What Happened in 2021, and What’s Coming in 2022

The Covid Pandemic continued shutting down or slowing activity in 2021, but it neither shut down nor slowed Learning Life.  Indeed, from more than quintupling membership in our Family Diplomacy Initiative on Facebook, to completing more live international family dialogues than ever, to launching Democracy Dinner panel discussions, and establishing Learning Life as an independent nonprofit with a new Board of Directors and Board of Advisors, 2021 was another very active year for Learning Life.  This annual report lays out what we accomplished in 2021 via each of our three programs — the Family Diplomacy Initiative, International Mentoring Program, and Democracy Dinners — as well as organizationally, and what’s planned in 2022.  As Executive Director, I conclude with thanks to a lot of volunteers, interns and donors who were instrumental in making 2021 a year of continued growth and success.  Throughout this report, I also share some pictures of our people and activities.

Family Diplomacy Initiative

In our increasingly interconnected yet divided world, Learning Life’s Family Diplomacy Initiative or FDI, connects families online worldwide across lines of country, class, race and religion to share and learn together with an eye long-term to empowering families to participate in decision-making for a more caring world.  In 2017-2019, Learning Life completed two FDI pilot international learning projects with lower-income families in the USA, El Salvador, Senegal and Jordan, then in 2020, a food culture project.  These projects collectively yielded modest to significant improvements in interest and knowledge of international relations, comfort with difference, warmth toward foreign populations, and more (see Project 1 results, Project 2 results, and Project 3 results for details).  In 2021, Learning Life carried out a fourth dialogue project focused on the question: what do families worldwide need to be safe and healthy?  With that question in mind, Learning Life carried out six live international dialogues via Zoom from June to November that each examined different forces shaping family health and safety:

June 27: World Family Trends: This first dialogue discussed how families worldwide are shrinking in size, becoming more diverse in form, how raising children is becoming more expensive, how marriage too often entails violence against women and stigma against divorced women, the disruptive impact on families of the international refugee crisis, and more.

July 25: Health Care: This second dialogue considered the variety of issues affecting family health, from Covid to mosquitoes to diabetes to water scarcity, and the levels — individual, family, community, nation and worldwide — at which health care can and should be improved; how the Covid pandemic highlighted systemic health care failures, corruption and inequality; and how social media not only helped families and friends to communicate during lockdowns, but also challenged dominant media narratives often skewed by powerful political and economic interests.

August 15: Work & Economics: The third dialogue explored a wide range of economic issues affecting family health, including how most people around the world do not have much if any choice in the work they do; how unemployment spikes during Covid have led to what have been called “suicides of despair” in Bangladesh and elsewhere; how women have had to take on more work during the pandemic, including wage and domestic caring; how in Italy and other nations, women, often employed in more casual, part-time and temporary jobs, have been more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic, aggravating gender inequalities; how rising incomes in China have come with more work hours; how land and water privatization in Mexico make family life more insecure; how human trafficking and bonded labor undermine families (this part of the discussion included a dialogue participant who was trafficked from Mexico into the USA); how in Trinidad & Tobago some people are abducted without explanation to be turned into slaves, or for their organs to be “harvested” for international sale; how the oversupply of educated people and the undersupply of jobs in some countries, like Turkey, burdens families; and how a global minimum wage would make it harder for companies to exploit workers in poorer nations with weaker labor laws.

September 12: Environment: In the fourth dialogue, participants, among other things, raised that while climate change is destroying families’ homes and livelihoods, in some places, like Alabama, USA, discussion of hurricanes’ and tornados’ links to climate change is conspicuously absent; that smoke from wildfires in California are aggravating family members’ lung and heart conditions and restricting people’s ability to be outside; that desertification, air and water pollution are worsening, interrelated problems undermining family health in Saudi Arabia; that river dams some countries build restrict water supply in other countries using the same rivers, like Israel’s dams on the Jordan River, which reduce water supply in Jordan; in Bangladesh that increasing industry and population are increasing water pollution, and accordingly disease and food poisoning; and more.

October 10: Politics: The fifth dialogue weighed a variety of political issues impacting families, including war, refugee crises, religious discrimination, corruption, authoritarian rule, oppression of LGBTQ people, restrictive adoption laws, health insurance coverage for families, and else.  We were grateful to have an English teacher from Venezuela who fled her country to work in Ecuador and talked about how her family has scattered to many countries due to the political conflict and economic downturn in Venezuela.  Another participant from Trinidad & Tobago spoke of how refugees from Venezuela have impacted life in her country, including more Spanish language services to accommodate more Spanish speakers.  A former Malawi refugee camp worker explained the difficulties of life in refugee camps, including abuse at the hands of corrupt, profit-seeking locals.  An Afghan immigrant and her daughter living in Virginia, USA spoke about the impact of the US exit from Afghanistan on Afghan families, including the overmedication of stressed refugees and difficulties of finding work in a foreign country.

