Episode 202: Not Your Average Zoom Convening – Featuring Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund

Jon Baratta from the Summer Jobs Connect (SJC) Program at Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund and GLP‘s Tyler Phillips talk with us about their recent experience moving SJC’s annual convening to a virtual space. They talk about how encouraging relationship-building, highlighting participants expertise and creating a flexible space for meaningful exchanges increased engagement and strengthened the learning community. 

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This show is produced by Global Learning Partners and Greg Tilton JR.

Theme music: ‘Pretty Face’ by Una Walkenhorst.

Read transcripts for the episode below.

Meg (10s): [MUSICAL INTRO] Hello, and welcome to Shift the Power: A Learning-Centered Podcast, where we talk about the revolutionary power of a learning-centered approach. Through this podcast, we hope to inspire creative thinking and provide practical tools and techniques to deepen learning through dialogue. We’re your hosts, Meg Logue.

Peter (28s): and Peter Noteboom.

Meg (30s): Today we’re joined by Jon Baratta from the Summer Jobs Connect program at Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund and GLP Senior Partner Tyler Phillips. They’re here to talk about their recent experience using a learning-centered approach to move SJC annual convening to a virtual space all while also strengthening their learning community. Welcome! So to start us off, Jon, please tell us a bit about yourself and a bit about CFE and SJC.

Jon (55s): Yeah. First and foremost, thanks for having me on. It’s great to be here with the GLP team again, but jumping into things — I’m Jon Baratta, I’m a Senior Associate with Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund. We’re a national nonprofit that works mostly with city governments to develop programs and policies that improve financial stability. At CFE Fund, as you said, I work on this Summer Jobs Connect program, which is embedding financial education and safe bank accounts into youth employment programs.

Meg (1m 25s): Thank you so much for joining us, Jon. We’re really excited to have you with us today. And Tyler, tell us a bit about yourself.

Tyler (1m 32s): Thanks so much for having me. Hi everyone my name is Tyler Phillips. I am a Senior Partner here with Global Learning Partners, based in New York City and I have been working with the learning-centered approach in various forms of teaching and training and as a manager and director, and now as a Partner– Senior Partner with GLP for many years. And it really is my pleasure to be here. My background is in financial empowerment work and financial inclusion, mostly in the U.S. But also in Central and South America.

Tyler (2m 14s): And it was a real pleasure working with Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund on this project. And I’m excited to speak a little bit more about my experience.

Meg (2m 24s): Thank you, Tyler. So I wonder Jon, if you could kick us off by just helping ground us in the situation. What challenge were you faced with that led to this project and how did you decide to involve GLP in addressing it?

Jon (2m 39s): We have an annual conference for our Summer Jobs Connect program that brings together partners from 23 cities across the country who are all working on embedding this financial education and access to safe bank accounts into their program. And we’re accustomed to having, you know, an in-person convening where we fly everyone out. We have, you know, a couple of days to spend quality time with partners and due to COVID, y’know, we weren’t going to have that. So we needed to figure out how to create an engaging virtual convening. And we had a bit of experience with that with another one of our projects, but for Summer Jobs Connect, we weren’t exactly sure how it was going to look. You know, one of the key challenges was bringing together a really diverse group of partners, some of which had been a part of the program for eight years now and were very accustomed to these conferences and then others who were brand new.

Jon (3m 30s): So we were trying to figure out how to create an agenda, which provided something for both. And then also, you know, built relationships between all the folks who were going to be there. And in terms of how, how we decided to work with GLP — I had mentioned that we had a virtual conference prior for another program. And so I had met Tyler. I was involved a bit with coordinating that conference and got a glimpse into the design process and just how thoughtful and considerate the agenda was. And so I was intrigued and I thought about how we could apply that to our conference. And so that’s how we, we came together.

Peter (4m 6s): You know, if I may jump in there, can you just say again, how many folks were involved in that event and how many partners?

Jon (4m 12s): Yeah. So it was partners from 23 city governments around the country.

Peter (4m 17s): That’s what I thought I heard you say.

