Community Learning Exchange

I'm curious about experiences in the size of a community and the ability to maintain inclusiveness.  Here in Kalamazoo, MI we have a Community Learning Network project that has made a real effort to be inclusive.  However, from my perspective, as this has geared up the more powerful and established groups and organizations have had the most profound influence.  Traditionally marginalized groups and individuals do not seem to be at the table or have any real voice.  How can this be overcome, good intentions pushed aside by existing power structures?  There seems to be a link between the size of the community, the amount of money involved, and the ability to be truly inclusive.  Any insights?

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Hi Paul,

This is a great question and I hope several people from our network weigh in on it.  Without knowing all the details of what you've already done, some ideas that come to mind for me are to create some spaces where all voices have an equal opportunity.  It sounds like  some peoples voices are not being heard, and others just aren't showing up, despite invitations.  Sometimes groups that have traditionally been left out need an additional level of relationship building and trust before they are willing to join a group because their past experiences of being mistreated, unrepresented, and not heard. This can take time and may require a one-to-one connection, or a small group meeting(s) before committing to being part of the larger group.

Once people are together, we often employ circle technology to allow everyone an opportunity to speak personally, not necessarily as a representative of a group.  Some basic guidelines: use a talking piece, go around the circle in a clockwise direction, have people mutually agree to only talk when they have the talking piece and listen when others have it. This technology is based in ancient traditions and can be very powerful if done sincerely.  There are a number of people in this network who have experience with using circles that could be helpful if this is a route you think might help.

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the reply and excellent observations and suggestions.  It certainly resonates when you note that groups (or individuals) who have traditionally been left out need an additional level of relationship building to overcome past experiences of being ignored or mistreated.  While this might happen in the future, I'm concerned that with this particular project it seems to be forming from the top down with an intent to reach out later on.  I have expressed this concern more than once, and while it was graciously recieved, nothing changed.

Regarding the issue of scale; the circle technology certaily would allow everyone an opportunity to speak, yet there is likely a tipping point where too many people make the activity less viable.  Perhaps we need a way for smaller groups to link with the larger group and bring a meaningful voice to the table.

Thanks for the reply and help.

Hi Paul, it's good to hear from you, and thanks for your good question.  I'll sound like Steve Stapleton a bit when I say that I don't know enough about your context, though I know a bit as I've visited with you, Juan Muniz, and others when I traveled to Kalamazoo a couple of years ago.  

From an outside perspective, it sounds like an important issue is about the history and values of the "more powerful and established groups and organizations." It could be the practices and/or values of those organizations aren't friendly to the "marginalized groups and individuals" you speak of.  It's not unusual to see these kinds of organizations employ rhetoric that sounds inviting and friendly to the marginalized, but the organizational practices may be counter to the rhetoric.  

We've responded to these kind of issues by helping organizations look inwardly.  Organizations commonly get mired in certain practices that may be counter to their mission, but can remedy that if they engage in honest, critical, self reflection.  This requires sophisticated facilitation, but it's worth doing.  

Our Community Learning Exchange process hits on these organizational issues, particularly as participating organizations are challenged to think about the hard issues of relationships, trust, inclusion/exclusion, etc.  

I hope your community can figure things out.

Hola Francisco,

Thank you for the reply.   Your comments speak directly to the situation as I percieve it.  Here's a little more background for context.  I acknowledge that these are my perceptions and may be different from others.

The Learning Network is a project in Kalamazoo that is largely funded by the Kellogg Foundation with a substantial contribution from our local community foundation.  The Kalamazoo Community Foundation is administering the program.  The rhetoric has been about inclusiveness and fostering an iterative process.  I've been involved for some time in the meetings and discussions.  To date I've not seen substantial representation by any of the groups that are targeted for change (learning); only by groups that will implement the change.  At the last meeting I attended I urged planners to develop a mission model with "learners" at the center rather than the "network" at the center.  It seems to me that the focus of the network is to build a network rather than serve those with the greatest need.

My question is how can marginalized groups and people gain voice in a large project with considerable financial resources and powerful players at the table?  You mention the need for sophisticated facilitation and I agree.  A potential problem is that the larger group seems unable to engage in the honest, critical, self reflection that you mention as a prerequisite.  While the process is clearly not business as usual, power is still controlled by a familiar few.

Clearly, we can form a little group and seek inclusion, but I dream of real transformation in which marginalized groups don't have to come begging and play by the rules others have set up for them.


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