Creating Space for Community Leadership Development

What kind of learning space is needed for people taking action in their communities?

This question has been a constant companion for us in designing and delivering the Community Leadership Academy over the last 3 years, along with colleagues at Local Trust, the Young Foundation, and Northern Soul. As the official learning report for the CLA launches this week, we gathered some of our own reflections on the journey to answering the question above.

Given our role and practice as learning designers, it’s a good bet that it would have been a significant holding question for us regardless of the external context in which we were doing that work. But when the programme launch coincided with the beginning of the pandemic, that question undeniably took on a greater and more urgent significance. What would it mean to convene and support a group of 50 people who were often on the frontline of the response to the pandemic, who were spread around the country, and who were both united and separated by their experience of taking action in their communities? How could we connect and facilitate learning in a way that would enable application, but also manage and maintain individual wellbeing?

What it meant in the immediate term was that what was originally imagined as a fully residential leadership programme became a fully virtual experience for a group of people that were desperate for the opportunity to connect in person and to learn from each other. It meant that instead of sitting across from each other in a room, we connected through screens; with dogs, cats and parrots contributing from the background, children balanced on knees, the distance between us both dissolved and never clearer. It meant a programme that tried to deconstruct the different parts of a residential programme and re-create them in a series of virtual spaces; from the drop-in sessions intended to mimic the tea break queue, to short masterclasses that prioritised external input, to the workshop spaces which centred discussion and debate.

Quite soon, it became clear that our experience of trying to create a meaningful space out of the chaos mirrored the experience of many of the people who were participating in the programme, as they sought to re-imagine the spaces through which they engaged with their teams and communities.

And as we paid closer attention to that parallel and explored it more explicitly with the group, it became evident that it was indicative of a broader perspective shift that took place for many of the CLA participants; a shift away from leadership as authority and direction, and towards leadership as an activity that facilitates learning.

Many of the people we have worked with through the CLA had found themselves in the uncomfortable position of thinking that playing a leadership role required them to have all the answers, even when the complexity of the systems they were operating within made that impossible.

So this shift became about becoming comfortable with not having the answers, but recognising leadership as a practice which allowed for multiple ways of being with oneself and others. This view of leadership was about holding open a space in which oneself and others could learn their way towards better responses to the opportunities and challenges facing them. That was liberating, particularly for those who recognised how much of that they’d been doing.

With that shift in mind, the question of what space was needed for people to come together and learn became a shared one. Recognising that there were pressing demands on peoples’ time, that people were generally predisposed to action rather than reflection, and that traditional learning spaces had often been inaccessible, the challenge of leadership for both us and the participants on the CLA became about how to set the conditions for people to make their best contribution, and for that contribution to be collective.

That became an increasing focus of the programme, showing up in various ways across the spaces we were holding. We looked at some of the facilitative leadership literature, we ran a session on creating and holding space, we had a particularly memorable workshop on creating more inclusive spaces to encourage broader contribution. Through that work, we did a tonne of shared reflection, recognising the kinds of overlaps between the spaces created through this programme and the spaces people were creating in their communities. Here is a summary of some of those overlaps:

These were peer learning spaces, through which people were able to learn in a space that valued the various forms of knowledge and wisdom people brought. That often meant introducing conversational structures (action learning, peer coaching, conversation cafe, our colleague Isabel’s witnessing circles) that gave people an equalising space to reflect, listen, collaborate and contribute.

Because of that emphasis on peer learning, these were relational spaces where the quality of the relationship between people was a priority and enabled everything that followed, where time was taken to invest in how people connected and related to each other as opposed to seeing that as a by-product of the experience. This started in the first session, where people were asked to introduce themselves through an object that represented their community, and continued to the final celebration event.

As a result they were also baggy spaces, with a loose approach which adjusted to the needs of the group in terms of timing, content and activity, as opposed to sticking to a rigid idea of what the space was for. We were as happy finishing early as we were extending the session if we needed to, as well as taking detours if we needed to or creating additional space to cover particular topics that emerged from conversations. We saw spin-off conversations as an indicator of success.

At the same time, it was a boundaried space. The most obvious of those boundaries was that the CLA was a time-limited experience, and encouraged a sense of progression and achievement which people could look back on to see what they’d done. And although the programme was a long one, it made it easier for people to commit knowing that their involvement was time-bound, something that stood in stark contrast to many of their experiences through their community work.

They were reflective spaces, through which significant space was given for people to make sense of their experience and what they wanted to do with the reflections, hypotheses and conclusions they drew from them. By centering this activity through coaching and sessions, the content from the programme was also contextualised around the tangible challenges and opportunities people were experiencing in their work and activism. The value of this reflection and the reflective muscle that was built over the course of the programme was clear from the session-to-session work with people, and what we heard about how their practice had progressed, as well as through the formal evaluation.

And finally, they were spaces that enabled agency. As well as starting with a belief that people were full of talent and ambition, this was a learning space and experience which sought to give people as much agency as possible in how they learnt, how they contributed, and ultimately what they took from the programme. People were invited to engage with the programme in the way that made sense to them, choosing from ‘optional’ and ‘compulsory’ sessions, working with their coach to decide the focus and rhythm of those sessions, and ultimately taking what they wanted to apply into their work.

Reflecting back on the first two cohorts of the CLA, we as a delivery team have travelled on our own parallel learning journeys alongside the CLA participants themselves, in the design and development of these various learning spaces. Having recently launched the third year of the programme, we’ve been using these reflections and learnings to both embed what has worked, and also challenge and change what is needed in order to adapt to a new cohort, who are taking part in the programme in a completely different context to the previous two years. As the world around us continues to shift and evolve in unprecedented ways; what, where and how we learn must shift and evolve accordingly.

Finally, drawing on those different kinds of learning space and what enabled them both for us as a facilitation team and the first two cohorts of the CLA, we wanted to offer some questions that might be useful in developing similar space for learning:

  • How can we design this space to centre and deepen the relationships in the room?
  • How can we equalise the space in such a way that peer-to-peer learning is maximised, with everyone’s knowledge being valued?
  • What room can we create for the unexpected, and how will we meet it when it comes?
  • What boundaries can we create that will help us see what we’ve achieved, and give natural moments of transition?
  • What space can we create for people to make sense of their own experience and act on that basis?
  • And how can we create agency in who we’re working with, distributing the power to act at every stage?

You can find the full CLA evaluation and report on the Local Trust website.



Practices Notes on the Community Leadership Academy

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