Delving Deeper: Dr. Robyn Whittaker on the Power of Collaboration
Dr. Robyn Whittaker is a Collaboration Convenor on a mission to develop our understanding of how effective collaboration can be fostered through relationship building. A medical doctor by practice, she found a gap in the world for orchestrators of relational spaces and has been working to fill it ever since. Through her initiatives, Kaleidoscope Lights and Africa Voices Dialogue, Robyn supports organisations and systems to engage in deeper forms of co-creative work.
This Room member shares insights on how to develop a collaborative mindset and create a thriving network of supportive relationships — even in spaces where conflict is rife.
Your background is in healthcare, having worked as a family doctor for 17 years. What spurred you to leave the medical profession?
I spent 17 highly rewarding years as a family practitioner, always with a keen interest in children, families, the public and psychosocial components of health, and the promotion of wellbeing. Simultaneously, however, I was also very active and invested in the schools that my children attended, where I served for more than a decade in various roles, including as a member of the School Governing Body. In 2014, I was asked by the National School Governing Body Association to provide commentary on the Draft Policy on HIV and TB of the South African National Development Plan. This document is profoundly inspiring. It envisages an education system where schools are the “centre of community” and become sites that actively promote the well-being of families and communities. This document re-ignited my inherent idealism, and I subsequently decided to commit myself to seeing these ideals realised.
I initially left practice in 2015 and became increasingly interested in the need for and the power of collaborative work, and in understanding how this could be realised at a deep and meaningful level. This ultimately led me to start Kaleidoscope Lights, through which I am seeking to develop our collective capacity to understand and practice deep collaboration for the emergence of functional and relational social and learning ecosystems.
Collaboration is at the heart of your work. What does it really take to develop a collaborative mindset and practice?
Collaboration is a slippery concept. There seems to be a general consensus that we need to practice collaboration, and we often make early attempts to do so. However, there is such a wide range of meanings for the term “collaboration”, and we often miss each other’s meaning and find it hard to generate deep, genuine and trusting partnerships in which we can co-visualise and co-create the kinds of work that we hope to. This can lead to great disillusionment and cynicism.
Before we can hope to collaborate, we first need to connect and build relationships.
I believe that before we can hope to collaborate, we first need to connect and build relationships. Projects undertaken together can help to facilitate that connection and deepen relationships, but we should take care to understand that we are not engaging in a relationship in order to get a piece of work done — rather, through working together, we are giving ourselves an opportunity to build a deeper and more trusting connection. This shift in emphasis is key because if we place the relationship first, the frustration that sometimes arises from work projects is seen in the light of the higher objective. When we commit to the relationship first, and we pay it adequate time and attention, we lay the foundation for long-term collaboration and connection, and ultimately the emergence of a capacity for co-creation.
There is an intentionality to this process that can be facilitated and planned. This is the work that I am interested in — the HOW of deep collaborative work and the development of a shared understanding of the various roles of ecosystem orchestrators (or collaboration conveners), connectors and weavers.
There are, in fact, a remarkable number of similarly-minded people in the world who are committed to this kind of approach. One of the greatest gifts of the past year has been the ability to connect and engage with them, draw inspiration, practical and supportive insights from them, and gain the support of a community that understands the world in this way.
You co-founded Africa Voices Dialogue at the height of the pandemic. Why did you feel it was important to do so?
My colleagues Abdelaziz Zohri, Andrew Wambua and I met at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement 2020 Conference in Morocco. This was the first time in its 20-year history that the conference had been hosted on the African continent. There, I facilitated an “Africa Spotlight” session, which had great attendance and a wonderful energy. It was clear in the session that there was an appetite for more conversations. The three of us connected a few months after and decided to launch Africa Voices Dialogue in response to what we felt was a profound lack of real, human connection amongst educators across the continent.
The intent with which the initiative was founded was to provide a space where the voices of Africa’s educators, learners and communities would be seen, heard and loved. Our hope is to generate a strong sense of connection and belonging that allows participants to share their experiences with fellow African colleagues and for African Voices Dialogue to be a platform where they can be inspired and ignited. We feel that the opportunity for educators to see and engage with the lived experiences, educational realities and innovations occurring in other countries on the continent — to which we are not often exposed — holds powerful potential for learning and for accessing the African voice.
