“What we’ve found—which is quite beautiful, in my opinion—is that many of our grantees are learning about systems change and community empowerment as well,” Emily Bhandari says.

shared inquiryEven if you’ve never heard of the term, chances are you’ve engaged in the process of “Shared Inquiry” at some point. Often described as collective or participatory learning, the Great Books Foundation—which technically trademarked the term—defines it as “center[ing] on interpretive questions that have more than one plausible answer and can lead to engaging and insightful conversations…”

On this week’s episode of our Into the Fold podcast, host Ike Evans chats with the Hogg Foundation’s Strategic Learning and Evaluation Program Officer, Emily Bhandari, and Marisa Zappone, Senior Manager for Aligned Impact at Austin-based nonprofit Mission Capital, to get to the bottom of what it means for communities to learn thoughtfully and effectively—together.

Paths of Shared Inquiry: “Conversation, Researching, and Exploration”

Learning with purpose—and real transformation around a complex issue—tends to occur most often when we learn with other people. In other words, Shared Inquiry is simply the act of learning collectively.

Facilitating Shared Inquiry requires, first and foremost, a bit of level-setting, or a way of ensuring that participants have an accessible point of entry into the learning process. Pre-determined guiding questions might play a role in stimulating discussion, but any insight to be gained ultimately lies with everyone involved—not just a designated expert, facilitator, or “senior learner.”

For funders, community leaders, and other stakeholders accustomed to being in the driver’s seat for decision-making, keeping a level playing field is key. “It’s about being humble and realizing that we don’t have all the answers,” Bhandari says, “but together we can uncover this collective wisdom through conversation, researching, and exploration.”

Shared Inquiry is hardly a revolutionary concept. Attend a book club meeting or faith-based study group and you’ll see it in action, with facilitators and participants alike aiming to achieve, as Zappone puts it, a “spirit of reflection and shared learning.”

When it comes to learning in community, however—especially when the topic in question is community mental health and well-beingcollective wisdom isn’t worth much if the collective doesn’t include a diversity of community members. Zappone thinks it’s critical that the feedback shaping new and existing programming keeps everyone in the loop—from frontline staff and managers to clients and constituents. “That’s the power of Shared Inquiry—learning alongside each other, and from each other,” Bhandari says.

Using Shared Inquiry to Listen, Reflect and Evolve

Mission Capital acts as a “backbone” to Good Measure, a collaborative of philanthropic organizations in Central Texas that, through data sharing and analysis, works with service providers to broaden and strengthen their collective impact. “It’s evolved as they’ve continued to talk together, to learn together, and to talk with service providers in the community,” Zappone says. While Shared Inquiry isn’t the go-to term that Zappone and her colleagues use, she finds its underlying principles in alignment with their conversations about iteration, reflection, shared learning, and internal evaluation.

In her view, evaluation doesn’t have to be strictly a matter of accountability. Evidence, statistics, and other quantitative measures of assessing impact work best when they’re qualitatively informed. “Let’s share the data, and then let’s have a conversation about it,” Zappone says. That’s where the real learning happens—by way of Shared Inquiry.

As the Hogg Foundation continues to implement its new strategic plan—and in light of our shift in strategic direction—conversations within and between internal teams have taken a particularly reflective turn. “We’re entering into a new world,” Bhandari says, “and learning plays a large part in helping us navigate our actions and our choices.”

Shared Inquiry’s openness to multiple interpretations of an issue, as opposed to an emphasis on identifying the “right answer,” encourages participants to be check their assumptions and even be generous with people who may see something from a different perspective—qualities that come in handy when you’re thinking big about ideas like health equity, social determinants and community-based systems change.

“You have to be open to talking and taking some risks when engaging in the process of learning collectively,” Bhandari says. “The work we’re trying to accomplish in the field of mental health and well-being—or just the work of social justice in general—can be uncomfortable at times. So the more that we get comfortable with being uncomfortable, the more resilient we will be.”

Learning with purpose—and real transformation around a complex issue—tends to occur most often when we learn with other people. In other words, Shared Inquiry is simply the act of learning collectively.

 

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