Pioneers of Change:

Nurturing a Learning Community for Systemic Change

Marianne Knuth and Marianne ‘Mille’ Bojer1

"How can we create a process of knowledge creation, where knowledge and application become intertwined? If we want to create the knowledge that demands action, we need to unify the learner and the doer. I’m writing now because I feel it is the storm before the calm… the circling around the truth… I think we will get to something soon."

-Mille’s journal, January 13, 2000


"What is rotten?’ he asked. The very core, as in the goal of our Western civilisation being material progress (instead of spiritual development, or the freeing of human potential, for example). Individuals may not agree with this, but this is how the system is set up and effectively running. I watch BBC news and feel a little like an alien at some of the things I hear people say, especially on the business news sections."

-Marianne’s journal, June 21, 2000



It was during the first months of the year 2000. We were waking up to the need for a much deeper creation process than we had ever previously engaged in, the need to turn the support network we had worked on building over the past year into a true learning community that would equip its participants to effect systemic change in their diverse contexts.


We were looking at the dominant illusions in today’s societies, and exploring questions like never before — of how human beings have created, been programmed into, and reproduced systems that are harmful to ourselves and nature, and how we just live on with these paradoxes, taking them for granted and not questioning our assumptions.


We had founded Pioneers of Change in January 1999 as an alternative frame of reference for young idealists who had recently started their careers and found themselves leaving their values on the doorstep to work. The need to do so came largely from the reality that the centralized and bureaucratic institutions where they, and we, had started to work were governed by different assumptions than our own –about what was success, what was progress, what was enough, what was responsibility, what was urgent, and what was important.


We had felt that precious creativity, talent, and passions were being lost or suppressed by the so-called "real world", and that young idealists needed a group that would tell them:


"you’re not crazy in wanting to create positive change"


"go on, take the first step towards your dream today."

Now, while our original motivation was still clear, we realized that what we had created so far was not a whole lot more than a comfortable, affirmative, support structure for people who could afford choice. We had, some more strongly than others, been saying NO to mechanistic organisation and pure profit orientation, but Pioneers of Change was an escape route for its members more so than a source of real processes of engagement and construction of alternatives. We had few answers as to how to actually go about creating change that was not just treating the symptoms of our problems or reinforcing existing systems.

We realised that we were not only about creating an alternative space for people to run to for creativity, diversity, and learning, but more so about contributing to the creation of learning societies and organisations more broadly, bringing these processes into many different contexts where we were each located. One "pioneer" in Brazil used the example that Pioneers of Change was like a circle of people facing outward not inward. "You have a community behind you, but never forget that your impact is beyond Pioneers of Change, in a context where you may otherwise be feeling quite alone."

We felt humbled and excited at the same time. The year 2000 became an intense experience of defining ourselves – a process of broadening our diversity, both cultural, sectoral, and in terms of social ‘class’, deepening our beliefs, purpose and principles in dialogue with peers across the globe.


Pioneers of Change 2002: The Identity

Now, as 2001 has just drawn to a close, rich experiences and conversations have made us more conscious of the degree to which the beliefs we hold as a community of pioneers, and the goals that bind us together, are relevant to our contribution to a broader learning society.

We are working together as a network of young people (generally ages 25-35) from across the world for the stated purpose of "developing the understanding, commitment and relationships to transform or create systems so that they may come to serve Life, and operate in life-affirming ways." This purpose is based on the beliefs that:

- Life, in its essence, moves towards plurality, diversity, interdependence, self-constitution, and self-organisation - in short, towards the fulfillment of its own freedom.

- Throughout time, humans have built and reproduced systems of production, types of society, and frames of mind, that contradict Life.

- While we are taught to work within such a system (and the system learns to work within us), both our intuition and our senses tell us that it is fundamentally flawed, and that we can do something about it.

- We can change the rules of the game.

While intentions within the community may differ at the level of issues and strategies to work on (and this is a part of our diversity), the essential realisation in our shared purpose is the need to learn to organise more in accordance with nature’s principles. This includes allowing expression of diversity and creativity, supporting humanisation and environmental sustainability, and enabling learning ecology. We engage intentionally with each other across cultural and professional boundaries to learn to better understand the flaws (dehumanising and environmentally destructive elements) of current systems, as well as experimenting with new models and ways that actually serve and work with Life’s principles, as outlined in our beliefs.

What we are looking for is deep-rooted transformation of our systems for Life. To us, this is fundamentally quite different from "fixing" or "reforming" current systems, which may work FOR SOME, but may also just create more of what we’ve already got. It is not about giving something a new form or making it function better, it is about generating new organisational and community identities.




We understand our learning community as a living system which is ever changing, ever evolving, with its participants determining and contributing to its existence and future paths. This depends on a strong commitment from the participants in the community, which we believe can come only from their own, intentional self-selection to join, not from old-style application procedures and the like. However, we felt that the choice to join should be reflective, not too easy, and so, as a compass for each one of us in this process, we designed and refined five simple, interrelated principles each of our members interpret and commit to at a personal level upon joining Pioneers of Change. These principles are:

Be yourself

Do what matters

Start now

Engage with others

Never stop asking questions

We came up with this set in a process of turning around what we felt was being lost: People around us were not really being themselves, not looking inside themselves, too influenced by advertising, propaganda, and messages from a material world, competing along a set of success measures that are harmful in the bigger picture, and are not truly their own. "What matters" was a question not asked enough, and when asked, the answers were too superficial, addressing symptoms or the material, not recognising interdependence and looking to the causes of things. Our friends were making statements like "I need five years of corporate experience before I can know what I want to do" and "I have to make it to the top before I can make a difference." They weren’t starting now. Relationships were not ones of true engagement, inquiry not an everyday activity. And so on.

Perhaps coming up with these principles was in this sense a negative activity, but the commitment statements written by the pioneers in response have been incredibly constructive, saying YES to something different.

The most important aspect of the commitment statements is that it is a way for people to articulate their own resistance positively, and, once they make their statement public, it can serve as the basic, first introduction that enables them to organically connect to each other.



Our Learning Landscape

What we have realised from trial, error, dialogue and reflection is that while Pioneers of Change is a learning community, its role is not to define for people what they should learn, or what they should want to learn. Rather, it is to provide a variety of optional processes and instruments which can be applied to the learning needs of participants. People learn in different ways. Some learn well through online dialogues, others cannot see the value of internet; some learn through reading and writing, others more through conversation and listening; all, perhaps, learn through experience. They also have different topical interests and areas of practice.

The "Cultivation Unit" which is the only formalised core structure serving the network helps to articulate these processes and instruments to make the learners aware of their existence and point them to possible applications. We all pay attention to new learning needs being expressed and experiment with how the learning community can accommodate them.

The processes currently include:

1. Local dialogue spaces:

The local networks of Pioneers of Change provide a way for people to come together in a safe space to interrogate our assumptions and understandings of reality, trying to break out of our institutionalised perspectives, as well as to invite input to specific learning needs related to a local initiative. The caller of these meetings is either a local "steward" or more desirably, the person who is "holding the question." This is ideal, because when it happens, it means we are taking charge of our own learning processes (which we have not necessarily been taught to do through our schooling!).

The local dialogue spaces can also be in the form of workshops hosted by our facilitators who have built up a more intuitive awareness of space than perhaps many participants with less experience. This is both in terms of place, for example the value of being close to nature, and of being in places with local personality. and more importantly in terms of the learning field, created by people, when you build trust and safe space for inquiry. We do this in our face-to-face learning experiences through workshops that use a combination of processes such as the "Circle," "World Café," and "Open Space,"2  and most importantly of all, through spending time and attention on defining the questions that matter and need to be asked.

An example of the local dialogues on our lifestyles and assumptions is an event called the "Hypocrites’ Club" currently going on in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the UK and spreading to more countries. We don’t have a "code of conduct" to the outside world, or define pioneers by how they dress and what they eat, but we seek to learn together within the community how to do better. We think that as we become more and more conscious of our personal role in reproducing systems, and help each other to raise this consciousness, changes in actions must follow. This is what the Hypocrites’ Club dialogue is about.



The following is an excerpt from Pioneers of Change South Africa Newsletter-Feb 2002, inviting people to the Hypocrites’ Club session.

