Reflection on MCLD’s (Un)Learning Labs

“Unlearning is the highest level of learning”

You know that feeling when you find something that you have been searching for your entire life? You step in the room…virtual or in-person…listen, and slowly find yourself instantly nodding in agreement, while also asking the question, “How am I just now finding myself here?” I know the feeling because I just recently went through this experience during my first (Un)Learning Lab by the Movement for Community-Led Development (MCLD) developed and led by MCLD members Sophie Kange (DENIVA, Uganda) and Sothin Ziba (Yamba Malawi, Malawi).

Over a week my evolution went from learning about MCLD to being introduced to the co-Founder of MCLD, John Coonrod, to (Un)Learning and growing with a global group of Community Champions at the latest MCLD (Un)Learning Lab! How would you define Community-Led Development? I hope you come back…but take a second and really think about your definition…write it down…and share it in the comment section below, please!!

MCLD defines CLD in the following way:

“Community-Led Development is a development approach in which local community members work together to identify goals that are important to them, develop and implement plans to achieve those goals, and create collaborative relationships internally and with external actors—all while building on community strengths and local leadership.”

The most beautiful part about CLD…it is dynamic, just like every community around the world. If you need a starting place, start with the aspirations of communities…the knowledge of communities…and the needs of the communities. Every level of CLD is built through co-creation. Think about this dialogue around CLD Strategic Planning:

“What if we go to our local organization and present our vision, shared values, model…and the community defines the plan from here?” A peer responded, “I appreciate how the local organization is leading the strategic planning…but instead, what if you approached your local organization and said, ‘This is what we have developed based on your vision and ours…did we get it right?’”

I have a big imagination, but I did not make up the conversation above. No, this was one of many brilliant “(Un)Learning Moments” during the MCLD (Un)Learning Lab on November 15, 2022. As a former middle school science teacher, I always made sure my students had a roadmap to success on lab day so that they could first become informed, and then embrace and enjoy the full experience! Prior to the (Un)Learning Lab, MCLD asked the Community Champions attending the event to create a vision, mission, and value statement for their organization. The first set of directions on the MCLD Roadmap:

  • They should be guided by the community, rather than one person or group’s ideas.
  • They should be able to evolve as people and situations change.

I got to work. This concept was not foreign to me…and was in my repertoire! The most valuable professional development I attended as a teacher was an AVID Culturally Relevant Teaching two-day course. I deepened my knowledge of this topic in graduate school reading cover to cover, Muhammad Khalifa’s “Culturally Relevant School Leadership,” and consumed article after article. Same story as above. If you want to serve a community, you must first understand the needs of that community. What happens next? Communities are dynamic and so must be strategic planning. One Community Champion in the (Un)Learning Lab spoke out, “It is a living document. We must be able to adapt to the changing dynamics and needs of the community.” But don’t fret, MCLD has some additional directions you and your fellow community champions can incorporate into the co-creation of a strategic plan.

CLD Principles in Action:

  • Participation, Inclusion, Voice
  • Local Resources
  • Sustainability
  • Accountability
  • Responsiveness to Context
  • Collaboration
  • Working with Local, Regional, and National Governments
  • Monitoring and Evaluation Processes
  • Facilitation

Back to the MCLD Lab! After sharing out and discussing all of the visions, mission, value statements, and the above CLD Principles, our MCLD Lab Teachers, Sophie and Sothin, reminded us our lab assignment was not to learn, it was to unlearn. How do we unlearn traditional methods like strategic planning? One Community Champion pointed out, “We seem to be looking at this from a leadership lens.” The engaging and thought-challenging discussion was not only one that I dove into headfirst…but also a discussion I was honored to be a part of and witness.

After a transformative conversation facilitated by Sophie, Sothin, and MCLD Director of Collaborative Research, Policy, and Practice, Gunjan Veda, we put on our lab goggles and safety equipment, joined our lab group, and investigated several case studies on local organizations under our CLD Microscopes. At one lab station was a PESTEL Analysis, and at our group’s lab station was a SWOT Analysis. What we discovered under our CLD Microscope can be seen below:

  • Strengths: Local Context and Knowledge, Community Needs, Youth Leadership Development, Relationships with other Local Organizations and Government
  • Weaknesses: Is sustainability (exit plan) present?
  • Opportunities: Leadership Development, Offices in Local Communities
  • Threats: Change in Government, Shifting Funding Priorities, New Players (also an opportunity!)

As we began to clean up our lab stations and pack up our bags, Sophie and Sothin provided us with questions to think about as a closure exercise. Strategic planning is only the beginning of the work…and as you move forward, think about the following questions:

  • How will we share this Strategic Plan with all relevant stakeholders?
  • How will we keep this Strategic Plan alive?
  • How will we ensure that we are following the Strategic Plan?

What I will always remember most about my experience at this Movement for Community-led Development (Un)Learning Lab is how welcoming this community was to me, a new “student,” and how my voice was immediately sought out and included. And really, that is what it all comes down to…inclusion. If there is no inclusion, there is no equity, and diversity is just that, diversity. Community-led Development starts with inclusion. Inclusion of community needs. Inclusion of community aspirations. Inclusion of community knowledge. And this is accomplished first through listening to the voices of the community. I will leave you with some closing dialogue from the (Un)Learning Lab:

“As a practitioner…how much content can you fit into one session?” The response proves that I discovered a community I have been searching for my entire life… “The most important thing is to create a space where everything you share is heard and included.”

Bravo, MCLD.

Jacob Deitz

Jacob Deitz is a former geologist and middle school science teacher currently on a journey with a global group of disrupters seeking to shift the power back to the people. As an advocate for collective impact, Jacob is seeking to create collaboration cells around the world that can approach community development in a truly holistic manner. 

Jacob was a participant in MCLD’s series on strategic planning as part of our new (Un)Learning Labs. To learn more about the (Un)Learning Labs and participate in future sessions, click here.

Featured Photo Credit: Johannes Ode, The Hunger Project (Benin)