Home / Feature Story

Feature Story                                

Learning to Change

Learning from experience in order to enable more effective practice and therefore impact is a primary characteristic of learning organizations. PRIA as a learning organization invests in building capacities and skills of staff, and its Bi-Annual Review and Planning Week (recently held between 4 and 8 April 2016) is a structured process where staff come together to review and reflect on their experiences of the past 6 months, plan for the coming 6 months, and document the process of learning.

Peer learning is a useful process to strengthen learning practices within one’s own organization. Eighty colleagues debated and discussed our projects and interventions. The reflections, rooted in the historicity of the organization, were facilitated to make them meaningful. A dedicated team of documenters captured the content and process of learning.

PRIA’s history of 34 years is rich in pioneering participatory methodologies in a wide variety of contexts, including women’s literacy and livelihood, occupational health of workers, training of elected representatives, addressing violence against women and collectivising the urban poor to raise voice. Understanding the historical perspective of our work is critical to implementing projects in the future, and the week began with building this perspective.

“इस मीटिंग के माध्यम से सभी को एक मंच दिया जहाँ  हम प्रिया परिवार से प्रत्यक्ष रूप में मिले, उन्हें नज़दीक से जाना उनके प्रोजेक्ट को ही नहीं बल्कि उनके काम करने के तरीके को एवं प्रस्तुतिकरण करने के तरीके को भी जाना| (This Annual Review Meeting gave us a platform to meet and know our colleagues, hear about their work, and through the projects understand the methodology PRIA uses in meeting its vision and goals),” said Suruchi Sharma, who works with the Engaged Citizens, Responsive Cities project team in Jhansi.

Who spearheads building a learning culture within an organization? Support to energise a culture of learning and ensure that capturing learning is a predominant need for the organization along with project deliverables is vital. PRIA’s Senior Management Group invests substantial human resource time, effort and cost to promote such a culture of learning. They identify skill and knowledge gaps.

“Audio-visual communication has always been challenging within PRIA. And it is to bridge this learning gap that we organized the photography and videography workshop for programme staff in our Learning Week,” said Manoj Rai, Director. “PRIA’s programmatic documents, manuals, policy briefs and research reports are widely cited and well received. PRIA’s training programmes and trainers are sought after by NGOs, government, academic institutions and corporates. But PRIA’s audio-visual content does not communicate even 10% of our work. The echo of our words and writings gets lost in this world of high-decibel visual media.”

A photography and videography workshop was part of a day-long skill building investment; the other skills we built were on writing for web communications and inter-personal skills. External resources persons helped us to think smart, review rationally and strategically visualize our target audience when it comes to communicating with pictures or words.

“Engaging people is our work. Influencing people is our work. This happens through communication, not through projects,” said Rajesh Tandon, President, PRIA, encouraging all of us to make writing “an extension of our personalities”.

A skill is learnt through practice. To build on the skills learnt in the workshop, different staff were assigned the responsibility of process documentation – through writing and photographs.

Project teams build collective capacity in mobilizing and organizing people,  planning collective actions and influencing others by listening to experiences of different projects in different parts of the country. We learnt through the presentations made by the various teams -- decentralised drinking water security in Jharkhand; community-led total sanitation in Chhattisgarh; engaging the urban poor, middle class, traders’ associations and municipalities towards improving sanitation services in  Ajmer, Jhansi and Muzaffarpur; working with government of Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to help them learn from their efforts to implement Swachch Bharat Mission; institutionalising decentralised planning efforts for child-centred development; and collaborative work with Martha Farrell Foundation to implement Kadam Badhate Chalo and prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace. In all these efforts, PRIA focuses on bringing more people on to common platforms to participate collectively, valuing local knowledge, demystifying expert-driven knowledge, and promoting behavioural change in both individuals and institutions.

Learning with partners and donors is an intrinsic way of working at PRIA. Donor representatives from the European Union and WaterAid India joined a few sessions to share their perspectives and reflections on the projects we are implementing. We also devoted time to collectively finding ways how internships and volunteering at PRIA can help share our learnings and how we can reach out to larger audiences through the distance education courses run by PRIA International Academy.

Amidst the critical reflections we took time to organise a Participatory Lunch. As usual, the menu was varied, the food was great and the entertainment team put up a well appreciated skit on the theme of Gender Bender. “Sometime back we carried out a brief survey as to which of PRIA’s internal events was the most popular among alumni and current staff,” said Col. V.P. Gupta, Director. “Almost all hands were raised for ‘Participatory Lunch’. I have enjoyed each Participatory Lunch I have attended, but I never imagined it to be so popular.”

There are multiple approaches to learning; collective reflection is one of them. Reading is another important way to learn. PRIA’s vast library is a treasure-trove of case studies, manuals, books and journals to learn participatory methodologies across various disciplines. Zakir Hussain, our librarian, says with conviction: “If you are keen to learn about participation, you will find in PRIA’s digital library what you can’t find on Google.”

“सीखने की प्रवृत्ति में पढ़ना ज़रूरी है! और पढ़कर दूसरों के साथ शेयर करना भी उतना ही जरूरी है! अगर हम दुसरो के साथ शेयर नही करेंगे, हमारा पढ़कर सिखने का कोई फायदा नही होगा, क्योंकि जो हमने सिखा है, कुछ दिनों बाद हम वो भी भूल जायेंगे,” says Sonia, who had implemented the Kadam Badhate Chalo programme in Sonipat, Haryana. She talks about the importance of reading in shaping our reflections on our work. These reflections become an important source of information and learning for our colleagues. Sonia shared her reflections on implementing Kadam Badhate Chalo, and is an inspiration to those field colleagues currently implementing the same initiative in Raipur, Patna, Muzaffarpur, Ajmer, Jhansi and Jaipur.

PRIA has a tradition of sharing information, building skills and co-creating knowledge with staff, partners, communities, government and donors. In the rush to implement projects, an action-research oriented Learning Week gives us pause to reflect, in order to strengthen our actions and embed our ways of working. “हमारे सम्बंधित प्रोजेक्ट से नहीं वरन उन सभी मुद्दों पर गहरी समझ होना जो सामाजिक एवं व्यक्तित्व विकास से जुड़े हो और शायद तभी सहभागी रूप में हम परिवर्तन को सकारात्मकता की ओर लेकर जाने में सफल होंगे और स्वयं का भी विकास होगा,” says Suruchi. For, how can we influence and engage with others if we do not build our own capacities and stimulate our curiosity to learn?

Photograph: A workshop at the Google Moonshot for Education Summit, copyright Martin Hamilton,

Feature Story