Learning together: an analysis of different modalities of collective learning

Par Siddharth A Mar 12, 2023

Participants from Armenia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan pose for a photo during the meeting and learning conversations in Tbilisi, Georgia. Learn more about the exchange here.

As a diverse, Global South-led network of social movements, civil society organizations, communities and grassroots groups, our members and partners are constantly in the process of learning and unlearning, with and from each other. 

At the Coalition for Human Rights in Development, we have certain core beliefs that unite us and inform our collective work. Firstly, communities are the experts on their own development pathways and priorities, and the rest of us need their expertise to fulfill our mission. Secondly, communities, defenders and their allies value being together and learning together in horizontal, respect-based relationships. And thirdly, exchanging information, skills, tools, and resources is crucial to build power and solidarity to advance human rights in development.

Over the years – through over 250 collaborations with communities defending their rights in the context of international investments and development activities – we have experimented with different modalities on how to be together and learn together. We are excited to articulate below some of the collective learning processes that our collaborators are finding helpful:

Learning Exchanges

We bring together two or more community groups affected by different internationally financed projects to cross-share experiences and strategies. Community groups set the agenda, can bring their key allies, and we facilitate and arrange translation and interpretation as relevant. For example, we helped facilitate a three part learning exchange between Indigenous communities in Nepal and in Panama, affected by transmission line projects funded respectively by the European Investment Bank and the World Bank Group. The Nepalese communities’ strategies to mobilize on Free Prior and Informed Consent were helpful for the Panamanian counterpart, who in turn shared useful information that encouraged the Nepalese group to further advance their advocacy with the United Nations (UN).  

Learning Circles

Learning Circles draw on the talking circle methodology practiced by several Indigenous Peoples, and are useful where there is no right answer, and no one person or group has the answers. The logic is that if we bring together enough perspectives from people with shared goals we can develop a richer understanding of the situation and the pros and cons of different strategies. It is key to have a diversity of participants, including for example grassroots communities, civil society representatives, and where applicable folks with relevant professional experiences. These are horizontal learning processes of 8 to 15 people, so they need to be facilitated such that all speakers have equal speaking time and no one participant or type of participant dominates the discussion. The key collective learnings are then documented and shared more widely, with or without attribution as the group decides. In some cases learning circles can be set up as a fishbowl, where a smaller group of participants discusses with a wider audience looking in and having the potential to ask questions. For example we hosted a learning circle on how defenders can engage development banks on reprisals, and the key learnings were documented in an infographic that has been helpful for other defenders facing similar issues. 

Learning Labs

Learning labs are used when collaborators want to learn a specialized technical skill like using a particular communications software, or writing a press release. Here too collaborators are seen as equal participants who bring deep expertise on their goals and context. The labs include sharing of skills by those with formal expertise and cross-sharing of experiences by peers using the same or similar skills. Participants then apply the skills to their own context and have the space to seek and give feedback. Learning lab facilitators may also share toolkits and templates that can be used by participants later on in their work. For example, our Communication Facilitator facilitated a learning lab on how to use Canva, an online graphic design tool. Similarly, we supported our member Inclusive Development International to organize a multi-part, in-person learning lab on doing follow the money research. 

Communities of action

Learning is crucial for our collective movements for economic and social justice to thrive. We bring people together because we believe that learning together can also build solidarity and collective action. We encourage the activists to see how their struggles, while unique, are also inextricably linked. Perhaps some of them are facing similar difficulties to see their narratives and struggles positively covered in corporate media, or perhaps they are facing trouble from electricity sector projects funded by the InterAmerican Development Bank. 

Whatever unites them, we hope that several of them start working together in communities of action, becoming a force to contend with for the financial institutions, governments and transnational corporations that are violating their rights. Indeed, in our efforts to create communities of action, we are intentionally thinking about which communities and grassroots allies to connect with each other, how to frame initial discussions, and which collaborators could complement the collective strategizing and actions.

We are sure several of you are already using these methodologies in your own work, perhaps using the same or different names. These modalities are not meant to be straight-jackets of process, but rather flexible tools that we can use in different contexts. Often when we have a meeting or a gathering, we will use multiple modalities for different purposes, so that we are using the best tool possible to advance the goals of our grassroots collaborators. No matter which modality we are choosing, our key principle is to intentionally value all kinds of expertise, and especially the expertise of local communities, defenders and Indigenous Peoples who are living and breathing the impacts of international investments and development finance. 

Do these different collective learning modalities resonate with you? Have you tried any different pedagogical approaches in your schools, networks and organizations, which you think we can incorporate in our work? We would love to learn together with and from you! Email us at contact@rightsindevelopment.org

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Siddharth A
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