In addition to service projects, the Eastman leaders complete a large amount of academic work during their seminar, from Discovery Plans to reflections on what it means to be a leader or a citizen in this work. Explore excerpts of their reflections below.
ON THE PROGRAM
In the Spring of 2020, I was unknowingly on the verge of burnout. Spring of my sophomore year, I had a really good idea of what I wanted to be doing in college, had found ways to do it, and was doing it. However, I was doing everything I wanted to, and that was not sustainable. Regardless of feeling closer and closer to a breaking point each day that Spring, I decided to continue applying for things. First, I applied for Ford with Professor Mary Meyer McAleese, one of my many mentors on campus. Shortly after, I heard of the Eastman Program, and with very little context I decided to apply. Really anything with the work “leadership” stood out to me, and I felt like because I was already in so many leadership positions, that I should only continue to increase my involvement. Why not? So, after consulting with another one of my mentors, Professor Huxster, I went ahead and applied.
This ended up being one of the best decisions of my college career. The readings, the community, and the localized organizing I was able to do throughout these two years have provided me with experiences that have change my priorities in ways I never considered. My Discovery Plan started as a broad sweeping plan to explore South Africa and tackle international Environmental Justice. Through key readings, specifically on the Right Use of Power and ethical study abroad, I began to rethink these broad ideas to consider something more local. I knew I wanted to continue to focus on environmental justice, but didn’t know how to implement my ideas. A class on science fiction as a communication tool for climate change got me thinking about storytelling as a tool in the environmental justice movement broadly. I began to apply this to my own work as an organizer and was able to complete my internship writing a curriculum teaching environmental justice using storytelling as the primary tool, as my internship with the Post-Landfill Action Network. Resmaa Menakem, adrienne maree brown, Rima Vesely-Flad, and Jack Downey were all authors and academics that deeply influenced my Discovery Plan going forward. Because of our seminar work, I did my service organizing with Eckerd’s Florida PIRG Students Chapter as our Program Coordinator, and built up enough courage to hike 150 miles and kayak overnight with friend and fellow Eastman Leader, Summer Vishnu. From the mental challenge of walking miles everyday, even when in pain, to the learning experiences of surviving outside by your own methods; I am a better person because of this. Documenting this experience was a really unique way for me to practice my storytelling outside of direct, goal oriented organizing. It was super vulnerable, and I still cringe looking back on some of our content. Regardless though, the representation we created is invaluable and it is really an honor to be able to spend as much time as I did outdoors.
I came into this program wanting to just learn and talk about citizenship and leadership, but more than I could ever imagine came out of these two years. I will be forever grateful for the memories of this program, and for the person I am because of it.
This all brings me to this semester, my final semester in the program, which brought a kind of unexpected twist by the name of bell hooks. During Winter Term I hit kind of a breaking point in terms of grades. I was so indescribably frustrated that I started giving myself panic attacks, which really brought to my attention the unfairness of our education system. And hooks articulated that in a better way than I could or can. I think truly, if I could do it all over again with everything I know now, I’d shift the focus of my plan slightly to our grading system and how we can use creativity (particularly digital content creation) as a means to empower ourselves to transcend the normative grade scale. But I guess I’ve kind of done that for myself, in a way. I absolutely have not learned to transcend our grading scale, I am still very much attached to it, and I fully admit I’m doing everything I can to keep my 4.0, but finding graphic design has allowed me to feel creative in an exciting way. A way that I never really thought I’d be capable of Sophomore year when I used to sit on my friend Lenny’s floor in Delta and watch them paint, wishing I could make art look like they did. Fast forward two years and I won the WECX logo contest, meaning I now have my design on a t-shirt. I’m currently making a cookbook in my graphic design class, and I’ve been able to create an entire portfolio of my digital art. Different from using paint, but perfect for me; I really don’t like making messes.
I didn’t exactly end up studying women, but I did study a woman, her name is Leah, she is me. And this exploration didn’t really have much to do with gender or feminism at all (besides the fact that I have a gender and I mostly identify as a feminist). None of the posts on my blog acknowledge my continued course work in a direct way, although my academic work in the Gender Studies discipline is ongoing. This is, perhaps, because Gender Studies at its core has given me a lens through which to view the world that I carry with me always. It needn’t always be directly addressed. I didn’t know that yet when I wrote the first version of my Discovery Plan. I thought I had to devote my time to the literal most violent form of oppression against individual women in order to do something meaningful. But I figured it out, and it all worked out in the end. I’m still learning how to feel like a leader, but I think I’m a pretty good citizen; nothing I’ve mentioned in this reflection would be banging around in my brain if I wasn’t.
