Seek First to Understand: A Reflection from Our CEO


We are living through an incredibly challenging time. It is a daily struggle to make sense of what we are all witnessing.

To start, the health pandemic has had a devastating effect on our nation, in our communities, and upon some of our colleagues, family, and friends. The ensuing economic crisis has created a tragic financial situation for tens of millions of people, again including many of our colleagues, family, and friends. These health and economic crises will hopefully be temporary and relatively short-term in duration.

Then, and certainly, even more tragically, the racial injustices of the past few weeks have made it even more clear that we are still living through a deep “racism pandemic,” one that has endured for centuries and has shown too few signs of abatement. The recent senseless killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among others, were horrifically disturbing and incomprehensible … they do not represent isolated situations, but rather the calamitous daily reality for millions of Americans.

I thought long and hard over the last couple of days about whether and how to best write a note to our team. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to say, and I certainly did not want to say something generic that didn’t reflect my deep commitment to leading this company to change.

Upon reflecting on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” I realized that leadership silence was indeed complicity.

I and we cannot stand idly by as friends and colleagues are suffering continued injustices. I personally cannot fathom the challenges and weight that members of the Black community bear today. However, I can pledge that I am here to listen to and support you.

When I struggle to find the light, I take comfort in the work we do. We are blessed as an organization, in that our programs work to promote equity and access for all students. We disproportionately serve struggling, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and diverse schools and students. Our team is incredibly passionate about pursuing our mission of “Together, unlocking potential and accelerating learning for every student.” Within Achieve3000 Literacy and Actively Learn, we have indeed made enormous progress over the last year in creating a huge amount of culturally responsive content to meet the needs of our diverse educators and students. One out of every five articles that we produce in Achieve Literacy next year will be culturally responsive to the Black community. In addition, Actively Learn continues to generate powerful content that’s important and relevant for diverse populations. We will continue to tirelessly work to help districts reduce the opportunity gap, one that has unfortunately expanded due to school closures, as chronicled in our recent study. Our work is more important than ever.

The American Psychological Association said this week that this racism pandemic has dire consequences for not just social injustice and equity, but for the mental, emotional, and physical health of those oppressed. Of course, this is sadly not a new phenomenon, but one that our Black colleagues have endured throughout their entire lives.

The multiple tragic incidents that occurred over the last few weeks don’t just represent an anomalous short-term trend, but rather visible examples of the often invisible abuses that have happened for decades to Black and Brown members of our communities.

I know it’s a struggle. If anybody on our team needs additional support during these difficult times, please reach out to a colleague you trust or get help through the Employee Assistance Plan.

As an organization, it’s difficult to know exactly what to do next when it comes to the challenging topic of social and racial injustice. At the same time, it’s clear that words will not be enough. I recall one of “The Seven Habits” is “Seek first to understand.” As an organization, and as individuals, we must start by doing a better job of listening and understanding.

We need to challenge ourselves more about what we can do now — not in the indeterminate future — to be a socially responsible organization.

We need to require internal professional development on unconscious bias. We need to do a better job of hiring more team members who add to our diversity and success as an organization. We need more diversity in leadership roles. I take responsibility for leading us to do what we need to do.

I would invite all team members to take this Friday off as a “Day of Solidarity” (do not take this as one of your vacation days, but rather as an extra company holiday). Please use the time as you see fit – perhaps to self-examine, to call a friend who needs an ear, to peacefully protest, to refill the mental and emotional health tank, or to just relax and reflect. I think that we can all use a full day to support our most impacted team members.

I look forward to hearing from you about how we as an organization can play a role in making our world a better place, starting with how we can stand alongside and support our colleagues right now. Let’s also continue to work together as a team and with schools to address injustices, help students unlock their potential and accelerate learning, and open new horizons of hope and opportunity for our communities and nation.

Best regards,