Skip to content
Commentary September 23rd, 2021
Innovation • Health • Legitimacy • Delivery
Devon Genua Senior Associate, North America
Naja Nelson Associate, North America
Grayson Wiles Senior Associate, North America
John Burgoyne Program Manager, North America

The Pandemic Solutions Group: A lesson on what it means to be a learning partner

Article highlights


How can we learn in a crisis? When you are responding to a pandemic, how do you find space to reflect on what’s working and what can be improved? Read this @CPI_foundation piece to learn from their work on the @RockefellerFdn Pandemic Solutions Group

Share article

"Through [the @RockefellerFdn Pandemic Solutions Group] work, we’ve seen the value of a horizontal learning network to help practitioners learn from their complex environments & adapt their response to better meet the needs of their communities."

Share article

CPI supported @RockefellerFdn #PandemicSolutionsGroup as a learning partner, creating conditions for members to listen, learn & adapt. Get in touch with @CPI_foundation if you're interested in how a learning partner could support your work

Share article

How can we learn in a crisis? When you are responding to a pandemic, how do you find space to reflect on what’s working and what can be improved? Through our role as the Secretariat of the Pandemic Solutions Group (PSG), we’ve been working with public health practitioners from over 50 U.S. cities, states, and Tribal Nations over the past year to find collective answers to these questions. Through this work, we’ve seen firsthand the value of a horizontal learning network to help practitioners learn from their complex environments and adapt their response to better meet the needs of their communities. 

The PSG is a network of public officials and community leaders focused on pandemic preparedness and response, who embarked on a learning journey together starting in May 2020. The group met every two weeks to learn emerging methods and techniques from pioneering practitioners across the country. At CPI, we viewed our role as a learning partner, creating the conditions for our PSG members to listen, learn, and adapt. 

Practitioners closest to the problems are closest to the solutions too

As the PSG secretariat, CPI and our partners at The Rockefeller Foundation had the tremendous opportunity to connect top experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and luminaries like Dr. Paul Farmer with our audience to answer technical questions and share their big-picture projections on the course of the pandemic. 

What made PSG sessions uniquely powerful, though, was combining big-picture thinkers with grassroots leaders who could offer a hyperlocal perspective on how they were tackling testing, vaccination, and other pandemic priorities. 

For an April 2021 session on community-based vaccine operations, we identified practitioners from Oakland, Philadelphia, and Newark to share exactly how they were operating their sites. Each of our speakers were able to share insight on the particular challenges their communities faced and what they did to address those challenges. 

For example, we learned how Dr. Ala Stanford’s team switched from an online vaccine sign-up to a first-come-first-serve system for vaccination to improve access for vulnerable older residents. This idea resonated with many PSG members, who’d noticed vaccine appointments in under-resourced neighborhoods were quickly snapped up by more affluent residents who had time to scour the internet and travel to receive their shots. 

The PSG prioritized bringing local leaders driving innovation and creativity from across the country into the spotlight because they could offer specific, tactical recommendations on how to address the pandemic’s many challenges.

What made PSG sessions uniquely powerful, though, was combining big-picture thinkers with grassroots leaders who could offer a hyperlocal perspective on how they were tackling testing, vaccination, and other pandemic priorities.

Leaders should not underestimate the power of vulnerability

In addition to being closest to the problems, local leaders closest to communities also displayed a level of vulnerability that underscored the deeply human nature of the work. Hearing fellow practitioners and deeply experienced professionals candidly share their failures and lessons learned was empowering for our PSG audience, who often feel the need to serve as an expert in their professional role. 

Our members appreciated the opportunity to lean into curiosity and be ‘students’ themselves. Because most public servants are expected to act as the residential expert in their community, there aren’t very many outlets for public servants to be a novice and get smart on a new topic. As a learning partner, we intentionally sought to create a space where folks felt safe admitting “I don’t know” and asking important questions, without fear of retribution. 

According to Brené Brown, “once leaders begin to build vulnerability skills, they can start to develop other skill sets.” While it can certainly be tempting for public officials to avoid vulnerability out of fear of not representing their communities well, public officials should avoid this trap given that it robs them of the opportunity to learn from those best positioned to mentor them on topics that they may not be well versed in. 

Long-term investment in environments where public officials can practice being vulnerable is key to ensure that public servants are best equipped to respond to community challenges as they arise. 

Breaking down silos and building trust

A final condition we sought to cultivate was bringing together a group of leaders who bring a different view of the larger system. No organization, agency, or individual had all of the knowledge and capacity to effectively respond to the pandemic. Any effective effort would need to unify a diverse group of stakeholders behind a common purpose. 

The PSG comprised public health officials, mayoral offices, researchers, firefighters, and many other professions that each had a unique perspective and expertise. One prerequisite for working together: trust. With it, a community could coordinate effective testing and vaccination systems. Without trust, communities had government agencies and local organizations with divergent visions that had limited success. 

The monumental task of responding to a one-in-a-century pandemic could be broken down into smaller tasks with each group responsible for an area in which it is competent. The PSG hosted mayors who coordinated public outreach campaigns, public health commissioners who collaborated with community-based organizations (CBOs) to set up vaccine clinics, and genomic sequencing experts who analyzed samples from local doctors’ offices. Each group had a role to play and needed the others in order to achieve organizational and community-wide success.

One prerequisite for working together: trust. With it, a community could coordinate effective testing and vaccination systems. Without trust, communities had government agencies and local organizations with divergent visions that had limited success. 

Along the way, we realized that the communities that had invested in building relationships across government agencies and with CBOs before the pandemic had responded most effectively to the pandemic. Over 15 years ago, Dr. Stephen Thomas, the Director for the Center for Health Equity at the University of Maryland, founded Health Advocates In-Reach and Research (HAIR), a program that trains barbers and beauticians to be community health workers. In the darkest days of the pandemic, public officials were able to share information and coordinate vaccinations with the barbershops and beauty salons. Dr. Thomas had a simple, but important lesson: “Make your friends before you need them.”

The potential of horizontal learning networks

The PSG demonstrates the value of horizontal learning networks in complex environments to inform action. These networks provide a unique, valuable space for practitioners to openly listen to valuable perspectives from a diverse group, learn new methods and techniques, and adapt their approach to fit their community context. We believe this model could prove effective in addressing other complex challenges of our time, climate change to systemic racism to income inequality. If you’re interested in how a learning partner could support your work, please do get in touch.

Written by:

Devon Genua Senior Associate, North America
View biography
Naja Nelson Associate, North America
View biography
Grayson Wiles Senior Associate, North America
View biography
John Burgoyne Program Manager, North America
View biography
Share this article: