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2020: Lessons in Unlearning and Learning

2020: Lessons in Unlearning and Learning

By Vignetta Charles, PhD | December 21, 2020
Chief Executive Officer, ETR

In the before time, ETR’s end of year message was usually focused on positive reflections about the year. Well, 2020 has not been a normal year. So it’s fitting that we’ve spent most of this year focused on unlearning

We’ve devoted time and energy into assessing what behaviors and patterns are not useful during a year of constant and unexpected change. We have focused on actively working to unlearn those patterns and behaviors and learn some new ones around scheduling, connection, sustaining racial justice efforts, and prioritizing wellness. 


Unlearning: Jam packed scheduling 

This behavior was never useful, but we have felt how harmful it is in 2020. When we rapidly moved to shelter in place, the grind of ten 60-minute meetings in a row felt so necessary to ensure we could continue as a strong organization. We packed our schedules and fell into a pattern of back-to-back meetings. It was the default behavior from before and so we deemed it essential to keep us going. 


Learning: Productive and efficient scheduling   

Many of us have started to formally schedule breaks into our calendar. This ensures that we don’t schedule anything for that time, that we have time to stretch, nourish our bodies, and actually prepare for the next meeting so we can show up fully present. We have also started booking shorter meetings when possible, allowing a buffer of time before the next meeting to regroup, encouraging “walk and talks” to add movement into our day, and first asking ourselves, “does this need to be a meeting at all?”  


Unlearning: Connection requires face to face interaction 

In general, we are huge fans of informal connections at ETR. When our teams meet, we want to hear about what you’re working on, but also what you’re watching on television, what you’re cooking, or what pet you’re considering adopting. Relationships First is an organizational culture norm at ETR—and one we all embrace in different ways. But even with that culture in place, admittedly, at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we were focused on all the informal connections we would lose because we couldn’t travel to conferences or have a quick chat in the break room.  


Learning: Connection is what you make it 

Arguably, we are more connected to many colleagues across ETR and around the globe since March 2020. We no longer wait for the “we’ll see each other at the conference next month” or “let’s put a happy hour on calendar for next quarter when you’re in town.” Now, our connections are…well, now. We are having virtual coffee breaks with colleagues around the globe grabbed in real time. We have colleagues and partners pop into Zoom rooms randomly when they are “open.” We have learned that we can feel super connected doing a Teams chat about Schitt's Creek, home manicures, or navigating Zoom School. We are learning that we may miss in person connections---but we are still very connected. We’re learning to prioritize new ways to connect. We can feel solidarity about our collective loss and grieving; and also committed to creativity of approaches to connecting that inspire hope and resilience.   


Unlearning: Skepticism about the sustainability of racial equity efforts 

Many of us, especially our colleagues of color, experience waves of grief with every public instance of racial injustice. Speaking for myself as a Black mother, when the George Floyd video went viral, I was skeptical that there would be sustained efforts after the initial outpouring of support calling for large-scale systemic change. Many organizations and individuals, including ETR and our individual team members, have been doing work to advance racial equity for decades. And yet the broader pattern has usually been characterized by an intense and pronounced period of effort and support after a particularly public instance of racial injustice. But then the efforts die down over time. We have witnessed this time and again—and that breed skepticism.  


Learning: The United States is starting to engage in a sustained reckoning about racial injustice 

We are witnessing the beginning of sustained and systemic efforts coming to light. We are also seeing many who have been doing this work for years get the acclaim and support for their ongoing commitment in ways we haven’t seen in the past. We are deeply questioning our systems and structures. This work is difficult and requires all of us to figure out how we play into systems that advantage some over others. We are doing this hard, internal work at ETR—we certainly don’t have it all figured out. It’s a lifelong personal and organizational journey to be antiracist. But we are committed to doing that work together and in partnership with so many other organizations that want to be vulnerable together as we grow and learn to advance racial equity.  


Unlearning: Not prioritizing our own wellness 

Unlearning the behaviors that don’t prioritize our own wellness has been some of the most difficult. “I’m bone-tired, but I’ll just power through.” “My neck and shoulders ache. I’ll just stretch on my next break.” “I will just keep snacking instead of eating a balanced lunch.” These were common statements heard out of the mouths of many of us. Even though we knew better---and work at an organization that helps folks to do better for mental and physical health-- we would still sometimes act in ways that were counter to our own health and wellbeing.  


Learning: Practicing what we preach and prioritizing our wellness 

We encourage one another to prioritize exercise, balanced meals, sleep, and a few indulgences. We recognize our privileges in being able to do so—and want to respect that we have those privileges every day. We are learning not to take those for granted.  

We have witnessed so many inequities being brought into sharp light in 2020. We have experienced so much loss and grief. We are unlearning harmful behaviors and learning to prioritize our wellness and the wellness of those in our families, and personal and professional communities.  

We have unlearned and learned so many things in 2020. We enter 2021 embracing and continuing our unlearning and our new learning.  


ETR wishes you rest, refresh, and renewal as we end this dumpster fire year and move into a hopeful 2021! 

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