by | Dec 18, 2023

Learning in Solidarity – for Solidarity in Social Change

18 months ago, SMK took on a major new challenge. We were invited by Oak Foundation to design and deliver a five-year capacity building programme for their UK Housing and Homelessness partners. Our aim is to strengthen our collective knowledge, skills and confidence to drive transformative social change – with the aspirations of people with first-hand experience of housing injustice at the heart.​ We called this programme Solidarity in Social Change.

Underpinning the programme is SMK’s unique analysis of power, solidarity and social change, developed over many years of connecting campaigners and changemakers, listening, and making sense of what we’ve heard. We hoped to bring this experience to developing a fresh approach to building capacity for social change. In the new year, we’ll begin sharing what we’ve learned so far. This blog sets out some of the thinking behind our approach. 

A fresh approach to capacity building 

We heard loud and clear on the Power Project that we work in a sector that too often overlooks knowledge and expertise arising from first-hand experience, in favour of professional or academic learning. This needs to change. But, while traditional, top-down approaches to training and education are great for ‘banking’ deposits of knowledge into the minds of students, they risk perpetuating that inequality by putting some people’s knowledge on a pedestal over others. 

Participants on the Solidarity in Social Change programme work within organisations – and may or may not have first-hand experience of housing injustice themselves. But our intention has been to develop an approach to learning and capacity building that reflects the solidarity we are trying to create – one that truly values diverse forms of knowledge, experience and expertise. 

We knew, from the in-depth conversations we had with partners about what they wanted from the programme, that rich knowledge and experience exists in the partnership. Oak fund people working in diverse, creative ways to tackle housing injustice across the UK. We wanted to surface that knowledge and create connections, so we could all learn together. We designed a pilot year around a three-strand approach to test our ideas. This included: 

  • Foundational workshops to build a shared language and understanding of solidarity and social change 
  • Facilitated, peer-led ‘Inquiry Groups’ – where people can develop and explore their own personal work-related inquiries, building trusting relationships so they can ask difficult questions and provide mutual support 
  • Laying foundations for building connections across the partnership and gathering what we’re learning – so we can build a picture of solidarity in social change to share with the sector 

As with any project, we’ve faced some difficulties. But we’re learning a lot. As anticipated, key challenges have been balancing ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ approaches to learning, and clearly communicating what we’re trying to do.  

Balancing ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ approaches to learning 

We’re keen to avoid treating participants as ‘empty vessels’ to fill with information, but people understandably – and rightly – need information they can quickly apply to their organisations. There are times that having someone with clear subject expertise tell us what to do works. For the second year of the programme, we’re partnering SMK Associates with organisations working on the ground – so participants can learn from both theory and practice.   

But sometimes we cannot – and should not – pretend we have all the answers. Working meaningfully with people whose background and perspective may be very different to our own is hard – especially when it comes to tackling issues you have such different experiences of. It involves navigating complex power dynamics, changing how you think and show up as much as what you do. There’s no quick fix – this isn’t something a single training session or worksheet can solve. It requires reflection and conversation, good judgment and responsive action – and a commitment to change on a personal and organisational level, as well as societal.  

Building a learning community for transformative change 

It’s taking time, but we’re deliberately building a learning community that is participatory, democratic, and driven by informed action – and rooted in shared values of compassion, mutual respect, determination for justice, and hope for the future. These are values that sit at the heart of solidarity itself.  

We see this as a truly systemic approach to unleashing the power of people, organisations and the wider sector to create change. Together, we’re working to transform the structures holding power inequalities in place – through the process, as well as the outcome, of learning about solidarity in social change – so that everyone’s knowledge counts in our work to create a fairer, more equitable society.  


Further reading 

The ‘banking’ concept of traditional education was first conceived by Paolo Freire, in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968). If you’re interested in reading more about learning for social change, is an excellent resource.  

If you’re in need of some hopeful inspiration, or interested in the link between hope and action, Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book Hope in the Dark (2016) is a great place to start: ‘Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope’. 

Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas is the Head of Power and Participation at SMK



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