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A silver-lining to 2020: Inclusive learning environments

Story originally posted on CUNA News

By: Chad Helminak

2020 was an incredibly challenging year. The global impact of the pandemic and personal tragedies that too many of us experienced will leave us forever changed. Now we’re starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel as news of vaccine distribution fills us with cautious optimism. Before we leave this tunnel, and as we step into a new and hopefully brighter year, we should consider an important question:

What lesson(s) will I take from 2020 into the new year?

We have learned much about ourselves, our relationships and our ability to adapt. From a personal perspective, thinking about your answer to this question can be a very rewarding and constructive experience. For this article, I’d like to consider it from the lens of our work at the National Credit Union Foundation and the lessons we learned about inclusive learning environments.

The pandemic forced everyone to think differently about how we do business. At the Foundation, we were faced with the impossibility of safely hosting our signature Credit Union Development Education (DE) Program. The DE Program is typically held in Madison, Wisconsin over a 5-day period. When we considered the value of in-person learning and how the program was structured, it seemed difficult and disadvantageous to move it to a virtual environment.

Then we decided to consider the purpose of the DE Program. It’s intended to support the cooperative culture of credit unions by exploring our principles and values and practicing empathy to solve for the many challenges facing our members and communities. Considering this purpose – paired with our circumstances – the DE Program was needed now more than ever. Any risks associated with going virtual were outweighed by the importance of meeting credit unions where they were in a time of need.

In summary, we took a five-day training program and transformed it into a four-week interactive virtual program that proved people can learn, engage and be empowered through computer screens just as much as in-person. And with more than 90 credit union leaders earning their Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE) designation through the two virtual DE Programs we offered in fall, we realized something – our in-person DE Program was not reaching our entire audience.

This reality played out as individuals who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend DE in-person joined our virtual DE sessions. This included:

  • A higher-than-usual number of executives, whose busy schedules would not allow for them to be a week away from the office;
  • Single working parents, whose family obligations wouldn’t allow them to travel or be away for five days;
  • People with health and/or physical limitations who would not be able to accommodate travel to Madison;
  • People whose credit unions could not afford the cost of in-person DE paired with travel (by moving to virtual, we eliminated all overhead costs and reduced registration by almost 50%).

It simultaneously breaks my heart and fills it with joy to know that though we didn’t realize these needs, we were able to meet them. While the in-person DE Program might always provide an optimal learning experience for some, we will continue to deliver value to brand new audiences in a virtual DE environment for years to come. In addition, many of the lessons learned from virtual DE will lead to efficiencies and better programming for the in-person version as well.

It’s not about cursing the wind when it blows or waiting for it to change. It’s about adjusting our sails, staying true to our “why”, and finding a way to help people. And in staying true to our roots, we found a way to make our offerings more inclusive, equitable and sustainable. We look forward to sharing out learnings with credit unions and other system partners in the future to help level the playing field for everyone that we cooperatively serve.

Bill Herring is a DE and credit union pioneer who often speaks at our DE Programs. He shares the saying that “we are on an ever-changing path with a never-changing purpose.” Bill’s words rang true in our transition to a virtual DE experience in 2020 and our team will take them with us into 2021 and beyond as we look for new and better ways to serve all people who work for credit unions. So the lesson we carry forward is to challenge ourselves, take risks and ensure our work embodies “people helping people” and not just “some people.”