In conversation with Josh Schachter, founder and director of CommunityShare (www.communityshare.us), on stewarding learning ecosystems, interviewed by the WISE team.
What sparked your interest in learning ecosystems?
Though it may sound strange, I often joke with my students that lemurs were some of my best mentors in making sense of the world. My formal training is in ecosystem management and social ecology, so I have followed around all kinds of creatures – endangered butterflies, river turtles, raptors and palm trees. As a teenager, I had the good fortune to study lemurs in Madagascar. From sunrise to sunset I followed a troop of ring-tailed lemurs around the gallery forests of Berenty Reserve. As I developed my observation skills, I began to discern their movement patterns and their relationship to other lemur troops and the resources around them. I noticed tourists were feeding candy and bananas to some lemur troops, which led them to expend more energy fighting each other instead of searching for tamarind pods in the wild. These experiences taught me to see relationships and to understand how disruptions to an ecosystem can have multiple consequences. They helped me to see and think “ecosystemically,” which has informed how I tell stories through my photography and how I approach my teaching and designing learning ecosystems.
Real-world learning experiences like those with the lemurs instilled in me a fire to ensure that all young people have the opportunity to discover their own passions and purpose. I was quite bored throughout my K-12 schooling years and it was not until I got into “the field” with community mentors that I saw the relevance of biology, collaboration, or critical thinking.
In 2006, I was able to put these ideas into practice when I co-founded with educator Julie Kasper a program called Finding Voice in a high school in Tucson, Arizona. Finding Voice supported refugee and immigrant youth in developing their literacy skills through multimedia storytelling and civic engagement. Our students explored their own lived experiences through writing and multimedia arts and then applied their skills to address a real-world challenge in their community. In addition to teaching photography to our students, my role was to match our students’ goals and community projects with partners who could serve as mentors and collaborators. Our students did amazing things, from partnering with local landscape architects to redesign our high school campus to presenting refugee and immigration policy reforms at a Congressional Briefing in the U.S. House of Representatives in partnership with Congressman Raul Grijalva and Senator John McCain. Over eight years we engaged over 100 community partners. But what I had not anticipated is that when I left high school nearly all of those relationships – social capital – went with me. I realized that this approach to connecting community resources with schools was not very sustainable, equitable or adaptable to change. I wondered if there might be a way to democratize connectedness so that all students and educators in schools and out-of-school spaces could more equitably access the social, intellectual, creative, and cultural capital in their community.
I started conversations with my colleagues about the idea of creating a regional human library of human books of knowledge and wisdom that could connect students and educators with community partners. So in 2014, we started building an online platform that today enables individuals and organizations to reveal the wisdom, skills, and life experiences they would like to share. Every month for six years, my team and I have co-designed the iterative development of the platform and our other programs. The platform enables educators to create requests (e.g. project ideas) and then the system matches them with a list of potential partners who have real-world experiences that could support that request. They can invite one or more partners to engage with them and their students. Our community partners range widely – parents, employees in a company, nonprofit or government agency, university graduate students, retirees …anyone who has a lived experience they would like to share. I remember a few years ago we had a second-grade teacher who was trying to increase student engagement for her history unit, so she jumped on the CommunityShare platform and found local artist Kate Hodges. Kate had the students explore local Native American history and their own family histories by creating ceramic cliff dwellings, songs, and family oral histories. The impact was so high that Kate continued to collaborate with that teacher for three years and over those years invited her social networks, such as a local Tohono O’odham artist who mentored the students in the Tohono O’odham language and the Sonoran Desert ecology.
Through this work, we quickly discovered that many educators wanted to do more real-world learning with their students, but needed a community of peers to develop their capabilities, confidence, and practice. So for six years, CommunityShare has facilitated an 8-month community of practice (CoP) that provides a safe space for educators to learn with and from each other about community engagement, real-world learning, and student voice/choice. Each educator is encouraged to develop their own personal goals as a learner and educator and adopt an experiential mindset. CommunityShare provides the educators with a seed grant to co-design a project with one or more community partners. Since teaching is one of the most isolating professions, one of the most significant benefits of the CoP has been the wellness resulting from deeply engaging with their peers. COVID-19 has only heightened the need for the CoP and CommunityShare. One CoP teacher shared: “COVID-19 presents a unique set of challenges for teachers and students, and programs like CommunityShare are even more essential in expanding our capacity and closing education gaps by bringing resources and partners into classrooms.” The CoP has also offered a critical space for educators to become stewards of CommunityShare’s own organizational development. Every month since 2014 they have co-designed our vision for our regional learning ecosystem as advisors, researchers, content creators, and experimenters.
