Switzer Foundation fall retreats: Reflections and responsibilities

Posted by Lissa Widoff on Monday, November 13 2017


Lissa Widoff

This year's fall retreats in New England and California offered Fellows and the Foundation an opportunity for new learning and thinking about leadership and what it means to lead with respect for difference as we define our common ground for the common good. Each year the fall retreats include time for the new Fellows to get to know one another through short "flash" talks and a day-long leadership training led by our training partner, Rockwood Leadership Institute. Our retreats offer nourishment through beautiful outdoor environments, and through social connections. As a closing activity, we offer a talk from and with an inspiring leader.

This year, our New England retreat was graced with classic fall foliage and an intimate workshop setting with new Fellows and a few alumni. In California, however, the week preceding the retreat was during the ravaging wildfires north of the Bay Area. The fires affected lives, homes, air quality, emergency response, and travel. Despite the fires, the conditions were manageable at NatureBridge at Marin Headlands in Sausalito, and we went ahead, although with a smaller group. The fires in California, and the subsequent severe wind storms and week-long power outages we experienced in northern New England have intensified our experience and awareness of the disruptive impacts of climate change in ways we could not have anticipated and to which we must learn to adapt.

Similarly, the retreat training in California taught us that when we adapt in the moment, there are challenges to knowing the right action to take. We have been successful in selecting and bringing a racially and ethnically diverse cohort together as Switzer Fellows, and we are learning that our varied backgrounds and experiences will require new modes of creating community and building trust. We did and will continue to adapt how we practice and what we mean by leadership in today's world. As we learn to understand each other's experience, history and stories and work collectively to address the ever-increasing complexity of environmental issues, the responsibility to examine the historic inequities of environmental and social impacts becomes a prerequisite for collaboration as well as our finding kinship with the natural world.

Our two retreat keynote speakers really brought these themes home. In New England, Sherri Mitchell, a social justice advocate and member of the Penobscot Tribe in Maine, after sharing her own path towards becoming an indigenous rights lawyer, water activist and teacher, suggested there are seven capacities we need to develop as leaders:

  • Remember your relationship to the world, and to all life.
  • Learn to be a good relative, including to the natural world.
  • Recognize and develop your inherent gifts. Know what tugs at your soul.
  • "Normal" does not necessarily mean "natural." Find what is natural for you so we can all create a new normal. (For instance, systems of oppression have become "normal".)
  • Be aware of, and manage your own projections of, light and shadow. Projecting a shadow onto others can be just as harmful as projecting a savior.
  • Expansion is the antidote to your projections. Embed and embrace what is different.
  • Live one life. Bring your whole self to all that you do.

Parin Shah, Senior Strategist of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network also shared his leadership journey both as a person of color and as a leader in recent climate policy and justice work in California. He left us with important guidance: We must work towards the common ground that is "both and more, not either/or."  

The Switzer Foundation will continue to help us improve our capacities as leaders to work in collaboration with each other and to challenge systems that diminish respect for people and the environment. We remain committed to this journey together.

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