Partnership Case Study: Design League Badge Portfolios

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The Case Study of the Design League Badge Portfolios Project Structured Partnership

Post-its on a wall describing collecting vision

At the heart of the Design League Badge Portfolios project is a partnership of organizations working to develop and seek endorsements for a digital credentialing system. The organizations were initially brought together voluntarily after years of collaboration, inspired to explore digital badge portfolios; the partnership evolved to include mutually beneficial contractual obligations and programming thanks to a three-year ITEST grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). While the partnership is not organized around a particular model, such as Collective Impact, it has coalesced around a co-developed vision and through ongoing reflection. The following outlines lessons learned on how to collaborate successfully—as well as the partnership’s struggles—around a complex social issue: the disproportionate underrepresentation of people of color in professional and academic ICT and STEM activities, and the barriers faced by this fastest growing segment of the American populace.

The elements that have worked and made this partnership successful

  1. A partnership composed of different types of organizations. The partnership includes three partner types: (1) implementing partners (Mouse, DreamYard); (2) pathway partners (Parsons School of Design, CUNY Hostos Community College, and representatives from a number of other higher ed institutions); and (3) research practice partners (EDC—the lead research organization and fiscal agent—and Julie Poncelet, the external evaluator). Each organization brings to the partnership a range of programmatic or industry-specific knowledge, experiences, resources, and networks.
  2. From the beginning of the project, a vision for the partnership was co-developed using Liberating Structures’ Purpose to Practice (P2P); partners reflect on the vision one to two times a year to help inform partnership decision-making and course corrections. P2P brings project stakeholders together so that they “... can shape … all the elements that will determine the success of their initiative. The group begins by generating a shared purpose. … All additional elements—principles, participants, structure, and practices—are designed to help achieve the purpose. By shaping these five elements together, participants clarify how they can organize themselves to adapt creatively and scale up for success.” For an example of how the initial P2P session was organized, here are copies of the participant agenda and facilitator agenda. The P2P session and reflections on the vision were facilitated by the project’s external evaluator. The partners’ initial vision included: (1) a focus on youth (both as key beneficiaries of the Design League program’s badge portfolio system, but also as contributors to the research); (2) an intentionality to build new relationships and collaborations (in order to explore critical questions, seek out different perspectives and new knowledge, and use what has been learned to make decisions); (3) a set of principles grounded in trust, flexibility, and an open-mindedness to learning and adaptation; (4) a motivation to influence the STEM field by sharing a preliminary toolkit about developing, implementing, and supporting a youth-centered and equity-focused badge portfolio system.
  3. Having in place (and revising) partnership practices. A core component of the P2P process is the practices or the actions/strategies (in other words, “the work”) necessary to realize the partnership’s purpose. An initial set of practices was identified by partners, such as holding regular, partnership-wide bimonthly virtual meetings, creating an accessible online repository of the project’s documents, and instituting quarterly one-on-one check-in calls with the external evaluator (key learning was summarized in rapid feedback memos). Through ongoing, partnership-focused reflections, issues or gaps in practices were identified and solutions were implemented. Some of these included: agendas for the bi-monthly calls being developed and shared with partners in advance; holding quarterly in-person meetings; identifying leaders for project tasks; reviewing and revising the project’s timeline on a regular basis; developing and sharing partnership-wide the Design League program’s implementation activities, outputs, and operations timelines.
  4. A history of collaboration between partners. The two implementing partners (Mouse, DreamYard) and one of the pathway partners (Parsons) have collaborated over the years on joint funding/grant opportunities (e.g., the New York Community Trust’s Hive Digital Media and Learning Fund) through partnership agreements (e.g., Parsons endorsement of Mouse) or via mutual participation in select activities (e.g., participation in a number of NYC-based membership organization such as Hive NYC Learning Network, joint presentations at local events such as Connected Credentials convening or national conferences, and collaboration on white papers). This history of collaboration is deeply rooted in a shared understanding of the inequitable context at the heart of the NSF ITEST-funded project and a set of shared values.
  5. An understanding of social inequity characterized by the disproportionate under-representation of people of color in professional and academic ICT and STEM activities. (Please refer to the research project summary for details.)This complex context is perceived through diverse perspectives, such as social science/research, higher education and admissions, the K–12 education system, OST tech education, and community-based development, with deep roots in redressing social inequity through arts activism and youth development.
  6. A shared set of values. A set of shared principles guide the individual organizations’ missions to tackle specific needs and to amplify their target communities’ strengths. These values intersect around equity, inclusion, and social justice; transformative youth development models; technology/creative design community- or arts-based programming; increasing access for underrepresented, marginalized members of society to professional and academic ICT and STEM activities; increasing diversity in higher ed, ICT and STEM, and other industries; and the open exchange of knowledge and ideas.
  7. Trust. Trust extends beyond relationships among the individuals representing each organization.
  8. Leveraging partners’ networks. As noted above, each organization brings to the partnership a unique set of experiences, knowledge, resources, and networks of allies—all of which have been key levers benefiting the work.

