Shared Vulnerability During Crisis

Apr 01, 2020
Leigh Anne Cappello

A Challenge or an Opportunity for Equity in Postsecondary Education?

The lens through which we see the world changes during times of crisis, and never more so than what’s happening in our world right now amidst the global pandemic of COVID-19. This virus does not discriminate. It attacks the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the healthy and the unhealthy, the white and black, the gay and the straight, and yes, the liberals and the conservatives, equally. For the first time in my lifetime, I see what wide-scale vulnerability looks like.

As a consultant in education, I can’t help but wonder what the impact of all of this will be on our most vulnerable who are already struggling to afford, gain access to, thrive, and finish their degrees. It’s frustrating to think of increasing erosion to an already inequitable postsecondary environment. But as a design thinker, I am curious about how we might leverage this new level of shared vulnerability.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course, there is still a two-tiered level of vulnerability, so those ‘without’ are suffering at far greater proportions than those with more means. However, what is equally available to all is fear and uncertainty and these two things, unlike opportunity, are relative. A 55-year-old male in NYC with a great job and a higher risk portfolio who just lost half his retirement and has been diagnosed with the Coronavirus knowing that the healthcare system is overwhelmed and there might not be enough ventilators to save him, might feel as much relative fear as a single young mother of 2 who just lost her hourly job because of a shut-down at a small local business and does not know how she is going to feed her family, let alone keep them virus-free. In reality, the 55-year-old might fare better during this crisis and the long-term impact of the virus will likely hit harder for the single mother, but the fear and uncertainty, today, at this moment, are equally distributed. In fact, the young mother might fare better emotionally in the short-run as vulnerability is an unfortunate reality of everyday life for her.

Think about that. We know that with lived experiences, we grow stronger and become better equipped to adapt to life’s challenges. Who is most equipped to handle that fear? Who knows best how to get scrappy, create workarounds, and find peace in not knowing? How does one hang on to hope? I could be wrong but if I had to guess, it might be those who have been dealing with the challenges of scarcity, uncertainty, inaccessibility and the harsh realities of inequitable distribution of opportunity long before coronavirus came about. An interesting irony. But the unfortunate part is that for most people, the fear and uncertainty will pass, and for so many others, it will just continue. Business as usual.

Mary Baker Eddy, a spiritual pioneer and author whose work covered the disciplines of science, theology, and medicine in the late 1800s said: The time for thinkers has come. To live and let live, without clamor for distinction or recognition. She said this during a period of history when we were engaging in a civil war, a time when we as Americans were fighting each other, failing to recognize the opportunities afoot if we could just see each other as equally relevant and important allies in the war against the greatest enemy of all: fear.

Sound familiar?

In education today we are facing more uncertainty than ever, but now, it’s not just the underserved populations who are struggling to adapt, it’s everyone. Teachers are adapting their curricula to online formats in a moment’s notice which for many, especially those who are not digital natives, is anxiety-provoking. Parents are thrust into a sudden blending of homelife and work-life while managing a household of digital gymnastics. Education administrators are activating whatever crisis management plans they had in place, some of which were built for far more certainty than what COVID-19 is promising. And employers, many of whom last month were struggling to fill jobs, are being forced to lay-off, furlough, and wait for government assistance. To adapt to what is now an even more uncertain future leaves everyone wondering, and many fearing, what’s next? The answer is, ‘who knows?’

Earlier this year I facilitated a design workshop with a group of national education advocates, policymakers, investors, business advocates, and students to think deeply about how we might accelerate the pace of change relative to equity in postsecondary education. We started the workshop by creating what we called ‘brave spaces’ — opportunities to share our most vulnerable moments as a means to connect through story.

What we saw happen was cool. We saw that sharing individual vulnerabilities with strangers was a great way to create connection and empathic understanding, laying the groundwork for more robust, enlightened discussions about both the barriers and the opportunities to build bridges with constituents. And now I can’t help but wonder: in a world that has been so divided, is it possible that with a little more connection and empathic understanding we could be in a better position to solve some of our more intractable problems? Will this new world reality help us all to see the power of shared purpose?

It could if we recognize the need and embrace the challenge.

It has never been more important for our educational systems to adapt — not only to the current COVID-19 pandemic but also to the future. And that adaptation simply must happen faster than current trends would predict.

Where to start? Let’s start by recognizing the good that is already coming out of this crisis through a series of acknowledgments:

  • The world is getting more and more scrappy by the day as volunteers create homemade masks and major corporations join forces to get ventilators produced as quickly as possible. See MarketWatch article.

Wouldn’t it be nice if after this virus passes and the world gets back to hyper- speed, that we remember what we are capable of? What would happen if we continued to listen to the stories of the most vulnerable and took immediate action? If we continued to give a greater portion of our time and energy to those who need it most? If we leveraged the power of viral marketing to raise empathy and awareness of inequities? If we worked together through empathic understanding — the conservative and the liberal, the private and the public sectors, the politicians and the advocates, the academics and the students — to get scrappy, collaborate and aggressively attack some of America’s most intractable social challenges like equity in education? Because if we can, we will be creating a country that is not only less vulnerable tomorrow, but more powerful and prepared for our next crisis by leveraging the untapped potential of our national human resources, our most precious asset of all.

Brene Brown, inspirational speaker and author of The Power of Vulnerability says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”

It’s not easy and it can be scary but ironically, vulnerability might just be the catalyst to the transformation our nation needs.

A challenge or an opportunity? It’s both, and I for one sit ready to take it on.

Let’s do this.

This post was originally published on Medium on April 1, 2020. Leigh Anne Cappello is Kinetic Seeds’ Chief Experience Officer. She can be reached at

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