November 14: Education & Leisure: The sixth and final dialogue explored the influence of games, religion, cell phones and social media on family health.  In China, the highly popular game, Mahjong, brings families together, helps players learn Chinese culture, and exercises older minds, but also affects health from prolonged sitting and in some cases leads mahjong lovers to neglect their children.  One participant from Pakistan observed that the internet and social media have weakened family ties but strengthened ties to others, even strangers worldwide, noting these dialogues as an example.  Participants from Kenya, China and Romania spoke of how the growing numbers of people getting their education abroad distances family members from each other.  A participant from Jordan living in Egypt spoke of how religion in the Middle East can restrict social relations, making it difficult to date and befriend people of other religions, and increasing tensions within families between older, more conservative members and more liberal youth.

Each dialogue was fully video-recorded.  You can watch all six dialogues on Learning Life’s Youtube Channel.

The dialogues engaged over 100 participants — younger and older children, parents and grandparents — in 38 countries across the globe, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Burundi, Cameroon, China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Romania, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Trinidad & Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, United Kingdom, Ukraine, USA, and Venezuela.  An evaluation of the impact of the 2021 live international dialogues on participants is coming soon.

In 2022, FDI will be integrated with our Mentoring Program, as described below.

International Mentoring Program

Learning Life’s International Mentoring Program started in 2018 as a supplement to our Family Diplomacy Initiative.  The Program helped provide some of the youth from lower-income families engaged in our FDI family dialogues in the USA, El Salvador and Senegal more connection to the wider world by matching them with mentors who read and talked with them about topics of interest to the youth — like dance, music and food — from an international perspective.  Our mentors in Washington DC, where Learning Life is based, still meet in-person or online with their mentees, to experience foreign foods, cultural festivals, museums, and other international goods, events and places.

In 2021, the Mentoring Program continued as described above, though we did not take on new mentors as we work to integrate the Program with FDI over the course of 2021 and 2022.  As part of that integration, Learning Life recruited over 30 Family Diplomacy Ambassadors or FDAs from across the world, from Mexico, Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago and the USA, to Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya and Tunisia, to Italy, Germany and Poland, to Israel, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Indonesia and the Philippines.  Starting in January 2021, FDAs met every 1-2 weeks via Zoom in East and West Teams, depending on their time zone, to learn from each other through discussion of questions of interest, from “Who is the best cook in your family, and what food do they prepare well?” to “What do you think is the most serious issue facing the world?”  Significantly, FDAs also helped grow FDI on Facebook from 1,650+ members worldwide on January 1, to over 10,000 by December 31, by individually inviting thousands of people in other international groups on Facebook.

In 2022, Learning Life mentors will continue to meet monthly to discuss their mentoring with youth from lower-income families in Washington DC.  As in 2021, we will not recruit new mentors to replace mentors who step down from their mentoring, but will instead invite mentees 14 years and older to participate in an exciting, new, free, international training program for Family Diplomats (FDs), part of FDI (FDAs from 2021 will be invited to become FDs in 2022).  FDs are one or more motivated members of any family, and any age, worldwide who have good enough English and internet connection to participate in weekly Zoom meetings through which they will get mentoring and training in citizen diplomacy, family studies, and communications to become more effective advocates for families.  In 2022, FDs will get training in storytelling and the opportunity to practice their storytelling skills about families with various audiences.  In the longer term, the goal is to create a growing worldwide community of FDs who can advocate effectively for the needs, concerns and aspirations of families via partner nonprofits, businesses and governments with which Learning Life and allied family diplomacy training organizations connect them.

Democracy Dinners & Learning Community

Launched in June 2019, Learning Life’s Democracy Dinners bring together every two months academics, elected officials, and other professionals working on various democracy-related issues to talk about the challenges and possibilities facing democracy in the USA and abroad.  The Dinners are Learning Life’s first step in a longer-term  effort to build a democracy learning community (DLC) in the metro DC area (a DMV DLC) that can broaden and deepen democratic participation in the region, foster more collaboration, and serve as a model for building DLCs in other cities in the USA and abroad.  The Dinners are purposefully small in size, with 8-20 participants per Dinner, to encourage deeper conversation and connections as well as to facilitate building a supportive network for the DMV DLC.

