Weaving Networks of Sustainability Education in Mexico

Presencing Institute
Field of the Future Blog
14 min readDec 14, 2022

Going from the seed of a project, to securing funding for the Education for Sustainable Development Transformative Learning Lab in Saltillo

Warming levels in Mexico are 2 degrees centigrade above the global average. The issues of climate change and biodiversity loss are urgent, and with this social and ecological pressure, and intersections of education, gender, inequality, health. Among the most dangerous countries for environmentalist activists, those in environmental education in Mexico often face challenges. In Northeastern Mexico emerged an innovative Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Transformative Learning Lab, working to build skills to address the crisis, developing both system-wide and individual shifts along the way.

Before Ericka Toledo took part in 2021 in the team accelerator program u-lab 2x with her partner in the project, Christa Henze, there was no ESD Lab in Mexico. (u-lab 2x is a no-cost program to fast-track development of initiatives by teams.) “If this process has taught me one thing, it’s that sometimes you don’t know why you’ve put things together, but eventually you are told the reason why. The U journey that Christa and I took together, we had no expectations whatsoever, we just wanted to learn more and go through the U. And then suddenly someone knocks on our door and says: ‘Here, there’s money [funding].’”

Introducing the ESD Transformative Learning Lab

The ESD Transformative Learning Lab is a leadership program in Education for Sustainable Development run by The Sustainability Atelier and ESD Expert Net, an international network of experts on Sustainable development, coordinated by Engagement Global and funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

The primary goal of the ESD Lab is to develop and enrich the skills of leaders in the metropolitan area of Saltillo, in Northeastern Mexico, who are working at the cutting-edge of education and sustainability, addressing the socio-ecological tensions in the area and the challenges those tensions create. The project is 100% funded, enabling 30 participants from Northeastern Mexico to also be part of an international experience, working with professionals from India, South Africa, Germany, and of course, Mexico. This Training of Trainers programme will give these 30 change agents tools to create sustainability projects that address the problems of the region.

Weaving the tapestry: funding for a prototype project

As they were finishing the 2x u-lab process, Ericka and Christa were contacted by Engagement Global, a non-profit responsible for development initiatives within Germany. Engagement Global was ready to implement initiatives that the ESD network had developed at the individual country level. One of those was the Training of Trainers manual, which through the 2x process Ericka and Christa’s team had re-examined and developed into a Transformative Learning Lab. “We didn’t just want to implement the content with teachers and educators sitting for days with powerpoint presentations,” notes Ericka. “We wanted to take them on a journey of transformation with Theory U. They wanted to support another Mexican partner, and we had implemented projects for them before so they were confident we would be able to implement the project on their behalf.

“We were very excited and had lots of ideas. When they asked if we would implement the Train the Trainers program, it was the perfect ending to our journey.”

As the 2x journey ended, suddenly, the official ESD Transformative Learning Lab was funded, and began its real planning stages. The funding covers the participation for at least one member from each country, and in this case, the full Mexican implementation for the project. “We are implementing the network’s products simultaneously in all 4 countries, some more, some less, depending on the implementing partners,” says Ericka. “In Mexico we received the funding to train 30 people plus some of the mentees from the previous generation of the mentoring programme. We also had some money for UNESCO to conduct an evaluation of what we do together. So this is basically a pilot, a prototype that was born out of this 2x u-lab process.”

The current programme team: Education for Sustainable Development Transformative Learning Lab

‘We are not the only ones weaving,’ and holding complexity

For Ericka and team, one aim could be that participants come out with an initiative, a change project. But there is room for doubt, confusion, and messiness in the process. “That is a typical outcome, but we thought: I wouldn’t mind if people come out confused, or saying I don’t want to do that project, maybe I shouldn’t do this, maybe the system doesn’t want this. So what we focused on is what kind of model people come out with, through which they can weave their sustainability processes. The model of thought, the model with which they co-create, that’s what we are aiming to change. Not necessarily their actions; if they come out with amazing things we are more than happy. But we want to appeal to the inner dimension of sustainability as well.”

