Contributor: Joanne Coysh
There have been three happenings over the last week that have captured my attention and challenged me think more deeply about how we create spaces of change and what this means. These were the first live session for the ULab, the publication of Craig Valters’ thought piece on Theories of Change and the launch of the CIVICUS 2015 State of Civil Society Report.
ULab is an online, free, MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) organised by MIT though EdX which aims to turn on its head more traditional ideas of higher education by taking learning out into communities and onto the streets, to link the power of entrepreneurship with our passion and compassion and to harness self-knowledge. It brings together nearly 35,000 people from around the world interested and willing to try and create profound social change by connecting to each other and creating a type of learning which is more ‘personal, practical, relational, mindful, collective and transformational.’ The course is developed around Theory U which proposes that “the quality of the results that we create in any kind of social system is a function of the quality of awareness, attention, or consciousness that the participants in the system operate from.” It proposes that rather than, as we often do, in learning from the past, that change starts with sensing and actualising one’s highest possibility and acting from the presence of what is wanting to emerge (presencing). That only by observing and letting-go of habitual ways of doing can the space open up in letting-come the new more creative and innovative transformative actions; that we must turn the lens and reflect back upon ourselves and our world, to cultivate an open mind, open heart and open will so as to see and feel the interconnection between the self, others and the system.
A Theory of Change (TOC) approach is something that has been deliberated and developed within the international development sector trying to understand better how change happens and what their contribution to it should be. However, what started out as a dynamic debate rapidly developed into static one-dimensional representations from various NGOs of their own organisational theory of change; what changes they aimed to bring about and how they were going to do this through their work. Craig Valters’ paper brings the argument back to the core issue that theories of change is not a tool, but should rather focus upon reflective practice and critical inquiry about ways of working and learning how to make a difference in the world. It is fundamentally about the relationship between theory into action – reflecting upon ourselves, each other and the world in order to bring about change it (praxis). Fortunately, Valter’s paper is a call to the development sector to reconsider their approach to TOC and one which may be taken seriously as it comes from ODI, rather than those of us on the periphery. Any approach, he says, should focus upon: process, learning, local level voices and choices and used as a compass for navigation through the sea of change rather than a linear one-way route.
Finally, on Friday I attended the CIVICUS and Barings Foundation launch of the 2015 State of Civil Society Report which draws upon a series of inputs contributed by the members of the CIVICUS Alliance in order to offer “a comprehensive picture of civil society and the conditions it works in around the world.” Part of the discussion which caught my attention was about the way that civil society often comes together to fill the gaps where formal institutional and organisational systems and structures fail. How these spaces are triggered spontaneously and that the change emerges organically, without a roadmap, project plan or logframe. That ultimately civil society does not only consist of formal organisations - NGOs which rely upon and survive upon donations and institutional funding - but rather those informal and emergent relational spaces, which are responsive and adaptive to the context, built upon collaboration and collective energy, that learn from real life experiences and practice and consistently build upon this.
Over the coming weeks, I will be exploring some of these issues in more detail as I too follow the ULab journey, consider how these issues apply to my own practice and work and the three core elements of participatory inquiry: insight, interaction and interconnection.