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Intentional Collaboration and Improved Cohesion are the Keys to Rebuilding

The Literacy and Poverty Community of Practice came together (via Zoom) for an October 2020 meeting. Not everyone was feeling resilient but everyone was generous with sharing their experiences over the past few months. The following notes capture the conversations of the past year. They are addressed to the participants but I think you, reader, will find much common ground. Contact me ( if you have any comments or questions about this post.

Recap: The distance we have traveled together

In the December 2019 meeting we identified:

  • Partnerships require capacity, trust, resources, communication
  • Partnerships build capacity to meet client/learners needs
  • Partnerships strengthen our ‘voice’, by working together we can:
    • Build a legacy (internal and external) – learn from each other, build possibility, increase knowledge
    • Improve the sustainability of programs
    • Broaden the context of our work and strengthen our collective voice when advocating or influencing on behalf of clients or for an issue

Collaborative/partnership work helps us be nimble, to respond to emergent needs

In the Feb 2020 meeting, the focus of the partnership conversation was on strategies and limitations to addressing barriers to learning and access to services.

Key points:

  • WHAT – Agencies need to work closer together, have a common voice, and decrease silos.
  • WHY – This would ensure clearer pathways for clients/learners who are navigating complex service systems
  • WHY – It would also ensure that agencies are less vulnerable during political and economic challenges. For example, the budget cuts in the past year have had some impact on everyone and a significant impact on some – child care, other FCSS funds, etc.
  • WHY – By working together we have a collective voice to not only address concerns but also to educate about the actual/lived impact of cuts and changes to programming and funding especially for vulnerable adults and families.

May 2020, or what I have come to call ‘Facing into the COVID headwind’, we talked about the impact of the pandemic on ourselves, our programs, our partnerships, and most importantly our adult learner/clients.

  • Community Resource Centers continued to keep their doors open, serving increasingly vulnerable populations with diminishing resources, both financial and human.
  • Program managers and leads worked to pivot their organization, responding to the pragmatic needs of identifying who could work from home and how to support staff to transition to delivering ‘remote’ programming. The challenge of both learning and using new technology was a common theme.
  • You spoke about your stress and your work to support staff who were struggling to juggle home and work including supporting children to successfully do online schooling and working to keep their families safe.
  • Facing the difficulties around closing programs that could not shift to remote and having to let some staff go. Where possible, assigning staff new roles, where possible, to support remote learning.
  • There was discussion about mentoring and coaching and supporting mental and emotional health as practitioners and tutors responded to the increasing stress and crisis that many adult learners and their families are facing.
  • Practitioners spoke about how best to support learning but more importantly how to be a knowledgeable resource and respond to very complicated urgent, and emergent, life situations that learners are needing to address – supporting resilience and hopefulness.

Each of you expressed concern about the learners/clients who had simply disappeared, pulled into the vortex of their own day-to-day pandemic survival. The Digital Divide, which we had all considered an ‘issue’ pre-pandemic, became a crisis that we scrambled to problem solve and address.

Where we are now

Our gathering, October 2020, landed in the midst of a stressful relaunch for most organizations. The theme for the discussion was focused on challenges and opportunities with respect to community partnerships during the pandemic. It was clear that some of the strengths of developing and maintaining partnerships were seriously tested during the past several months.

We began with a check-in. Not surprisingly, several of you commented that you began this fall tired and stressed. That the summer did not give you the break you needed, that the anxiety of the past several months, and the unknowns ahead, had been hard. We heard that:

  • Sectors became increasingly fragmented! The move to working from home, emptying agency buildings, and moving to remote, meant that some formal and informal agency linkages between services were weakened.
  • Programming had been modified, some programs cancelled indefinitely. There was uncertainty about what the pandemic ‘2nd wave’ would mean for your organizations.
  • Remote learning had reduced barriers for some learners, less worry about childcare and travel, etc. Some learners are eager to get back into the classroom or online, committed to keeping the momentum. It remained however that, on the reverse, some learners and clients had not returned. The Digital Divide remains a barrier. Some learners/clients expressed concerns about using public transit or meeting in groups while others have said they prefer to ‘wait until the pandemic is over’ to return to learning/programming.
  • One program shared that there is a notable shift in the demographic of clients who have registered for programming. Clients who are applying are ‘higher functioning’, more tech-savvy, which makes for ‘smoother’ classes but also indicates that an entire demographic is being missed (for what we can presume to be so many complex reasons)
  • It was also clear that there was worry about the economic, physical, and mental health of the learners/clients you serve.


  • Organizations were focusing on core operations which resulted in them being more internally focused or focusing on partnerships only associated with core work.
  • Peripheral partnership could not be focused on and it has been challenging to stay connected.
  • Agencies faced unexpected roadblocks to staying connected and common ground like providing space and sharing resources for programming became more difficult.
  • Have to re-visit and re-think how we strategize community partnerships, going back to basics and asking, “are we still in alignment?”, particularly for more structured partnerships.
  • Emergency Response – Organizations have been preoccupied with working on their own emergency response plans, which means not only are they busy but they are also hesitant to reach out to others since they know the other organizations are also very busy.
  • Funding requirements that came in last year pushed ‘quick bonds’ together that would have benefitted from more planning, however the timing of the funding roll-out and the pandemic response combined did not accommodate this.