“First we have the weavers come together, they co-initiate. Then they start co-sensing, what threads are here? Is it educators, public officials? Is it about public policy? What’s here, what can we weave with? Then we’re not going to fully come up with a change initiative but we want them to start weaving a little bit, presencing: what’s actually happening? Our aim is that they start crystallising what they want to do with this training. They will leave with an unfinished weaving piece; our aim is they have something they want to work on later. The important thing is they learn how to weave.”

a small section of the group’s Miro Board

“It has been complex, putting all these stakeholders together, making them feel that they can contribute and are being heard, but also asking them to step back and let whatever wants to emerge. That has been served by using Theory U, we get to see what’s emerging. When we plan, everyone has different ideas — what we should do, how we should do it, who we should do it with — and now it is the system telling us what it wants. This has been the biggest learning for me.”

Zooming in: who are the weavers?

There are a lot of stakeholders involved beyond the Lab, Ericka notes. And it is important to focus on the participants themselves, and the different cultures together in the room. With the international perspective of the lab, Ericka notes, “We’ll hear the perspective from India, how they’re doing, and in South Africa and so on.”

In the Lab the team involved 70% of women-identifying participants. Ericka explains: “Education has a lot of women, but at the base. And as you go up there’s more men. And this is all over the world, not just Mexico. So we said we need to empower, we need to create the new generation of leaders.” Participants range from people who work with natural resources management agencies, community leaders, and educators.

“What we see is that many educators have a double life,” says Ericka. “They are educators in the morning, and then outside in the afternoon they are doing these community initiatives all over the city.”

There are also researchers and academics who are working on projects within the sector. The team had to hold delicately the question of public officials. “A lot of public officials belong to the status quo, and what we want to do is disruptive,” says Ericka. “So we weren’t sure if other participants would feel comfortable about having the status quo in the space.” In the end, some were involved but not an overwhelming amount. “Just to keep the space safe,” Ericka recounts. “We wanted to make it safe for all, to invest in new leadership capacities, because sometimes in the Environmental sector it is always the same people at the party. We want to make a bigger party, we need new guests. So we also recruited young people, in their twenties and thirties, that’s important; we talk a lot about climate change and the youth but we have very limited spaces for them to participate. We need to make sure we are walking the talk in that sense.”

Examining the weaving

To measure the scale and impact of the process, UNESCO will have an evaluation of the project. UNESCO asked the team what they wanted to do about the evaluation, and they realized: no one wants to do a typical evaluation.

“We realised we had a much more interesting process on our hands that was worth looking at. How we all went through the U together, and what we did throughout that process. The metaphor we use is that we were weaving the U together and different threads are different ideas, different cultures, different backgrounds. We’re trying to have a situated learning from where each person is; of course we want to change within the setting where we are working, and we want to enable a transformation. And at the same time we are working with social ecological systems where we cannot predict what is going to happen, so we can only try our best and let people take it to the next level as much as they want to.”

In the end, the team and UNESCO decided to delve into the background of how the process evolved, what methodology was used, and then the different actors are going to share their process. UNESCO, in their education for sustainable development agenda in Mexico, are often centered on educators as teachers primarily in the formal system. But in the call for participants in the Transformative Leadership Lab, the team included public officials, informal educators, community leaders, seeking to bridge the perceived different siloes of culture and education. “We approach sustainability in an intercultural fashion,” describes Ericka. “So for us it is completely linked…I think we’re also changing this in a disruptive way.”

Ericka uses the image of weaving to conceptualise the project.

Expanding the project: when theory U is a new thread

Rèmie Nèijts, who is part of the team implementing the Transformative Learning Lab, was new to Theory U when he started working with Ericka. He is programme director of the multi-cultural programme in Tecnologico de Monterrey, working with a team under an innovative model: at the same time as they are doing their traditional courses, students can also learn about the world using five competencies: Knowledge; Communication, including non-verbal and cross-cultural; Skills, including relational; Social and Emotional Learning, and Engagement.