Since launching CommunityShare in 2015, over 12,000 youth have engaged in real-world learning experiences with community partners. In Tucson, Arizona we have over 750 educators from 320+ schools and over 500 community partners. We’ve expanded to Phoenix and Yuma, AZ, and Las Cruces, NM. Since COVID-19 impacted schools during the Spring of 2020, interest in CommunityShare has dramatically increased as the pandemic has exacerbated the inequities and fragilities of our education system. People are looking for more holistic, adaptable solutions that can support learning in multiple contexts. We are currently in conversations with organizational partners in over 15 states and multiple countries like Canada, Spain, and New Zealand about supporting them in developing their own regional learning ecosystems using CommunityShare’s tools and strategies.
You speak more of stewarding than leading Learning Ecosystems, can you explain?
As someone who teaches storytelling, I think all too often we get absorbed through media and societal narratives around the “heroes’ journey.” That “a hero” is going to lead us out of the latest challenge, crisis, pandemic… I think of that political cartoon in which the speaker at the microphone says “Who wants change?” and everyone in the audience raises their hand. Then the speaker asks “Who wants to change?” and all hands drop down.
If we are truly going to address the root causes of the systemic issues we face today in education and beyond, we need to shift the narrative of change. We must become the stewards of our own narrative and the collective narrative we want to create in the world. This requires that we not only shift our own mindsets but also create opportunities for everyone in a community to see that each of us has unique gifts and lived experiences that are essential to creating resilient, vibrant learning ecosystems and communities.
This thinking deeply informed the development of CommunityShare, as I have felt we needed to create spaces and pathways for community members to engage in activities that enable them to discover (and in some cases rediscover) their unique gifts, beyond what might be on their business card and beyond what society might have defined for them. A grandfather, gardener, neighborhood historian, first-generation college graduate…When you expand people’s sense of identity and purpose you can develop the will for people to contribute to something larger than themselves. That is stewardship.
Who are these stewards? What makes an effective steward?
In a healthy learning ecosystem, everyone is a steward. Having said that, there are critical roles in a learning ecosystem that contribute to health, vibrancy, and resilience.
- Cultural translators: They build bridges between worlds – cultures, institutions, lexicons, histories. In an education context, this person might be the PK-12 teacher who used to work in industry who can help other teachers develop effective work-based learning partnerships with industry. It could be the neighborhood grandmother “wisdom bearer” who can help neighborhood kids see how stories of the past have shaped the realities of today.
- Pollinators/weavers: We all know these people, who are energized by connecting people, resources and ideas across institutional, geographic and/or socioeconomic lines. Sometimes they are formally recognized as the “community outreach coordinator” and sometimes they are weaving invisibly.
- Conveners: These folks bring together individuals and organizations from diverse socioeconomic, institutional and geographic spaces in ways that enable each member in a learning ecosystem to see their unique role and how they can add value to other member’s work and the health of the whole. Imagine a business education coalition convening educators, youth, parents, and businesses to co-create work-based learning pathways for students inside and outside school to grow the future workforce.
- Disruptors/Pioneers: These catalysts are going to ensure that their learning ecosystem is a living system that is dynamic, versus the calcified bureaucratic processes we often experience in the current educational paradigm. This may look like students speaking up at their school board meeting, an artist exploring the purpose of school through theater or an educator pushing for her students to get college credit in high school for work-based learning projects.
- Surveyors: They see the trees and the forest, scanning the landscape for gaps, opportunities, and energy in the larger learning ecosystem. They look at the ecotones, the space where two ecosystems overlap and where often the greatest diversity and innovation is invisibly manifesting. Like permaculturalists, they also look for opportunities to “stack functions.” This might be a neighborhood organizer or PK-12 educator who sees a community urban forestry project not merely as a “tree planting” but as an opportunity for youth to learn urban ecology, become more physically active, engage in mitigating climate change and build relationships with multiple generations in their neighborhood.
- Storytellers: They search for what voices and narratives are being heard or not, what stories are emerging at the margins, and how narratives are defining our perception of individual and collective agency and our measures of success. They serve as a mirror, inviting members of a learning ecosystem to reflect on their own assumptions, perceptions and roles, and as a window, highlighting our collective potential to create new narratives and policies that foster a sense of stewardship to contribute to something larger than ourselves.
An individual or organization can hold one or more of these stewardship roles; and some strategic redundancy in these roles can actually foster resiliency. There are likely many other roles essential to growing dynamic learning ecosystems. Every day, these roles are practiced by students, educators, school administrators, parents, local business owners, elders and others. They are largely invisible and, in most cases, not explicitly valued or recognized by society. Their actions often fall outside of traditional job descriptions and into the sphere of stewarding “public good.”
There are no recipes, lists, or templates for what makes a robust steward or learning ecosystem, as every community and place holds its own story. Having said that, my colleagues and I have found that learning ecosystems seem to thrive when members practice an abundance mindset, a willingness to test assumptions and experiment with new ideas with humility and curiosity and see that systems change is only possible if we are willing to commit to our own development as educators and learners in the community.
Who knew lemurs had so much to say if we just listened? But after all, nature is our greatest mother of invention.