In 2021, Learning Life held a total of twelve Dinners via Zoom — two Dinners every other month — engaging over 100 different metro DC democracy sector professionals, including returning and new participants.  We also initiated a new format for half the Dinners: a panel of speakers then discussion on a specific democracy topic as an additional offering to complement the introductions-then-discussion format we began the Dinners with in 2019.  The first panel in July 2021 discussed how to empower marginalized communities.  The second panel in September considered the evolving condition and role of news media in American democracy.  The third panel in November explored the challenges of and ways to mitigate political polarization in the USA.

In feedback surveys, Democracy Dinner participants often express that they like the depth and civility of the conversation, the diversity of participants, and the ability to meet new people who likewise care about democracy.  Participants give the Dinners consistently high marks, an average score of 8.4 out of 10 on a 10-point rating scale. With the spread of Covid to the USA in 2020, the Dinners moved online to Zoom, and will stay on Zoom post-Covid given the higher convenience and lower cost for everyone involved.

In 2022, the Dinners will continue, but Learning Life is also preparing the next step in the development of the DMV DLC: a series of monthly planning meetings with area democracy stakeholders to first envision what a DLC in metro DC might look like, then to write an action plan so that we can collectively hit the ground running in 2023 with one or more new DLC events, besides the existing Dinners.  In August 2021, Learning Life Senior Democracy Strategist Mike Morrow and I co-wrote an article making the case for DLCs titled “America Needs Democracy Learning Communities.”  The article was published online at The Fulcrum, and picked up by other online news media including Gulf Today, The Marietta Daily Journal, Salem News, and The Post BulletinFor more about the DMV DLC, click here, and to offer your opinions and suggestions, take this DLC survey.  If you live in metro DC and want to take part in the 2022 DLC planning meetings, please take the same survey and indicate your interest in participating.

Other Organizational Activities

From Learning Life’s founding in August 2012 to December 2020, our organization had advisors but no formal Board of Directors because we were a fiscally sponsored program of the national charity, United Charitable, and as such, could not have a board of our own.  In the first half of 2020, after United Charitable decided to sharply increase its service fees for fiscally sponsored programs, Learning Life severed its ties with the charity.  We then launched a planning group which met in the latter half of 2020 to, among other things, plan Learning Life’s future, and help recruit a Board of Directors and Board of Advisors for Learning Life.

On January 25, 2021, Learning Life held the first meeting of its new Board of Directors (BOD), composed of five leaders — Dandan Chen, Khadija Hashemi, Suzanne Lachelier, Nancy Overholt, and Linda Stuart — based in metro Washington DC, Illinois and Minnesota, with substantial experience in nonprofit management, leadership, evaluation, and accounting.  On February 18 and 21, the new Board of Advisors (BOA) — composed of 22 individuals, mostly in the USA, but also Germany, Romania and Thailand, with wide-ranging professional experience in leadership, nonprofit management, communications, education and international affairs — held its first two meetings (two meetings to accommodate time zone differences).  The BOD met six times in 2021, and the BOA three times as a general body, with smaller meetings for specialized advising on fundraising, evaluation and communications.

In March 2021, we submitted Learning Life’s application to become an independent, federally registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  On July 13, the IRS issued its “letter of determination” formally establishing Learning Life as an independent nonprofit!  In subsequent months, we prepared our first fundraiser as an independent nonprofit, and held the event live online via Zoom (due to Covid) on October 24 with over 70 participants, issuing a colorful report, and raising more than $13,500 in individual donations by the end of the year.

In 2022, we will continue growing Learning Life’s funding base, including donors, sponsors and grants.  We hope to have our first in-person fundraiser in the fall, provided the Covid pandemic becomes endemic and no other crises arise.

Five Ways You Can Help

As we enter 2022, here are five ways you can get involved and help Learning Life grow:

1) Stay tuned to Learning Life news by following our FacebookLinkedin, or Twitter pages, and sign up for our monthly email dispatches.

2) Engage in our Family Diplomacy Initiative: If you are on Facebook, join FDI, and invite your friends and family to the group who may be interested as we continue to grow the Initiative in 2022.  In addition, if you want to learn about citizen diplomacy and families worldwide, exercise your storytelling skills, and interact live with people in many nations, apply to become a Family Diplomat.

3) Engage in our Democracy Learning Community: If you live in metro Washington DC, work and/or volunteer on/for democracy-related issues, and wish to get email invitations to our bi-monthly Democracy Dinners, send your resume to email@learninglife.info.  If you live in metro DC and would like to offer your opinions and suggestions about the DMV DLC, and/or receive invitations to the 2022 DLC monthly planning meetings, please fill out the DMV DLC Survey.

4) Become a Learning Life donor: You can donate here to support our work overall.  To support FDI, join 1,000 Strong for Family Diplomacy.  To support our democracy work, join 1,000 Strong for the DMV DLC.

