Kathia Castro-Laszlo , Human Science

Photograph of Kathia Castro-Laszlo

Kathia Castro-Laszlo

Organizational Systems Faculty
Human Science 2000

Back in the early 1990s, Kathia Castro-Laszlo was trying to change the world one corporation at a time. It wasn't happening. Then a business consultant in her native Mexico, Laszlo helped large companies implement organizational learning systems. "I was interested in how people think," she says, "how we learn, how we gain new information, and above all how we create the conditions that enable people to learn and innovate. I wanted to help my clients succeed not just in the bottom-line sense, but also in creating learning communities."

She found the work rewarding, but there was still something missing. Then she started attending the annual conversation events of the International Systems Institute led by Saybrook's professor emeritus Bela H. Banathy, and everything changed.

"That was an eye-opening experience," she says. "The focus of the conversations broadened from looking at educational systems to societal learning systems --- how environmental issues, social justice, health care, business are all part of an interconnected network."

The encounter with Banathy led Laszlo to Saybrook and, ultimately, to prominence as a leading proponent of evolutionary learning communities, or ELCs. In an evolutionary learning community, says Laszlo, "people come together not to be taught but to create knowledge together. It's a collaborative, participatory experience that allows people to gain their own knowledge through shared information and to create similarities in understanding through dialogue."

She adds, "In an evolutionary learning community, we transform ourselves to transform our world." That's exactly what Laszlo did when she came to Saybrook.

Laszlo attended Saybrook on a Fulbright scholarship, which required her to be physically present "on campus." In 1996 she relocated from Monterrey, Mexico --- where her academic and professional life were centered --- and settled in San Francisco. But the change in residence yielded a major benefit: Her proximity to faculty enabled her to develop relationships with experts in a wide range of disciplines.

"I discovered that Saybrook is very diverse," she says. "I was able to draw from psychology, organizational systems, social transformation, and create a really interdisciplinary degree " which is what I really wanted. It allowed me to be in charge of my own learning without losing the guidance and expertise that the faculty provided. The mentoring model was beautiful. The scholar community I had belonged to in Mexico was the organizational learning community. After Saybrook, I was able to expand it to include all the areas that were of interest to me."

In 1998, she and her husband, Alexander Laszlo, founded Syntony Quest, a "think, learn, and do tank" that promotes sustainability by training leaders to implement the ELC model. Syntony Quest workshops draw participants from the private, public, and nonprofit sectors across North America.

"When we look at the ELC as a vehicle for social change," Laszlo explains, "we're interested in linking it to social entrepreneurship ---- cultivating communities of entrepreneurs who understand how environmental, economic, and social issues are related. It's a hybrid that represents the best thinking of all sectors and brings them all together to create a better life."

She describes one ongoing project that Syntony Quest led in Monterrey, Mexico, in connection with UNESCO's 2007 Forum of Universal Cultures: "We put out a call for citizens to join a group we called Leaders of Change. The ages ranged from 19 to 65, and they came from quite a range of backgrounds in education, income, and status; the group was split about 50-50 males and females. We offered them a 3-day training on evolutionary leadership, and then led the process of molding them into an ELC so they could put the learning they had obtained into practice."

That group established a program to help integrate the local economy into regional and national markets. In addition to tracking local government policies and gauging their impact on the economy, the ELC works with entrepreneurs to develop products that can find clientele outside of Monterrey.

"It was a very exciting experience for us," says Laszlo, "because it's one of the first times we put the ELC model into practice with such a diverse group. The learning aspects of ELCs are very easy, but the application of that learning into a group that can impact the community is very difficult."

Does Saybrook qualify as an ELC? Yes and no, says Laszlo. The university's unique approach does overlap with the ELC model, particularly in its emphasis on collaborative, self-directed learning and open-ended exploration. "There are definitely ELCs within Saybrook," she says ---- but every academic institution, even one like Saybrook, has structures and protocols that limits it from being a pure ELC.

However, adds Laszlo, Saybrook has a unique opportunity to address what she calls the human side of sustainability. "Right now, this work is very much focused on changing infrastructure --- designing green buildings, reducing carbon footprints. There's no question those are important goals, and they make business sense. But you still have communication, leadership, behavior modification ---- the human side of any change initiative. All these aspects are not being completely addressed yet in the sustainability movement."

"I am optimistic," she adds. The traditional boundaries between the nonprofit, government, and private sectors are starting to blur. I see social entrepreneurship as an integration of the best thinking of all sectors --- breaking the boundaries, and working to create a better life."