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How to Create a Culture of Learning

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Early this August, RVC welcomed our second cohort of brilliant emerging leaders to the Fellowship Program. We began with an opening retreat to create space for our fellows to get acquainted with each other, establish strong relationships and trust among the cohort, develop deep understandings of personal journeys and community context, and set expectations, goals, and vision for the program.

During a debrief on day two, a fellow stated, “I’ve never been in a workplace where I was able to get to know and build relationships with the people I’ll be working with. Or be prepared and have the tools for the work I will do.”

To be honest, I’m not sure if the first cohort of RVC fellows would say the same. We made many mistakes. In the midst of “sailing the ship as we build it”, as we say jokingly around in the office, we failed to create a curriculum that ushered in a positive learning process from the outset.

A couple of months ago at a brown bag meeting with the first cohort, a fellow shared how scared she was to make a mistake at her organization because in grassroots community organizations like hers, making one mistake can literally cost the organization thousands of dollars.

The stakes are high for communities of color led organizations. Most are under-staffed, under-resourced, and underfunded yet serve hundreds of people and are doing a lot with little. It often feels like making mistakes  can be a privilege.

Given that many communities of color led organizations are working with little, asking them to take risks and make lessons out of mishaps is asking a lot. However, there are some things we can do to create a culture of learning.

Here are a few of the lessons we’ve learned.

Build Relationship and Establish Trust: Establish strong relationships and trust so staff and volunteers feel comfortable sharing challenges and have opportunity to work collectively in addressing those challenges. Addressing an issue collectively allows for everyone to contribute, for creativity to brew, and fosters a shared sense of responsibility and allows information sharing to occur organically. Deep connections and investment in those relationships allow everyone to bring their best selves.

That same fellow I mentioned above said, “being able to be yourself, being trusted in your skills, talents and gifts, be transparent, and have autonomy is so important.”

Foster Transparency: Another fellow mentioned their frustration, that they weren’t even confident in making minor decisions because of the lack of transparency. They felt they didn’t have enough information to make informed decisions. To increase transparency, RVC has made two requests (among many) of our partner organizations that host fellows: 1) commit to undertaking an organizational assessment to understand what’s working and what needs to change, and set capacity-building priorities for the organization, and 2) have a six-month work plan for fellows that lays out the projects and expectations. By using these two tools, our hope is to create ample opportunity for fellows to learn by doing and take calculated risks.

Create a Culture of Feedback: As mentioned in a previous post, feedback is a necessary part of growth and learning. Not just top-down feedback, but laterally and from the bottom-up. The many times I’ve received feedback from my colleagues have been the most valuable part of my growth. It’s allowed me to build up my confidence and identify and accept the areas I need to continuously work to improve. Feedback also promotes self-awareness and builds trust.

Promote an Acceptance of Failure: In the West, we’ve been socialized to avoid failure and beat ourselves up for the mistakes we make. Even worse as “professionals” in the workplace we’re conditioned to think we should always have everything together. However, failure is an opportunity to learn. Failure is part of life and learning and workplaces need to promote failure as a part of the growth process. And as organizations and people working towards equity and justice we need to accept failure and celebrate failure as radical acts of transformation.

Institutionalize Ongoing Reflection. RVC consistently uses reflection as a way to celebrate the things that we’re doing well and acknowledge what needs to improve. We’ve sometimes leaned too heavily in one direction or the other; sometimes only celebrating our accomplishments, other times focusing too much on the things we need to change. Striking a happy medium is key. Creating opportunities for reflection after programs, events, or any engagement allows people to be heard, addresses root causes to recurring issues, and promotes a process for continuous learning. Reflections also build habits and norms that can support other areas of our work and life.  

Create Space for Public Learning: Learning sometimes means being uncomfortable, risk being embarrassed, and standing in the fire in public. RVC, in partnership with the Center for Ethical Leadership, ground our learning in the Gracious Space concept, applying the four elements–spirit, setting, inviting the stranger, and learning in public. Allowing those around us to learn with us and from us. When we learn in public, and often fail in public, we allow others to be witness to our transformation and learn from our failures. It’s horrifying and difficult to fail in front of others, but through that process you learn that the world doesn’t end because you made a mistake. So take a risk, try running a meeting, write an op-ed or a grant proposal, create a budget, whatever the thing you’re afraid to do, give it a try. By doing it you realize you can do it. For organizations, create these opportunities and provide the support employees need to grow and learn.

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