An Update from Learning Communities Project TAPROOT seminars
A few of you may wonder from time to time, "What the heck is the Learning
Communities Project up to?" Or something like that. After all, we keep
posting these announcements about upcoming Taproot seminars, and then we
fade into the background until the next announcement, right? Well, we'd
like to take a few minutes to update you and let you know what we're
Before we do that, we want to announce an upcoming seminar on
“Partnerships among land grant universities and nonprofits.” It will be
Oct. 28-Nov. 2 at the Glynwood Center in the Hudson River Valley. For
information, see www.centerss.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org or
Here's a quick overview of Taproot. It’s a series of seminars designed
for leaders of social change in agriculture. Our first objective is to
create an experience of a "learning community,” with opportunities for
building skills at the personal and group level as well as with larger
systems thinking and analysis.
So, just what exactly happens at these seminars, you may be asking?
Our first two seminars focused on multi-functional agriculture, a
framework that sees farmers as producers of not only food and fiber but
also "public goods" like landscape, wildlife habitat and water quality.
Drawing systems maps of local projects and analyzing driving forces,
trigger events, leverage points, stakeholders and other dynamics within
one’s system helps participants expand their view of what is possible and
develop new strategies.
Intertwined with this "systems analysis" are opportunities for people to
"know themselves" better as well as to assist groups in working more
effectively together. One of our hypotheses is that by better knowing
ourselves and the impact our behavior has on others, we can be more
effective at leading change. Participants work on uncovering
assumptions, acknowledging conflict styles and how to de-escalate
conflict, and reflect on the many layers of one's own contribution to
We and participants measure success through a variety of questionnaires
and interviews. Feedback from participants tells us that we are doing
well in some areas and need improvement with others.
We decided to try rating different aspects of the seminar with the
little-known-til-now "Five Tomato Award" system. Five tomatoes means the
fruit is well formed and we've accomplished what we set out to do. One
tomato means it just didn't happen, some flower, but no fruit - needs
Here's where we are:
Multi-functional agriculture - 2 tomatoes
Although multi-functional agriculture is a draw for people, most aren’t
satisfied that they learn enough. We need to figure out how to do it in
a way that connects local work with national and global strategy. And
that’s where we’re still looking for better tools, strategic insights
from colleagues, and more intellectual development in the sustainable
agriculture community as a whole. We think that we’ll do a better job
exploring multi-functional agriculture if we build from participants’
local work outward to larger strategic issues. During our first two
seminars we presented a global framework first, and this seemed
disconnected from local work for some participants. The key building
blocks of learning are probably personal stories, but we need to do a
better job of linking stories to policy change strategy.
Systems mapping and identification of leverage points - 3 tomatoes
Many participants find that systems mapping of their work is a valuable
part of the seminar. We also work on scenario planning and finding
leverage points in the imaginable “forks in the road” of change. Our
shortcomings so far are in the contribution of this analysis to shared
work on a regional or national level.
Practical tools to take back home - 4 tomatoes
Most participants anticipate using back home many of the tools they learn
from the seminar. We are just beginning the follow-up evaluation that
will give us a more concrete picture of what people are using and what
difference it’s making.
Increased personal and group skills - 5 tomatoes
Sessions on assumptions and mental models, conflict resolution,
self-reflection skills, and improving group effectiveness work for most
participants and many feel changed by the experience. (See testimonials
Experience of a Learning Community - 4 tomatoes
Though it is temporary, each Taproot does create a "learning community”
where people develop trust in one another, share power, own their
learning experience, articulate group-defined boundaries and rules, bring
conflict out in the open and work to understand it, reflect on their
actions, and develop the courage for taking risks.
Confidence to create learning communities at home – 2 tomatoes
Participants, particularly from Taproot II, intend to create learning
communities back home, but several express a lack of confidence that they
can use the deeper tools of mental models and sharing. Participants seem
to assume that the “special” atmosphere of a Taproot seminar is essential
to creating a safe enough environment for people showing up with their
whole selves. We need to test this assumption with more “taking it home”
visioning and first steps.
Other things we've reflecting about:
· People are thirsting for opportunities to talk about what each other is
doing, learning about what is working and what isn't. Many feel isolated
in their work as leaders of agricultural change.
· Many participants want increased skills at “bringing more people to the
table” and “increasing involvement in local groups”. These are basic
community organizing skills that seem to be lacking in a lot of
sustainable agriculture groups. We know these skills are being taught
well by some training centers, so we're not yet sure how much of this to
incorporate into Taproot seminars.
· We haven’t quite settled on the steps from individual leadership
development to a “training for trainers” format in which we are
explicitly helping participants become the facilitators of leadership in
others. We have become more transparent in our methods, explaining why
we are doing things all through the seminars, so we’re moving in the
direction of helping people learn how to run these sessions themselves.
All this being said, participants do benefit from the seminars. John
Gerber, a participant in the second Taproot seminar, put it this way,
“Taproot, more than any other workshop I've attended, has given me
practical tools for behavioral change at both the personal and
organizational levels. If we are going to change the world, we’ll need
to do both.”
A few other testimonials follow:
- Mapping the system helps me see much more clearly where I am and what
my possibilities are.
- The seminar revealed relationship building as a blind spot for me. I
haven't built communication and trust in leadership. I got tools for
creation of learning communities, tools for resolving conflict, and
- All the tools gave me a sense I could lead and that leadership comes in
many forms. Leadership isn't just extraordinary people, but recognizing
your ability to lead is a root to change.
- I learned different ways to step outside my project and see with a
- The assumptions exercise helped me look at and draw out others’
viewpoints. Mental models made me more aware of my own model and how to
turn this to advantage in leadership roles.
- Taproot was the best leadership workshop I have ever attended.
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