On August 10th, young leaders from eight East African schools set out to engage in dialogue across religious, ethnic and gender differences at a camp called The African Youth Leadership Experience (AYLE) 2014. The goals of AYLE were: to develop life skills in self-awareness and self care, appreciate and learn from difference, learn how to handle conflict, and develop creativity, leadership, community action and social entrepreneurship skills.
Andrew Nalani, a student at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, designed and directed the ten- day camp in collaboration with a local NGO in Uganda and Partners for Youth Empowerment (PYE). Below, Andrew reflects on how attending a Courage to Lead retreat earlier this year helped him direct this project.
Three days before the participants arrived for camp, I sat in the quiet of my bedroom, wondering what I had thrown myself into. For two years I’d been designing a youth project to promote peace and understanding, and it was finally taking shape. It’s paradoxical how I was filled with enthusiasm when designing the camp, and now three days before opening I was saturated with fear and self-doubt. “I don’t know if this will work. “What if no youth shows up?” “Who do I think I am, this young, to pull this off?” It was this last question, “Who am I anyway?” that ushered me to the threshold I feared to step over—my own personal place of leadership.
I recalled words I’d heard Sheila Belanger, a nature quest guide on the west coast, say: “Deep hospitality is first and foremost an inward process.” Before I could extend deep hospitality to the youths who’d show up to camp in three days, I had to welcome those parts of me—my fear and my capability—as ushers towards the threshold of my own personal place of leadership.
I began to name my benefactors, those people who have recognized, named and affirmed the gifts that I bring to community. Remembering my benefactors evoked a sense of gratitude within me and reconnected me to the benevolent, courageous and creative parts of my being. I also glanced over the notes I’d kept from a clearness committee for which I was a focus person during a Courage to Lead retreat in February. In that instance, I knew I was held in the same delicate way as I was during the clearness committee process at the retreat.
Memory leads us home to community, and at home, we find courage to be our very best selves. To nurture this courage, I ruminated on David Whyte’s poetry, and two particular poems, Henry Nouwen’s “Work Around Your Abyss” and David Wagoner’s “Lost” in Leading from Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead. These poems helped me give language to what I felt strongly within, but struggled to name. What I could not name is what I feared because it was unknown.
I had never been in a place with this much responsibility, for twenty-nine youths from different backgrounds, and staff members who were older than me. I feared especially how this new stage in my life would change me because my interest in youth empowerment is linked to some of my own critical experiences growing up—my ‘abyss’. Nouwen reminded me, I must not be completely absorbed by the pain in my abyss that I “fail to pay attention to the wound I want to heal.”
Poetry inspired in me the courage to swim through the ocean of uncertainty, and offered me a space safe for me to develop the capacity to remain present to my own transformations.
Upon arrival, the twenty-nine students spent time creating community norms and agreements that would support them all in achieving the general camp goals, but also their personal goals and intentions. One of the agreements, “Wisdom is in the questions,” supported the community in asking questions and learning across differences. Another agreement: “To fail is okay,” set the stage for participants to take creative risks without fear of failure.
For the rest of camp, the students participated in experiential activities and workshops designed to achieve the camp goals. Some of the activities included: challenge course, public speaking, transforming inner dialogue to allow growth, intercultural encounter, and conflict transformation. Participants also had a chance to develop their creativity through theater improvisation, community singing, visual arts, crocheting, break dance, and of course, poetry.
On day four, gender day, the males and females had separate programming focused on examining cultural gender prescriptions and the celebrations and challenges of each identity. The women read and reflected on Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman.” Each of them wrote a poem in response to their reflection on Angelou’s poem, and compiled what they’d written into a collage. They shared this collage of poems with the men at the end of the day.
One participant noted, “I have grown into a person who appreciates herself as a phenomenal lady, and also how to solve conflicts in a beneficial way.” Their enlivened, assertive and reflective presence testified to the new place of power each of them had stepped into for the day, ushered into this place by the grace and healing power of poetry.
At the end of every day at camp, following dinner, the whole community slowed in pace, gathered to hear a poem read by a fellow participant or staff. We then spent fifteen minutes in silent (quiet time) reflection about its message, or about the events of the day. Afterwards they’d share their reflections in groups of six. We opened our first quiet time with Marianne Williamson’s “Our Greatest Fear,” which ushered the community to another threshold of truly showing up in our gifts and saying yes to the discomfort of risk-taking.
“I am courageous enough to influence my friends and peers for positive change because I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone during AYLE,” one young person mentioned later during camp. I learn from this young person that courage doesn’t simply find us, rather courage is inspired as we wholeheartedly engage with the unknown that scares us, trusting the creative risk we are capable of when supported in a safe community.
Now a little over two months post the AYLE camp, I look back and see not only the participants’ growth, but also my very own. I emerge out of the experience aware that there seldom are easy answers to leadership. The journey is on going and each step in this great unknown calls for courage. For me, reading and writing poetry inspires that courage and provides replenishment along the journey. As an AYLE participant put it, “AYLE is a caring mother, which makes young leaders grow with courage.”
I am grateful to my benefactors, and to all whose words have fed my spirit, and to the communities that have mothered me into a deeper, more authentic, and more courageous place of personal leadership.
Andrew Nalani is from Kampala, Uganda and currently a junior at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. He is majoring in religion, and hopes to design an independent study in transformative learning. He is also the student director for the office of religious and spiritual life at the school’s Tucker Foundation. Outside of class, Andrew has volunteered in the area of youth empowerment for the past 3 years.