Join the Hypocrites’ Club!

"We’ve often heard the saying, "if you’re not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem."  The Hypocrites’ Club says "if you’re not aware that you’re a part of the problem, you can’t be a part of the solution".  In the Hypocrites’ Club, we come together to share our own understanding of the ways in which we are actually in our daily lives — through our consumption patterns, our relationships, the organisations we depend on, etc. — a part of systems and practices that are perpetuating some of the problems we think we are alleviating in our official work.  And more importantly, to share tricks of the hypocrites’ trade that can help us do better. Anyone who has realised their own hypocrisy is welcome to join!" 


2. Infrastructure for trans-local dialogue

Across localities, of course one of the strengths of the Pioneers of Change community is to provide the possibility of sharing ideas across wide distances. Necessary for systemic thinking, this happens through groups today called "Communities of Practice" which work on specific practices related to participants’ own passion and work, and whose communication is facilitated by online technology. The Communities of Practice play a role in developing the capacity of participants through sharing of:

- personal knowledge and experience,

- externally produced material such as articles, books, and web sites,

- information about upcoming events,

and through supporting participants’ specific initiatives. They also serve as a sort of accessible "center of excellence" which others in the network (beyond that community of practice) can approach for specific problem-solving related to the group’s theme. The themes for these communities include education, environmental sustainability, "research that matters", diversity, and corporate citizenship.

Our web site provides group collaboration spaces, with online forums, filesharing, shared calendars, membership lists etc. Any member is free to create a new group, while the Cultivation Unit retains the right to also delete groups at our discretion (we haven’t needed to do so yet).

One of the most important lessons in working with the online Communities of Practice has been to realise that, paradoxically, they cannot really be virtual. They need to be nourished by face to face conversations that are happening locally and then feed into the online dialogues, or by relationships built through face to face conversations at international meetings. We haven’t found purely virtual communities to be transformative enough because the level of sharing and trust does not reach a high enough level. This "knowledge ecology" between what is happening locally and translocally is a big challenge, but also an exciting one.


3. Learning programmes

In addition to the local communities and the issue-based communities of practice, we nurture learning through more structured learning programmes which are still based on the intentions of participants and on collaborative processes, but where a design team provides some guidance. Among these are:


"Engaging Change"

The "Engaging Change" programme ( provides a simple learning framework to small learning teams of 5-6 people within the network who have discovered a shared compelling question related to social change. Around this question, the team engages in a collaborative process of approximately six months, moving through three phases (Observation/Inquiry, Retreat/Reflection, and Practice/Action), along the way applying tools available on the Pioneers of Change web site. The groups have the possibility of connecting with other teams and sometimes to a broader Community of Practice related to their theme. The topical learning of the teams, and cross-pollination of ideas are meant to lead to genuine creation of new knowledge and insight, which can be collected and processed by an editors’ team and made available on the site and through publications.

So far teams have worked on topics such as "diversity and dialogue", "social justice", "sustainable economics" and "transforming education".


"Learning for Action"

"Learning for Action" <> is a series of empowering programmes for young social entrepreneurs and development practitioners, created by the Common Futures Forum <>, and on which we work as a "learning partner". Each programme invites approximately 30 such participants from around the world to learn from, and reflect on, immersion in a specific rich field of experience in an innovative approach to poverty eradication and social development. This is done through field visits and face-to-face meetings with practitioners, followed by reflection sessions for analysis and integration in order to draw out implications for their own practice. The first program was hosted in Bangladesh in March 2001 ("Methods in Micro-finance") and the second in Brazil in September 2001 ("Popular Education for Critical Consciousness of the Poor"). The next upcoming programme is on "Peaceful and Innovative Resolution of Conflict" in Croatia/Bosnia.

The difference between "Learning for Action" and other "study tours" is that it is as much about participants learning from each other as from the "object of study." Participants share their own reflections on the practice in focus, stories from their own contexts, and perhaps most importantly, their strategies and experiences in relation to the process of adapting practices from one place to diverse contexts. In addition, we feel that the balance between quality immersion/observation and quality reflection is very important and probably hard to find in many places.