For Rémie, a guiding question is: “What are you going to do? How can you contribute?” During the pandemic, he found the Transformative Education project.

Rèmie reflects: “I think we have something really great, I really believe in it and hope that it is something that can be replicated. Theory U was completely new to me. I still haven’t done the 1x or 2x process. I think it is very interesting because the way of doing things eliminates what holds people back from arriving at a good result. I’m also interested in implementing it at the University. The challenges we have here are different from an NGO group, but the ideas are the same. What you want to do is to change a mindset and work together to see how things can be done.”

Rèmie candidly knows: “It’s not that easy to understand: the ideas are easy, but how do you actually convince a group of where you want to go? I think that’s the challenge of Theory U. However, if there’s a good methodology of doing it, I think it can have marvelous results.”

Ericka notes that a difficult thing about moving from the initial idea to action was explaining the idea and process itself. “I have worked in sustainability and development all of my life. So when you explain to someone that you want to set-up a multi-stakeholder systems-orientated initiative, people look at you like it doesn’t make any sense.” Ericka looks at Rèmie. “I have to give it to Rèmie, he has been so patient with me. You felt like that at the beginning right?”

Rèmie nods: “It was complicated to get the whole thing. What is the concept? What are you trying to achieve? What’s the method? You have to break it down to be able to understand it. And honestly, maybe I still don’t understand it 100%.”

Ericka notes that even when there are feelings of frustration, “at the end you depend on the generosity of the people who want to share their expertise and sit down. The amount of conversations you need to have in a complex project, that’s the actual work. Through meetings and coffees and chitchat you try to make sure everyone gets a sense of what we are doing together. That’s the hardest part.”

Rèmie sees this in his work: “we know it’s not possible to have all the answers. The important thing is to have the motivation to work on it, to learn. Without that you cannot start.”

“We are not the only ones weaving,” reflects Ericka. “We are weaving with others so we cannot have full control of when we meet or what happens. Working with these concepts of emergence, proto-typing, co-sensing, we ensured that we included these as guiding principles of our agenda. So people understand: ‘Am I letting go, am I starting to sense, am I now being able to presence something that wants to emerge in this community, am I crystallising, or am I not ready yet? Which is also fine.”

Movement and healing in the educational and environmental sector

Ericka sees the potential impact of Theory U and other transformative processes for teachers and young people. “It’s a really hard time for the educational sector,” reflects Ericka. “The other day I was talking to a psychologist who works in a secondary school and she is the only psychologist for 600 young people. The extent to which she feels overwhelmed is beyond words.”

She continues: “I think a lot of educators really need tools to figure out themselves first, the inner world that they are experiencing and how they can provide support for young people when they [the educators] are feeling hopeless themselves. People, whether educators or not, are dealing with complex issues in sustainability. Environmentalists are the same, Mexico is now the most dangerous country for environmentalists, so even when they are doing very simple education practices they are feeling threatened. We need to open this space, learn to know how to design and sustain practices which allow people to address these systemic issues which are dangerous. It’s hard.”

In integrating the learning from stakeholders, part of the Transformative Learning Lab will no longer only be about sharing information but also providing healing. “It’s fundamental,” Ericka says. “Otherwise people cannot move. If you want to change a system, some of these things are not up to [individuals]. They are out of their control, so they need to find their place of contribution.”

Ericka reflects that in the past within the Environmental sector, people have been trained to become heroes. “Heroes are very close to martyrs. We need to start shaping change agents so they don’t have to sacrifice as heroes all the time. They get smart at reading the systems, learning how to find a leverage point, because this comes with big dangers. I don’t want to just train another generation of heroes, we need them safe, we need them alive.

