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The Founding Story: A Member-driven Network to connect Chicago’s learners and leaders then and now

Before there was the Chicago Learning Exchange or even the Hive Chicago Learning Network, the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation convened a select group of individuals to create an out-school time innovation Network.

Gina Grant sat down with Robin Schnur, Senior Director of Youth and Family at the Art Institute of Chicago, to learn more about the start and her thoughts on the future.

Tell me about the early days of the Network.

Around 2009, the President of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation put a call out convening directors of museums and heads of institutions to galvanize collective energy around reimagining learning in Chicago, to be relevant, digitally-enabled, and connected, in recognition that young people thrive in their learning when they can pursue their own interests, connect to others with shared interests, and can do so ‘anywhere, anytime,’ not only in the context of the formal education system. What resulted from that initial convening was a large group of youth-serving organizations representing many different interest-areas—art, STEM, media production, music, writing— that formed the original Chicago Learning Network (CLN). It was an exciting moment of coming together around a shared purpose—to amplify opportunities for teens in the city.

I felt fortunate to serve on the network’s Governance Committee, a group composed of founding members that worked with Dr. Connie Yowell, Jennifer Humke, and others at MacArthur to give shape to the network and its support of projects and practitioners. From the beginning, the priority was on surfacing innovative models for Connected Learning—opportunities that connect youth to their interests, to peers, and to mentors in digital and in-real life (IRL) engagements—and on demonstrating the principles of HOMAGO—hanging out, messing around, geeking out—in action. A key strategy of the Network was to require organizational collaboration in funded projects, and this served to catalyze relationships both at the institutional level and at the individual practitioner level around shared values and work. Among the first set of projects to be funded were Youth Councils, and the Art Institute received support to initiate our Teen Council, which continues to be a thriving and essential group in the museum today.

The opportunity to serve on the Governance Committee and then later the Steering Committee was formative for me personally and professionally. It enabled me to be in a space with leaders and thinkers on the front edge of all this work, including Yowell, Dr. Nichole Pinkard, Dr. Sybil Madison, Vanessa Sanchez, Akili Lee, Monica Haslip, and many, many others.

Being a part of the formation of the Learning Network prompted me to think about the city as a whole and the role the museum plays in the larger landscape. It pushed me to think about how I could work internally at the museum to shift our understanding and practices in service of the whole learning ecosystem.

What role has the Network played in impacting your organization and others?

I think one of the most important dimensions of the Network was the way that it created connections between organizations that were large and small—it helped to forge relationships that are sometimes challenging to create because of matters of scale, or location, budget or perception, or any number of other logistical things. So it had both a leveling and an uplifting character to it—it really created a shared sandbox for innovation.

In the beginning, our work was very project focused: the ethos was that we manifest our values and priorities in the projects that we create together. The funding that the Art Institute received in 2012 to initiate our Teen Council, as part of the Network’s youth council strategy, was transformational in that it enabled us to begin to infuse youth voice across the institution. For the last eight years, the Teen Council has designed and produced innovative programming and content for other youth in the city, and they also have actively informed policies and practices of the museum, guiding us, as staff, to understand their needs and the ways the museum needs to change in order to be a more welcoming, inclusive, and equitable space for young people.

Learning is social and relational, no matter if you are a student in school or an administrator in an organization. I see the emphasis on building a network as one of the key impacts of CLN. Launching youth councils in a number of organizations at the same time meant that we were all learning together. We could call up our colleagues at Yollocalli or the Field Museum and talk with them about what they were doing, to share learnings, and to try to create connections between young people. Seeing each other at meetings every month, talking about research and practice—it kind of created a speed of trust that meant we could skip the ‘table setting’ conversations and focus on common points of work and opportunities to connect with one another.

When you think about today’s current situation, what should CLX be doing?

I think that’s a really great question. The first phase of Hive was really about theory and practice—understanding the way that young people move through different spaces of socializing, learning, and building identity and figuring out as a sector how to broker experiences to help connect those spaces and opportunities.

What was so exciting to me at that moment was that there really was kind of an equal interest in all of those different realms: in person and online. However, for a time, there was a shift when Hive refreshed its mission and the emphasis was more on digital learning and access to the internet.

Now, equity needs to be the frame for how we move forward because the whole landscape has shifted: the effects of a global pandemic and the collective protest against racial injustice ignited by the murder of George Floyd are rearranging every dimension of society are having a particular impact on young people as they navigate their relationships to themselves, to each other, and to institutions like school, family, and interest-driven spaces. It is really important that there is equity around digital access in the city, but what we know is that what kids need and crave is connection with one another. And so we need to continue to find ways to do that safely both virtually but also physically once that is possible again. I appreciate that CLX is interested in working on equity not only in terms of digital access but also in non-digital experiences.

The greatest strength and asset of the community is the community itself, and the role that CLX plays as a convener is so important. As adults, educators, and mentors we’re struggling with how to support young people at this moment, both in direct ways through programming and in structural ways. There's so much research that needs to be done about this time, and there are new practices that need to be developed, experimented with, and disseminated so that we can support young people in navigating the world as we experience it today. CLX can continue to inform learning and youth development practices with research, both evaluative data about what is happening in the field and also theoretical research through the connections that you have with academia—this is essential for the field. You can create a space for understanding how pedagogy and practices around youth development and learning are shifting.

CLX is positioned to be a hub of information: keep doing what you're doing to bring people together.