Reflecting on a Grand Aspirations Leadership Gathering

x-posted to It’s Getting Hot In Here

Over the past ten days, 19 youth activists involved in the Summer of Solutions converged in chilly St. Paul, MN to build a strategy for reshaping our economy from the ground up. We learned how to run an effective summer program dedicated to finding tangible, local solutions to the problems of climate change, the economic downturn, and environmental injustice.

The program began in the summer of 2008 with one program of 20 participants, and over the course of last year grew into 9 programs across the United States. Collectively, there were 150 youth activists involved around the nation.

That was this last summer. Now, we’re looking forward to next summer and the growth it has in store for us.

I have had the amazing experience of working with folks from around the nation over the past 10 days at the Grand Aspirations Winter Leadership Gathering. Grand Aspirations is the organization that facilitates Summer of Solutions programs around the nation. The purpose of the gathering was to bring local Summer of Solutions program planners together to strategize at the national level on how to make our programs effective, how to connect with the communities we live in and train participants.

Participants in Grand Aspirations’ Summer of Solutions program have created businesses around cooperative energy, held community forums called “barn raisings” to raise awareness about energy issues, and have enhanced the power of their own organizations, such as the Northwest Institute for Community Energy. Last summer also saw a huge growth in community gardening and local food projects, listening projects to bring communities together around development issues, and general education and awareness raising.

From an organizational standpoint, this two weeks were absolutely imperative. From the beginning of the gathering, we’ve been coming to a consensus about the model of our action.

Program leaders recruit other youth activists to live and work together for a summer, tackling local problems holistically by defining local solutions. Once implemented, that solution is communicated to other program bases throughout the summer, which then adopt, tweak, or directly implement those solutions.

The community focus of the Summer of Solutions program allows for activists and participants to learn by doing, and also to effect real change in their communities as they go along. Originally designed to keep the momentum of student activism going during the summer months, the program took student activists out of the setting of the campus and into the outside community. And it has never been a solely student-driven program – we accept youth of all lifestyles and callings as participants, and work with core experienced community leaders to make our initiatives as effective as possible.

This work is transformative on both a personal and a community level. At the individual level, we seek to support the person. At the organizational level, we attempt to create structures that are new within old structures of the non-profit that can speak more readily to the outcomes we seek. In other words, we want the organizational structure itself to be visionary, to inspire others into a new way of doing things.

I’ve served many roles in the organization – program planner, participant in a Summer of Solutions program, I’ve been on the Advisory Committee for Grand Aspirations and on the Media and Communications committee – dedicated to telling the story of the Summer of Solutions and Grand Aspirations to the world. Personally, I have always been involved in community action of some kind or another. My father was a State Representative when I was young, and I would help out with his campaign every year – licking envelopes, knocking on doors, walking in parades, that sort of thing.

Before becoming involved in the Summer of Solutions, I just went to school in St. Paul. Now I feel like I’ve become part of the community, that this is really a home, and that this is exactly the place I need to be in my life. Through reflection inspired by these programs, and by facilitated conversations within the Summer of Solutions program, I have really come to find a place for myself within this space. We create solutions on the grassroots level, finding the best partners to work with and making change happen. I like being able to bring communities together, to get interesting people with different perspectives in the same room, working on the same project.

The first step to this kind of community development is to create a strong community within the group. Other than all of our meetings, visioning sessions, and program planning, the other important work that we’ve done this week is to create personal relationships across distance. I already miss my friends from the gathering, but I know that I’ll see them soon. Our paths will cross again, and we will all have grown our programs (and ourselves) into something even more beautiful.

That’s all for now – soon we’ll have some videos to show for our work, so keep on the look out for some more news about what’s going on here. And as the spring progresses, and as we get into super planning phase for local programs. Stay tuned, dear readers!

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