5) Shop through iGive.com, and help fund Learning Life free. Shop more than 1,400 stores (Apple, Best Buy, Crate & Barrel, The Gap, KMart, Nordstrom, Sephora, Staples, Starbucks, Target, T-Mobile, Walgreens, and many more) through iGive, and if you make Learning Life your preferred charity, a percentage of your purchase will be donated to Learning Life at no cost to you.


Last but most importantly, we would like to thank the many volunteers, interns and donors who were essential to our growth and success in 2021, including:

Our interns: Tenille Archie, Amal Burbar, Matthew Capuano-Rizzo, Jasmine Lozano Castillo, Ellen Degerman, Emely Evangelista, Rachel Farzan, Eleanor Greenbaum, Ruya Gokhan, Daisy Gonzalez, Michael Grimaldi, Yutong Jiang, Kaylie Keteltas, Elsa Knapp, Jasmine Lozano, Maria Lujan, Madeline Miller, Elizabeth Morgan, Arisa Oshiro, Estrella Pallis-Bonadurer, Julia Paola, Maria Perez, Jonathan Nunez Salgado, Courtney Sipes, Nicole Tuck, Vittoria van Blommestein, Gustavo Carvajal Villalobos, and Rossella Vulcano. 

Our mentors: Annika Betancourt, Chris Comer, Cassie Dick, Aileene Duyan, Josie Fazzino, Marissa Hall, Marley Henschen, Paul Lachelier, Suzanne Lachelier, Sherry Liu, Brenda Lopez, Elle Lu, Cullan Riser, Alexis Vega, Janae Washington, and Kit Young.

Our Family Diplomacy Ambassadors: Maha Aboucha, Chirunim Agi-Otto, Farah Ali, Tenille Archie, Ayesha Arshad, Amal Burbar, Gustavo Carvajal Villalobos, Ellen Degerman, Daisy Gonzalez, Eleanor Greenbaum, Michael Grimaldi, Kaylie Keteltas, Haydee Lopez, Sri Hayanti Manullang, Seba Maranata, Muluh Rita Megha, Nusrat Jahan Nipa, Sami Noman, Ameer Nuhad, Jonathan Nunez, Arisa Oshiro, Estrella Pallis-Bonadurer, Maria Perez, Brenda Rodriguez, Jenya Saini, Zaidy Sumandal, Nishwa Tasavvar, Chloe Terani, Aishwarya Verma, and Rossella Vulcano.

Our Board of Directors: Dandan Chen, Khadija Hashemi, Suzanne Lachelier, Nancy Overholt and Linda Stuart.  

Our Board of Advisors: Golnar Abedin, Heidi Bloom, Bert Brandenburg, David Caprara, Stefan Cibian, Matt Clausen, Michael Deal, Oliver Hugo, Darrell Irwin, Jaya Kasaraneni, Liudmila Mikhailova, Yadira Pinilla, Andreas Prauhart, Kate Raftery, Emily Samose, John Schorr, Sharon Sobel, Bahira Trask, Jim Williams, Ben Yavitz, and Stacey Zlotnick. 

Our donors: Golnar Abedin, Marcia Anglarill, Neme & Abire Bidjada, Bert Brandenburg, Nick Burton, Gustavo Carvajal, Dawn Clarke, Matt Clausen, Nichola Dyer, Gretchen Ehle, Sandy Feinland, Craig Gusmann, Wendy Farzan, Khadija Hashemi, Oliver Hugo, Darrell Irwin, Jean Kelly, Ira Kemp, Jaya Kasaraneni, Kaylie Keteltas, Joe & Theresa Krettek, Eric Kurlander, The Lachelier Family, Carl and Renee Landegger Family Charitable Trust, Becky & Chris Lawton Flatters, Benece Leavitt, David Meskill, Liudmila Mikhailova, Thomas F. Miller, Sherry Mueller, Mike Morrow, John & Diana Negroponte, Arisa Oshiro, Nancy Overholt, Vera Oye Yaa-Anna, Julia & Lesli Paola, Kelly Pemberton, Maria Perez, Tony Perez, Michelle Pierce, Yadira Pinilla, Tom Pollak, Nicolas Prevelakis, Christopher Raleigh, Kate Raftery, Emily Samose, John Schorr, William Schneider, Rashod Sibert, Linda Stuart, Christian Thorne, Joe Toles, Bahira Trask, Debbie Trent, Carmen & John Vaughan, Jim Williams, Ben Yavitz, and Stacey Zlotnick.   

My apologies if I missed anyone, and if I did, please let us know their name(s) at paul@learninglife.info so that I may acknowledge them here!

Thank you all for your support!  Here’s to a healthier, more caring and connected New Year 2022!

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder & Director, Learning Life