The first threads of the tapestry

Looking back, the ESD Transformative Learning lab also had its roots in work done by Ericka, Christa, and other team members for years prior.

Ericka had her introduction to Theory U in 2010, during her Masters degree, when a lecturer introduced her to the work of Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, and Theory U. Ericka would write her master’s thesis on complex adaptive systems, and as she continued her work with Theory U and systems design, she completed u-lab 1x and 2x, as well as training through GIZ (The German Society for International Cooperation). Ericka soon realised she could use the tools to develop her own thoughts on how to design transformational processes, deal with complexity, and multi stakeholder approaches.

Working with ESD Expert Net, first as a trainee and then becoming an expert in the network, Ericka started to develop a new Training of Trainers (ToT) manual in 2016 to integrate their material with the new UNESCO global action programme agenda. Ericka put Theory U into the global training manual, to give a glimpse of how transformation unfolds. She reflects: “Theory U has been a playground for me. I have had the chance to work with the tool directly for years. To me it was like having a lens to have a look at how to design processes. As a practitioner Theory U has been the most useful tool I work with.”

Emerging patterns: “I’m not going to try and control it…”

In 2020, when the pandemic arrived, Ericka started to share ideas for projects with one of the other experts from ESD Expert Net, including Dr. Christa Henze from The University of Duisburg-Essen.

“Christa and I wanted to work together on a different perspective, how UNESCO has put forward that it is a priority to work on transformative landscapes, transformative education. It is very much in line with Theory U. So we signed up for 2x, saying we have this Training for Trainers, and we want to work out some UNESCO trends: how do you design learning landscapes when you have social injustice, climate injustice — it’s not so easy to bring about transformation and you have to fight these systemic aggressions.”

Rejoining u-lab ten years after first encountering it, Ericka noted that Theory U had changed since she started using it in her graduate work. She also discovered that she had developed the framework to let the process work on her, as the initial team that Ericka and Christa had put together for the 2x process came and went.

“I thought: “For once, I’m not going to try and control it. I am going to try and live Theory U fully, and not try and control who will stay, who is leaving. Christa and I stayed throughout the process, and we were learning these new skills, systems change, reading the system, doing the stakeholder interviews, understanding the dynamics, social presencing. We were having fun, basically. I was coming to it as a project manager who liked to be in control, but the magic happens when you avoid controlling, and just hold space.” — Ericka

Unraveling the knots, and what thread to follow next?

Rèmie thinks that the outlook is not as bleak as we sometimes think. He calls on people to hope, and not give up. “Do the opposite of what we are confronted with right now. We get so much negativity from everywhere. Why shouldn’t we start calling out the successes? I think that might be highly motivating for certain people. I think that’s the direction I would like to go.”

Ericka sees the movement toward local implementation. “Now, we have partnerships with UNESCO and other federal agencies in Mexico, like the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas. I think there’s a big chance that we may replicate it. If we explain the process well it’s really up to us how far we want to take it. We have been invited to a Siemens STEM event in January, to share our experience. I think there are a lot of possibilities.” Ericka recognizes that in moving from planning to implementation, in some important senses, is always a ‘new thing.’ She sees two simultaneous U’s in the process, that of the project and holding team, and that of the participants. “There is no manual to do this. I think now that we leave our U, and enter into the participants’ U’s, we’re going to learn even more. Because this is the real deal.”

She references a piece from Theory U, when suddenly there was a felt sense of the field of the future, tapping on their shoulders, saying: ‘hey: this is what is going to emerge’. “I think the learning for me is summed up by how to become better systems listeners,” Ericka says.She acknowledges we don’t really know what will happen. “If we see it from a systems perspective, the system will let us know. Maybe in a couple of months, maybe in a couple of years, maybe in a couple of decades. We also have to be open to that, we don’t know yet what the impact will be, but we’re making our biggest effort.”

Interviewing and writing by Kathryn Ghent

Writing and editorial from Emma D. Paine, editorial Rachel Hentsch