A Year End Message from Aaron Stern
Academy Founder and President Aaron Stern invites you to learn more about our emerging work in the world and join us in learning!
As I write this annual update, it seems impossible that yet another whole year has gone by. At times it feels as if we are treading water – yet of course much has happened during this ongoing time of pandemic, climate, and societal upheaval. We at the Academy have continued to do our best this year to embrace the opportunity to slow down, as we examine ourselves, our work, and how we want to move forward in the world, while taking what we feel are important new actions.
One such action in 2021 has been that the Academy began prototyping, in earnest, its exciting new work form, called Learning Exchanges, collaborative projects between the Academy and a partner in learning. Some of those partners are members of our local community in New Mexico, and others are located in diverse settings in other parts of the country. In each Exchange, we center a key aspect of the Academy’s pedagogy and view of learning, with the intent of growing a shared understanding of how our work tracks in diverse communities and contexts. Together, we lift up learning as a powerful force for good.
Current Learning Exchanges are focused on the question of “What is mine to do in the world?”, and, related to this, “What becomes possible when people are truly given community support and resources to pursue it?” Many of you will recall the inspiring words of choreographer Martha Graham that we have on big ‘quote boards’ at the Academy and in our literature:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And, if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”
We imagine a time when learning is powered by the unique expression of each person, tapping into their own innate curiosity and passion. We see this as central to the experience of meaning and purpose – and to the experience of individual wellbeing and the wellbeing of community. Imagine! Learning surrounded with the love of learning rather than the fear of failing.
The Inquiry Project Learning Exchange was rooted in this vision. A beautiful group of young people were paired with mentors to explore a project of their choice – not for credit or to put on their high school applications, but simply because they were especially interested in it – and were supported to follow what they loved. In partnership with the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School in Washington, D.C., we interviewed the young people, and their parents, throughout the project and at its culmination this summer. We invite you to watch the final video, linked at the end of this letter, which we believe helps showcase what becomes possible for young people and their families when they are supported to explore what they love – an awakening of the love of learning and more!
The learnings of the Inquiry Project help guide us to the next stage of our evolution at the Academy. We have always focused on awakening, enlivening, nurturing, and sustaining the natural love of learning in people of all ages. In the past, we have developed and explored projects and programming that sought to find ways to bring this kind of learning alive both inside classrooms in the Santa Fe schools, and out in the world – what we called “school outside of school”.
Increasingly, we are focusing our lens on school outside of school and see this as key to amplifying our message. We’ll keep pursuing the same focus on learning that’s always driven us forward, but we’ll be shifting our approach to work directly with young people, and the adults who support them, in school outside of school settings. We believe that this presents the greatest opportunity for our work to get further out into the world and inspire a movement in learning.
As my beloved friend and mentor Leonard Bernstein said in the speech he gave at our announcement of the conception of the Academy, “Then, the infectious process begins!” Learning, begets learning! To paraphrase the great poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, learning is a ‘perpetual rebirth of wonder’. This is the best antidote I know, not only for meeting difference with love and awe, rather than fear and violence – but also as a natural pathway to a better world.
As we continue to activate Learning Exchanges with diverse partners within diverse settings, the Academy has concurrently been immersed in conversation and study about ourselves, our organization, and our role in society, culminating in our deepened commitment as an organization to work actively to counter othering, in all its forms. In addition to the urgent societal imperative, which we feel strongly, we also understand this as the imperative of our learning mission. Learning, by our definition, means ever-opening to the unknown, to new experience, to the possibility of being transformed. We recognize that there are certain socially-created barriers to learning in the form of racism, sexism, ableism, and all types of othering, mainly rooted in fear, that keep us closed off to the new and the unknown, as well as causing untold harm and suffering. Opening those barriers to learning is an integral part of fulfilling our mission, and we at the Academy are leaning into our efforts to do so.
We are excited to continue living into our new vision in the coming year. And, there are some exciting publicly available online events ahead. In February, I will join my dear friend Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and artist Hawah Kasat in an Inspiring Minds conversation focused on learning and healing intergenerational trauma, organized by the Mind & Life Institute. We’ll also be launching a series to share with you all the exciting work that is going on in our various Learning Exchanges, including the second iteration of the Inquiry Project, now under way. In it, we’re exploring how young people come to know what it is that they love – how they tap into their unique ‘Martha Graham’ expression – and what they imagine will become possible in their lives as a result. The project will continue through the first part of 2022, and we look forward to sharing what we learn from this project next summer! We’re also exploring some other exciting collaborations that we hope to tell you about soon!
The world is in the midst of significant change, and we at the Academy are embracing wholeheartedly the opportunity to shape that change to make a better world. We hope that you’ll continue to join us on our journey to take the lid off of learning and expand what is possible in our hearts and our minds. May the future of learning burn bright!
With warm best wishes and enthusiasm,
Aaron Stern and all of us at the Academy
Founder and President
Academy for the Love of Learning