1. Lessons Learned from the MDL Project

Liberatory Learning Lab

Space Cultivation
A significant facilitator for success for the Liberatory Learning Lab was the cultivation of a space that centered and valued Black-led movement organizers, relationship building, and co-creation. Over five months, we brought together 11 organizers representing geographical, issue, and size diverse organizations. While each organization is unique, all are grassroots organizations funded by Borealis, passionate about their organizational mission, and enthusiastic about the purpose of the Movement-Defined Learning Project.

The Borealis team, Social Insights team, and Learning Lab participants were very intentional about the creation and development of the Liberatory Learning Lab space. Borealis team members participated in the orientation and recommendation sessions, but did not participate in the tool development and cultivation sessions, in recognition of philanthropic power dynamics. Social Insights team members developed session agendas, facilitated orientation and Learning Lab sessions, and synthesized and shared back discussion themes post-session.

The process was facilitated well. Dialogue on various pieces yielded a culture of collaboration and directly shaped the tools. Values were held with care and participant time was valued tangibly.

Movement-Defined Learning Project Participant

Learning Lab members spent significant time brainstorming and aligning on the values that would drive this work; the learning goals and vision that would direct the project; and agreements to live by when collaborating, ideating, and decision-making. Lab members appreciated the space given to respect the process, as opposed to a strictly outcome-driven environment. An example of this was balancing the pre-defined goal of developing a new evaluation tool and the learning-lab defined goal of exploring non-normative, indigenous methods of evaluation. As a result of lab participants deciding on the latter goal, we shifted the design and agendas of Learning Lab sessions to elevate activities and discussions focused on that respective goal.

Space to Process and Reflect on Evaluation

An unintended outcome showed up in the Learning Labs whereby it was apparent that in order to envision a new evaluation process, the lab members wanted a space where they could process and reflect together on their past experiences with learning and evaluation. In these discussions, the challenges and often harmful elements of evaluation became a recurring theme. Members shared that evaluation processes and requirements levied by funders were too often burdensome, unhelpful, inequitable, and extractive—and consequently, stood in the way of the “real work.”

Lab members, however, recognized the potential benefits in evaluation as a driver for learning within their own organizations, and the broader movement. Allowing ample space and time to have these discussions enabled the lab to then envision what it could look like to move toward a liberatory praxis of learning and evaluation.

As such, members shared important and necessary elements of evaluation that asks funders to:

    1. Share power by giving time, space, and resources for grantee partners to co-design and implement evaluation.
    2. Acknowledge that there is no unifying truth in learning.
    3. Lift up liberatory methods of evaluation that are not simply surveys, numbers, and key performance indicators.
    4. Center learning and evaluation results that are impactful for organizations, and not—as one member put it—“sent into the clouds and lost into the ether.”
    5. Support narrative building as an increasingly powerful and necessary tool in the organizing space.

Values of the Movement-Defined Learning Tool

Members of the Learning Lab created a list of values to guide the development of the Movement-Defined Learning tool. This list of values was based on their years of experience engaging with evaluation processes, and acknowledged the many potential facilitators and pitfalls. Throughout the Learning Lab process, the members often returned to this list of values to ground themselves, advance their work, and ultimately develop the new evaluation tool. Moreover, the Learning Lab collectively decided that it would be important to utilize these values as a basis for gathering feedback on the tool from colleagues at their respective organizations.

The values and questions to consider are as follows:

    • Generativity: How useful is this tool in allowing you to tell the story of your work? Are there important aspects of your story that this tool does not encourage you to talk about?
    • Relational/non-extractive: Would completing this tool have any additional uses for your organization? In what ways, would you like to see Borealis compile and share this information?
    • Effectiveness: How might the information from this tool benefit or not benefit your grassroots work and campaigns? What might you change or add to increase the benefits?
    • Accessibility: What are some barriers that people may experience using this tool? What technical assistance would help to reduce these potential barriers?
    • Values: How is this tool in line or not in line with your organizational values?
    • Center Blackness / marginalized people: To what extent do you think this tool centers Black and marginalized people. What might you change or add?
    • Replicability: How would you rate your interest in using this tool in your other work?

Movement-Defined Learning Pilot

Movement-Defined Learning Pilot Project Reflection Session Infographic

Balance Between Guidance and Emergence in Collaboration

In reflecting on the processes of facilitating the Liberatory Learning Labs, co-developing the Movement-Defined Learning tool with Learning Lab members, and implementing the pilot, we continue to wrestle with the balance of cultivating an emergent space in which organizers lead the work and vision and providing enough guidance and direction so as to not burden or overwhelm organizers. (Afterall, this project is one of many within the purview of their organizational missions around justice and liberation.)

Once the tool was created and the foundation team was moving into pilot it became unclear what the role of participants and their respective orgs was.

- Movement-Defined Learning Project Participant

Didn’t feel like they were missteps, just wanting more templates. I appreciated the autonomy to create spaces that worked for us and the connection with [Social Insights] to support.

- Movement-Defined Learning Project Participant

It is important to acknowledge that this is a difficult and important line to balance and that this line will inevitably be different in every space, for every person, and every organization. The throughline for this challenge continues to be communication and transparency, further highlighting the importance of intentionality in relationship and partnership building.

