From Week to Year—The Highlights of a Bright Orientation for Fall Fellows
A year of community. A year of change. A week of crazy hectic activity to kick it all off. This, I thought, was what was waiting for me when I stepped out of my apartment building into the warm August air at the start of Move for America's orientation week, a five-day learning process to equip a new cohort of fellows for bridging divides in the year ahead. In many ways, I found exactly what I predicted, but in others, I was deeply surprised, and pleasantly so.
Upon entering the Barrel House, our charmingly old-fashioned meeting place, I found a warm welcome, a cup of coffee and a group of people brought together by common cause awaiting me--people ready to work and play in ways that were kind, equitable, respectful and authentic. The training, when it began, served only to add infinite layers of depth to the space that the group held both for and with one another, and it was truly one of the best trainings of my life. This was a great joy to me, given the organizations' mission.
Move for America's main goal is to place fellows into positions where they might both bridge civic divides and better their communities in a year-long, immersive experience. It is particularly vital in such important, collaborative work that all involved begin from a strong foundation, and thus ensuring everyone has the tools they need is a natural and necessary first step. From the opening day, it was immediately obvious that the trainings throughout the week had been accordingly curated and facilitated with great care. The five of us Fellows spent the week learning about ourselves, our individual and collective cultures, our communities, and effective ways in which to promote the sorts of profound and catalyzing conversations that were so plentiful for us during this time. The curriculum was robust, with important segments such as navigating conflict, being aware of bias and intentionally framing the narratives we might tell in a way that celebrates those we serve. This was an incredible and practical underpinning, but that was not the most impressive part of this experience for me. Instead, it was the staggering amounts of empathy, emotional openness and vulnerability with which every component in this process was imbued.
At the heart of every conversation lies at least two people, and at the heart of every person lies their thoughts and feelings, and the ways each reacts to the world around them. In a training centered around building bridges and serving community, it would have been very easy to say that we as Fellows needed to put our emotions aside, shift them entirely based on the lens through which we are attempting to understand others in any given moment or otherwise devalue the importance of our emotional processes. Even outside of bridgebuilding work, more and more general focus is being paid to changing mindset, remaining positive or listening in ways that almost seem to deny individuals their own authentic experience, whether positive or negative. In all of the trainings facilitated directly by Move for America staff, I did not see one shred of this idea in word or action.
In fact, to my great delight, I found the exact opposite to be the quickly established norm. Without forcing anyone to speak who had nothing to contribute in the moment--an impressive feat all on its own--weighty questions habitually made their way around the group both from within and without, even when they scrutinized a particular concept closely in a way the training may not have originally accounted for or predicted. These questions were answered in ways that were vulnerable, helpful and even sometimes slightly contradictory, and there seemed to be no inequality between Fellows and leadership when thinking about these more nebulous topics. Combined with a good group of people and the tools we had been given to ensure we remained respectful and open, this freedom to feel meant that all states of being could be brought to the table to better each and every conversation involving this sort of depthful dialogue--and there were myriad! As a result, the training fostered a meaningful connectedness to both us as individuals and the group as a whole, while proving that it is possible to remain open and respectful in important discussions and participate with our whole selves; with all the history, context, and emotion that might entail. It proved that, with intention and practice, it is possible to truly listen and understand as you bring a deep and personal care to the situation at hand, and without that lesson, effective bridgebuilding would be unattainable, because at the heart of every bridge their lies a conversation, and at the heart of every conversation…well, the chain goes on.
Sufficed to say, this week is one that will remain forever important to me both as a close, caring and carefully-built training for work that means a great deal, but also as an example of what can happen when people go into spaces with intentional, radical openness, and how that can spread from heart to heart. Now that I'm reflecting, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised--after all, openness is one of the first steps we were taught on our journey toward becoming better co-architects of a brighter future with ourselves and our communities. But it's easy to talk without speaking, easy to shut people out of conversations while paying lip service to giving them a seat at the table. The fact that Move for America actively practices everything about its core mission in such a palpable way tells me that the organization is on to something real, and that means that we as fellows are, too. And I'm very excited to see where that leads. The first week is over, but the year has only begun.