Our car pulled up across the street from the church and we parked, grabbing only essentials on our way out. We were let in the church and bounded up two flights of stairs to a beautiful, spacious auditorium. About twenty people were seated in a circle and I beamed, taking in each face. We tried to make a quiet entrance, but everyone burst out in greeting and a round of hugs broke the concentration of the circle.
Joe and I had started in Northern Virginia at noon the previous day and wound south to Charlottesville to pick up Mary, then through West Virginia to our sleeping spot near Lexington, KY, at Marcie’s home. A stop for tofu tacos in Charleston, WV (I kid you not, the Tricky Fish, check it out) broke the twisting, rising and falling drive. Bluegrass music and socio-environmental-historic commentary on the area from Joe filled the dark January night. Occasional plumes of exhaust and waste poured from power plants alongside the highway, casting billowing white clouds into the all-consuming night sky. Their networks of lights, yellow and glaring, pierced the scenery like Christmas lights with a grudge.
We caught some winks outside Lexington, KY, and woke before the sun had risen. I drove us west in morning light that turned the hills and valleys blue and rosy. With barely a pause we headed on to Chicago, discussing youth at the Cancun climate talks, direct action against mountain top removal, favorite bands and good reads.
If you had stopped by the Roger’s Park United Methodist Church of Chicago in the past week you would have found about twenty young folks working and playing twelve hours a day and upward. The January Gathering of Grand Aspirations brought together national leaders and leaders of ten Summer of Solutions programs across the country. Represented at this Gathering (a second followed in Portland) were:
• St Louis
• West Virginia
• Pioneer Valley
• Twin Cities
The Gathering focused on building national community and purpose, and embarking on the different aspects of program planning.
It was exciting to put faces to names of people I had talked to on the phone or emailed countless times and reconnect with people I had not seen since an intensive two months in the Twin Cities. I’m the national support person for the Fayetteville team, and though we had talked numerous times, this was my first time meeting Andrea, Amanda, Ryan and Sylvia. I also had never formally met Ashley, who I talk to at least an hour every week. The binds we had already started to develop by telephone lines and emails really blossomed during the week.
I can only offer an anecdotal account of the week. Each day started at eight for breakfast and didn’t wrap up until nine p.m. or later. After the last session of the night I was often preparing trainings for the next day. In my dual roles as trainer and representative of the Pioneer Valley team I often felt overwhelmed and ill-prepared. That precarity opened me up for deep learning and reflection.
To speak from the I as we would say, I took away from the Gathering a renewed commitment to the work Grand Aspirations is doing, its necessity, and the power of solidarity across the country. Even at an intentionally progressive and individualized college like Hampshire, I find during the semester my thoughts and intentions can stray and become caught up in work that does not fulfill me. We discussed in a Personal Transformation session the Buddhist concept of “Monkey Mind”- that voice that tells you you can’t achieve you’re dreams and it’s not worth it to try. Monkey Mind can get pretty strong at school, and this Gathering was exacting what I needed to remember that voice is normal and within my power to ignore.
Summer of Solutions is very local, each program shaped by the place it’s in and specific needs and assets of the community. However coming together as a national group is an amazing experience of support and inspiration. The admiration I feel for fellow organizers in places such as West Virginia cannot be fully articulated. The connections between these geographically separated locales cannot be forgotten- Massachusetts power plants still burn West Virginia coal and natural gas.
I can also say coming out of the Gathering that young folks in our country right now really have what we need to redefine what our future holds. Planning a Summer of Solutions is a huge undertaking, but its potential impacts and ripple effects are innumerable. I admire everyone I was working with this past week so much for taking on that challenge with open hearts. We’re building the road as we walk it. That can either be terrifying or create a deep sense of agency. Surrounded by people who are committed to this same undertaking reminds me why I’m doing it in the first place and the power of the collective. Our programs will each be different but collectively they will show that local solutions to environmental and economic problems exist and can work in beautiful synergy.