In leadership studies, we borrow psychology’s notion of a “holding environment”. With this, we talk about creating a container for learning and growth to occur.

These images greatly inform my understanding of my professional work. As an educator, I don’t ‘grow’ my students; I don’t ‘empower’ them. In fact, I offer that you can never actually empower another, as it is antithetical of the word itself. I rarely even impart a specific fact/idea/opinion. Okay, I might give my opinions, but never as “the way” to think about something.

Instead, I create space. I help build the conditions for students– and myself– to engage in deeper levels of understanding. I ask questions. A lot of questions. And I encourage people to consider their stories in light of the larger backdrop of values, culture, and the world.

My understanding of my work harkens back to the mission of the Women’s Center with whom I worked previously: to invite women [people] to find voice, develop skills for transformation, and understand who they are called to be.

And when this holding environment is just right, when the conditions fostered are ones that provide safety and trust, and students boldly step into the container accepting the invitation extended, magic happens. I use the word magic intentionally here, for nothing else captures the power of these moments.

Do you know what I am talking about? When there is a shift in the air and suddenly what is being offered speaks to the human experience in a way that we often glaze over? The feeling of looking around a circle (it’s always in circles, isn’t it?) and knowing that you are being allowed to see– really see­– the people around you.

I am talking about the experience of watching as someone unfolds into their own Immensity.

To me, the significance of this work does not end in the moment itself, nor does the impact remain on a personal level. When we feel the transformative power of community, we ourselves are transformed. We experience healing. And in that healing, are able to engage in our lives from a place of greater wholeness. We gaze out into the world with new eyes for what it could be and with a new sense of agency in our role in making it so.

These are all things so desperately needed in the face of our changing, uncertain, and suffering world. In many ways, these are the moments that define and affirm my work.

Our last full day in Thailand was simply full of these moments for me.

Throughout every unit, students work on a media project where they choose a question or area of interest that they want to explore further. With limited access to the Internet and electricity, the projects in Thailand took an inward focus and creative forms.

As a part of their study of Sustainable Agriculture, a prominent theme was our relationship to food. A group of women looked at cultural messages around food and the body with spoken word poetry to share their reflections. Another group used personal interviews to develop monologues illuminating the notion you are what you eat. Others shared poems about big agriculture and short stories about a growing openness to organic practices.

The other core theme was one that looked at how life in Huay Thong Ko changed our perception and ways of being. One brave woman did an interpretive dance contrasting the life of her mother in the States with the life of her mooga in her Karen homestay. Three of our men wrote personal pieces on how their experience in the village changed their perspectives of rural living and constructs of “developing” (links to the projects coming soon).

The power in all of this was in the way that the students stepped into a vulnerable space, bringing their personal journeys into their learning and evolving ideas. There was a clear movement from previous media projects, which had been largely an academic exercise, to a practice of using lived experience in the pursuit of change efforts.

The students stepped away from disembodied questions of “what do I think?” and took up the more challenging inquiry of “how does this inform the way that I live?”

I cried throughout the entire thing.

Because, in their courageous acts of sharing themselves, they affirmed their own worth and potential. And they invited others to consider the same.

To me, at the root of social injustice is a neglect to honor the Light and dignity within all living things. To counter this, I believe that we need spaces where we can be ourselves, discover ourselves. And we need people who will find the strength within to look in the mirror and share what they see. I feel so humbled to accompany students on the journey of doing precisely this– it really is nothing short of magical.


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