4. Personal transformation and reflective writing

At least in a small group of pioneers, if not in the community as a whole, we manage to cultivate a practice of writing and sharing journals when we have learned something, discovered a new question, been angered, concerned or positively surprised. These journals have come to be quite personal in terms of what goes on in our minds, and honest about all that which we don’t know. It is a special experience to write for each other, for friends who are your co-searchers, for whom you don’t feel a need to censor and pretend you are or know anything.

This has been a powerful experience to us. It has not been personal transformation through lecturing one another or catching each other’s flaws. Rather it has been about firstly accepting that it is ok, and in fact healthy, for people to change, and then using each other as "mirrors" or "sparring partners" in our process.


A Reflection from Dwi Fatan Lilyana, Indonesia

"To consider oneself as a tree, one needs not only good soil and adequate amount of fertilizers to grow grandly. A tree needs good sunrays too, to do its photosynthesis and to grow more branches, green leaves and to produce fruits.

My democratic and supportive family might have acted as very good soil for my being as a tree. Intellectually competitive education might have played its role as extraordinary fertilizers for this tree to grow stronger. But then again, those two are not enough for the tree to generate fruits and to maintain its healthy growth.

Pioneers of Change meetings have inspired me a lot. Pioneers with their ideas and local projects have helped me to keep up with what I believe matters in life—to unfold the mystery of human potential with the relations to every aspect in this universe.

Through Pioneers of Change, my dream that few years ago seemed to be very difficult to realize has now started to take its shape. After joining the Learning for Action Program in Bangladesh last year, with some other Pioneers in Jakarta we are building up The Centre for the Betterment of Education, an independent organization designed to provide space and enabling environment for learning in a holistic and integrative manner, in Indonesia.

Pioneers of Change meetings and programs have not only enthused me with ideas, or helped me out with alternate possible actions to go on with my dream, but beyond that they have helped me to plant a stronger belief that dreams can actually be realized and that hope still lives with us.

For this, I thank the network for being my sunrays. The fruits might have not ripe yet, but constant inspiration that I experience from Pioneers has enlarged our hope that one day it will all comes true."


It is very central to Pioneers of Change that systemic transformation towards unfolding learning societies depends on this personal transformation and that personal transformation is not a superficial process, but an ongoing and gradual practice. It is not something that some of us have "gotten" and are now teaching others. We are all learning and all of our curricula are different because we are different. Those of us who have been most directly involved in creating Pioneers of Change have been participating as much as anyone, we are not separate from the learning community we are serving.


Obstacles Faced: What needs to be "unlearned"

The main obstacles we have faced in nurturing our learning community actually relate to living within the very same context which we wish to change. Those of us working on cultivating Pioneers of Change, those engaging as participants, and those engaging as supporters or partners – all of us are often constrained by what we know as familiar practices and common success criteria.

Many of those who participate in the community are at the same time spending their day to day lives in institutions that see chaos as a clear negative, and control as needed to overcome it, that don’t sincerely recognise the rich diversity of Life, but rather see it as something to be "managed". While mammoth building structures stand and may look and seem very overwhelming, the real obstacles, we believe, lie in our minds, influenced by a very mechanistic and orderly understanding of the world, which has been passed down over the last 300 years. People arrive from work at a Pioneers of Change event and find they need to shift to a different reality, which is difficult.

In making our learning programmes and processes work, we experience that people still associate learning with their school background and courses available, which do not put the responsibility on the learner. This makes it very difficult to keep the momentum of a programme like "Engaging Change" where if the learning team doesn’t make it happen, no one will. All the programme really is an opportunity. Similarly we recently invited participants to an "Open Space" meeting in South Africa, describing quite explicitly what it is, and had no one show up. It is hard to accept that there will be no "expert."

The dominant mindset is to seek predetermined measurable outcomes and to expect organisational or collective activity to be in the form of transactions – "I pay you this, you give me this" – "what you see is what you get." How then to accept the notion that what you get is in direct relation to what you give of yourself, yet may not be what you think it is? That what exactly will come to be, or what you will learn, or where the involvement will take you, cannot be known in advance?

