What Happened in 2020, and What’s Coming in 2021

The Covid Pandemic shut down much of public life across the globe for most of 2020, but it didn’t shut down Learning Life. Indeed, from quadrupling membership in our Family Diplomacy Initiative on Facebook, to achieving our largest scale world learning project yet with participants from 35+ nations, to releasing three new videos about us and four new video silent stories featuring an international cast, to logging over 250 mentor-mentee meetings and completing ten Democracy Dinners with 94 participants, 2020 was a very active year for Learning Life! This annual report lays out what we did in 2020 via each of our three programs — the Family Diplomacy Initiative, International Mentoring Program, and Democracy Dinners — and what’s planned in 2021. I conclude with thanks to a lot of volunteers who were instrumental in making 2020 a year of growth and success.

Family Diplomacy Initiative

Learning Life’s core mission is to innovate education and citizen engagement by spreading learning in everyday life beyond school walls. In our increasingly interconnected yet divided world, we develop innovative learning communities in order to widen access to world affairs, and nurture more caring, capable and connected global citizens.

Learning Life’s flagship program, the Family Diplomacy Initiative or FDI, connects families worldwide across lines of country, class, race and religion via the internet to share and learn together for a more caring world.  After completing two pilot international learning projects with lower-income families in the USA, El Salvador, Senegal and Jordan in 2017-2019 that 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, and Project 2 results for details), Learning Life carried out a third project focused on world food culture. From April to December 2020, the project engaged 60+ participants — adult children, parents and grandparents — in over 35 countries across the globe via our FDI Facebook Group. Through the project, participants shared photos and text explanations via the Facebook Group in answer to six questions we posed at 1-2 month intervals:

April: What does a typical breakfast look like in your family?

May: What does a typical dinner look like in your family?

July:What is a food trend happening in your country?  A food trend is any new and popular food or way of eating.

August: What is a “comfort food” (food that your family finds comforting to eat) that your family often eats?

September: What is a food people eat in your country that you think foreigners may consider odd or unusual?

October: What is a holiday your family celebrates, and what is a dish your family likes to make or buy for that holiday?

The project included a live international dialogue on November 15 via Zoom involving participants from nine nations in discussion on some preliminary food culture findings. You can view a video excerpt from the discussion.

Screenshot from the November 15 international dialogue

Two research reports are issuing from this project. The second report, focused on the participants’ food culture posts, is forthcoming in January 2021. The first report, focused on the impact of the project on participants, yielded (1) a negligible 1% increase in interest in international relations among respondents already highly interested, but a more significant (2) 7% decrease in feelings of national superiority and discomfort with cultural difference, (3) 5-9% increase in warmth toward Jews, Christians, Europeans, legal immigrants, illegal or undocumented immigrants, and (4) a 43% rise in the average coldest feelings toward foreign groups. We were also encouraged that 81% of project participants were definitely interested in continuing to engage with FDI, and 77% were definitely interested in participating in our 2021 dialogue project (more on that below). Read the complete first 2020 project report, including photos, for further details.  We also produced two free, colorful e-books, one featuring the 2020 project participants and their families, the other showcasing some of their answers to each of the six food culture questions we posed.  Thanks to volunteer Olivia Chavez for working patiently with me to produce these two e-books!   

2020 Food Culture Project e-Book 1

In addition, we are proud to have designed and completed four video silent stories about international issues with a global cast of Learning Life volunteers. Learning Life staff and volunteers began developing video silent short stories to creatively and collaboratively engage our youth and families in learning about international issues in 2019.  In the fall of 2019, we produced our first four video silent stories on international issues of poverty, labor and consumption, gender inequality, and school work featuring Learning Life mentors and mentees as the actors in the stories.

While the 2019 stories were recorded in-person in metro DC, our second four video silent stories, released in August 2020, were recorded online via Zoom with volunteer actors, most under the age of 18, from Australia, India, El Salvador and the USA.  Given the Covid Pandemic, the 2020 videos focus on widespread international health issues, including communicable diseases like Covid as well as diabetes, heart disease, and water scarcity and pollution. Thanks to Learning Life summer interns Ella Fasciano, Allison Miller, Emily Krisanda and Angeline Fry for resourcefully working as a team with me on these four videos.

Scene from “Sweet Moves” Video Silent Story

Also, we launchd a “We Are Family Diplomats” Poster Series (see below for one of the posters) to allow FDI participants and their families to publicly explain why they identify as family diplomats.

Lastly, we were also happy that our FDI Facebook Group quadrupled in size from 400+ to 1,600+ members from January to December, thanks in large part to our student interns’ outreach to people worldwide via Facebook and Linkedin.

International Mentoring Program

Established in 2018, Learning Life’s International Mentoring Program helps open the world to children from lower-income families through conversations and learning experiences with caring mentors online and in-person.  The Covid Pandemic forced us to meet mostly online or by phone, though some mentors have returned to meeting in-person with their mentees, at theirs and their mentees and parents discretion, while practicing standard Covid safety measures like wearing masks, social distancing and meeting mostly outdoors. In 2020, despite the pandemic, our mentors — currently 19 of them, down from 25 prior to the pandemic —  logged a healthy total of 273 in-person and/or online meetings with their mentees in Washington DC and San Salvador, El Salvador. (Learning Life collaborates with the Salvadoran nonprofit, FUSALMO, to recruit mentees from eligible lower-income Salvadoran families.)  Online or in-person, our mentors and mentees cooked and ate foreign foods together, interacted with foreign students, practiced foreign dances and sports, studied world desserts to world trade to drones, explored world geography and culture online and in libraries and museums, and more.  Some of our mentors and their mentees are featured below.

The Democracy Dinners

Our Democracy Dinners bring together metro Washington DC academics, professionals, elected officials and activists to talk about democracy’s local to global challenges and opportunities amidst authoritarian resurgence, with an eye to building a regional learning community around democracy. Like our Mentoring Program, the Covid Pandemic forced our Democracy Dinners online to Zoom, though we are pleased to have nonetheless completed ten Dinners in 2020 with 94 participants, including some repeat attendees.  

I have attended and moderated all 17 Dinners since we launched them in June 2019, and the conversations have tended to focus on American democracy even when several participants at any given Dinner do foreign or cross-national democracy work.  Whatever the focus though, the conversations have proved stimulating to all participants, per written feedback we have received.  In August 2019, we began requesting that Dinner participants fill out a feedback survey, and 73 have done so thus far.  Asked to rate their Dinner on a 10-point scale, those 73 respondents have on average rated their Dinner an 8.3.  In open-ended feedback, participants most frequently said they enjoyed meeting and engaging in thoughtful conversation with new and diverse people engaged in democracy issues, local to global.  They also generally enjoyed the smaller groups (typically 9-12 people per Dinner), but sought more diversity, especially by race (82% of respondents defined themselves as White, 13% Asian, 9% Black, 4% Native American or other Pacific Islander), plus more time to discuss democracy’s challenges, and less on personal introductions. 

Lastly, in September, we established a Democracy Dinner Group on Linkedin to help connect our Dinner participants and interested others between the bi-monthly Dinners, and to allow Group members to share their democracy-related calls to action, publications, events, news, programs, and projects. 

Photos from many of our 2020 Democracy Dinners follow below. 

Lastly, before I discuss our plans for 2021, I am pleased to report that during the summer we produced three new videos that respectively explain Learning Life, our Family Diplomacy Initiative, and the International Mentoring Program.  You can click on each of the preceding linked names to view the three new videos.  Thanks to Learning Life summer intern Ella Fasciano for ably and patiently working with me to produce these videos! 

Our 2020 Planning & Plans for 2021

In summer and fall 2020, I convened a Learning Life planning group of experienced professionals to help shape our plans for 2021 and beyond, and to help recruit a Board of Directors.  From Learning Life’s inception in 2012 to 2019, Learning Life was a fiscally sponsored program of United Charitable, a national nonprofit based in Tysons, Virginia that among other things helps incubate new nonprofits.  The somewhat misleading term “fiscal sponsor” did not mean United Charitable financially supported Learning Life, but rather that we paid them fees to take care of administrative burdens while we experimented and developed our programs. Thanks in part to our long, patient work and the planning group’s guidance, Learning Life is now poised to establish our own independent nonprofit, and we are excited for the year to come. 

Over the last several months, with the planning group’s help, we identified five caring, connected, smart and experienced professionals who will constitute Learning Life’s inaugural Board of Directors (BOD): Dandan Chen, Khadija Hashemi, Suzanne Lachelier (my sister), Nancy Overholt, and Linda Stuart (thanks especially to planning group members, Michael Deal and Liudmila Mikhailova for their help in identifying three of our five BOD members!).  We may add more individuals to the BOD over the course of 2021, but following prevailing wisdom in nonprofit development, we are starting with a manageably small Board.  Importantly, the BOD will help chart the course of Learning Life in 2021, planning, strategizing, systematizing, connecting, and fundraising.     

