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Learning Communities: Philia - A Dialogue On Caring Citizenship

Philia - A Dialogue on Caring Citizenship is founded on the belief that "the health, well-being and strength of our society requires the presence and participation of all citizens." In September of 2005, Avril Orloff (Project Manager) launched the Philia Learning Community, a section of the website I had the pleasure of writing. Exploring the dynamics and growth of this community offers an interesting case study in the design, implementation and effect of learning communities...


Philia is the Greek word for neighbourly love - the bonds of friendship that bind us together in community. More formally, we define philia as "the reserve of human warmth, enthusiasm and generosity that nourishes and stimulates the fellowship at the heart of civic life."

Philia: Purpose

The purpose of Philia is to provide a means by which people that have been marginalized, isolated, or excluded in our society can become a valued contributing citizen. The origins of Philia lie within the disability community, but have been expanded to include all people that face barriers to full participation.

The core capacity focused on is an rich sense of dialogue that is designed to a flow across nourishing ideas, to good conversation, and inspiring action. In other words, Philia's approach to dialogue is one that links thoughts to concrete action in a way that helps build a more inclusive society and a greater sense of belonging for everyone.

Core Beliefs

Philia clearly states two core beliefs that form the nucleus of its activities.

Inclusion: A healthy and vibrant society is inclusive of all of its members, including those that may be experiencing a difficult and perhaps painful life. One of the core directions for learning in the Philia envrionment is to design and implement learning environments that help bring people together regardless of their walk in life. In other words, learning is the means by which social barriers are broken down in order to build something more vibrant and purposeful. A stated by Philia, "everyone has a contribution to make."

Belonging: At Philia, progress in a society is not measured merely in economic terms, but in human terms. Through inclusion, society achieves a more vibrant sense of progress. This sense of progress is energized by the thoughts, ideas and experiences of people that were previously ignored or marginalized. We might think of this as the economics of inclusion, or building organizations whose economic structure are designed to improve people's life experiences, not through mere products and services, but through dialogue and meaningful interaction. Both Philia and I believe that Jean Vanier describes belonging in its most meaningful form.

The Philia Learning Community


The purpose of the Philia Learning Community is to create a vibrant and engaging environment that fosters a dialogue about inclusion and belonging in order to explore nourishing ideas, engage in good conversation, and provide opportunities for inspiring action.

It is important to build an energetic sense of the word dialogue in order to understand what the focus for learning is. In Dialogue - A Proposal Donald Factor and Peter Garrett define dialogue as:

Dialogue, as we are choosing to use the word, is a way of exploring the roots of the many crises that face humanity today. It enables inquiry into, and understanding of, the sorts of processes that fragment and interfere with real communication between individuals, nations and even different parts of the same organization.

The idea of connecting dialogue to "exploring the roots of the many crises that face humanity today" is an important foundation for understanding the power of dialogue. One of the crises we face today is clearly defined by Philia - the exlusion, marginalization and isolation of people within our own society. Dialogue, then, enables inquiry into and understanding the sorts of processess that impede real communication. By "real" I sense the authors are referring to communication that has a clearly observable beneficial result.

Phlia embraces this approach to dialogue via nourishing ideas, to good conversation, and inspiring action. This captures the essence of what Philia means by the word "dialogue." In turn, this understanding of dialogue becomes a core capacity and capability in the Philia Learning Community.

This orientation to dialogue is foundational is designing any learning community. Without the sense of openess and authenticity described above, learning denigrates into mere discussion. In education and training, deep dialogue is not a requirement for success; in learning deep dialogue is essential to success.

The Learning Community: A Real Learning Experience

I recall in an earlier email from April Orloff of Philia an important question and that was, "How can we promote real learning experiences?" Without getting caught up in the semantics around the word "real" it seemed to me that Avril's question really got to the core issue for the Philia Learning Community - How can we design and implement ways of learning that help to foster the purpose of Philia in an observable and concrete way?

Nourishing Ideas: Learning requires reflection. Reflection requires time. The nourishing ideas component of the learning community provides a space for reflection on foundational thinking. In other words, the kind of change Philia is promoting cannot be had by quick fix or reactive policy changes. New ideas and ways of thinking must take root in the minds of participants, and all of this requires a forum designed to provide the time and motivation to do this.

Good Conversation: The idea of good conversation is connected to a principle of dialogue promoted by William Isaacs, that is, dialogue is a "a living experience of inquiry." Conversation encourages a public sharing of the nourishing ideas that have been developed. The conversation is designed to not only explore the ideas from various perspectives, but to reveal potential avenues for action that can be taken. Learning the art of dialogue is the essential enterprise here.

Inspiring Action: Dialogue alone does not result in fundamental change. What is required is to embrace the results of dialogue in new practices - or inspiring kinds of action within society. In a more practical sense, this would mean that the barriers to social exclusion are being brought down in some manner, and a greater range of inclusion and belonging in society are therefore fostered. At this point, the learning community becomes more visible, if you will, through oberservable concrete change in the way our society behaves.

A Real Learning Experience: For our purposes here, a "real learning experience" refers to the development of nourishing ideas through exploration and reflection, the sharing and interaction of those ideas through good conversation, and the actualization of those conversation in society in order to visibile promote inclusion and belonging.

A Networked Learning Environment

An effective learning community, I believe, will constantly seek to connect itself with individuals and organizations outside of itself. For example, Connected Intelligence was a learning community designed to actively and aggressively pursue connections with outside influences. An ineffective learning community will do precisely the opposite and that is to close itself off from outside influences in order to self-manage and self-evaluate itself. For example, much of our education and training systems are largely closed systems that tend to avoid outside influences.

