SOWA’s coaching philosophy in action

SOWA's coaching staff pose together outside the 2019 Bridge Conference

Coaching is at the heart of SOWA’s work in the community. Below is a conversation with Maria Pia Johnson Barreto, who has been a coach with SOWA in Spokane for over two years and is now our new Learning and Design Manager.

Maria Pia Johnson Barreto
Maria Pia Johnson Barreto

How did coaching change for you during the pandemic?

Community had been advocating for virtual opportunities for years. We were expanding virtual support in the years before the pandemic for communities that didn’t have direct access. The pandemic allowed for more people to see not just the need, but also the value of virtual opportunities and spaces. It allowed us to reimagine the work, how we provide access, and to reassess what really matters in our interactions with community partners.

The pandemic also highlighted the importance of relationships through navigating change, which is one element of the coaching philosophy. Although we’ve always engaged in group coaching and individual support, our community also encouraged us to think further about what our support could be in times of crisis. Sometimes it was simply sending a letter in the mail to remind others that we are all here for one another.

What was your favorite coaching moment?

It’s hard to name one. Lots of experiences have shaped me and my work. Some of my favorite moments are when people are able to find their passion and name it.  When they go from “I don’t know what to do” to “I didn’t realize that I’ve been doing it all along.” That’s when we get to step back and observe the growth not just in terms of improving quality practices, but seeing them lead with confidence and act as advocates for their own programs.

Community professionals are whole. They know their work better than anyone. So as a coach, you are really there  to support them through conversation and visioning the future, the possibilities. 

How do you see the coaching philosophy influencing your approach to learning opportunities with SOWA?

As I am transitioning positions, I am reminded that the coaching philosophy is truly the inspiration of what the learning and design field and work expands on. Coaching centers equity and relationships. Coaching and Learning was meant to be aligned. 

When I first started coaching, I learned fairly quickly that we can all try to climb mountains, hold multiple meetings together, but that we are not going to make it unless we understand one another and practice taking the smallest of steps with each other. It’s about recognizing and celebrating the smallest of shifts and honoring who we each are in the process both as individuals and as a collective. I learned so much from coaches April and Lynda who work in the field wholeheartedly. 

As Learning and Design Manager, I am reminded that we have to make time to acknowledge where we are, who we are and how our identities exist or respond within frameworks. In coaching, we build the anchors and relationships needed to establish a culture that feels accessible to all. As a learning and design team we are now taking those same steps together and it’s exciting. 

We are rethinking what it means to create learning opportunities, we are creating and we are decolonizing.

Coaching at SOWA has never just been about individual professional development, but about building culture. Every staff member looking to connect and grow matters. We recognize that it’s about the process, the continuous cycle and not so much about today’s results.

We are not just learning. We are unlearning together and letting go together. We are rethinking what it means to create learning opportunities, we are creating and we are decolonizing.

We are rethinking accessibility on every level, including language and constantly asking ourselves who is missing from the conversation.  

Our coaching team teaches us that every single interaction matters and that seeing your identities reflected in the work makes you feel connected. That connection and reflection contributes to meaningful learning experiences and those are the ones that we as learners remember and the ones we want to continue to be a part of.