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Connecting the Dots With Popular Education

Receptionist welcoming three children to the clinic

By building their business literacy, employees can connect their efforts to provide excellent service to the larger goals of Kaiser Permanente. 

LMP course brings business, economic issues to life

Receptionist Sam Eckstein encourages his co-workers at the Woodland Hills Medical Center lab not only to meet—but to exceed—patient expectations of excellent service. To back up his coaching, he’s using the knowledge he gained in a new LMP course on business and economic literacy.

During the course, Eckstein and about a dozen other workers and managers learned about the rising cost of health insurance in the United States and the trend toward businesses’ shifting more health care costs to employees.

Because patients are paying more, “Their expectations are higher,” says Eckstein, a member of SEIU UHW. “When patients come in without an order [for a lab procedure], we can’t just send them home,” and inconvenience them by making them come back another day, he says. “We have to help meet their needs.”

Eckstein took part in a pilot project to test the Labor Management Partnership’s new approach using popular education techniques to ensure frontline employees and managers have the context and know-how they need to continue improving team performance and keep Kaiser Permanente affordable.

What’s different about popular education?

Popular education turns the old-fashioned schoolroom model of teaching and learning on its head. It is ideally suited to the Labor Management Partnership, which is built on the belief that all employees, managers and physicians bring their expertise and experience to bear on improving service and care at KP. No longer is the teacher or trainer the sole expert in the classroom, there to fill students’ minds with information they passively receive, memorize and repeat.

Instead, popular education taps into participants’ experiences in their communities and workplaces and uses them to generate dialogue. It explores the social and economic context of students’ lives and asks probing questions: What are people happy about? Worried about? Fearful about? Hopeful about? Students are encouraged to analyze that information—and to take action.

I’m realizing I should think more globally and spread my wings beyond my own little lab.
Charisse Williams
Clinical lab scientist and member of UFCW Local 770

How it works

That’s exactly what happened one day in late May when several managers and a dozen employees from the lab and patient business services got together in a windowless, fluorescent-lit classroom at the Woodland Hills Medical Center. The drab surroundings were a contrast to the boisterous atmosphere that developed after the opening icebreaker, which involved participants stepping in and out of a circle in response to a series of rapid-fire questions, some lighthearted (“Do you have a pet?”) and some serious (“Have you experienced discrimination?”). The exercise was meant to show students what they have in common, as well as how their diverse experiences strengthen the group.

Janna Shadduck-Hernandez, a project director at the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, leads students through some of the business and economic literacy modules the center is helping to develop and test. Students play a “Jeopardy”-like game featuring questions about health care reform and learn to use terms such as “expenses” and “revenue” in order to give a five-minute presentation to the rest of the class.

“This is all about where your Kaiser dollars come from and where they go,” says Laura Losito, a clinical lab scientist and member of UFCW Local 770. “It’s the big picture,” says Losito, who is also one of the four chairs of the medical center’s LMP leadership team.

Eleanor Arellano, a chemistry lab supervisor, says, “This will really help managers, because employees will know what we are talking about” when discussing department budgets. 

Later, the students examine a graph (yes, there are graphs, even in popular education) charting the steep rise in out-of-pocket health care costs for families over the past decade. In this setting, the graph is not simply colored bars on a page. Shadduck-Hernandez challenges them to tease out the relationship between national trends and their daily experience: How does this affect your work?

A conversation ensues about how higher premiums and co-pays can cause patients to become frustrated and respond by giving low service scores. Another question: how are your unit-based teams dealing with these issues? The students—who normally don’t work with each other—swap ideas about improving affordability and service.

“I’m realizing I should think more globally and spread my wings beyond my own little lab,” says Charisse Williams, a clinical lab scientist and member of UFCW Local 770.

The day ends with a debrief. Some participants are skeptical, questioning what the purpose of the training was. Others—like Eckstein—will begin applying their new knowledge on the job and have a new appreciation of a novel way to learn.

Holding out his arm and clicking on an imaginary clicker, Eckstein says, “It was better than, ‘Look at this PowerPoint and listen to what I have to say.’”

Other popular education offerings

The LMP Education and Training Department debuted other popular education sessions at the March 2012 Union Delegates Conference. Here’s a sampling:

  • Health Care for the Rest of Us: A timeline of KP history, this is the first of five economic and business literacy modules being rolled out in the regions. The exercise involves displaying key events from each decade of Kaiser Permanente’s history and engaging participants in a discussion of   their families’ histories during those time periods. The timeline connects KP’s social mission with participants’ experience. A second module on our political economy was recentlyused to launch in a National Learning Leaders Network.
  • United for a Fair Economy: Trainers led an interactive workshop on income inequality that involves a game of musical chairs where participants  illustrate the uneven distribution of wealth.  The organization also offered workshops on health care and the economy and how to  integrate popular education into UBT training at the UBT Resource Exchange in September. Visit www.faireconomy.org for more information.
  • “You Got to Move”: This movie profiles social justice leaders who studied at the Highlander Research and Education Center, the fabled folk school in Tennessee. Among Highlander alumni is Bill Saunders, who led a critical union organizing drive and strike among health care workers in Charleston, S.C., in 1969. Reflecting on the popular education methods at Highlander, Saunders says, “You’ve got to get excited about what you are doing. This is great work. It will make such a difference to future generations. Engage people’s emotions. It brings inner joy and inner peace.” For more information, visit You Got to Move and The Highlander Center.

What’s next

Political economy will be the focus of a training session in Denver in mid-October for UFCW Local 7 and SEIU Local 105 stewards. They will pair it with the poverty simulation  offered  by the Missouri Association for Community Action. The five-module series will be the subject of a train-the-trainer for learning leaders programwide in October.

Metrics/Data - Color Business and Economic Literacy

Because more health care expense is shifting to the patient, it's important to know what you can offer. As they spend more, they expect more.

Learn where Kaiser Permanente dollars come from—and where they go—so you can provide the best customer service.

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