We have the historic opportunity, now, to do some major imagining. We can imagine a world where we make the right choices for the right reasons. We can choose “clean pain” (Menakem, 2017). We can choose to build love in our communities. We can choose to find happiness for ourselves while doing justice work. “We all have the capacity to heal-- and to create room for others to heal. Our relationships, communities, and circumstances all call us into this healing” (hooks & Hanh, 2017). What I have learned over these two years is that change is inevitable, but the choices for what this change may lead to are endless. My service work taught me that, like plants, if we are given the space and nourishment we require, humans have immense capability to grow into something beautiful. We control the narratives of our lives and we have the strength and resilience to imagine a better world for us all. I have learned that while my path forward will be difficult and fraught with challenges, that I will never be alone on that path. Always with me are spirits of love and the strength of the ancestors who have come before me. I have grown tremendously as a person over the course of my experience within the Eastman program. Before, I was a woman blinded by fear and hopelessness. I knew what I was passionate about, but I was unsure about how I could usher in the changes I believe need to happen. Now, I feel that I understand just what opportunities lie waiting for me. I know locally is where I can begin to make a difference. I know that movements require radical self love, the kind that forgives. I know how to cultivate the settled bodies needed to do the important work of social movements. With this knowledge of social movements, self-healing, and the power of love, I can become a leader wherever I find myself. I am so thankful for the love cultivated in the Eastman program. I have made friends and met mentors who will aid me in imagining a world where love prevails. I leave full of powerful love and deep determination.
When I told my parents about the Eastman Citizenship and Leadership program they warned me of over-stretching myself and tried to remind me, once again, that I do not have to do everything. I assured them that most of the pieces of this discovery plan I was going to have to create were elements of my college experience I already intended on accomplishing. This program would be a way to financially support those pursuits. Once I was accepted, my plan took many turns along the way and ended up including elements I could not have even imagined. I originally wanted to spend a semester learning about food cultivation and food equity in a country I have dreamt of visiting for years, New Zealand. I also wanted to learn from the Indigenous Māori people about ways they have fought for food equity and maintained their connection to their land that was colonized by the British, but due to the pandemic, I set my sights on a more feasible location. This was also the case for Alex Gordon so we brought back up a fleeting thought we had at the inception of the program which was to study abroad domestically and go on a backpacking trip.
Long-distance hiking has been on my bucket list for years, but I never thought it would be something I would be able to do while I was in school. I imagined myself going back to Colorado or somewhere else out West where I could be taken away by the mountains and the sprawling vistas, but the more Alex and I discussed our plans the more we realized how much our ideas of long-distance hiking have been influenced by the hiking worlds very obvious bias towards mountainous states. People rarely ever mention traveling to the south to do long-distance hiking yet there is a national scenic trail going straight through the most southern state in the U.S. and the very state where I have been living my whole life, Florida. Once we agreed on the Florida trail it just felt right. We quickly decided we needed to document this journey and highlight the south as a prime destination for outdoor recreation. We also wanted to tie in our identities to the discussion since it is rare to see young women hiking without a male companion, especially in the South. Along our journeys, we met the most gracious and kind people I have interacted with in Florida. Through this experience, I learned that during such a politically and socially divisive time in the U.S. people can still set that aside to help one another, human to human, which was uplifting and hopeful to be a part of. Simultaneously learned a lot about my resiliency and physical ability.
Through the internship portion of my discovery plan, I got to build a relationship with St. Pete organizations doing food equity work. Specifically, I interned and did service with the St. Pete Youth Farm. From this experience, I learned that movements for food equity can, and arguably should, incorporate other aspects of social justice. The Youth Farm does a wonderful job at exemplifying this by focussing on giving teens access to programming around leadership skills, entrepreneurship, urban agriculture, and wellness while increasing access to locally grown produce in a food-insecure area. Through my work with the Youth Farm as well as the resources Alex and I have accumulated for future students to use in the planning of their own adventures, I wanted to foster a culture of service and outdoor exploration as a way to pay back Eckerd’s investment in me.
