are eager for guidance. Fully envision the emotional, spiritual transformations of the whole, and then understand that only 50% of what you plan in terms of content will serve, and thus allow 50% to emerge from the group.

Outcomes-based versus open, emergent design: As we move away from a linear and hyper-rational way of working and learning, we are shifting towards an open, emergent paradigm. This brings about a natural tension about how to have one foot in each realm. Where we’ve arrived is that it’s far better to plan for emergence than to work tirelessly to achieve previously stated outcomes. Generally speaking, the outcomes that emerge from distinct cohorts are always far beyond what you could have imagined. State desired outcomes and then let go again and observe objectively what happens. In this sense, it’s best to stay present to what is rather than hold too tightly to what might have been. As a facilitator, it’s important to stay objective and to hold space for group learning, however and whenever that occurs. The gestation period for learning is unique to each fellow. I am continuously learning to trust the process and to trust ourselves, and to keep acting from a place of both knowing and not knowing. In the not knowing where all the risk, and often all the magic, happens.

Comprehensive: The curriculum and its many threads, Work on Self, Work in Place, and Work in Enterprise, takes on elements of urban planning, public policy. In addition, the curriculum also intersects with along with personal, business, and leadership development and education on all these ideas and more. I believe that this complexity is an important part of shifting business education, especially in service to new economic models that are holistic and honor complexity as opposed to trying to simplify or control it.

Other thoughts:

  • Work with community partners whenever possible to host sessions in distinct parts of the region
  • Outside speakers and speaking roles in general are best in small doses. When choosing a speaker, choose someone locally and ensure equitable representation.
  • Wisely use time when fellows are together. Instead of speakers, send videos and make sure to leave space for a discussion about the videos at the session.
  • Ensure that the wisdom of the group is honored
  • Invite a team of fellows to create the closing ritual
  • Consider mutuality and neutrality // Mediate when needed and don’t when not…
  • Remember that often within conflict is transformation // Support individuals to explore edges
  • Be Patient // Suspend belief and disbelief

There is much more that can be shared — please do not hesitate to reach out and may these insights be in service to your bioregional community of practice.

And…

“Keep up the good work, if only for a little while, if only for the twinkling of a tiny galaxy” — Wislawa Szymborska

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Erica Dorn

Written by

Erica is social choreographer and doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon— she locates with her itinerate play about Last Chance, CO.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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