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What We Learned from the 2020 Pivot

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By: Nicole Meadows, Director of Programs and Communications

In a year of resets and restrictions, altered responsibilities and edited goals, obscured pathways and “to be determined” plans, it has been necessary to befriend resiliency. To embrace relevancy. To brace for impact. It turns out our impact was notable: the launch of a new summer leadership institute exploring the healthcare and IT workforce, provision for 284 high school students to attend one of four one-week summer programs and enroll in our online learning program Leadership Connect for the rest of the academic year at no cost to them, and leadership development and career exploration resulting in increased confidence and inspiration to take action and create change. Here’s what we learned by adapting 30 years of hands-on residential summer programming into a virtual space with 210 volunteers and a core mission to inspire youth to lead.

Leverage Diversity and Think Forward. 21st Century Leaders (21CL) has always been forward-thinking. Founded in 1989 by business professionals who saw a gap in the readiness and diversity of leaders within the workforce, 21CL’s mission to connect, transform, and inspire high school students across Georgia to leverage-diversity, explore career opportunities, and become leaders in their schools, communities, and ultimately the workforce is just as relevant in 2020 as it was over 30 years ago. Add to the mix the disruption of a global pandemic and the momentum of social justice response and it becomes necessary to embrace the notion that “Everyone can be a leader. You don’t have to be a certain gender, race, or nationality to be a leader,” as Jordan Tyler, senior at Georgia Connections Academy encourages. Connect young leaders to people of influence with whom they can relate, and connect them with those who are different – both will expand their perspective, encourage their potential, and motivate them to lead at any age and learn at every age.

Compassionate leadership is needed now more than ever. “I felt that the volunteers were concerned about us. They seriously empathized with the craziness of being a teenager in today’s world, and did not discount it. This is something missing in schools and many teens’ lives, so it was a breath of fresh air to see their compassion shine through,” says Morgan Byers, a rising junior at East Jackson Comprehensive High School, who attended our inaugural Healthcare & IT Institute (HII). Over the summer, volunteers led sessions covering change management, emotional intelligence, mental wellness and crisis leadership. Panel speakers like superintendents spoke of the challenges faced by virtual learning, such as providing community access to WiFi to ensure all students can continue learning. Corporate leaders spoke of their intentional response to Black Lives Matter and decisions to publicize their stance as a company because it is a responsibility of their influence and their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Among the turbulence and questions of this year’s unique climate, the answer and anchor is compassion.

Vulnerability builds trust. No man is an island, but it can seem that way if the mindset is independence. Just as we highlight teambuilding skills and the leadership value of leveraging diversity, we strive to promote authenticity. Honesty resonates with this young generation of leaders. Especially now when expectations of success are deconstructed and reconfigured. With our students, they specifically appreciated the candor of successful professionals who spoke about their obstacles and their failures. Madison Billings, senior at Westlake High School who attended the WarnerMedia Institute for Future Leaders, said about the transparency of the volunteer speakers that she “liked how open and honest they were. They didn’t sugarcoat anything and say everything was perfect. They told us what it was really like, the mental, physical and emotional aspect of their jobs.” It is humanizing. It says that we’re all in this together, doing the best we can. It gives permission to try and possibly (probably) fail and from that gift develop resilience.

Take the Risk. When schools switched to distance learning, and the college campuses that host our summer leadership institutes closed, and gatherings were postponed, we had a choice to make about our path forward. We determined to make order out of chaos. We knew it was important to be there for our students, and thankfully in the age of technology had the platform to do so, enabled by the support and involvement of our corporate partners, individual donors, foundations and Board. As Sarah Sims, rising senior at Chattahoochee County High School, says, “You have to be willing to take the risk and realize it is not about you. It is about what you can give to the community.” We were able to give inspiration, connection, and hope for the future to our state-wide community of students, and know they will in turn give to their own communities as leaders.

As we reflect on our impact of our 2020 summer leadership institutes, we look at the students who represent 21st Century Leaders. They chose to show up every day and give their best to the situation. They connected with each other through the screen and closed the distance with kindness to each other. They asked insightful questions, they solved problems, they articulated their experience and they face the future with confidence, knowing they are capable and equipped, and they are not on their own. Carley Cook, a senior at The Paideia School, says that “Leadership is not just based off of the leader but also the people being led.” If our students are any indication, we’ve done something to be proud of.

Learn more about 21st Century Leaders’ pivot, impact and future outlook in the 2020 Stakeholder Address, presented by 21CL’s Executive Director, Kate Hewitt, and Board Chair, Matt Johnson.

[/fusion_text][fusion_button link=”″ text_transform=”” title=”” target=”_self” link_attributes=”” alignment_medium=”” alignment_small=”” alignment=”center” modal=”” hide_on_mobile=”small-visibility,medium-visibility,large-visibility” sticky_display=”normal,sticky” class=”” id=”” color=”default” button_gradient_top_color=”” button_gradient_bottom_color=”” button_gradient_top_color_hover=”” button_gradient_bottom_color_hover=”” accent_color=”” accent_hover_color=”” type=”” bevel_color=”” border_width=”” border_radius=”” border_color=”” border_hover_color=”” size=”” stretch=”default” margin_top=”” margin_right=”” margin_bottom=”” margin_left=”” icon=”” icon_position=”left” icon_divider=”no” animation_type=”” animation_direction=”left” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_offset=””]Listen to 2020 Stakeholder Address[/fusion_button][/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]