One of the ways I can do that, and the central theme of this reflection is by thinking more so about leadership as a community task. This takes the pressure off of the individual to be the sole person tasked with things, but still allows for someone to occupy this space. Leadership as a way to be in community, create community, and empower communities should be the central way we understand this term. Our earliest classes together centered doing personal identity work as the way to best contribute to our communities and that idea has stuck with me throughout our discussions. What stands out to me especially as a newer concept of leadership, is teaching as a means of liberation (Shore and Freire, 1987). So often, we are taught that education is a box to tick off. However, it has been used over years to liberate people and create change in both formal and informal settings. The idea of teaching as liberating leadership did not excite me until we discussed it. Ira Shor states, “This is the dialect of the liberatory class. It’s one place where we think critically about forces interfering with our critical thought,” (Shore and Freire, 14, 1987). This is where I would like to take being a leader next. To lead is not just to do, but to teach, to step back, and to learn as well. It is existing in our communities, and it is also important to acknowledge that it is incredibly difficult at times.
The more I learned about activism and creating social change, the more I realized that in order to create value for others I must first ensure that I have the emotional and physical capabilities to do so. Focusing on healing is a radical act. It is anti-capitalist in nature to take time and spend it doing the things that I enjoy. To me this insight is one of the most crucial elements of what makes an effective leader.
My fundamental motivations for my exploration into climate change communication and education have changed. What motivates me now is finding solutions to this communication problem because it has the potential to create intersectional justice through climate justice, racial justice, and social justice (to name a few). I want to know what kind of stories we’ve been telling ourselves about climate change? Why have these failed? How can these stories be told differently to make them more effective and compelling? Are these narratives historically accurate? How can we create empathy and hope through these narratives?
The very first question we were asked to answer in this course was “what vision of leadership and citizenship does President Obama put forth in his eulogy for John Lewis? How does Lewis embody this vision, according to President Obama?” In response to this, I defined leadership as having the courage to challenge injustice, even from your own country, even when there is an "entire infrastructure of oppression" (Obama) against you; the possession of “moral courage to question what’s right and what’s wrong” (Obama). A week later, President Fernandez shared with us that his first lesson in being a leader was a relatively simple one, “be relentless.” And four weeks after that, Venerable Tenku Ruff taught us that to be a leader is to be powerful, and to have power is to have responsibility to those below you. In our final class of fall semester, Will Shedden shared with us that he would not run for city council following his graduation, because he did not feel adequately prepared to do so. Leadership is acknowledging your weaknesses, and acknowledging the impact those weaknesses can have on those depending on you. In our CPS event over Winter Term we used attendee feedback to create a compilation of what leadership meant to everyone there:
“Setting an example; accountability; guidance; someone who inspires; about how much people are able to transform or influence a given situation; ability to understand and incorporate others needs, strengths, and weaknesses; being able to admit when you’re wrong; charismatic and engaging; requires us to use and recognize our power in order to benefit others; responsibility of using power wisely” (Totman, et al.)
If this is any indication, I think about leadership as more of a fluid set of definitions than something solid and unchangeable. It’s different in every context, and different for every person.
For me, leadership once meant the qualities someone in an institutionalized position of power (a leader) exhibits. That understanding has since shifted, especially the idea of where leadership takes place. I no longer think leadership must occur in an institution or structure such as a club or corporation. I now identify leadership as a state of being that anyone in any position can manifest. It can happen when you are making plans with friends or in a life-or-death situation. There is always someone stepping in to be the leader.
Through introspection and a commitment to rigorous learning, one will always be changing. There is no magic formula to being a good leader, which means it can be difficult, as I have experienced. Managing your power, your time, and your body as a leader are all things you learn to balance. The more you sharpen your tools and collaborate with others, the closer I think you become to being a better leader and creating space for impactful progress.
I am interested in being a leader in my language. In this I mean I want to discover, exercise, and perhaps even establish new words and/or ways of thinking about words’ connotations. Language is an incredibly powerful tool that orients and guides our thoughts, perceptions, and actions. It is the seed of every movement. So it feels incredible, to me, the moments I discover words of transgression to articulate a truth and message of progress with a potency that cannot not be heard. Some words/notions I have delightfully collected from this program are the “soul nerve, settling, traumatic retention, and clean versus dirty pain” from Resmaa Menakem. “Conscientization” echoed by Bell Hooks from Paulo Friere. “Generative conflict” from Adrienne Maree Brown. When we use these words unapologetically, in the face of existing “reality” and its rules of function, we forge power right in that space.
In pulling transgressive language into the mainstream, the ones who ignore, resist or reject them will have to either cope with ceasing to hold the lexicon of their culture, or learn the language. I am intentional with my words, things which influence in their very being spoken. I routinely use found transgressive language with my family, friends, classmates, and strangers on the internet; and am quick to point out/deconstruct regressive language when it appears (myself included). This regressive language is but reproduced tangible imaginings of oppressive minds.
