David Hoffman is UMBC’s Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency.
[Cross-posted on Co-Create UMBC]
We had started the week as strangers, but the twelve of us had bonded by sharing experiences and stories at UMBC’s winter 2015 STRiVE student leadership retreat. Over the preceding few days we had dropped most of our pretenses, and together created a space in which we could comfortably be both honest and uncertain. As we sat in a circle facing each other on the retreat’s final night, two coaches and ten STRiVE participants giving each other constructive feedback, positive energy filled the room. Andrew, marveling, pointed out that we didn’t even know each other’s last names (we immediately shared them). Yet somehow each of us had become visible to the others in ways that revealed both our enormous potential and our necessity to the group.
That moment of power and possibility has important implications for all of us concerned with preparing undergraduates to be capable participants in democracy and agents of positive change in their communities. Conversations about civic learning and democratic engagement in higher education often focus on building knowledge and skills. Both STRiVE and the class I teach with Craig Berger on Civic Agency and Social Entrepreneurship (AMST 205/POLI 205/SOCY 205, fall semesters) highlight analytical frameworks, tools, and tactics for working in groups, communicating across difference, developing strategic plans, and managing projects. Yet without the sense of presence, connectedness, self-worth, and indispensability that STRiVE also inspires, all that information and all those tools would have limited value, like so much firewood without a spark.
All of us in that room, and others in similar groups in other rooms at the retreat site, had contended with feelings of powerlessness and isolation in other settings. My own anxieties about my worth and potential contributions began in childhood, and no amount of jumping through hoops on the straight and narrow path to conventional success ever allayed them. My life changed when I finally allowed myself to choose a career in which I could express and be my authentic self: curious, vulnerable, and incomplete; in which my ongoing growth could serve and fuel others’ growth. I became newly and truly visible to myself and others, and alive to the ways people can pool our passions and talents to shape our world together.
Sitting with my new friends in our circle last week, I could see very clearly how our individual struggles and stories had put us in a position to help each other. Each of us mattered, in part because each of us knew what it was like to doubt the value of our presence and the possibility that we could make a difference. The genius of STRiVE is that it engages coaches and participants in opening spaces in which all of us, students and non-students, can become visible to each other and discover our collective power. If higher education is to teach and inspire a new generation of students to renew our democracy and tackle the great problems of our age, our colleges and universities also must be spaces for liberation.
Contact the author, David Hoffman, at email@example.com.