We have as a key secondary goal the amplification of the African narrative within and beyond our own continent through research, advocacy and engagement in multiple global networks.
What is the most impactful aspect of the dialogues that you’ve held?
Without a doubt, the level of connection generated amongst participants. We have been exposed to some very inspiring work happening on the continent. Dialogue participants have managed to engage with one another, as well as with participants from non-African countries, to initiate some interesting collaborative work. There is a wonderful sense that people feel strengthened to work where they are because of this feeling of connectedness to their continental peers.
Over the past year, some themes that have emerged from the dialogues have been:
- A great commitment to engaged and connected educational leadership. This might be described as a commitment to an Ubuntu pedagogy and distributed leadership
- A focus on not only learner wellbeing, but critically, on educator wellbeing
- The incorporation of creativity, play, storytelling and heritage into our African classrooms
- A desire to initiate styles of learning that foster community-based learning ecosystems
- Support for young people across the continent, regardless of their circumstances, to have access to opportunity, to innovate and to develop an entrepreneurial mindset
- A keen awareness of equity in education
In spaces where conflict is rife, can dialogue truly make a difference?
Genuine dialogue is about seeking to understand the other.
I believe that dialogue is essential to make a difference in situations of conflict — indeed it is the most critical first step. Dialogue in this instance doesn’t mean the presentation of an agenda or a debate or an argument. It also doesn’t have a predetermined outcome that is set at the outset. Genuine dialogue is about seeking to understand the other — about the creation of sufficient psychological safety that specific agendas can be laid down for a time, so that we can open ourselves, however small that opening may be, to listen to, perceive and (hopefully) understand a different perspective. In high conflict situations, it does need to be facilitated by a highly skilled team, and more importantly through a very clearly intentional process, as it can otherwise quickly descend back into conflict.
Many of the great peacemaking resolutions have been preceded by years, sometimes decades, of patient, and often invisible, dialogic processes.
Why do you think relationships matter?
Human beings are designed for connection — it is one of our most basic human needs.
The concept of Ubuntu, which is particularly powerful in the context of the African continent, holds true for all of humanity — “I am because you are”. With strong, genuine, kind connections, we thrive — we feel supported, energised and comforted. We are able to do things that would feel impossible if we were isolated when we know that we are cared for by others.
The ability to be in an authentic relationship does require a level of self-awareness and the ability to connect inwardly with oneself as well. Building an authentic relationship is difficult when one’s locus of value is externalised. Part of being in an authentic relationship is that we allow our sense of self to be mirrored back to us through the eyes of a caring other — which builds our self-knowledge, self-acceptance and self-care, and which allows us to relate to others with greater kindness and acceptance too.
What role has relationship building played in your own journey?
My understanding of and engagement with relationship building has followed a lifelong course. I suppose that I am what can be termed an extroverted introvert; I am very comfortable in solitude and enjoy mulling over things in my own company, but I find that I also really enjoy the sense of connection and deepening insight that occurs when in conversation with others. I don’t really love crowds — I find that I develop a bit of sensory overload — but put me in a one-on-one conversation, or a space which has been intentionally created for connection, and I find myself very energised. I seem to have quite a well-developed sense of intuition and find that it is quite easy to be present and comfortable in someone else’s emotional space. This was further developed by being in practice as a doctor.
When I moved into my role as Stakeholder Engagement Lead at Partners for Possibility, I was able to develop a really extensive set of relationships, which brought a lot of fulfilment, tremendous insight into different sectors and how people experience them, and a real gratitude for those relationships which were mostly open, honest and warm. This phase also gave me insight into how powerful collaboration can be, how generally non-existent it is, even within a single organisation, and the gap there is in the system for connectors and conveners of relational spaces and collaborative work.
In working to understand what kinds of conditions allow for collaboration and trust to thrive, it has made me even more aware that the most chance encounters and “random unstructured conversations” can lead to real breakthroughs and opportunities. Following that spark of intuition, that sense of recognition and connection — however small it may be — and being brave enough to engage with someone, leads to incredible networks being built.