News & Update

Using Emergent Learning to Meet Challenges and Foster Racial Equity

We have been working to open source social change for about a decade now, and one framework continues to be foundational to how we share our lessons in real time: the Emergent Learning approach. Emergent Learning is a framework for on-going, rigorous learning about complicated and complex challenges. The framework was introduced to Living Cities through our work with 4QP, which pioneered the approach. The framework is best represented through one of the tools in the approach, called an “Emergent Learning Table.”

The Emergent Learning Table, like the overall framework itself, uses a big-picture framing question to guide a facilitated conversation about lessons learned and performance. (A framing question could be something like: “What does it take to accelerate change in cities through supporting public sector practitioners?”) The conversation moves from a discussion of what has happened in the past (data and stories), to what we can learn from the past (insights), to what those learnings mean for the future (hypotheses), to what we can do about these learnings to improve our work (opportunities). Going through this process can help make sense of complex happenings and distill the lessons down to core ideas that can directly improve our operations and lead to results.

Four years into this process, I’ve seen the evolution of the lessons learned from past work that are being built into our current portfolio. Our learning process is not separate from our racial equity practice, in fact it supports our accountability practice.”

Emergent Learning is particularly useful for organizations working on systems changes or with cross-sector collaboration. Because systems change and cross-sector work is inherently complicated or complex, and involves multiple partners, it’s hard to understand or “make meaning” of what is happening in the work.

“Not only does [Emergent Learning] make my thought process richer and help me get deeper in my own analysis,” said my colleague, Alyssa Smaldino, Senior Associate, “it also strengthens my understanding of my colleagues’ reflections and experiences, improving our ability to collaborate.”

For example, we saw that community engagement was a consistent challenge across cross-sector collaborations involved with our Integration Initiative. By using the principles of Emergent Learning, we were able to distill the data and stories from what our partners were learning into core concepts that help others work with community members more effectively.

How we’ve operationalized Emergent Learning at Living Cities

The folks at 4QP have several different tools to help you implement Emergent Learning in your operations. We have adapted the framework and applied it to our work in several different ways:

  • Practice Emergent Learning at regular checkpoints: One of the early criticisms that we heard from staff about the Emergent Learning framework was that it took up a lot of time. For some facilitated Emergent Learning conversations, we used up the whole workday–sometimes two! In certain cases, spending this time on learning is warranted and necessary, such as at the end of a program or at the beginning of a fiscal year. But spending that amount of time quarterly or even every-other month is not recommended. Instead, we developed a stripped-down version of the Emergent Learning framework that a small subset of staff walk through each month. This way, key staff understand the most important lessons learned as we go, and they can apply these lessons directly to their work as needed. We save the bigger, time-intensive conversations for things like annual retreats.
  • Track learnings through standardized templates: One big challenge we had through implementing Emergent Learning is regularly tracking and recording our learnings. Teams did this in different ways–everything from compiling meeting notes to doing regular blog posts on major lessons learned. We developed a standard Excel spreadsheet that consolidates the major items we want to track over time–insights, specific stories of impact, important learning questions, and performance measures. This allows information to be standardized across teams and to be included in a central location.
  • Apply the rigor of Emergent Learning both internally and externally: Emergent Learning was first brought to Living Cities as a way to make sense out of what we were learning in our work in cities across the country. But we realized that this level of rigorous learning was important to apply to our internal processes as well. We asked questions about how we were operationalizing racial equity within the organization, which led to several major insights and resources that we’ve been able to share with others looking to do similar work.

As my colleague, Hafizah Omar, Senior Associate, said, “Four years into this process, I’ve seen the evolution of the lessons learned from past work that are being built into our current portfolio. Our learning process is not separate from our racial equity practice, in fact it supports our accountability practice.”

  • Integrate Emergent Learning with racial equity practices: Emergent Learning is a tool we have used on our racial equity journey. While it was not developed as a tool for racial equity organizing, there are many elements of the Emergent Learning framework that are useful for racially equitable decision making. An Emergent Learning conversation encourages the sharing and validation of all perspectives, which helps cut against traditional white institutional culture that prioritizes hierarchy and technical expertise. Emergent Learning also centers work around big-picture questions, rather than metrics or benchmarks, creating a more nuanced and more human understanding of issues. Emergent Learning allows for “lived experience” to sit alongside quantitative data in equal measure.

“[W]e leverage our learning process to… identify the ways in which we, a white-led organization, continue to share our anti-racist journey publicly, while deepening accountability to Black and brown people in the places we serve,” said my colleague Santiago Carrillo, Senior Associate.

In our next blog reflecting on our internal learning and results work, we’ll be discussing how we use our performance management process to translate the information we collect into usable, actionable data points.

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