Oak Foundation Learning Differences Programme Grantee Convening: Key Takeaways and Implications

From the Executive Director’s Desk, Shalane Yuen.

From 12 to 15 September, I had the immense pleasure of attending Oak Foundation’s grantee convening in Raleigh, North Carolina. After an 18-hour plane ride from Johannesburg, I was excited to be surrounded by endless green trees after escaping the tail end of a South African winter.

Earlier this year, we announced the support of Oak Foundation to advance education outcomes in South Africa and enable the longevity of our initiatives aimed at educators, schools and communities. We form part of their Learning Differences Programme, joining a powerhouse portfolio of nearly 70 grantees deploying innovative approaches to educational equity.

Firstly, I love Oak Foundation’s approach to educational equity. Their approach acknowledges the role that racism and poverty play in compounding marginalisation. In a country like South Africa, where access to quality education is highly correlated with race and class, we cannot ignore the role these social systems play in achieving education equity.

Here are a few of my takeaways from the Oak Foundation convening and the implications for our work:

  • There are practical steps we can take to support learners with learning differences. These include creating communities for students with learning differences, removing stigma, increasing the availability of assessments, reducing the costs of assessments, and serving as their voice and advocate.
  • “Nothing about us, without us.” From research to programme design to implementation, we should embrace intergenerational partnerships with our youth. Since achieving equity in schools will only be known when the most marginalised students tell us, we should welcome youth participation in every step along the transformation journey.
  • Self-care is critical. As leaders in the education ecosystem, our goal is to shift communities and narratives through our work; that is a massive undertaking. Through vivid storytelling, educators shared their lived experiences navigating classrooms during the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. Their stories unlocked collective unaddressed emotions of trauma, guilt, or anger that many of us didn’t realise we still held onto.

We’re on the right path in many ways, but there is always room for improvement. Since co-creative partnerships are a fundamental approach and central to our modus operandi, we already incorporate student, youth, or beneficiary participation in our initiatives in various ways. For example, we provide leadership training and support to the Representative Council of Learners, a key stakeholder group similar to the student government in the United States. The aim is to empower them as school leaders, cultivate a positive school culture and ensure the schools’ overall strategy includes students’ voices. In another example, our Education Changemakers programme, the human-centred design thinking framework, is central to the four-week leadership training. Changemakers use an empathy map and engage beneficiary users in their solution design. However, we can be more intentional about incorporating youth beneficiaries in all levels of our programming, such as research, design, and evaluation.

Secondly, self-care and mental wellness have undeniably become increasingly necessary post-COVID. What began as a pilot during COVID has continued through WhatsApp on Wellness, a programme that provides teachers with tools and support to identify and address elements of secondary trauma, as many carry the burden and trauma experienced by their students. However, the self-care culture should go beyond our teachers and extend into our organisations and the broader education ecosystem. In other words, we must practice what we preach, and as leaders, we must hold ourselves accountable too.

After a few years of virtual zoom conferences, I’m incredibly grateful to have spent three days listening to, learning from, and reflecting with a community of 70 organisations championing educational equity worldwide. Thank you, Oak Foundation, for your continued support and learning partnership.

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