Participatory Process as Outcome

Participatory processes are in and of themselves outcomes. The inherent power dynamics of funder-grantee relationships call for funders to actively work toward shifting power. In the Movement-Defined Learning Project, this was done by bringing in and centering grantee partner voices and perspectives when designing the Liberatory Learning Lab—a space where organizers led the vision for a new evaluation agenda to be piloted within Borealis’ BLMF and CTPF.

When communities engaged by organizations have space to share authentically without filters or fear, the work of the organization is strengthened as is the collaboration with foundations as it directly forms dynamic conversations about need, landscape, and possibilities.

- Movement-Defined Learning Project Participant

The lab members highlighted how the process itself was equally important as the stories that the evaluation eventually illuminated. The process deepened the trust and relationship between the organizations and the BLMF and CTPF teams. As Sadaf Rassoul Cameron and Arianne Shaffer shared in their recent piece, Power to the People: “Power sharing is lived, learned, and relational. It requires community, accountability, and willingness to experiment. From start to finish, trust is vital.”

Need for Holistic Resources and Support

The Borealis team scheduled virtual check-ins with each video and community listening session pilot participant in August 2023 and again in January-February 2024. During these check-ins Borealis team members offered access to additional resources and asked pilot participants if they had any questions, support needs, or challenges to talk through.

These check-ins surfaced several important resource and capacity themes:

    • External Factors: During the pilot period many of the participants experienced losses in their families or organizing communities, as well as organizing and legislative backlash that impacted their time and capacity to work on the project.
    • Videography Expertise: The lead organizers of the projects were not often experienced videographers, and thus required video editing or storyboarding support.
    • Engaging Community Members in a New Way: Many pilot participants noted that having conversations with community members using the tool was a new process for them. The tool questions surfaced areas for ongoing political education. In addition, because they had not engaged their community in responding to these types of questions before they realized it took greater context setting and more time to explain that they wanted honest and authentic feedback. One group noted having a community member ask them “what do you want me to say?” This response indicated to the organizer that these types of discussions on an ongoing basis are important and will likely get easier as they become more frequent.
    • Holding Space for Creative and Collaborative Learning: Each group had the freedom to decide how they wanted to capture responses to the tool. Many of the groups indicated that because there were no previous examples of how other groups captured this information it took a lot more creative capacity to develop their project. As a result, it required more time and capacity than anticipated. A few of the organizers indicated wanting to have more spaces to meet together throughout the development of their project to hear from others how they were approaching the project. In designing the process, the Borealis team attempted to reduce the number of required meetings for the pilot participants in recognition of their limited and precious time and capacity. However, we received feedback that future iterations of the project that include participants working on video or community listening sessions would benefit from more collaborative spaces or touch points to help participants learn from each other.


Acknowledge, Understand, and Share Power

There is a power dynamic inherent to the funder-grantee relationship. Therefore, power sharing is critical, and requires intentionality to build relationships founded on trust, reciprocity, and mutual accountability. Evaluation and learning processes is one fruitful pathway for funders to shift power. In doing so, the philanthropic sector can: 

    1. Move into a place of deepened alignment with movements for justice
    2. Acknowledge how normative, Eurocentric evaluation processes have caused significant harm, particularly to BIPOC-led organizations and communities
    3. Invest in approaches that more effectively lift up stories of marginalized communities

Budget Resources for Evaluation

Funders should work with grantee partner organizations to co-create a budget that supports reimagined evaluation and learning processes. The Movement-Defined Learning Pilot showed us that while dollars are necessary, organizations are also looking for support such as training on narrative power building, facilitated spaces for peer-learning, and resources to incentivize community participation in learning.

Orient to a Liberatory Praxis of Research and Evaluation

The Movement-Defined Learning Pilot has demonstrated the importance of moving beyond normative evaluation processes. We invite—and urge—funders to orient to the principles of Liberatory Research. We highlight the following two as a starting point on a journey toward liberatory praxis:

    1. Minimize burden and harm in the research and evaluation field by recognizing and resisting enduring, harmful power relations in research and evaluation practices and outputs.
    2. Seek out and utilize methodologies, approaches, and theories that can provide more effective ways to conduct our projects with marginalized communities.

Co-create Learning Agendas

Grantees should self-determine learning priorities, evaluation methods, and how those results will be used. Grantees value learning and evaluation. They want to reflect on challenges and how to navigate through them. They want to revel in successes and reflect on how to replicate them. Funders can support this by reimagining evaluation by shifting power and centering grantees. Through this reframe, the role of funders moves toward supporting the work of grantees through resource sharing and capacity building—and away from acting as an authoritarian figure using evaluation for accountability purposes.

Include Perspectives from Multiple Stakeholders

Diversify perspectives in evaluation by engaging individuals beyond executive directors, development staff, etc—for example, by including individuals from the community whom the organization serves. By doing this, we acknowledge that there is no absolute truth; rather, reality is dynamic and relative to perspectives and contexts. Engaging multiple perspectives allows us to uncover and illuminate new learnings, and strengthens the work of grantee partner organization by deepening relationships.

Co-design the Communication and Sharing of Evaluation Findings

Too often, evaluation results are submitted and never heard of again. A recurring theme throughout the Movement-Defined Learning Project is the need for support in storytelling and narrative building. Funders should support grantees by co-designing the dissemination process of evaluation findings in a way that is useful and impactful for grantees. As we use more liberatory evaluative approaches, we become more grounded in conducting evaluation in service to movements for justice and grassroots organizers.