Distance Travelled — Perspective Shifts on the CLA

One of the most rewarding things about working on the CLA was the partnership that came together to bring it to life. That partnership included us at Koreo, Local Trust as convenor and commissioner, The Young Foundation, Northern Soul, and an evaluation team of Just Ideas and IVAR. As with all partnership work, the value has been in the range of perspectives and practices that have been incorporated into the project as a result of the collaboration, and how we have become more than the sum of our parts.

One of the early examples of that collaboration was the development of the programme’s design principles — the set of principles which codified what we believed needed to be true in order for the programme to be successful. Many of those principles have guided the project throughout; we knew that the programme needed to be participant-led, that it needed to complement other Big Local support activity, to be super accessible, to be contextual to the work people were doing, and to be shareable beyond the programme in order that the learning was effectively distributed.

After the first few months of the programme, and reflecting on the constantly shifting context of Covid, we re-visited those design principles and added a couple of new ones. One of those came from our longtime colleague and friend Ruth at Northern Soul, who articulated something we’d noticed in the group and wanted to lean into; the light bulb moments people experienced where they recognised the distance they’d travelled and the shifts in perspective that had come with that.

Adding that design principle has since sharpened our attention to the increasingly consistent shifts in perspective that have occurred at particular points across the programme, and the power of those for the people taking part. Those have been moments of clarity, of relief, of joy, and have become one of the key things people have taken away from the experience. They’ve also increasingly informed the design and facilitation of the CLA journey, and so we wanted to share them here.

“I’m not alone in this work”. One of the most profound and consistent shifts has been someone’s realisation that they are not alone in the complex, messy work of community-led change. The Community Academy is a collective experience. And the connections that people made are, as with many leadership programmes, one of the most important things about it. The connection spaces and the relationships that are created or deepened through them are a powerful moment of recognising that the however isolated you might feel in a particular project or in a particular organisation, you are not alone, and that there can exist the support structure which helps you to reflect on what you’re doing, discover other perspectives and and find the support you need. Crucially, this was often linked to an understanding that there were people outside the programme and closer to their work that they could rely on more or collaborate with more effectively.

“I can call this leadership”. The second shift was towards people understanding themselves as playing a leadership role, or at least towards a realisation that what they were doing could be understood as leadership. For some people, even just the experience of being offered a place on the programme had that effect, countering a pervasive sense that ‘Leader’ was a distant and possibly even suspicious label. That shift was liberating as much as it was bolstering, giving a different lens on what people were doing and implicitly asked people to step into the responsibility and potential of the role. There are valuable conversations to be had about whether ‘community leadership’ is a helpful frame, but in this project and with this group of people it enabled people to realise that they were more expert than they thought, that they have expertise and experience to share beyond their specific context, and that they could add value for other people navigating similar things.

“There’s a name for that, it’s a thing”. Thirdly, and one that looked different to different people according to their starting position and experience, was when the content shared through the programme gave a name and legitimacy to something they recognised and had personal experience of. Examples of that included Ruth’s early exploration of imposter syndrome in community leadership, and a session which looked at different kinds of expertise and focused in particular on the value of lived experience as a counterpoint/complementary to professional or academic expertise. Both of those spaces led to powerful reflections on what people had achieved through their work already, the skill and resilience they’d demonstrated in doing it, and a developed confidence in talking about it. That value in ‘naming’ extended to metaphors that came into the programme through models, for example the balcony and the dancefloor metaphor from adaptive leadership that people found powerful as a way of reflecting on their work.

“This isn’t fixed”. In a similar vein, we have consistently seen a shift through which people recognised the licence they have to approach something differently, and in doing so reflected on how limiting some assumptions have been in terms of making change. This happened at different times for different people, some through the reflective muscle built in the coaching space, some through particular tool like the iceberg model, and some through the combination. But what was common was an increased ability to take a breath when faced with a situation and to question their own assumptions and approach, a loosening of the constraints around what was possible. And also an understanding that many of the limits were self-imposed rather than externally set. So there was an increasing confidence in taking a more experimental or learning-centred approach to their work, for example in running meetings differently or approaching conflict with more curiosity than fear.

“I did it”. Probably the most obvious of the shifts, but no less important for that, was the sense of achievement of having done something which for many was a significant step outside what was usual or comfortable. In its first two iterations the programme took up the best part of 2 years when taking into account the application process. So whether that sense of achievement was understood in terms of the relationships created or deepened, the learning that had been supported, or simply by reflecting on the programme had played out alongside or against the backdrop of events, it was a consistent source of pride and confirmation for the people who took part and who have subsequently become part of the Fellowship community.

By recognising these shifts and what has supported them, we have increasingly been able to design for them, both in terms of what we take into the programme and when, but also by how we structure the reflective spaces we offer. As the programme timeline becomes shorter, and the content as a result becomes increasingly distilled, these shifts have emerged as a valuable way of understanding what the programme can achieve at its most powerful.

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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