Margaret Wheatley once said to us, "I don’t know where I am going, but I know how to get there." It is a challenging notion to accept, but it is how we also feel. Now, if we make that public, it’s a bit hard to get buy-in from the "real world!"

We are finding that a lot needs to be "unlearned" (for lack of a better word) in making Pioneers of Change, and more broadly learning societies, work.

Lynne Twist, another of our mentors, told us to learn to be aware that we are a part of reproducing these systems, and that we may not be able to change them altogether or go back to their source, but we can make sure they "stop with us" when they come to us, and that we let new ones start with us in their place.

These are really our biggest obstacles: to find the balances between being a part of the world, actively engaged with reality, and at the same time trying to create something pure and new, and between being subjected to traditional measures of success while knowing that Pioneers of Change is more and working to create new frames of reference. To what extent does one meet reality where it is at, and to what extent does one remain uncompromising in one’s identity and beliefs?



In Conclusion: Lessons for learning societies

We are often caught off guard when we witness how delighted people are to discover true learning spaces in Pioneers of Change that they do not find in their own organisations. This is somewhat depressing, but also encouraging to us in the sense that it affirms that we are managing at times to create "experiences of the new," which participants can step-by-step recreate, and, as more and more local learning communities emerge and connect with each other, this is how a learning society can unfold. It will not be from a strategic plan for a global learning society, but from supporting the communities and individuals transforming from within and connecting them with each other.

So far, we can draw two key lessons from our experience for learning societies. The first is that learning works best when it is intentional and that true ownership of our own learning is something that we have not been brought up with in our schooling and that we therefore consciously now need to nurture. We need to encourage reflection on, and articulation of personal and community learning interests and needs.

Secondly, that once the learning intention is clear, there needs to be access to the processes, resources, and people that can help meet it. A network or community with strong social fabric (quality relationships) and awareness of itself can be a key access point because the most useful knowledge flows through people, rather than through documents or databases.

Finally, perhaps there is a lesson in that those of us working on stimulating the unfolding of learning societies need ourselves to organise as learning societies. In this work, our creation cannot be separate from the creator.



1 Please note that the authors are speaking for themselves, and not on behalf of all participants of the Pioneers of Change network. Also note that Colleen Bowker is the third co-founder of Pioneers of Change, and that many others have contributed to the network’s inception and development.

2 "Circle" <>, "Open Space" <> and "World Café" <> are all simple, participatory dialogue methods that serve different purposes and, we have found, complement each other well. See our "Community Tools" section at <> for more on these and other processes we use.

About the Authors

Marianne Knuth <> is born of a Danish father and a Zimbabwean mother. She is currently working in Zimbabwe, setting up a learning village by the name of Kufunda, aimed at supporting the personal development of individuals working on – or dreaming of – projects that will benefit their rural communities while providing them with a livelihood. The purpose is to contribute to the development of self-reliant and creative communities in Zimbabwe. Marianne co-founded Pioneers of Change in 1999, after completing her masters’ thesis entitled "Bringing the Human Spirit to Work." She worked with Pioneers of Change full-time until January 2002, and is still actively cultivating the local network in Zimbabwe and serving on the "mirroring" board of Pioneers of Change. Marianne sees Kufunda as an important effort in "giving birth to the new," and her experience with Pioneers of Change has been crucial in shaping her understanding of her current venture, and her own role, although a "Center in Zimbabwe" has always been her dream.


Marianne Bojer (Mille) <> is Danish but has spent more than half her life abroad in Egypt, the United States, Burkina Faso, the Netherlands, Brazil, and South Africa, where she currently resides. She grew up treasuring diversity and was concerned with the inequality of the world from a young age. She studied international development and African studies in University, and was steering towards a career with the United Nations, when Marianne came to her in 1999 with the idea of Pioneers of Change. This different path has been a unique opportunity to apply her global interests and concerns to working in a more free and direct way with people who are creating change in their local communities. Mille still works full-time with the new Cultivation Unit of Pioneers of Change. She now sees herself as a facilitator, a bridge-builder, a "backstopper" (who holds a gymnast up when she’s about to lose balance), and most importantly a "bumblebee" – helping to cross-pollinate learning.