Diverse group of five young adults talking on hillside above water

Humanity and the planet are going through a rite of passage where we’re being compelled to learn to live in new ways and get a sense of what matters most to us.
—M. Rako Fabionar, Program Director,
Innovative Living and Learning Institute

What will it take to promote collective healing and support the regeneration, resilience, and transformation of communities across the US? This question, among others, animated a discussion among Fetzer partners that led to the founding of the Innovative Learning and Living Institute (ILALI). We recently sat down with M. Rako Fabionar, ILALI’s program director, for a conversation about this effort designed to respond to the needs voiced by young adults in the US today.

Scheduled to launch in January 2023, the Innovative Learning and Living Institute is about “navigating the adventure of becoming” and is:

  • For young adults 21-25.
  • An immersive four-month residency program that gathers people of different backgrounds from similar regions to live and learn together.
  • Centered on an integrative developmental approach—improving physical and emotional well-being, expanding one’s worldview, cultivating inner wisdom, and deepening relationships with others and nature.
  • Practical skill development, service opportunities, and the promotion of the common good. 

Fetzer Institute: Why residency for young adults? Why now?
M. Rako Fabionar: One thing missing in the story of our modern culture is extended rites of passage, ceremonies, and programs that support young adults. Worldviews create worlds, and young adults are so important to the re-imagining of what the world could be. We’re focused on creating the kind of contemporary developmental rite of passage for young adults that centers belonging, bridging, and becoming.

We have also found that there are not a lot of programs centered on integrated development: transformative practices; worldview literacy; the taking, seeking, and coordination of diverse perspectives; as well as skill-building for supporting civic life. So, this body of work and its modules and processes—rooted in wisdom traditions translated for our present time—is different, especially the fact that it is equity-informed, it is trauma-informed, but it really centers development on ways in which we’re polarized, both within ourselves, and in our relationships.

FI: What role does innovation play in this program? 
MRF: Innovation, particularly in this country, is usually spoken of in terms of products and technology. What we’re trying to do is expand and deepen the notion of innovation with regards to learning and living—meaning our interior and relational development. We know through neuroscience and research that different forms of contemplative practices and meditations change your interior state. It helps develop compassion and a deeper sense of connection with others and place. All these things that we know are good for ourselves, our relationships, and overall good for the world. That is innovation.

FI: What excites you about this work?
MRF: Humanity and the planet are going through a rite of passage where we’re being compelled to learn to live in new ways and get a sense of what matters most to us. In this way, our approach to this work is social, scientific, and sacred. Social in that it is connected to civic life and supporting the common good. Scientific because we really value the science behind transformation. And sacred, in the broadest sense of what Tillich says, “that which is of ultimate concern.”

Underlying this work are three main questions:

  • How do we engage in powerful, evidence-based transformative practices—essentially practices that get at developing the somatic, social, emotional, and learning? We might also call that same thing body, mind, spirit, relationship, shadow practices that are deeply embodied, relational, and a different way of knowing.
  • How do we become literate in the types of different worldviews and perspectives? As we become aware of the worldviews that we affirm and privilege, we also become aware that there are worldviews that we don’t like. How do we begin to learn how to bridge?
  • How do I bring this growing, evolving, and reflective learning into the world where I can help alleviate suffering in whatever ways I feel called? This component is more lived, it’s about stewardship and service.

FI: What inspired ILALI?
MRF: Early inspiration for ILALI came, in part, through the Retreat Center Collaboration (RCC) that Fetzer helped start. After being invited and serving on the RCC steering committee, I offered an immersive program for leadership, executive directors, and board members. It centered an integrative developmental approach—with how we become aware of the worldviews that we inhabit and how those worldviews sometimes can cause conflict or tension, both within ourselves and in our relationships. That experience led to conversations about how we work on polarization, and how we center overall development for individuals, communities, and regions.

Then there was the podcast Rebel Wisdom [“The Inner Compass,” featuring Tomas Björkman, co-author of The Nordic Secret] that speaks to the Nordic folk school movement that started in the mid-1800s. These immersive, residential schools for agrarian farmers shared the latest technologies but also cultivated a sense of civic and moral identity—the inner compass, as Björkman calls it. Folk school movements came to America, and one of them, the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, became important to civil rights. What’s inspiring is that there are people on the left and the right championing this kind of developmental, immersive culture.

But it’s not just these Western developmental models that are insightful. There are models within Indigenous and traditional cultures that hold and develop young folks that are useful, needed, and emerging right now. Extended rites of passage ceremonies and programs for young adults have been held in these communities worldwide for centuries. These rites of passage are immersive, place-based, and involve psycho-social development, skill development, and new identity formation.

FI: What are you learning along the way?
MRF: Our team is on its own learning journey as we create this pilot program. We’re learning that it’s important to be intentional and explicit about that. We realized that in order to develop a program and a curriculum in a new way that promotes integrative lifelong learning, then we need to embody that intentional, reflective learning process as well. Because a lot of our suffering right now is caused by the shadow side of our modern institutions, we also need to begin to create what the field of organizational development calls “deliberately developmental organizations.” This is why we want to create a new institute that offers a deeper way to hold and support young adults and regions.

FI: Tell us about the pilot project.
MRF: We’ve formalized relationships with two sites, the Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island in the Pacific Northwest and the Watershed Center in Upstate New York. We’d also like to offer this in the Midwest and the South.

We’re working with Whidbey and Watershed not just as locations, we’re partnering with them and different community and regional organizations in ways that will enrich the curriculum, provide mentorship, and offer service and stewardship opportunities young adults can begin to connect to. The pilot is designed to develop a network of young adults who, over time, would go back into the community and the region. In this way, it becomes a more intergenerational and regionally transformative endeavor that’s deeply connected to place. Also, it’s hopefully transgenerational, meaning that it will extend across generations as well, just as The Nordic Secret has done.

FI: What do you hope to learn from the pilot?
MRF: Being in a pandemic and knowing how much young adults have been affected by it, we are hoping that the pilot enhances their overall physical and emotional well-being, the expansion of their perspective—their overall general sense of health.

We’re also hoping to learn how immersive, extended time together helps young people of diverse backgrounds become less polarized, how this model can create the type of community and creativity needed to meet the conditions we find ourselves in, and how it can help cultivate the resilience and the transformative opportunities that this global rite of passage affords us.

I believe we can learn a better way to get at the vital center—what’s going to be vital for us all, particularly in a time of collapse. As David Brooks talked about in his writings, people need to live with each other and be immersed in connection and community—to bump up against each other and be supported in real dialogues and in real conflicts instead of the ways in which we are othering each other. So, the learning lesson, I hope, is a different way to get at a more regenerative, equitable world.

If you’re as intrigued by ILALI as we are, follow their work on Instagram and at ilali.global, which will soon include a blog and sign up for a newsletter! If you’d like to support their work, visit ILALI’s Give Lively page.


Innovative Learning and Living Institute white logo on dark green background.

Innovative Learning and Living Institute (ILALI) is about navigating the adventure of becoming.