A learning community is a group of folks who work together to learn about something. Increasingly used in schools, in 2011-12, I worked with a Seattle-based partnership to establish one among youth workers focused on the topic of youth engagement.
I first learned about learning communities from Giselle Martin-Kniep, the leader of an organization in New York called Communities for Learning. Her research and practice has changed dozens of schools across that state, and working with her in 2007-08 taught me the basics of developing learning communities.
Learning communities can help all kinds of professionals get better by teaching themselves and their peers, while learning from those same people. The King County Youth Engagement Practioners Cadre (KCYEPC) focused on a variety of topics of interest to our participants: activities, recruitment, adverse childhood experiences, and adultism, for example. Learning communities can focus on any subject, age group, community, or any combination of topics that facilitators believe need attention.
Learning communities depend on learners working together. Through deliberate team-building, communication, and trust exercises focused on shared professional examination, the KCYEPC developed their own group norms and learning goals. In the KCYEPC, learning community participants were united in their commitment to improving their youth engagement efforts.
Kyla Lackie was my co-facilitator from SOAR, a partner organization that serves as the coalition for children and youth in Seattle and throughout King County. Kyla facilitated everything with me. Despite us leading all the activities preliminarily, we constantly reinforced to the KCYEPC members that we were all there as co-learners. We led a variety of small group activities throughout our gatherings and challenged members with projects to collaborate on outside the meeting sessions.
Those collaborations didn’t cement overnight. Working with a subgroup to identify how adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, affect youth engagement, Gwen Wessels of Seattle Parks and Recreation said her group required personal investment. “We spent a lot of time figuring out how to make it work,” she says. “Instead of one of us saying, ‘This is how we’ll do our project,’ we asked everyone for input.” Once Gwen’s group let down their guard and started sharing their work, they began to learn together.
To members who were used to being the only ones in their organizations who “get it”, the KCYEPC became essential for their professional growth. However, sharing information about techniques was sometimes uncomfortable. To overcome these barriers, Kyla and I encouraged members to share their assumptions, successes, and failures with each other. Once they shared opinions in a trusting setting, members became open to deeper conversations and critical self-examination.
Learning community facilitators must establish trust, particularly among participants representing diverse perspectives. Learning has to focus on collaboration and not competition. KCYEPC members formed teams that wrote academic papers together, created mini-workshops to teach other members, and co-presented their learning throughout the year to professional gatherings at the end of their year together.
Other steps that are essential in learning communities include holding long enough learning times in order to work through issues in depth. The KCYEPC met for more than 50 hours over the course of eight months. They had four whole-day sessions, along with meeting outside those days and presenting to others groups.
Learning communities should represent as much diversity as possible. In New York, Martin-Kniep taught me early that broad populations of co-learners were often best for solving the challenges facing schools. Applying that same principle to community-based work, the KCYEPC members represented many different experiences, backgrounds, principles, and practices. Representing more than 20 organizations, the 22 members of the KCYEPC represented science education, youth homelessness, community organizing, and faith-based organizations, among many others. Participant ages ranged from 21 to 68.
Throughout the first year of the KCYEPC, we often sought to bring outside voices into our learning community. The broad perspectives of youth and professionals helped untangle some of the challenges our members faced that members couldn’t address. With contributions from young people affected by youth engagement outreach activities and policy-makers who had focused on engaging youth, our group of practitioners moved from being an interest-based study group towards a change-oriented learning community. With intensified focus, members started having tougher conversations about social justice, youth discrimination, and effective practice.
Perhaps it’s most important to remember to keep the learning in learning communities. Focused on improving individual professional action and personal engagement in youth work, KCYEPC members developed deeply, naturally. Examining challenging topics allowed members to take bold steps towards changing their communities.
Today, it’s most rewarding to hear about KCYEPC alumni members’ successes. One member reported being able to keep his job because he demonstrated his passionate commitment towards the youth he served, while another said her work was deepened across all kinds of boundaries because of our learning community.
Staying committed to the learning community approach, Seattle Public Schools Youth Engagement Zone program, supported by the Corporation for National and Community Service, obligated support for the KCYEPC throughout the 2012-13 school year. Kyla and I have been joined by one of our first year graduates, Teddy Wright, as a facilitator for CommonAction. We’re excited to continue growing and evolving our work into this year and look forward to all the excitement of continuing to foster this approach throughout our field and across this community, and hope it will serve as a model for communities across the nation into the future.