2021: Best Laid Plans and Pivoting

From higher ed to city hall and back again.

December 1, 2021

“It’s been a year” could possibly be the most repeated understatement of the year. Many of us have been at a loss for words.

It’s been almost a year since I blogged here. My last post, “My #WhiteSupremacy #ToxicMasculinity Watch List,” was published on Jan. 12, 2021, just days after the coup.

Leading up to that post, I had created the best laid plans. On Jan. 2, 2021, I participated in Brandy Simula’s Plan to Flourish 2021 Retreat, and it was fantastic! (I’ve signed up for the 2022 retreat as well.) Coming out of that retreat, I had so many big plans. I created 13 big goals that included things like:

  1. Publish my book
  2. Write a second book with Rebecca Pope-Ruark
  3. Lead a group coaching program with Leslie Wang
  4. Publish multiple seasons of my three podcasts
  5. Write and publish lots of blog posts
  6. Design and teach a professional development seminar for our higher ed admin program
  7. Get ICF certified as a leadership coach
  8. Chair my first NECHE accreditation site visit as a peer evaluator, and more!

Well, I ended up doing most of these things, because they were already in motion and I could not get out of the commitments (and of course I didn’t want to!). However, I put the second book project on hold, and I did not work on my podcasts and, clearly, I did not write a single blog post.

What happened?

I was thrown the most amazing curve ball opportunity of my life—I was asked to be the chief of policy and planning for Mayor Kim Janey—the first woman and first person of color to serve as mayor of Boston. That happened in mid-January—two weeks into my year of all the big goals. I pivoted. I took a leave from my academic position and went into city hall and worked in municipal government for several months.

I’m still processing what that was like and what lessons I’ve brought back to higher ed.

It was a phenomenal opportunity, an adventure and a wild ride. It happened in the middle of one of Boston’s most challenging times—days after the coup on the Capital, amid our highest COVID-19 rates and at the very early stages of the vaccine rollout. K-12 schools had been remote for almost a year, businesses were still closed, many workers were either working from home or out of work, food insecurity and housing instability were skyrocketing, and the impacts of the opioid crisis were multiplying. It felt like being asked to serve during wartime. I had been saying that COVID-19 felt like a war of sorts—with an invisible enemy that had weaponized our bodies without our knowledge and against our wills. And now I was being called to help fight this war.

I was terrified.

I have spent my entire working life in higher ed—for over 30 years—and I had no idea what I was walking into. Fortunately, I had some amazing government and external affairs guides in my life whom I relied on throughout my time in city hall. I also hired a phenomenal deputy chief who was my war buddy throughout, and I had an amazing inspirational leader in Mayor Janey and a true partner in her chief of staff, who was simply the best colleague and partner in this work.

It was always about centering the most vulnerable, centering the people of Boston for recovery. It was always about the work. It felt ego-free in a sort of timeless way.

The work was urgent, necessary, lifesaving, and we just did it because it needed to be done.

Now, I’m back in higher ed, back at Boston University. I’ve been here since early October.

I’m also back writing here at “University of Venus” at Inside Higher Ed and podcasting at “ExperiencED” and “View From Venus” and will be at “Rocking the Academy” again in the spring.

As always, I am in conversation—write with me, tweet me, email me, let’s talk. If you have gone from higher ed to government and back again—get in touch with me! My editor at Johns Hopkins has asked for a book on community engagement, and I’m working on that proposal and would love to hear your thoughts on what you’d like to see in that book.

Mary Churchill is the former chief of policy and planning for Mayor Kim Janey in the city of Boston and current associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis and an ICF certified leadership coach.


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