Jon (4m 19s): Oh yeah, it’s certainly a lot. And within those cities, sometimes there might be multiple organizations working on the project. So for example, in the city of Chicago, we’re working with the Department of Family and Social Services, but they’re partnering with a local nonprofit called the Economic Awareness Council. So, you know, we had two folks from each organization coming to the event and they come in with slightly different focuses and different expertise. So it’s certainly a challenge in trying to capture all that and make sure everyone is engaged throughout.

Peter (4m 49s): Thank you, Jon. Tyler, I wonder if I could, could just follow up with you. I imagine that that’s not the only person who called you up and said, you know, we’ve got this challenge of how to take our event to the virtual world. What, what perspective did you find yourself bringing to this project?

Tyler (5m 9s): You know, having met Jon a couple of times prior to working together, it’s very clear to see his passion for this work and the care needed, that he brings and that this community really demands in their annual events and the special design and facilitation for those events. So, you know, I really wanted to honor that. So we did a lot of pre-work and thinking about how to ensure that bonds that were created over the years, many times in annual convenings, in-person, would continue to be strengthened even in the virtual setting.

Tyler (5m 53s): So we wanted to go pretty deep on the different segments of the participants that were involved. As Jon mentioned, there were different agencies involved even from the same city. And even within those agencies, some were brand new to the work and, had just received some new funding, and others had been really veteran organizations. So we wanted to address the unique needs of each of those segments. And by doing that, it took some time as you all know, in interviewing and observing and checking in with all the participants ahead of time so that we could develop and design a really meaningful learning experience for, for this group.

Peter (6m 42s): Well then maybe, maybe onward to you, Jon, having made the connection with Tyler and beginning that work together, what would you name as one or two of the biggest challenges you face, especially in the planning and then the design stages of the work?

Jon (6m 59s): Yes. So as we’ve alluded to, I think creating an agenda, which had something for each of the different partners who were part of the project and figuring out how to coordinate that in a virtual space. So giving folks the ability to pick which sessions they attend or making sure that inside of each sessions, there were activities and there were facilitators and they were folks who were making sure the chat box is monitored and it was lively. So that was certainly a consideration — just trying to make sure the engagement was there. And one of the other challenges was about how to create a virtual space that felt different than an average zoom meeting. So we, we know everyone’s in a virtual world right now – we’re on Zoom meetings, five, six, seven hours a day, and it can be monotonous and tiring.

Jon (7m 42s): So how do we get folks outside their kind of normal day-to-day and feel a little bit different when they come into the event? And so that was a huge challenge for us and something that – y’know – Tyler and the team were instrumental in. And then another piece of it was when we started working with GLP, there was a learning needs and resource assessment done to kind of see what our partners were interested in discussing. And some of the feedback that came out of that event, were about topics and issues that we hadn’t originally planned on covering. And that as an organization is a little bit out of scope for CFE. So we tried to figure out a way in which we could capture that energy, talk about those issues, but perhaps find another voice or another person who could speak to those issues where it was incorporated, but we didn’t necessarily need to be the experts or lead that discussion.

Peter (8m 29s): You know, you’re going just exactly where I want to explore just a little more. Could you give us an example of what this looked like? Can you help bring it to life for us? Give us an example of how that careful design and matching it with the people who were there changed or something new that you did differently at that point?

Jon (8m 48s): Absolutely. So we really have three distinct cohorts of partners who came into the project at different- different points. And so we structured a half day specifically for our newest partners to make sure that they were grounded and they had all the information that they needed in order to really fully participate in the next two days with folks who’ve been doing this for a long time. And then on, on the second day of the convening, we had everyone together and there was a, like I said, a tremendous amount of energy around topics that are outside of our expertise. So Summer Youth Employment programs last year, how to move into a virtual space. And that was number one, unprecedented, but number two, they only had a very, very limited amount of time in order to kind of create and implement their programming in a matter of weeks.

Jon (9m 34s): So folks wanted to discuss what had happened that summer, what their program models looked like, exchange ideas. And so there were so many topics to cover, what we ended up doing was, we had really three hours worth of workshops. And within each hour we had three different topics which folks could join. And then of course, inside of each of those individual topics, there were breakout sessions. So we found a way to make sure that there was something for everyone and that folks had the ability to pick what they were going to be working on.

Peter (10m 6s): That really sounds like inclusion.

