Designing Learning Circles to Support Economic Mobility: Key Insights and User Needs

What we learned from talking with people about economic opportunity.

At Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), we are a grassroots network of people who believe that knowledge should be freely shared and learning is best done with others. We’re exploring ways to expand our impact in 2023 and beyond. We want to bring you – our community – along for the journey. This is the second in a series of blog posts that will share areas we’re investigating, what we’re learning, and the ideas it’s sparking for us. Read the first installment here. And we want to hear from you! Email us your questions, comments, ideas, and feedback at

At P2PU, we are serious and curious about creating greater economic opportunity for all in the United States. We believe the current economic disparities – by race, place, and gender – harm people stuck in cycles of poverty and hold back our entire country. We see an opportunity to create new, community-based, collective learning models in the U.S. that help people connect to jobs and careers that support a high quality of life. 

While we see problems and opportunities, we aren’t coming in with pre-determined solutions. We know the best solutions will come from listening to the people closest to the challenges. Earlier this year, we had 20 intentional conversations with a wide variety of people, from funders to library workers to workforce developers. Interviewees worked in different places across the country, for different types of organizations, and took different approaches to their work. Across interviews, we listened for key insights – comments or observations that made us think of things in a new way, gave us pause, or allowed us to see the opportunity in a new light. 

We also set out to talk with people directly on the ground in two communities: Saint Paul, Minnesota and Detroit, Michigan. We wanted to hear from past and potential learning circle participants about their wants, needs, and dreams related to finding jobs, advancing their careers, and gaining new skills. 

All of these listening approaches were designed specifically to put our end users’ voices and perspectives at the center of this process. We heard and learned a lot. 

Key Insight: People take different journeys through public libraries, learning circles, and workforce programs.  

One thing that became clear through these conversations is that people take different journeys through public libraries, learning circles, and workforce programs. 

People often come to the library for job help when they’re experiencing what one person called a “digital emergency” – they need immediate help completing an online application, creating an email account, sending a fax, or solving some other urgent tech issue that’s standing between them and a job or other opportunity. Library staff work with them one-on-one to resolve their issue, and the person goes on their way. They may or may not return to the library after that interaction. 

People’s journey to a learning circle often begins a bit differently. They start with a goal: “I want to learn something new.” This could be any number of things – 3D printing, knitting, or a new language. They hear about learning circle programs from people they know, see an event listing on a library website, or talk with a library staff member who tells them about an upcoming program. From there, they show up at the library to meet regularly with others who share the same learning goal as a peer-to-peer learning community, usually for several weeks in a row. Someone – either a library worker or a community volunteer – is trained by P2PU to facilitate the learning circle each week. Participants learn a new skill and hopefully build new relationships in the process. 

When people seek help from a workforce developer, they want a new job but are often running into barriers. The workforce developer works with them repeatedly over time, referring them to additional services and resources for things like transportation and childcare support while also providing one-on-one case management and skill-building resources. If the workforce developer works for an organization that receives Federal funding, they must track these interactions and report how successful they are in helping the people they work with find jobs. 

As you can see these are quite different journeys. Both the end users and the workers have different goals, questions, and needs in these various community services. 

Key Insight: In U.S. public libraries, learning circles, and job services rarely overlap. 

Learning circles work extremely well in libraries. Libraries are great places to get help finding a job. And those two things rarely overlap. That was one of the main things we heard from library workers. We heard things like, “Our learning circles tend to be ‘fluffier.’ They’re fun, but they don’t help you get a job. It’s harder to get people to show up to the practical learning circles about heart health and job searches,” and, “Just-in-time help is less cost-effective than teaching courses, but it has the most impact.” Library workers see learning circles working especially well for mid-skill folks who are looking to level up, language learning, and light, playful topics.  

Key Insight: Many people need more digital skills and digital literacy support. 

Communities continue to experience an unmet need for digital literacy support and digital skill development. People search out a library with questions like, “How do I avoid getting scammed online?” or, “How do I get remote work?” Workforce developers have people coming in their doors for services their organizations aren’t funded to provide – like older adults seeking help with phones and computers. Many technology platforms exist for upskilling. Both libraries and workforce agencies provide access to them, but the options can be overwhelming – for workers and learners.

Key Insight: Funders want to see collaboration towards systemic change. 

While the Federal government provides essential funding for basic workforce services in job centers and other sites across the country, this funding’s restrictions mean it’s not a useful source for trying new service models. Philanthropy plays a critical role in providing innovation capital to develop, test, and implement new economic opportunity interventions. Perhaps as a result of the constraints in public funding streams, philanthropic funders describe the workforce development and economic opportunity arena as a crowded and complex space for them. Generally, they aren’t interested in funding new stand-alone programs. They want to invest in data-driven collaboration that fits into larger place-based or systems-level strategies. One said, “As a funder, we care about the outcome data, not the number of organizations doing the work.” Another said, “Any new service would need to be embedded in existing systems to be fundable.” Increasingly, funders are investing in content and approaches that are designed by proximate leaders – people close to the challenges in the places they occur. Funders place a high priority on ensuring cultural relevance and connection to learners’ contexts in the approaches they support. 

Key Insight: People want to get better jobs so they can make more money. 

One thing came through loud and clear from all of this direct community feedback: people want to get better jobs so they can make more money. This may seem self-evident, but it was an important finding because it reinforced for us that the people we’re hoping to reach – people in libraries, job centers, and past learning circle participants – are seeking greater economic opportunity. One person said, “I want to make enough money to live comfortably and to use my language skills in my career.” Many people struggle to meet their basic needs with their current incomes. They want the safety and flexibility of remote work and are interested in building skills that lead to better-paying jobs, but they face many barriers when working towards that goal. As one person said, “It’s hard to manage work, childcare, and continued education.” 

Key Insight: P2PU depends upon facilitators and partner organizations to reach participants.  

Our final big “a-ha” for us was related to our organization’s continuous learning processes. When we began this project, we felt excited about the idea of doing pop-up engagement sessions to talk with people – likely many of whom had never heard of P2PU or learning circles – and hear their thoughts on wants, needs, and dreams for their careers. As an organization that most often works behind the scenes to support program facilitators, we relished the idea of getting out and directly talking with community members. 

We learned that this was harder than we expected. Some organizations had policies against any on-site surveying. For those places where we were able to run a pop-up engagement session – one library and one job center – foot traffic was slow. Because we wanted more learner voices in the mix, we pivoted to add an online survey as well, reaching out to 300+ past participants of learning circles. As we design new resources, we will need to make sure we design for and with facilitators, since they provide a key link between participants and peer-to-peer learning. 

These insights sparked numerous ideas for us in how P2PU might create new programs that address the needs we heard through this process. We’ll be sharing more on those ideas in the future. For now, we want to hear from you! 

  • What stood out to you or surprised you from these findings? 
  • Where do you see needs that P2PU could help address? Where could P2PU add the most value to your work?  
  • How do you think P2PU could best play a role in creating greater economic opportunity in the U.S.? 

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