The elements of the partnership that have not worked or where the partnership has struggled.

  1. Deeper engagement of youth participants in the work, and not just as research subjects. A core participant group identified by the partnership in its vision is the youth who benefit directly from the Design League Badge Portfolio System, as well as the youth who participate more broadly in the implementing partner programs. One of the principles identified by the partners through the P2P process was to deepen youth’s participation in the project beyond their role as beneficiaries or research subjects. During the first two years of the project, the partnership has found it challenging to increase or make more meaningful young people’s participation in the project. For the third year of the project, a former participant of Design League (who is attending Parsons School of Design) and an undergraduate student from the Parsons School of Design were hired as portfolio mentors to support the implementation of the Design League Badge Portfolio System as well as to contribute to both the research and the partnership. While each of the organizations is deeply invested in youth and in transformative approaches to support youth, both within and outside the partnership, deepening engagement with this stakeholder group has been a struggle.
  2. Clarifying assumptions around key project components. Notwithstanding a partnership rooted in history and shared values, or a vision that holds the partners accountable to ongoing reflection, assumptions were made about the partners’ common understanding or collective language—for example, around badges or portfolios. While there are processes to help groups surface assumptions (e.g., Theory of Change), frequently the most appropriate structure is time—time to challenge our individual and collective beliefs and to build points of connection across diverse and differentiated experiences.
  3. Leveraging partners’ resources. As noted above, each organization brings to the partnership a unique set of experiences, knowledge, and resources. Upon reflection, a (lean) archive of relevant resources, especially those developed by the implementing and pathway partners, should have been discussed and created. Such resources could have provided insights to inform programmatic decisions and helped spark conversations around certain language/definition-related assumptions.
  4. Greater diversity in the partnership itself. This challenge is not unique to this partnership nor the result of delayed or intentional actions. It is, nonetheless, important to note. The project’s proposal to NSF states that, “the number of people of color in professional and academic ICT and STEM activities has gradually increased over the past several decades, but it is still too low, given the percentage of the national population represented by individuals from these groups. The disproportionate representation of the fastest growing segments of the American populace in these pursuits is an indicator of social inequity.” The partnership supporting the Design League Badge Portfolio System project, an example of both a professional and academic ICT and STEM activity, is made up primarily of white professionals with a fairly representative gender distribution.

As a society, we understand that a single organization or entity cannot tackle increasingly complex social problems alone. For example, the disproportionate under-representation of people of color in professional and academic ICT and STEM activities, and the barriers faced by this fastest growing segment of the American populace, is an indicator of social inequity. Multiple organizations and actors representing diverse interests, such as institutions of higher learning, ICT and STEM industry, youth development groups, and youth advocates, along with educators and researchers, are critical to collectively contributing solutions to address this complex social problem. Such a partnership can collaborate to identify, develop, and endorse alternative pathways and their valid credentialing for underrepresented youth seeking access to ICT and STEM opportunities.