Alongside the BOD, I have been busy over the last several months recruiting members of a larger and Board of Advisors (BOA).  As of this writing, I have identified 16 BOA members, with plans for a total of up to 30 advisors.  These individuals are smart, experienced, connected professionals in diverse, relevant fields, like education, diplomacy, law, business, government, and media.  In groups and individually, BOA members will advise Learning Life on strategy, marketing, fundraising, partnerships, program design, evaluation, and more over the course of 2021 and beyond.  A page of bios and photos featuring our staff, BOD and BOA members is coming by early February.    

Learning Life 2020 Planning Group

Our plans for 2021 will evolve as the BOD and BOA begin to meet, but for now, here is some of what we have planned for the new year:

  1. Learning Life: The BOD will work with Learning Life staff to systematize administration, shape the design, implementation and evaluation of our programs, establish fruitful partnerships, and develop our fundraising capacity.  Accordingly, a fundraising team will begin meeting weekly in January to, among other things, plan our first fundraising event in fall 2021.
  2. Family Diplomacy Initiative: We are forming an international team of Family Diplomacy Ambassadors (FDAs) to help grow our FDI Facebook Group’s membership, and recruit Family Diplomats worldwide to participate in our 2021 FDI project.  Following on the 2020 food culture project, our 2021 project will focus on the question “how can we have safe, healthy families worldwide?”  In June to November, we will hold a series of six live international dialogues, one per month, to learn about and discuss different facets of this question. Read more about our 2021 FDI project
  3. International Mentoring Program: Over the next couple of years, we plan to integrate FDI and the Mentoring Program so a group of motivated youth from across the globe will become Young Ambassadors for Family Diplomacy.  One of the first steps in this direction this year will be to encourage some of our most mature and motivated current mentees to participate in the 2021 FDI project as Family Diplomats.  In addition, we will develop our program evaluation to more systematically track the impact of our mentoring. 
  4. Democracy Dinners: The Dinners will continue online every two months in 2021, starting in late January.  We will not return to in-person Dinners because online meetings are less expensive and hectic given the Washington DC area’s terrible rush hour traffic in normal times, and because we can accommodate more than eight participants online without worrying about participants hearing each other, or breaking into smaller conversation groups as might happen in restaurant.  However, we plan one in-person meeting of Democracy Dinner participants to coincide with the fall 2021 fundraiser, if the Pandemic has sufficiently subsided by then.  In future years, we also plan on having in-person networking and collaboration meetings to deepen our regional democracy learning community, and to foster cooperation in metro DC’s large but siloed democracy sector.            
“We Are Family Diplomats” Poster Series

Five Ways You Can Help

As we enter 2021, here are five ways you can get involved and help Learning Life grow:

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

2) Get involved in our Family Diplomacy Initiative: If you are on Facebook, join FDI, and share the group with your friends and family who may be interested as we continue to grow the Initiative in 2021.  Also, become a Family Diplomat, or apply to become a Family Diplomacy Ambassador.  Details here.      

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

4) Become a Learning Life donor: Contact us at email@learninglife.info to let us know you would like to donate to support Learning Life’s work in 2021, and we will let you know when we have set up our account to receive donations. 

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 and interns who were essential to our growth and success in 2020, including:

Our mentors: Marley Henschen, Cullan Riser, Marissa Hall, Paul Lachelier, Suzanne Lachelier, Kit Young, Josie Fazzino, Sherry Liu, Annika Betancourt, Brenda Lopez, Cassie Dick, Ciandra Gaston, Denis Chazelle, James Wholley, Janae Washington, Elle Lu, Ronda Capeles, Ciandra Gaston, Desmond Jordan, Alexia Vega, Marcia Anglarill, Yesica Sorto-Argueta, Marvin Fan, Yves Taylor-Potts, Amanda Matus, and Matt Nelson.

Our interns and program volunteers: Nima Majidi, Solana Gibson, Karmen Perry, Anna Hermann, Ariana Sierra-Chacon, Ishita Gupta, Estelle Brun, Diana Mubarak, Emma Bomfim, Hannah Trauberman, Samantha Giuntini, Shuwen Wang, Clara Geci, Angeline Fry, Allison Miller, Ella Fasciano, Alexia Vega, Maggi Chambers, Max Lieblich, Nikki Espinal, Noelle Curtis, Olivia Chavez, Yasmine Ezzekmi, and Sarah Leser.

Our planning group: Michael Deal, Liudmila Mikhailova, Darrell Irwin, Kelly Pemberton and Robert Bacon. 

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

Thank you all for your support!  Here’s to a happier, healthier, more caring and connected New Year 2021!   

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

*All the percentages in this annual report are rounded to the nearest whole number.