Over Memorial Day Weekend, I hopped on a bus that took me upstate to Camp Hilltop in the Catskills to attend workshops, hike, and have deep conversations with fellow community builders and activists. While there was a lot of excitement as my bus departed last Friday, there was also an undercurrent of nervousness. Over 140 strangers were going to be taking the plunge to openly talk about politics, civic empowerment, activism, and how to collaborate and help each other solve big problems.
The GroundShift team had been working tirelessly for over 10 months to launch their first event. Their goal was to build a community of change makers, hold space for people to connect with others and openly express themselves, and inspire people to understand and improve our political and social systems. While the GroundShift team was ecstatic that people were excited, they knew they were leading a diverse group of strangers into unknown territory. There were bound to be conflicts and differing opinions, but the team felt prepped to facilitate tough conversations.
To say the weekend was intense is definitely an understatement. We waded into uncomfortable conversational territory that we normally avoided with friends and family. While there were moments of light-heartedness (there was an alpaca barn and a gorgeous lake next to the camp grounds), the air quickly became heavy; most conversations felt weighted with history, pain, fear, and everyone’s underlying hope for change. One GroundShift facilitator commented, “Weight builds muscle.” Attendees got vulnerable and at times it seemed like there was almost too much to work through — the divide between political beliefs, genders, race, sexualities, and socioeconomics seemed insurmountable. Through the performances, workshops, music, and activities, we all kept building those muscles and digging even deeper.
On Saturday night, GroundShift facilitators Kerri and Ashley opened the floor to attendees to give feedback on their experience so far. People spoke out about the micro-aggressions they were encountering in their daily lives and on-site at GroundShift. Some commented on how two cis white men had tried to lead a ‘land honoring ceremony’ at the event, sparking conversations about cultural appropriation. Members of the trans community were shocked when gender-related bathroom politics arose. White folks and attendees from more affluent backgrounds were asked to consider their privilege more closely than some ever had before.
People got fired up and formed independently organized caucuses throughout the weekend to continue the conversation during free-time between workshops. There were rapid shifts as people separated and came back together, tensions rising and falling along racial, gender, and political lines as we discussed immigration and policy reform, and experienced rhythm therapy and poetry workshops. There were tears and moments of silence, but there were also moments of laughter and loudly voiced support and love for one another. The morning after the open forum, my cabin mates and I continued the discussion about things we were struggling with at work, at home, and in relationships. While the previous evening had felt divisive, in the morning we all felt closer and our cabin was filled with laughter.
It was bittersweet to realize that we were heading back to the city Sunday afternoon. My cabin collectively agreed that as emotionally exhausted as we were, we would all have benefited from another day together. Then we were rushing off to breakfast and last workshops and caucuses, packing up our cabins, and exchanging contact information so we could keep in touch.
I came away from GroundShift feeling hopeful and inspired; I’m hungry for more ways to contribute to my communities in NY and elsewhere. GroundShift partners Make the Road, ActLocal, TrueBlue NY, NY Civic Engagement Table, Forward Union, CTZNWELL, Theater of the Oppressed, DSA, Interference Archive, and more lit a fire under everyone over the weekend and encouraged everyone to continue to speak up and get involved.
There’s a lot left to process in the weeks and months to come, but I’ve come out of the holiday weekend feeling like I’ve been given new tools and meaningful connections to tackle larger systemic issues that seemed overwhelming and impossible to shift alone. Overall, I found myself grounded in genuine conversations and was able to find new friends, allies, and collaborators who are also working towards building a brighter future.