Attempting Equity in Action: Iteration One of the Learning Lab

It is unusual for youth and adults to be in a room as peers, and to work together.

Power typically flows in one direction: from adults to youth, from funders to grantees. This first iteration of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund’s Education Learning Lab aimed for collective changemaking by simply taking as given youth development principles. Youth were key participants in the Lab, neither tokenized nor expected to defer to adults. They were equals in the conversation, ideation process, and decision-making. And this is not typical: all participants in the Lab remarked on the equity of voice and celebrated the mix of the group.  Everyone was ready to listen, to trust each others’ lived experience, and to work together.

At the same time, one thing we learned from this first Lab is that those on the receiving end of asking for resources have been trained to expect less. One of the projects developed out of the Lab was a city-wide Youth Art Showcase for youth-to-youth engagement, support, and problem-solving in COVID-19 times. When given the chance to request funds for the work, the youth leaders of that project asked for much less ($10,000) than what others in the Lab wanted to give them ($30,000). Through conscious or unconscious training and modeling, younger generations expect scarcity—and, not to be taken seriously.

Being in the position to make financial decisions as a collective was unexpected—and, for a moment at least, awkward.  One of the only times that the Lab members got quiet was when they were asked how they wanted to resource projects. Nonetheless, the opportunity to apportion resources offered something transformative—it was, as one Lab member recalled, “… beautiful to see values converted into resources.”

The Lab is ultimately a case of participatory grantmaking in action: as a Lab member put it, the “Learning Lab is coming directly from folks who are affected, and folks who are going to be implementors of services. It’s taking that real time experience, figuring out what we’re not doing or not doing well, and making it better.”

Making It Better: Actions from the Learning Lab

Fifteen people from across the San Francisco community—city department directors and students and youth workers and funders—met five times over the course of one month, and directed $50,000 in funding to new projects to address youth and community mental health needs, the Youth Art Showcase and coordinating Wellness Checks for families. This work was done in collaboration with other partners: the Hellman Foundation joined the Fund in supporting these rapid response, community-determined actions, and the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education passed a resolution in support of students’ mental health. In addition, because of what we learned from the Lab, the Walter & Elise Haas Fund is granting $250,000 to both Oakland and San Francisco public education systems to train and support educators in trauma-informed care practices, in order to support students in the coming recovery and return to school.

The Lab was asked to start reimagining schools reopening, six months from now. That’s the question our communities still have an opportunity to grapple with and to plan for.  We don’t know what exactly will come to pass, however, as we plan for the many possibilities, we will do so with equity and youth front and center. The Fund is iterating the Learning Lab into its second version this summer to reimagine the future of education, and to plan for all the dynamic adaptations we may need to make as we continue to respond to the current public health and economic crisis.

I want to acknowledge and thank all the members of the rapid Response Learning Lab, and the organizations represented, including HOPE SF, San Francisco Peer Resources, Wah Mei School, Education Trust-West, Denman Beacon Center, the San Francisco Youth Commission, San Francisco Unified School District, the San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and their Families, the Hellman Foundation, and the Stupski Foundation.

Featured image credit: Cody Smith

Blog, Education, Grantmaking

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