Jon (10m 8s): For sure, for sure. In a way in which I didn’t know before.

Meg (10m 12s): That’s wonderful. I mean, I hear you on the Zoom fatigue and we’re all becoming a little too accustomed to spending hours in front of Zoom and typically in meetings that aren’t very engaging. Tyler, I’d love to hear from you about what aspects of a learning-centered approach were essential in this process, addressing those challenges and really ensuring that, that engagement and that inclusion.

Tyler (10m 38s): Yeah, well, that was exactly it. I mean the word engagement came up several times in the planning process. And I think, you know, being in the context of COVID-19 and everything being pushed into a virtual space, there was some real wonderings about how we could continue to engage individuals in a meaningful way. And especially coming off of such a strong learning community — that the Summer Jobs Connect programs have with all these partners — and speaking to all the hard work that Jon and the CFE team has done for many years now, the crux of the learning-centered approach is to move away from this traditional teaching model where one person holds all the knowledge and offers that knowledge or deposits that knowledge to all the learners or others in the room.

Tyler (11m 33s): And we really intentionally shifted away from that, as Jon started to allude to earlier, when we invited in facilitators that were participants and experts in their own pockets, in their programs. We invited those folks to lead sessions, co-design sessions. And these are some of the workshops that Jon was talking about earlier. And really, that helped with the exchange of meaningful ideas, but also I think it showed that there were, there’s so much expertise among this community that just a couple design decisions to invite these individuals to actually lead sessions and be held up as experts and to be celebrated as individuals who could, who could share and who could support the learning community in this way.

Tyler (12m 32s): I think that was, that was special about this.

Meg (12m 35s): Thank you for sharing that, Tyler. I love that you really held that true to heart throughout this design process — the, the idea that we’re all experts, especially, you know, these people who are doing the work every day, and not centralizing that expertise in the hands of, of just CFE. You are really the conveners here to ignite that exchange. And it sounds like you all did a wonderful job of bringing that out in, in this virtual convening. So I wonder Jon, this sounds like it was very different from how your convenings may have happened in the past. Could you share with us what, what felt different for you about it?

Meg (13m 18s): How has this project sort of shifted your thinking about the way that you approach these convenings?

Jon (13m 25s): So other than being in a virtual space, I think carving out time for partners just to chit chat about whatever is on their mind or whatever the, the, their energy was. We were really thoughtful and considerate about creating prompts and activities, but at the same time, we were careful to make sure that we weren’t overly prescriptive and that, you know, if partners wanted to discuss a specific topic that perhaps was a little bit outside of our scope or even the formal agenda for the day, we provided them that opportunity. And I think it paid off because folks were engaged over the course of a few days on Zoom, where they could have lost that momentum if we hadn’t allowed space for those conversations.

Jon (14m 7s): And moving forward, there’s certainly a new approach to all of our events, whether they be in-person or virtual. We certainly use the 4A approach, which GLP kind of brought us into about how to design sessions and how to design events. Starting off by kind of setting the context, but then also getting folks to participate right away, using prompts or asking a question and just seeing what folks are coming into the room with, what background knowledge, what questions they have, and then adding a little bit. So I think overall, you know, moving forward, all of our events, we’re not focused on just solely delivering content. We’re really focused on getting folks engaged and making sure that we’re being thoughtful and considerate of the folks in the room.

Jon (14m 53s): Not that necessarily we weren’t before, but that we’re making sure we’re viewing it from their perspective.

Meg (14m 59s): I love that. It’s so, so wonderful to hear you talk about the 4 A’s.

Jon (15m 5s): Yeah. Yeah I’m bought in.

Meg (15m 9s): That’s great. It’s, it’s always fun to hear that from a client. Wonderful. And I wonder if you could also share what you’ve been hearing, you kind of shared from your perspective as the, the organizer, the designer, the planner, how it felt different for you. I’m curious, when you were talking to the people who attended this convening, what, what did you hear from them? How did they feel the result of this, this new approach?

