by David Hoffman
In other rooms nearby, similar conversations are underway, bringing UMBC’s winter 2017 STRiVE student leadership retreat to its emotional culmination. 56 UMBC students and five staff members have spent the previous days building communication skills, reflecting on our experiences and values, tackling group challenges, recognizing and honoring our differences, exploring ethical questions, and developing plans for positive change on campus. We have earned those frank, empowering Thursday night conversations through the kind of intensive, collaborative work that can banish everyday routines and bridge the distance between strangers and across roles. We had been strangers; now we are friends, and more: we are a community capable of action, strengthened by our compositional diversity in countless obvious ways.
It would be easy to view STRiVE as a departure from reality. The phrase “leadership retreat” suggests a temporary escape. But every time I serve as a STRiVE coach, I become a little more convinced that STRiVE helps unveil deep truths about ourselves and the human condition. As one of the participants put it last week, “the real STRiVE was within us all along.”
For most of us, most of the time, the background expectation by which we live is that we have little power over our destiny. The subtexts of our workplaces, classrooms, media and politics often tell a disempowering story: of people who have choices to make, but for whom the options are almost always defined by others; the lesser of evils as a way of life. We internalize a sense of ourselves as going through the motions and jumping through hoops, while the real action is always on the other side of a screen. How easily we dismiss our own depths and possibilities, and miss the ways each of us can hold the keys to each other’s liberation!
STRiVE surfaces our suppressed stories and harnesses their power, while simultaneously building skills in communication and community organizing. For participants unused to being taken so seriously as agents of their individual and collective destiny, the effect can be transformative. One participant shared last week that he had not imagined approaching his own life with such intentionality, but he was ready to start.
I’m with him. In this anxious and confusing moment in our national life, I’m ready to nurture a culture that can liberate the STRiVE within every one of us, and orient us to the collective power that comes from recognizing our burdens, and each other, as sources of profound insight and strength.