The Philia Learning Community is mandated as an open learning community. In fact, it would be completely impossible to achieve the stated goals in a closed learning community. This sense of openess can be seen in Philia's connections to:

  1. Policy Initiatives
  2. Citizen Initiatives
  3. 2010 Vision for Citizens With Disabilities
  4. Youth Initiatives
  5. Organizational Transformation
  6. Stories
Note that all of these connections fall under inspiring action.

Also related to the Philia learning network are the Circle of Friends.

In a sense, part of what "inspiring action" means is the formation of learning networks that share a common or similar goal. How well these various organizations work together will, to some degree, influence the effectiveness of the learning network. Sometimes we refer to these connections as "partnerships" and although that is a relevant way to describe an aspect of the connection, it does fall short. An effective learning network will encourage a unity of thought, dialogue and action, but certainly not a uniformity of thought, dialogue and action. Philia has embraced the important principle in thier own learning community.

Joining the Philia Learning Community

An easy way to follow the on-going progress of Philia is to visit the What's New page. More importantly, I would encourage you to participate directly in the discussion in progress at the bottom of each page, or to post entries on your weblog or website about Philia.

As the Philia journey continues, I will update this entry with some thoughts and ideas.

Related Resources

  1. Building A Creative Community
  2. Creative Communities and A New Social Architecture
  3. PLAN (Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network) Institute: For Caring Sitizenship
  5. The Ties That Bind
  1. Public Dialogue: A Tool for Citizen Engagement
  2. What Is Public Dialogue?
  3. Wikipedia: Dialogue

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Recent Entries

Note: Comments on all entries are closed after two weeks to prevent comment spam. You can e-mail your comment on any entry to . Please be sure to specify which entry your comment references. I will also consider suggestions for future entries. Your feedback is welcome.

Hi Pearl,

Wonderful comments. You have raised a number of ideas and issues that I cannot hope to explore here in a single comment.

Where IsThe Philia Learning Community?: The first thing to say is that the Philia learning community is in its nascent stages of development. It is not something we can literally see and have a look at right now, but something we can watch emerge over time. This is perhaps why you have the feeling of "not getting it" - there isn't a lot to get at the moment. This is why you see a structure but not the "gatherings."

If you have ideas here, perhaps you can contribute them to Philia in order to help them evolve.

Dialoque and Chatautauqua: I can see the connection to chautauqua. At the same time my experiences in chautauqua revealed that while an interesting dialogue can occur, there is little formal structure designed to carry the dialogue beyond itself. In a sense, it is dialogue for the sake of dialogue. Philia is attempting to build a structure that moves dialogue into concrete practice.

The link to the Centre For Dialogue ( looks interesting. It does seem embrace the same idea of dialogue that Philia is encouraging.

Formal Appointment: I'm not entirely sure what you mean by this. I'll take a guess. The core purpose of Philia is to help reduce and eliminate barriers to full participation in society (i.e. - those that are marginalized and isolated by our own society). While talking to whoever you meet is always beneficial, I'm not sure it is enough to help resolve deeply entrenched issues and problems in any systemic way. "Formal appointment" by way of an organization such as Philia is an attempt to deal with the issue in a systematic manner. It is similar in kind to Jean Vanier's wonderful work at L'Arche (

Joyful, Jubilant Learning: 64 ways and counting: I have had a look at a few of the 64. I find the accounts interesting to read. At the same time, I have the feeling of not getting at this site as well. I see repositories of stories (and often interestng ones), yet I don't see anything beyond collection and distribution (and the web marketing of books via blogs of course).

Another aspect that makes me unconfortable about the site (although, I do need to spend more time with it) is that it has a "rose-coloured glasses" feel to it. There is nothing wrong with thoughtful optimism to be sure, but I have seen optimism used time and time again as a means to influence and sometimes coerce people - especially by consultants (I'm not saying the site is actually doing this, it's just an initial reaction of mine based on a long history of involvement with consultants).

The World Cafe: Haven't had a good look yet, but your questions to my thinking are precisely the right ones. Having a "dialogue" in an online environment is often an end unto itself - how whatever is discovered moves beyond the dialogue itself is often a mystery.

Dialogue is important - but it certainly isn't enough.

It's like chautauqua right? Perhaps an answer to my own questions here.

Q. Why dialogue?

A. There are many complex problems facing our communities, workplaces and governance structures. To respond wisely to these problems requires the input of many, often diverse, voices. Dialogue approaches offer some hopeful ways to relate to one another and how we govern ourselves. We engage in dialogue because the quality of our actions will be better informed, because we care about the web of relationships among us and because our public life depends on having a standard of public discourse that enables people to express their views freely and to explore their difference fairly.
~ Simon Fraser University

Next question then. Why is a formal appointment needed rather than just talking to whoever you meet? Because in day to day life, those we need to talk to won't dialogue? Or the advantages of the way of thinking work and can bring benefit even when done unilaterally and brought out into an unsuspecting world building a tipping point effect?

You might also enjoy the collaborative effort that created the list - Joyful, Jubilant Learning: 64 ways and counting -

I've read through what you've said of Phillia and a dozen pages there but I feel I'm not "getting it".

How does it focus on destigmatizing physical or mental disability and diversity (in the thousands of ways people can be distinctive)? Is it seeking purely public education? Of difference or commonality? of legal barriers?

I see the structure but I don't think I understand concretely what the gatherings are in terms of actions, purpose, tone, actual content of subjects?

World Cafe talks about what to put on the table literally, how to arrange chairs, principles of listening and dialogue ( but no gambits, no phrases, no troubleshooting guide, no exact samples. What would a well-crafted question be for what context, for whom, to what end? Where do we go from that learning moment? What is done with the results of the dialogue? I think that's what I need to really grasp what this is all about.

Hope that's not way too many questions...

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