Jon (15m 37s): There was a great response. I mean, we asked folks for, for some feedback after the event and they thought that the content was aligned with exactly what was on their mind and what they would hope would be covered. I think many were apprehensive about being on, you know, four or five hours of zoom meetings with the same folks for multiple days. And by the end of it, they thought that had gone by really quickly and that, you know, they, they would’ve been happy to continue many of the conversations they were having, you know, at a very granular level. Some of them had said really, really, really nice thing about just this was a different type of online event than they’d ever been to. It was one of the more engaging and innovative convenings that they had been to.

Peter (16m 23s): I wonder, Jon, do you have a story of someone who, you know, you had worked with before or that attended for the first time or that you followed up with after who was changed as a result, practiced new things as a result of, of their time together?

Jon (16m 39s): That’s a great question. I mean, there were certainly a few partners who we’ve worked with for a long time who have reached out and said, you know, this one was a bit different. I can’t put my finger on one specific thing that they carried on from the event. But I think just the level of, of detail that we were able to get into, which partially came from, you know, all the prep work in soliciting thoughts and ideas from partners about what they wanted to talk about and getting detailed enough where we’re talking about “what systems are you using? How are you scheduling emails with folks? You know, what’s your approach when talking to youth about specific financial topics or, you know, within banking access, which credit unions or banks in your community you’re approaching?”

Jon (17m 22s): We’ve discussed a lot of that in the past. Don’t get me wrong. But I think the manner in which we approached it this time around was, was unique.

Peter (17m 30s): That’s a good story. You know, I, I find in my own practice that I so often face this challenge of in a new virtual environment, working out how to manage the question of time, the time available for, you know, the event or the conference or the retreat or whatever it might be. It’s always been challenging for in-person learning, but in virtual learning, it seems like it’s even more challenging. I wonder how you approach that and how, what, what you use to help solve the conundrum of the time available?

Tyler (18m 13s): Yeah. Certainly time is always an interesting part of the, of the design process. You know, I think we wanted to be really mindful of the Zoom fatigue that had set in by this time of year for all the participants. So we ended up deciding on two half days for the annual convening, and then we had a one half day working meeting for the, just for the planning partners, where we could offer different space for different conversations that affected that group in particular. You know, the work that we did with these facilitators before the convening, I think was very unique to this event as well.

Tyler (19m 2s): So we worked with each facilitator in designing their session, offering some tips, offering some structure, but also inviting them in to that process. And I think, as we know on this call, when you have a really thoughtful well-structured design, the time just flows and people walk away with a sense of respect — that their time was respected and that they gained something valuable. So yeah, there were, there were multiple dimensions of time that, that I think we were operating on with, with this work.

Peter (19m 37s): Yeah. There’s so many rich insights there, Tyler, that you shared. You know, what I hear as a theme in what you’re mentioning though, is that the learners are invited to decide, to select, to choose, to decide what to put on the table or what the topic will be. And that’s a, that’s a real shift, a real change.

Jon (19m 56s): Peter, if I might jump in here.

Peter (19m 59s): Yeah, please do Jon.

Jon (20m 1s): So I appreciate Tyler not throwing me under the bus here. On day one of the convening, one of our sessions went over time, and we were headed into a break, so, you know, my natural thinking was it’s okay, we’ll just cut the break a bit shorter. And at the end of the day, that was the first thing Tyler approached me and spoke about — he said, you know, we created the amount of time for each session for a reason. And when we put out the agenda, it’s setting the expectation that we’re going to abide by these guidelines, we’re going to discuss these things, and we’re going to give everyone the ability to take breaks when, you know, when we schedule them. So that was super important for me, where the next day there were definitely some adjustments made, just being a bit more realistic with what we could cover in a period of time and making sure that whatever we wanted to cover, could be fit into a certain time-frame.

Peter (20m 51s): I’ve had that experience many times myself and taking the time afterwards to reflect on it and make the change, to connect with, you know, your, your team and, and to ensure that you follow those expectations or meet up to those expectations that you put out. It’s just so, so valuable. I wonder maybe for you Tyler, first, you know, I imagine there are several people listening who, you know, might be facing a similar scenario where they have to go from a large gathering in-person to one that’s virtual. I wonder what advice you would have for them as they sort of pick up that work and think about how they’ll make that change.

