How to Build a Culture of Learning: Part 2

Author: Ami Novoryta

As we celebrate the 10-year anniversary of LEO, we are sharing a special "how to" series guest-authored by some of our awesome provider partners. Below, Catholic Charities Chicago shares the second of a two-part blog series on how to build a culture of evidence.

How-to: Build a Culture of Learning – Part 2
By: Ami Novoryta, Chief Program Officer, Catholic Charities Chicago


Earlier this year, I shared that our organizing principles at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago are helping us build a dynamic learning culture – one that is grounded in a shared desire to create meaningful impact. These principles call on us to put the people we serve and our front-line teams first; to be aware of the allure (and distraction) of scale; to focus on areas where our Catholic identity, our network, and our century of service make us a unique and valued partner; and, to regularly reflect on how are we called to serve, learn, and grow.

As our Chief Program Officer, through my work supporting teams who serve young moms, recent immigrants, seniors, and so many others, I get to see these principles come to life every day.  

When we embark on research projects–which can be rich in learning but also very time intensive—our principles provide clear direction. Projects need to be informed first and foremost by our teams and those we are working to help. Our research needs to engage partners, because we will learn more and go farther together. 

Last spring, we found ourselves saying a very enthusiastic “yes” as we considered an opportunity to study how best to engage and empower youth in partnership with Notre Dame’s Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO).  

Translating values to action: Building a youth engagement strategy

Our youth engagement team here at Catholic Charities had a magical opportunity—a program planning grant—that comes along rarely in social services. It was a chance to reflect, learn, and grow; to listen; and, perhaps most spectacularly, to dream about building a new initiative in one community and focused on one population, without the pressures of trying to scale immediately.  

We jumped in headfirst—and brought the LEO team along for the ride.

With financial support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Catholic Sisters Initiative, we deployed a small cross-functional team to learn, reflect, and plan together. We focused on three activities:

  • “Mental and Behavioral Interventions for Youth: A Review of the Evidence” literature review. The team at LEO helped us understand the correlation between behavioral health interventions and short- and long-term outcomes.  This research was game-changing. It shifted our thinking about outcomes from looking at report cards and other traditional measures to finding tools that assess social and emotional well-being, and whether youth are forming positive peer and adult relationships. 
  • 80+ interviews and focus groups with youth, parents, community leaders, and Catholic Sisters in our communities. These conversations helped us hone in on our target population - adolescent youth, in grades 5 through 8.  The conversations over pizza and soda strengthened our resolve to build programming that weaves itself into the rich social fabric already surrounding youth in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood.  
  • Effective-practice site visits. LEO organized and facilitated nine in-person and virtual site visits for our team with organizations across the US. These visits encouraged us to be open and think outside our box. They helped us look at our own project with fresh eyes and, ultimately, to laser-focus on mentoring as the anchor of our program model.

We packed loads of learning, reflection, and personal and professional growth into this planning period. And it paid off. We developed what we’re calling a “playbook” that we hope can be of use to other youth-serving organizations (including yours!), and a program model that lays the foundation for work launching later this year. Our learning will continue, including as LEO studies this new model through a randomized control trial. To be continued…

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