I’d like to get re-imagining; creative. Find new words to harness and new very ways of being and reverberating. I, we, cannot wait to be permitted radical imagination! And, we cannot be discouraged–however easy–by the scale and weight of the injustices at hand. I will not throw up my hands and surrender, relinquishing the self-actualization of myself and others. I am too tired of living in the imaginations of men from hundreds of years past. To be an effective leader I must be(come) my best self: a fractal of active transgression and healing.
The biggest challenge and pressure for me comes from social media and the pressure of being in a world that seems extremely high speed. For most of my time organizing and in college (which is the time I have started to think about citizenship) I have been fully operating on “social media time” as adrienne maree brown would describe it. Even those who preach individuality and freedoms will result in cancel culture if we do not fit their definition of what is right. This has been something I’ve only very recently begun to realize, but am shocked at the impact it’s had on me. How can I really understand my citizenship if I have constantly been thinking of what other people are defining these identities as? On that note, our conversion with Morgan this semester was also a major influencer in how I identify now as a citizen. One of the main challenges that have created confusion for me is my different identities and the authority structures that come along with them. Balancing who I am, what I want to emphasize, and the social norms that connect to those have been difficult. As a Black person, that often gets pushed to the front of my identity wheel, informing most of how I view my citizenship. But, as an American, and one who is heavily engaged with civic engagement work, my national identity is often at the front of mind when I’m in spaces involving that civic engagement work. Morgan’s presentation allied me to fully understand, I don’t actually have to choose what is at the front. Of course, my race and gender likely will be frequently, but, I do not have to let those power structures consume me completely.
My role as a citizen is multifaceted. adrienne maree brown in her book, We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice, said that the world exists in patterns, both large and small, and that how the world exists on the smallest scale is how the world exists at the largest scale (adrienne maree brown, 2017). This is how I understand citizenship and leadership on a personal level. The actions I take as a citizen and a leader have the potential to create rippling patterns within the spheres that I have the ability to influence.
While working in the soil and telling stories about how the soil breathes life into our food, it made me realize how interconnected everything is. In order to understand the importance of fertile soil and ideal growing conditions, you must work with them firsthand. Our food systems today do not encourage the same kinds of connections. People are separated from each other in the same ways that we are separated from our food. Working the land is a great way to communicate the importance of climate justice and environmental education. By giving people more to love about the environment, I hope to encourage them to find more worth saving. This is my current plan moving forward into my final semester at Eckerd College.
I opened my leadership reflection with Barack Obama’s eulogy for John Lewis, the first thing we ever consumed in this class, and I would like to begin this with the eulogy as well. It connotes an important distinction between being a “citizen of the world,” and being a good citizen in your home country. In his eulogy, Obama asserts that true citizenship is having the courage to challenge injustice even from your own country, even when there is an “entire infrastructure of oppression” against you. From your own country. It is easy to tell the rest of the world that they’re doing this wrong, or they should change that. It is much harder to be critical of your home, something Nussbaum does not acknowledge in her essay on “Cultivating Humanity and World Citizenship,” which I’ve grown to detest after reading over it five times in various contexts. Nussbaum idealizes a world where we can “produce a nation full of students who have examined their beliefs Socratically and who have mastered some techniques by which they can push that inquiry further” (39). But it seems that she feels that only then we will produce global citizens. This is Western-style education, only accessible at a selection of liberal arts colleges scattered across the United States and Europe. What happens to students who can’t attend these colleges? Nussbaum’s vision of global citizenship is based on access; something a young girl from Nepal can rarely have by function of her social class and country of origin. To me, Nussbaum’s “world citizenship” is distinctly American, because it’s silly enough to claim our education is objectively better than any other country, and only through the liberal arts is it possible to be a citizen of the world. This is a fallacy.
One of the things we have often discussed in class is harm, whether that be current types of harm such as cancel culture (adrienne marie brown, 2017) or historic types such as intergenerational trauma (Menakem 2018). I have realized that a moral code of mine is to reduce harm, the harm I cause others, and myself. Morally, the reduction of harm is a goal we should all hold and is a key part of being a good citizen. A society where people are continuously hurting each other through hate, revenge, and systemic oppression can never be the marks of good and right citizenship. But, I do not believe there is such a thing as a community or society void of all harm, I suppose harm is a part of the human experience, yet I think it is extremely valuable to be in pursuit of reducing it. If one actively tries to minimize harm, they will welcome open and honest criticism of their action without hatred toward themselves. This is not a balance that comes easy and is definitely not something I currently have but is something I believe is attainable. It is part of not taking things personally, which has been preached to me since a young age.