David Hoffman is UMBC’s assistant director of student life for civic agency.
[Cross-posted on Co-Create UMBC].
STRiVE 2013, UMBC’s fifth annual homegrown student leadership retreat, sponsored by the Office of Student Life and Student Government Association, took place last week at the Skycroft Conference Center. I served as one of 12 coaches (6 staff members, 6 students). Each STRiVE is different (I’ve participated in all five), but they are always life-altering. [My reflections on previous STRiVE retreats: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009].
The phrase “leadership retreat” really doesn’t do STRiVE justice. It obscures the poetry and magic of the lived experience. What happened in the hills west of Frederick last week was mostly spontaneous, profoundly real and deeply poignant. 62 UMBC students and staff members, most of us strangers to each other when the week began, helped each other to discover that despite our fears and vulnerabilities, and partly because of them, we are strong, wise and perfectly capable of transforming our lives and world together. We know this now without a doubt, because by week’s end the transformations already had begun.
STRiVE’s intellectual foundations include the “social change model” of leadership developed by higher education scholars, student development theory, social cognitive theory, and Harry Boyte’s pioneering ideas about preparing people for active roles in democracy. Based on our synthesis of these ideas, one of the core principles of STRiVE’s design is that we coaches empower the participants as co-creators of all their experiences, including the retreat itself while it is happening. To do otherwise would risk stunting their growth by equipping them to thrive only in leadership simulations, when authority figures are available to give instructions and assign roles.
One form this script-busting takes is the “here and now moment,” which means spontaneously and appropriately interrupting an activity or discussion to address issues with the group’s process. Toward the beginning of the week, a coach might call a “here and now moment” to point out that participants’ energy seems to be waning, or that a few people are dominating the discussion, and ask the group to consider solutions. By the end of the week, if all goes well, the participants are calling “here and now moments” of their own. As I told the group last week, the capacity to call a “here and now moment” may not be the most important skill developed at STRiVE, but it’s one on which the value of many of the others depends. Only if you are critically aware of your circumstances, and feel empowered to interrupt the flow of events, can you become an effective agent of positive social change in the real world.
With our democratic institutions under strain, in a culture that tends to cast citizens as consumers rather than co-creators, we need many more people capable of interrupting and transforming the here and now.
Another core STRiVE principle is absolute respect for the capacity of UMBC students to apply their wisdom and insight to make a difference right now, not just on some distant day when their education is supposedly complete and they are ready to take action. The diverse participants in STRiVE 2013 are incomplete but aware and alive, flawed but perfect, and more than strong enough to change the world. With their help and example, more of us may yet discover this same truth about ourselves.
Contact the author, David Hoffman, at firstname.lastname@example.org.