Learning through Failure: Reflections from the Community-University Partnership

By Naomi Mahaffy

I speak with a lot of change-makers. Most of them are quick to admit that they don’t have everything figured out… that they’ve failed, and that they expect to continue failing and learning as they move forward. That said, it’s rare to find these same themes shared honestly and candidly within an organization’s annual report.

Earlier this week I spoke with Karen Edwards, director of the Community-University Partnership (CUP) for the Study of Children, Youth, and Families. CUP is a unique collaboration among community members, researchers, practitioners, community organizations, funders, and policy makers in Edmonton and across the province focused on supporting the development of children, youth and families. It works with community partners to create or mobilize evidence that can improve practices, programs, and policies. A few examples of CUP’s current collaborations include:

  • All In for Youth: a collaborative model providing wrap-around supports for children and families in five inner-city schools

  • Communities United: a project building connections to strengthen families and neighbourhoods in Edmonton

  • Grocery Run: a partnership with the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative, connecting immigrant and refugee women with rescued, healthy food.

These are complex partnerships working to create change within complex systems, meaning that there are constant opportunities for experimentation, learning, and improvement. After speaking with Karen, I was delighted to read the CUP 2017-2018 annual report, which thoughtfully shared some examples of how CUP and its partners are learning through failure. In her opening letter, Karen writes:


“The very nature of our work means we need to be open to not knowing exactly how an action or decision will turn out. We can plan, discuss, and anticipate as much as possible but there are times when things don’t always turn out as we expect, when challenges result in smashing success, or when the plan simply doesn’t work. There are times when we simply fail. Failure can be associated with blame or it can be associated with exploration and growth. When we fail we need to create opportunities for reflecting, learning, and growing within our teams, partnerships, and projects. These are essential steps in praising experimentation, in processing the failure, and problem solving our way forward.”

With Karen’s permission, I thought I’d share two excerpts from CUP’s latest annual report that resonated with themes I’ve heard from other change-makers. I encourage you to read the full report here.

Try, Fail, Learn, Repeat as Necessary: CUP and the Early Learning and Care Steering Committee


It would be almost fair to say that EndPovertyEdmonton’s Early Learning and Care Steering Committee (ELCSC) was set up to encounter failure from the start. The ELCSC was created in January of 2017 with the ambitious goal of designing and implementing an integrated system of early learning and care for Edmonton. Having such a system in place is one of the core elements of EndPovertyEdmonton’s plan to eliminate poverty within a generation. CUP has been working with the ELCSC since September 2017. The problem is improving early learning and care in Edmonton isn’t clearly any one organization’s job. Even worse, defining an “integrated system of early learning and care” is no easy task—in fact, every word in that quote other than “of” and “and” has been up for debate both inside and outside the ELCSC. And it quickly became apparent that setting up that system—no matter what specific form it took—would no doubt require considerable cooperation between multiple levels of government and multiple organizations outside of government.

So the ELCSC has always had a tough road in front of it, and failing in various ways—and learning quickly from those failures—has been part of the journey. As one example, the ELCSC, in partnership with CUP, has searched for data to help understand the state of early learning and care in Edmonton, and to help guide efforts to improve it. This search has not been a rousing success, but neither was it an abject failure. We searched and searched again, and though there are bits and pieces, we haven’t been able to put together a complete picture. The simple fact is that for many reasons, there are just not enough data about early learning and care in Edmonton to fully understand it, much less to design and implement an integrated system for the city.

There is a bright spot, though: now we have a much better idea of what data we are missing, and how we might get it. Ironically, we are not done failing. In fact, CUP and the ELCSC might just be getting started. We are entering our riskiest phase yet, as we start producing public proposals for how an integrated system of early learning and care might work in Edmonton, along with proposals for what data would be needed to support and inform that system. It is not only possible, but probable, that on some points we are naïve, misinformed, or just plain wrong. But this kind of public “failure” may be just what is needed to spur on the next phase of this conversation. Stay tuned.

Failure to Impact Sustainable Practice and Policy Changes: Perspectives of a Community Partner


As a grassroots community-based organization, the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative (MCHB) has spent the past 20 years making visible the realities of immigrant, refugee and newcomer populations. MCHB strives to effect change towards responsive practices in all systems.

For 18 of those 20 years, MCHB has worked with CUP as a community partner, an intermediary between researchers and our families, and a liaison between other CUP partners and our communities. Meaningful multi-year research studies have been pursued and salient knowledge about immigrant, refugee and newcomer children, youth and families has been generated to impact shifts in practice and policies. Yet, we continue to witness and feel helpless in the deepening of poverty and social economic marginalization of our families.

Why? Have we failed as a community partner to engender relevant and sustainable changes?

This failure matters. Twenty years of unrelenting efforts towards this end means devoted time and energy towards practice shifts have been wasted.

Perhaps, instead of asking why, we should ask ourselves what have we learned and what can we change as a result? What we have learned as a community partner is that we don’t have adequate knowledge and understanding of the way formal systems work in bringing about and sustaining changes to practice.

As “system outsiders” collaborating to effect change, we seem to lose ground easily with shifts in leadership. We also seem unable to sustain “systemic memories of change” when new priorities come into focus. We feel deep discouragement and at times pain in the failure. In collaboration with research colleagues, we often fail to declare from the start and uphold explicit principles and ethical guidelines to ensure true egalitarian relationships that lead to deeply meaningful research for our communities.

In both types of relationships, we seem to have overlooked the fundamental fact that we are crossing deep cultural divides, necessitating “cultural brokering” in our constant liaising, to provide each side with cultural knowledge of the other and on-going mediation to minimize cultural misunderstanding and conflict. We, ourselves, need relational intermediaries to support the development of egalitarian relationships, engage in joint reflection and minimize the pain of failure to impact.

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