Building a Bigger Purpose

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This article is part of the “Forged in Fire: New Models” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Kerry Falwell, Explorations V Children’s Museum

When the pandemic hit and local businesses here in Lakeland, Florida, began to close, Explorations V Children’s Museum leadership staff and the board looked for something to serve as our institutional lighthouse. Our organization was in the midst of a capital campaign to build a new museum, and needed a broadly informed document to guide hard decisions about what programs and offerings to cut, change, or move to virtual in the present while continuing to plan for the future. When George Floyd was murdered, leadership once again found ourselves without a clear way to express to the community the museum’s stance that all children deserve equitable access and that Explorations V is committed to anti-racist practice.

The work that followed became a board, community, and staff directive to re-define the mission and guiding principles of the institution. The first decision was to develop a new mission statement to serve as an anchor and guide for the work of the museum. In October 2020, the board adopted the following new mission:

Curating the world for all children to explore.

The next step was to develop a set of standards to inform all decisions and justify resource allocation. These guiding principles serve as a contract between the museum and the community we serve. If these principles are lived daily, the museum will enact its mission.

The seven guiding principles:

  • We educate through exploration – Children learn when they engage their senses. We provide a nurturing environment where children can engage in experimental risks. Our offerings encourage creativity, exploration, problem solving, flexibility, and thoughtfulness.
  • We welcome all children – Our commitment to inclusion means all offerings of the Museum reflect the community we serve. Children deserve a safe place in which to explore in a developmentally appropriate environment.
  • Our people are our secret sauce – We are a diverse team. The Board of Directors provides guidance and insight, while our expertly trained Staff operate a world-class facility, supported by a team of Volunteers committed to helping children grow. We support our people to ensure they are safe, engaged in the Mission, and set up for success.
  • We are here to stay – We will continue to be a centerpiece in Central Florida. We are committed to sound operational management, perpetual and sustainable renewal of our exhibits and grounds, and a continual improvement model for our educational offerings.
  • We serve our community – We will adapt to the needs of those we serve to engage all members of our evolving community. Communication of programs, improvements, and opportunities to engage with our work will be consistent, clear, and timely.
  • Our children are safe and secure – We offer a safe place – an island – where children and parents can be confident that the facilities, staff, programs, and exhibits are held to the highest standards when it comes to the safety of our guests.
  • We serve the whole family – Educating children means serving and supporting their ecosystem of caregivers. Our facilities, exhibits, and programs will be welcoming for all members of the family. Family focused programs will be provided to support parents and caregivers in areas of their lives that impact their ability to support the child.

For example, looking at our existing literacy initiative through the lens of the new guiding principles, it became clear the museum was honoring content and not creators. We saw that titles long been considered staples in teaching diversity to young children were all written by white authors. Directly informed by guiding principle #5 (We serve our community), we reimagined this initiative to feature diverse authors, people who reflected our community and spoke in the many voices of those around us.

Learning to work within the guiding principles is an ongoing challenge. It is hard to examine things that appear to be working, based on traditional measures, and see that, in a new light, changes are needed. For example, when nominating new members to our board of directors, the board built a demographics dashboard to visualize the gaps in their own representation. They then sought to include leaders who share a passion for the museum and who also identify with a non-represented group. This insures guiding principle #4, “We are here to stay.”

These changes may or may not have happened without the impacts of the pandemic. Maybe, after years of meetings and focus groups, we would have re-defined our purpose or tweaked things here or there. But the pandemic forced our hand; the stakes have never been higher. We were forced to be clear on what the museum stood for in order to determine what was most important to protect with whatever resources we had left. We did not have that clarity before, but we do now. And this clarity was motivated by the need to respond efficiently and purposely to a pandemic and social unrest.

Explorations V closed to the public on March 13, 2020. We were asked by Department of Children and Families to provide emergency care for children of essential workers, which we began on March 17 and continued through mid-August. Scrambling to operate this much-needed program was supported by all of our guiding principles.

The museum reopened to the public on September 1, 2020, under our new, COVID-response-based SAFETY + KINDNESS Reopen Play Plan. The brandmark appears throughout the building and on our website/social any time we have augmented the program or space for COVID safety concerns. (#6 safe and secure). The work continues. A clean, vibrant, and compelling mission, along with clearly articulated guiding principles, have created the lighthouse needed to navigate in this storm, and the ones to come. But, in fact, these changes, tough as they may be to implement, have energized the board and fundamentally changed how they act. In our ongoing capital campaign, we now state that Explorations V is not just building a bigger place, we’re building a bigger purpose.

Kerry Falwell has been the CEO of Explorations V in Lakeland, Florida, for three years. Prior to this, she was the director of education at the Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa.