Back in 2017, I watched Boss Baby with my children, and my one takeaway from that odd little blockbuster was that a memo can change the world.
Three years later, as the world weathered the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic and the USA erupted in civil rights protests sparked by the murder of Georgia Floyd, I received such a memo. It arrived in my inbox via a newsletter that highlighted unique work opportunities for freelancers like me, and it took the form of an open letter to educators, posted to the internet by EWL’s co-founder, Rhi Alyxander.
Rhi’s earnest call to action attracted me to EWL because I’ve been a teacher, and I remember how overwhelmed I felt my first year as I surveyed a haphazardly organized, half empty resource closet, filled with not quite enough outdated textbooks for my students to share.
My response was to attempt developing my own unique curriculum, which I had to tailor to meet both required learning standards and the academically and behaviorally diverse needs of roughly 130 students.
Inspired by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama's campaign of hope, I also craved a way to inspire civic engagement among my students and to help them cultivate a more nuanced and dynamic way of understanding the world than our traditional, rural, Southern community typically offered.
In other words, I needed help that never really came. EWL would have helped me then, but I could immediately see that it’s even more relevant now.
Rhi’s personal experiences inside the classroom also drove the initial content of the letter and vision for EWL. However, feedback from a wider community of educators in need has re-shaped both the letter’s message and the services EWL offers. This will continue as EWL grows.
What’s the takeaway from this process?
There are 3 lessons for classroom and nonprofit leadership alike:
1. The services you offer, and lessons you teach, must provide something that the recipients actually want and need. Just because you and a handful of others see the value of something, convincing the majority of people to agree when they don’t doesn’t get you very far. Instead, find out enough about people to meet them where they actually are.
2. Identify the core values or your organization or classroom, and allow these to ground ideas as they grow. Even though the specifics of a strong organization or classroom will evolve over time, rooting changes within a set of core values creates consistency that makes growth feel organic, on point, and welcome rather than haphazard, overwhelming, and unexpected.
3. Clearly communicate your vision and your needs as they change over time. Simply put, a memo (or well-crafted open letter) can change the world, so it’s important that your messaging remains clear and up-to-date. This is also a simple way to normalize the practice of balancing respect for an organization’s past with an understanding of what the present moment requires.
EWL’s core values are curiosity, utility, flexibility, and empowerment. To learn more about how the organization has evolved to meet these over the course of its first year, please take a look at the latest version of Rhi’s open letter here.
While it’s remarkably different from the one that led me to the team, it’s perfect for helping us take our next steps.
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