It was noted that there are systemic barriers to forming partnerships such as funding structures – the traditional ‘value’ of competition for funding, which can result in organizations being resistant to forge partnerships or make referrals. Unfortunately, this ultimately comes at the cost of client/learner needs.

With respect to pre-employment/employment prep programming not only has it been difficult to maintain programs but the job market, particularly for adults with multiple barriers and significant gaps in employment qualifications, is very closed. For consideration, it was noted

“It is interesting how we rank the importance of having a job very highly on the ‘what’s important’-scale, as it’s very results-oriented and a nice indicator for data collection purposes. However, we are missing a whole-picture view of the fundamentals: essential skills, literacy, etc.”


  • Organizations reach out to each other with questions like “how are you responding to this?” “I have a learner who… Would this be a good referral?”
  • Some organizations report that they have built stronger connections within and beyond their sector sharing resources, tools, and best practices.
  • Informal partnerships which have been triggered by a pandemic response would likely not have been made otherwise, and some foresee a long-lasting relationship which will likely become formal.
  • A financial literacy organization noted that relationships with Indigenous communities were strengthened as Indigenous programs referred clients to them for programs and resources during this pandemic. This reduced duplication in the community and organizations could focus their strengths and capacity.
  • One organization shared that they had programming space that they could not use – they learned of another organization that was seeking space so they created a partnership and are donating both space and the support of a staff member.

Other opportunities that emerge from this time:

  • Moving networking, PD and training online has meant increased interaction and engagement with partners both in and out of our regions (geographical location is no longer a barrier for engagement).
  • Increased awareness of the gaps in services. An opportunity to identify and consider: Who has been lost? Who has been found? And why? Have they always slipped through the cracks? What can we do now to gain a better reach?
  • Many organizations reassigned staff to provide outreach for clients/learners, responding to the needs through knowledgeable referrals and navigating systemic barriers.
  • Business as usual was disrupted and this required organizations to pivot, opening up the possibility for more spontaneity and creativity. There is a sense that non-traditional solutions need to be tested.

Looking forward

Participants are clear in their need for ongoing connection and communication. They look to Calgary Learns and other organization for leadership as well as resources and supports.

It was noted that this is a good time to ask how this Community of Purpose (CoP) can be leveraged so that literacy and poverty organizations are supportive of each other.

In my introduction to this meeting I included (again) the excerpt from a CanLearn Blog written by Nada Jerkovic:

As adult foundational learning practitioners, we cannot personally address the problems such as housing, food insecurity, unemployment, domestic violence and mental health. However, as a field, we can learn what poverty does to people and use this knowledge to facilitate their learning. We find ways to work collaboratively with organizations in poverty reduction field. The two sectors can look very different and be more effective if they work together. Whatever collaborations need to happen, they need to happen right away. Ten years from now is far too long to wait to see results. So let’s embrace collaboration and help our learners build new identities and write new life stories!¹

Also, a discussion about Dr. Allan Quigley’s use of the term ‘literacy classism’ piqued some interest. In a soon to be published article he writes “Raising critical awareness of social class structures, human rights and the potentialities of democracy should be a major objective in our literacy pedagogy.  Our learners have rights. “

We share this social justice lens with our partners in the poverty serving sector. This pandemic, as recorded above has heightened our collective awareness of the disparities and divides, the systemic roadblocks that our clients/learners face.


Statistics Canada had designated literacy as one of the indicators of poverty ( Along with adult literacy having been recognized as one of the 10 Levers of Change in the Enough for All 2.0 report our work together is both relevant and timely.

Brigid Hayes, an independent consultant and expert advisor on learning, literacy, and work, with a focus on strategic planning and policy development, has asked to connect with our Literacy and Poverty group to understand and examine what we have learned and to share our findings nationally.

In addition:

  • Calgary Learns responds to emergent issues with professional development and training. For example, the Pivot to Remote Learning initiative grew out of both this CoP and the Community Conversations.
  • Findings from the Community of Purpose are collated and shared with Advanced Education.
  • A representative from Vibrant Communities Calgary (VCC) participates in this CoP. Calgary Learns is looking at additional ways to share our findings with that lead organization and the wider community of organizations they serve.

How we described our partnerships a year ago and how we have experienced our partnerships during a pandemic are important reference points. We have learned that not all partnerships survive a disruption. That all partnerships need to be reconsidered at this point. You identified that you are looking at partnerships more pragmatically and systemically. Through no fault of each concerned, some formal partnerships have closed.

Continuing to find ways to work together to better serve adults who experience marginalization in our communities, the clients/learners we work with, is our common path. As stated earlier this year, by working together we have a collective voice to not only address concerns but also to educate about the actual/lived impact of cuts and changes to programming and funding especially for vulnerable adults and families. Raising our collective voice to support agencies that are vulnerable during political and economic challenges and increasing awareness of systemic inequality is also our role as a Community of Purpose.  In these ways we not only hope but also work together to make a difference.

Best of the season to everyone. Looking forward to 2021….and to building forward together.

“Now is the only place anyone ever starts from.”

Dr. Jenny Horsman


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