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CAMBRIDGE, MA – Grassroots organizers, who are often isolated, under-paid and overworked, are now able to gain peer support and continued training through a new web-based community at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
The web community is the brainchild of Marshall Ganz, who was searching for a way to help the graduates of his Kennedy School class on social action to continue learning from each other once they were out in the field. While he uses nothing more high tech than pen and paper in his class, Ganz turned to computer technology for the answer. With a grant from the Provost Fund he created the Peer Learning Network, a website designed to serve as a tool for distance learning, coalition-building and mentoring.
“So many people get isolated doing this work and then you lose the motivation and the learning,” he said. “This site gives them a community to contact and explore and helps them build on relationships. This web site offers a vehicle to maintain a learning community outside the classroom.”
Working with Cesar Chavez’s the United Farm Worker’s union in the 1960s, Ganz helped take the plight of the migrant worker from the fields of California to the forefront of the American consciousness. Now, he’s using cutting-edge technology to build a grassroots community on the web to help Harvard-trained organizers thrive in the field.
Ganz developed the methods he teaches in his Kennedy School class “People, Power and Change,” through years of experience in the field and rigorous analytic academic study. The popular class attracts students from the Kennedy School, the Divinity School, the Graduate School of Education and Harvard College who form a tight-knit cross-disciplinary community united by the goal of citizen empowerment through organizing. Graduates of Ganz’s class are now in the field doing social action work in ministries, schools, advocacy groups and NGOs across the U.S. and around the world.
To enable classmates to learn from each other’s mistakes and replicate their successes, the website’s spotlight section allows the colleagues to pose a problem they are struggling to solve or share best practices.
“The spotlight feature lets them pose a real-life challenge for their classmates to work on with them,” Ganz explained. “They can turn to their classmates, who have experience in the field, and get help for the issues they are facing.”
If classmates would rather discuss a problem or potential partnership with a particular classmate, the site provides a way to request a one-on-one meeting. To break the ice, each classmate has a profile complete with a photo. Cross-referenced by location, sector, interests and background, the profiles can give classmates a way to locate potential partnerships or help them start a conversation.
“This is a dialogue, a discussion, a three-dimensional community,” Ganz said. “It’s not just an ordinary website. It’s about continuing what we started, finding a way to use technology to enhance people’s capacity.”
Another unique feature of the Peer Learning Network is an area devoted to inspiration and reflection that contains poems, prayers and stories from each classmate. “It’s food for the heart,” said Ganz, “because that’s what it takes to do this work.”
As a Harvard undergraduate, Ganz followed his heart to Mississippi as a volunteer civil rights organizer and then to California where he joined Cesar Chavez in his fight for farm worker’s rights. After a 28-year absence, the legendary organizer returned to Harvard to complete his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude and went on to earn an MPA from the Kennedy School and a PhD from Harvard’s Sociology Department. He has taught organizing at the Kennedy School since 1994.
The website was developed by Jennifer Fey, a Harvard Divinity School student and a graduate of Ganz’s class. It was funded by a grant from the Provost Fund and support from the Kennedy School’s Hauser Center for State and Local Government; the Harvard Design School and the Faculty of Arts and Science Public Service Committee. The Peer Learning Network can be found at:
For more information, contact Shannon Quinn at (617) 495-9379.