What the Times Are Calling For: A Letter to our Community

March 31, 2020

The times we find ourselves in today are unprecedented in ways that go beyond the physical realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. We simply don’t know what’s going to happen next. What we thought was true two weeks ago seems quaint and naive today. We can’t “control” this situation. Everything is being called into question. Now, more than ever, no one person knows the answer. And importantly, more than ever, we actually realize what we don’t know. 

The shock of COVID-19 is forcing the social sector to shift our focus to what’s most urgently needed now. Momentum has stalled and, in the abrupt absence of business as usual, people are asking: “What’s needed now? What of our current strategies and projects do we need to preserve? What do we need to let go of? What should we set aside for now and come back to later?” 

In recent virtual conversations, we are seeing a huge shift in attention and in spirit as we are together confronting daunting challenges everywhere in society — from procuring sufficient supplies and ICU units to how to home school children while maintaining two offices in our homes. There’s a new need and also permission to talk about how this crisis is affecting people personally. We at Fourth Quadrant Partners just launched a new training cohort in Emergent Learning around the question, “What will it take to survive and thrive — both in our work and in our lives — in our current environment?” The words that surfaced were ‘gratitude,’ ‘appreciation,’ ‘love’ and ‘balance.’ These were offered up as what people actually needed in order to do their work most effectively right now. 

In “normal” times, we often hear that learning tends to get treated as an afterthought. As much as we pay lip service to the need to learn, it can be hard to make a case for prioritizing it in the midst of the bustle of getting things done. But now is different. We are sensing a new reality where everyone realizes that everything is new and nothing is known; that we need to learn our way through this together.

In the midst of the fear and confusion and contradictory messages, we are seeing a real hunger for data and an eagerness to learn from those who are further down this uncharted path. Our learning muscle is getting exercised. We naturally seek out data from different countries about “the curve,” about what different countries are doing to flatten it, and what happens when they fail. We are recognizing other people’s experience and solutions as worthy of our attention; something we would do well to ask questions of and learn from. Humility and curiosity, which can be hard to come by in “normal” times is plentiful today. As is a sense of urgency. And courage too.

All of this means that now is the time to lean into learning. There is a felt, immediate need to do what might otherwise seem like a “good thing to do”…later. Our line of sight has suddenly become clearer. Our minds and our hearts are open to learning what we must do differently to live as well as we can in our new reality, while protecting ourselves, our families and our communities. We are also unusually open to asking different questions…and asking questions differently; to learning from our current experience while it is happening, not as a ‘post-mortem’ exercise. And we at 4QP are seeing that people are grateful for principles and practices that help them sort out this confusing current reality.

We are turning to each other even as we distance ourselves socially. As we share our experiences and thoughts with each other, we start to form a bigger picture of what’s possible. We can see this unique moment in time as an opportunity to build the habit of learning. We can intentionally make what we know visible, explore each other’s thinking, test out multiple possible responses, compare notes with our peers, and be prepared to adjust and adjust and adjust as we go. As we learn to do this together, we are developing the collective practice and habit that will help us evolve a new and better reality while we make our way through, and emerge from, these challenging times.

— Marilyn, Jillaine, Heidi

Special thanks to Anne Starr for her contribution

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3 Responses to What the Times Are Calling For: A Letter to our Community

  1. Fabulous and beautiful!! Thank you for this reflection and inspiration. I’m going to forward it to my Rabbi. Perhaps she will use it as part of our Shabbat services this week. Thank you for this fresh perspective.

  2. Keri-Nicole Dillman says:

    Thank you Marilyn, Jillaine, Heidi and Anne for this perspective on learning at this crisis moment. As I’ve been engaging with grant maker and nonprofit provider clients and digesting the conversation in the social sector blogosphere, I want to pick up on a few of your threads and offer one more dimension that I am seeing.

    “Eagerness to learn from those who are further down this uncharted path.”- In addition to looking across space for insights – as you point out- I am seeing folks looking across time. Folks are asking “When have we seen something like this before and what insights carry forward?” (a la the lower left quadrant of an EL table). As one example, check out this Urban Institute blog post with separate discussions of how lessons from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, September 11th, and the Great Recession are relevant to today’s COVID response. (http://view.news.urban.org/?qs=50229e3f25907da726881097f95c86292e7cd559823be43b3af2946aed75b517c3f84c05b29de44b1db1bc78615a931ac48c62ab7a777387c88062190aa02b93e6a2d386bab7abb8b989179d8d39473a)

    “We need to learn our way through this together.” “We are recognizing other people’s experience and solutions as worthy of our attention.” – As you highlight here, who is included in the learning process is central to its success. As such, I am pleased to see calls for a social justice lens and intention when defining who will surface insights and ideate on what’s next. For example, in a recent NPQ piece (3/30/20), Lori Villarosa reminds us that, “Because they are usually the first and hardest hit, Black and Brown communities often send out the first warning signals and have the most creative responses, even with scarce financial resources.” (https://nonprofitquarterly.org/covid-19-using-a-racial-justice-lens-now-to-transform-our-future/)

    Knowledge management takes effort and intention when the pace of information is fast and volume high – While knowledge management sits adjacent to learning structures and processes, the nature of this crisis is demanding more attention to it than I usually see – at least among my clients and colleagues. There is just so much dynamism both in the problem, itself, and the policy context – an understatement, I know. Check out this web-based ‘digital digest’ created by MLPB of evolving information and resources in key domains of health-related social need. MLPB recognized that the pace and volume of information for the health ecosystem workforce demanded such a structure to manage it – and it rocks! It is even organized loosely around the “What? So What? Now What?” adaptive frame. (http://www.mlpboston.org/covid19?utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=85191092&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-_leC1bpPHawTvtP1XgV7McnjakHUHitZwOQOLEWavjUJCCFhQiZWdGwBlT0ER6CcK0X6NPs4B2qwj7q7wRpOu7tDY-aQ&_hsmi=85191092

    Thank you again! And sending best wishes to you, your families, and colleagues.


  3. Cheryl Francisconi says:

    What an incredibly thoughtful and inspiring message from you all. Thank you. There is so much possibility emerging as we begin to re-imagine what our world will look like on the other side of this crisis. It has been so gratifying to be part of a number of conversations with people in different sectors around the world who are visioning something different and I feel just as strongly as you that we need to be documenting our learning as we go and sharing it widely. I look forward to hearing from others in this community around how we are doing that – what does the COVID-19 learning log look like? Where might the learning journey take us? It’s all so unknown and at the same time hopeful. Grateful for your bringing this conversation forward.

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