Tyler (21m 30s): Sure. Well, I can certainly offer one of the biggest learnings for me from this work together, which was putting a lot of thoughts into the time before the event. So considering all events have three phases: the before, during and after. For me spending so much time before the event, thinking through the needs of each of the groups of participants — so segmenting out those different groups — was really a helpful frame with which to approach this work. But also on the side of the facilitators and tech support staff, that we named as a role that would be needed throughout each of the sessions, and offering not just the participants tools and resources, but the facilitators and the tech monitors and the tech support folks, plenty of resources, support, also time to practice and do a dry run.

Tyler (22m 40s): And we relied heavily on a gentleman by the name of Mark Hunter who works at the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund. And he really was a great liaison, internally with GLP as the external consultant on this work, so that things ran smoothly. Everyone had what they needed and it just all came, came together very nicely. So, yeah, I guess just — in the before, really segmenting out, not just who the learners are, but also who the other individuals are going to be facilitating and contributing in different ways, and making sure that everyone is in the best position to make their best contribution.

Peter (23m 25s): So often it’s the “who” right. Cause you’re clear about who it is and what they need and what brings them there and using what, you know, as you said, segmenting them and also including the facilitators. Really good. What about you, Jon? What would you add to what Tyler has mentioned?

Jon (23m 44s): Yeah, I’ll start by echoing Tyler. Putting in the time ahead of the event is critical. I mean, if there are things that you’re concerned about or you’re uneasy about, things that you’re not exactly sure how it will work, but you figure it’ll work out somehow some way. Y’know, that’s a flag. Certainly one of the things that the CFE team brought to the table, but then also was reinforced by Tyler was just the details need to be mapped out. You can’t expect things just to work out okay. You want to be strategic and thoughtful about how you want them to work and then make sure that everyone who’s going to be involved in that has the same understanding, whether it’s the tech monitors, the facilitators, someone who’s going to be a panelist, they should all be on the same page, and think about, you know, the person who’s going to be a part of that session — what do they know coming in and do they feel comfortable and know what’s expected of them?

Jon (24m 37s): So thank you for that, Tyler. And then part two, you know, moving away from operations, but more about design and content, thinking about who’s coming to your session and how they’d want to spend their time there. You know, make it fun, build off of their energy. As we’ve said throughout, we all have plenty of Zoom meetings. We all have plenty of, you know, planning meetings or group events. But do you want to host an event that’s kind of the norm and just another, you know, just another meeting? Or can you create something where people are going to enjoy showing up, they’re going to enjoy their experience and they’re going to walk away with tangible outcomes that they can apply to their work.

Meg (25m 18s): Love that focusing on the tangible outcomes. Thank you so much, both Jon and Tyler, for sharing that I feel like those, those really concrete takeaways are so helpful to just kind of sum up for our listeners, what they can do. Like Peter said, so many people right now are in this same exact position and you don’t have to postpone an annual convening. You can still do it. It can be just as, if not more engaging as the convening that you would have planned had- could we be in person. So thank you both for sharing your insights and your experience. It’s very, very valuable.

Tyler (25m 56s): Thank you so much, Meg and Peter for having me, it was a real pleasure to be here.

Jon (26m 0s): Yeah. Thank you so much for having us on. It’s great catching up with you all. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say just thank you to the CFE Fund team as well. You know, any event is a group effort and could not have done it without the help of folks who don’t normally assist with this program, but came on to make sure we had a successful event.

Meg (26m 22s): Absolutely. It was definitely a- definitely a team endeavor.

Jon (26m 26s): For sure.

Meg (26m 28s): Well, with that, we’re going to wrap up. To our listeners — as always, we end with an, a way for today. How has this episode pushed your thinking around what engagement looks like in your learning event? What’s one thing that you heard today from Jon and Tyler that you’d like to try out in your own convening? [MUSICAL OUTRO] Thank you for tuning into another episode of Shift the Power: A Learning-Centered Podcast. This podcast is produced by Global Learning Partners and Greg Tilton, with music by Una Walkenhorst.

Meg (27m 7s): To find out more about Global Learning Partners, whether it be our course offerings, consulting services, free resources or blogs, go to www.globallearningpartners.com. We invite you to sign up for our mailing list, subscribe to our podcast and find us on social media to continue the dialogue. If you enjoy the show, please consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts or your preferred podcast player. [MUSIC FADES]