A story by Jessica Hawthorne, Director of Programs for Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities (VCIC).
VCIC is working to help create a more inclusive Virginia. FromJessica’s story we learn how sometimes necessary conversations are uncomfortable, but they can lead to great learning and growth.
Students are recruited from all over the state to attend a summer leadership institute. They are chosen because they represent formal and informal leaders in their schools or communities; they are there because someone, somewhere saw their capability to bring about change — in themselves, in others, or in the world.
Students often get on the bus with one of three emotions:
- Fear: I don’t know anyone. What am I doing here? Where am I going? What if something happens to me? Who can I trust?
- Curiosity: What am I going to do? Who will I meet? What will I learn?
- Complacency: I’ve been to camp before. I’ve always been a leader—this will just be like every other leadership conference I’ve been to.
Everyone arrives and is greeted enthusiastically. Staff members cheer for them, chant with them, and carry their luggage for them. They come off the bus and are led into our welcoming session. During that session, we seek to meet the students where they are—at the intersection of all of those emotions described above.
We introduce the metaphor of a roller coaster: when riding, it may be fun, but you don’t always feel comfortable. There’s anticipation, there’s curiosity, there’s expectation — I know what I’ve gotten into and why. To help people feel a little more comfortable in that discomfort, you are asked to put on a safety harness and a staff person double-checks it.
Our process at camp is like that safety harness: you may not always be comfortable, but we will always do our best to make sure you are safe.
Students begin to understand this concept as we get really in-depth into topics like racism, sexism and body image. Most adults have a hard time discussing these issues, and students trust us to take the risk with them.
Students visibly shift in their seats, start biting their nails, start making jokes to lighten the mood, or sometimes walk out of the room in frustration. Discomfort abounds.
Most recently, we had a student who made comments two nights in a row to the effect of “these problems have been happening for generations. We’ll never be able to fix them.” She was done with being uncomfortable and seeing no change.
Yet, by the end of the retreat, inevitably students start to understand that uncomfortable conversations can lead to major learning and growth — both for themselves and for others. Students often share that they have learned more about themselves in four days than they’ve learned in a whole lifetime.
They say things like, “I’m closer to people I just met than I am to my family/friend I’ve known since Kindergarten/teachers/classmates”. With each new moment of trust, appropriate risk-taking and vulnerability, they realize that deep connections can be made. They become so connected to the group, to the issues, to their passion and motivation, that when they get back on the bus, we have to chase them down to remind them to take their cell phones back.
In our closing ceremony, we often ask students to share what they will take with them from the experience. The student who had given up on fixing anything, who said multiple times throughout the week that she wasn’t sure of whether or not she would even get on that bus the first day, shares that the program “goes beyond the four walls”. She goes further to say, “I want to make it my mission that other people understand how much this program transformed me. These issues are important, and we need to continue the conversations the minute we leave this program — without fear or hesitation.”
The safety harness works, but only when people are willing to trust our process enough go on the ride in the first place. That harness sets us up to do the real work once we leave our four walls — to take these conversations into our families, our schools, and our communities. That is how we create a more inclusive Virginia.
–Jessica Hawthorne, Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities