What Happened in 2019 & What’s Coming in 2020

The year 2019 was busy for Learning Life!  In brief, we completed our international food culture project, grew our popular mentoring program, established two new organizational partnerships, successfully launched our Democracy Dinners, started expanding our Family Diplomacy Initiative on Facebook, doubling the number of participants worldwide, and began co-building a pipeline of opportunities for children in metro Washington DC to enter into world affairs careers.  This post reports on each of these achievements, reveals our plans for 2020, and explains three ways you can support our work.

Food culture project fundayWe began 2019 with the final meetings of our food culture project.  The meetings and project got participating children and parents in Washington DC, San Salvador, El Salvador, and Dakar, Senegal learning about food culture in their countries as well as basics of nutrition.  In DC, we interspersed the project lessons with “move your body” balance, flexibility, strength and endurance fitness challenges to reinforce the health focus and further engage our energetic kids (see “fundays” for more details).  As the project report documents, participants showed significant improvements in their interest in the wider world, their tolerance for difference, and knowledge of food culture and nutrition.

Up through the summer, many of our DC families also benefited from free cook-eat-learn sessions (CELS) run by Learning Life volunteers at the homes of our families in collaboration with the Georgetown University School of Medicine’s Community Health Division.  With each session, volunteers brought the ingredients for a healthy, inexpensive, foreign meal to a family’s home, prepared and ate the meal with participating family members, and imparted information about the foreign culture as well as nutrition and health through interactive Powerpoint presentations, games and demonstrations.

In June, we launched Democracy Dinners to connect activists, academics, elected officials and professionals working at local to global levels in metro Cook-Eat-Learn Session: Salvadoran BreakfastWashington DC’s democracy sector.  Given current authoritarian challenges to democracy, the Dinners are intended to spur small-group discussion and networking among democracy proponents.  As of this writing, we successfully completed six Dinners and one end-of-year Democracy Dessert, with more to come in 2020 as the U.S. Presidential Election comes to a head.

On September 1, our Citizen Diplomacy Initiative became the Family Diplomacy Initiative (FDI) to more accurately reflect its focus.  Started in summer 2016, the Initiative has always connected families online across national borders to learn from each other.  In 2016-2019, we successfully completed two small-scale pilots — a community photo project and the above-mentioned food culture project — engaging lower-income families in the USA, El Salvador, Senegal and Jordan.  During the summer, we began preparing to grow FDI’s Facebook group in the next phase of the Initiative’s development.  In July, we started sharing weekly “Eye on the World” posts — world videos, photo collections, stories and other international content of interest to families — and in October we began to invite families worldwide to join the Facebook Group.  The Group has since doubled in size from about 200 participants in early October to over 400 as the year ends.  Also in October, families began introducing themselves on the Facebook Group, and will continue to do so as we add new families across the world in the new year.

Peruvian mentor in DC meeting online with her Salvadoran mentee in San SalvadorGiven budgetary constraints, our International Mentoring Program remains relatively small, but nonetheless grew significantly, from 15 to 20 mentor-mentee pairs.  Our mentors are all located in the metro DC area, but mentor children either in-person in DC, or online in El Salvador or Senegal.  The mentoring program works alongside FDI to help open the world to children from lower-income families.  In DC,  Learning Life mentors take their mentees to area museums, embassies, libraries, cultural events, foreign restaurants and more to learn about the wider world.  Our mentors mentoring children in El Salvador or Senegal connect with their mentees online typically via Facebook or Whatsapp to learn about each other’s lives, and view and discuss short readings, photos and/or videos about local to international issues and events.   

In September, Learning Life also began working with members of the Global Access Pipeline or GAP, a network of leaders advancing diversity in U.S. foreign affairs.  GAP notes that American foreign affairs professionals have long been and still are disproportionately middle to upper-class white males, and argues that diversifying that workforce would strengthen U.S. foreign policy by providing a broader array of experiences and perspectives.  Accordingly, we have commenced a dialogue with other GAP member organizations operating in DC, including Women of Color Advancing Peace & Security, to figure out how we can work together to create a pipeline of coordinated opportunities that engage kids of color, including those from lower-income families, in international affairs from elementary school on up.

Sunday lunch at the International Student HouseIn 2019, Learning Life also forged two new organizational partnerships to enhance our work.  In February, we formalized a partnership with the Community Preservation and Development Corporation or CPDC, a regional nonprofit affordable housing developer.  That partnership provides us access to a community center, including a full kitchen, in which to hold our larger organizational events, like our international potlucks and world tastings.  Earlier this month, we also began a partnership with Washington DC’s International Student House (ISH), a residence for foreign students, interns and scholars.  The partnership allows our mentors and mentees in DC to participate in ISH Sunday communal meals, giving our kids the opportunity not only to learn from foreigners about their countries and cultures, but to practice vital social-communication skills with people different from them.

Looking forward to 2020, Learning Life will continue these partnerships as well as our Democracy Dinners and International Mentoring Program.  Importantly, some of our mentors will pilot test getting their DC mentees involved in earning Congressional Award certificates and medals to orient our American mentees’ world-learning activities to nationally recognized achievement.  The Congressional Award Foundation, the U.S. Congress’s only charity, awards bronze, silver and gold certificates and medals to children nationwide who complete approved activities in four areas: voluntary public service, personal development, physical fitness, and expedition/exploration.  In keeping with our international focus, Learning Life mentors will orient their mentees’ Congressional Award activities to world learning.

A mother from the Gaza Strip, Palestine introduces her familyIn 2020, we are also excited to grow our Family Diplomacy Initiative on Facebook, adding new families worldwide and posing questions to spur sharing and learning about their lives and perspectives.  Questions we will pose include “what does breakfast look like in your family?” “what do your pets look like, if you have any?” “what is your definition of a successful life?” and “what is the biggest problem facing your community?”  In addition, beyond our weekly “Eye on the World” posts, we will periodically publish profiles of some of our families to enrich our sense of our expanding and diverse global community.  Lastly, we will continue working with GAP member organizations to develop a pipeline of world affairs opportunities for kids of color in metro DC, especially for those from lower-income families.  Stay tuned for more!

As we enter 2020, here are three ways you can help Learning Life grow:

1) Join and spread the word about our Family Diplomacy Initiative: If you are on Facebook, please join FDI, and share the group with your friends and family who may be interested as we continue to grow the Initiative in 2020.  Please also stay tuned to Learning Life news by following our FacebookLinkedin, or Twitter pages, and sign up for our monthly email news dispatches.

2) Become a Learning Life mentor: If you or someone you know would be interested in opening the world to a child in Washington DC, Dakar, or San Salvador, please read our mentoring page for more information, then send us your resume at email@learninglife.info.

3) 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.

Thank you for your support!  Happy New Year 2020…and New Decade!   

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