The Peer Learning Program, designed and facilitated by Jah Elyse Sayers and Lee Jiménez, to engage our cohort of 105 multidisciplinary Fellows, reflects Design Trust’s own model of “open-ended inquiry” and learning together. The goal is for fellows to identify and explore a shared learning interest as pairs, while reflecting on values that are important to support growth in one’s profession. In 2019, we received a grant from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation to support the Fellows Forum and in particular this Peer Learning Program. Selected pairs will then share the outcomes of the eight-week learning journey with the Fellows Forum. The article outlines the process and key take-aways from the kick-off workshop held at M&T Bank, Broadway, NY. 

On Thursday February 6, we (Lee and Jah) facilitated the inaugural Peer Learning Program kickoff workshop where we introduced participating Fellows to the program and discussed values, key terms, and group agreements. Our workshop design and facilitation styles are heavily informed by our shared organizing experiences with queer and trans Black, indigenous, and people-of-color communities. Our goals for this workshop were, to create shared language amongst fellows around appreciative inquiry; identify themes or areas of learning; build awareness of power, privilege, language in our professional practices; and develop core questions for learning


Since this workshop is a kick-off of an eight-week paired learning program, it was important to establish a base conversation about shared language and get to know each participant’s values as a group.

We both understand learning to be a vulnerable process, especially when with a group, so we grounded the workshop in a set of group agreements that we could turn to in moments of conflict or discomfort. Upholding the agreements helped us maintain an environment where we could all more thoroughly listen to, respect, and nurture one another; hold confidentiality; and speak from lived experience.

A cornerstone of this shared learning process is to bring awareness to dynamics of power and privilege that shape our lived experiences and manifest in our professional practices in order to transform them. As baseline, we drew from a set of terms we had encountered as participants in Audre Lorde Project’s Daring to be Powerful series. These terms were adapted from chapter 3 of Lisa VeneKlasen and Valerie Miller’s, A New Weave of Power (PDF available, see page 45) and helped us both reframe power as something not to shy away from but to redistribute and use intentionally. The terms we focused on were:

‘Power over’ involves domination, most obviously by physical, verbal, and material constraints on what people are able to do, but it can also be exercised with influence over what people think or imagine is possible.

‘Power to’ is about being able to act and grow in the process of taking action, developing skills and realizing that one can affect change.

‘Power with’ describes collective action or agency, and includes both the psychological and political power that comes from joining together and taking collective action. 

‘Power within’ describes the sense of confidence, dignity and self-esteem that comes from gaining awareness of one’s situation and realizing the possibility of doing something about it. 

‘Privilege’ refers to unearned social advantages, or degrees of prestige and respect that an individual has by virtue of belonging to a specific social group. Privileges grant people power. 

We also identified key approaches informing our design of the Peer Learning Program and our coaching philosophies as this program develops:

'Appreciative Inquiry' is an approach to change in which we both appreciate and inquire, so we ask questions and dig deeper by focusing on the strengths, potentials, and those things that give life in ourselves and the people and world around us.

'Action Research' is an approach and philosophy of research that emphasizes transformative change by taking action, doing research, and bringing action and research together through critical reflection.

This exercise was an essential point of reflection on how different experiences of power dynamics have impacted professional, personal and social interactions of participants from diverse disciplines and backgrounds. We looked at these dynamics in a positive lightseeking ways to access and meaningfully redistribute power through our professional practices. For example, participants shared experiences of recognizing and sharing their own power and accessing and mobilizing power through collective action. Others discussed the ways appreciative inquiry in their classrooms had created more dynamic learning experiences for instructors and students alike.


With values and key terms shared and explored, we worked toward establishing themes for shared learning. We started with self reflection in the form of a 'Journaling Exercise', prompting participants to think about the kind of work they want to be doing in the next five years and ten strengths that will get them there. (It’s difficult but crucial to the “appreciative” part of appreciative inquiry—try it at home!) 

This was followed by the second prompt: What are 5 ways that you need to grow in order to get there?

Participants anonymously wrote down their 5 growth areas on individual index cards laid out on the table. Working together, participants grouped these growth areas into themes based on their commonalities. This exercise is broadly inspired by Eve Tuck’s “problem tree” method. 5 broad categories emerged at the end of this activity: *Drum Roll*

  • Gentrification
  • Personal Practice 
  • Silo Breaking 
  • Storytelling 
  • Deepening Complexities

The final part of this process—"Experience Mapping"—asked participants to write/draw their experiences pertaining to aforementioned themes that resonate with them and share their thoughts with the group. The nature of these themes and the workshop design created an environment of openness, giving room to interesting points of discussion. 

"Why we do what we do? "

"How can I be an effective writer, story-teller and illustrator of ideas without over-simplifying the content?"

"How can I embrace complexity to encourage discourse, rather than focusing on clarifying uncertainties?"

"How being an underdog shapes your professional and personal goals?"

"How do you maintain a balance without hyper-rationalizing. In other words, how do you engage and appreciate but not homogenize or colonize?"

In reflecting on the workshop, Dhanya (Design Trust Program Associate) shared with us:

"Even as a passive observer, being part of this workshop made me reflect on my own strengths, biases and experiences. Jah and Lee, focused on establishing a shared language to interpret and express common lived experiences, which can often be challenging to define. What is truly exciting about the Peer Learning Program, is the excitement in not knowing the outcome, but witnessing the journey evolve through collaborative and open inquiry, guided purely by shared 'values'. "

As facilitators, we were humbled by participants’ willingness to be open and vulnerable to group learning while challenging themselves and each other to ask questions and dive into complexities and contradictions that outputs like toolkits and final designs often obscure. Like Dhanya, we’re excited about not knowing the outcome because that means we’re still learning and asking questions and seeking possibilities for growth. 

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Jah and Lee read out group agreements in the beginning of the workshop