I went to college in my hometown and lived with my mom freshman year, so I never had the dorm experience. Once I got over the shock at how scary it was to be on a big campus, college just felt like an extension of high school.
Toward the end of my sophomore year, I saw a chalk message on the sidewalk by the library, announcing an info session about a leadership and social justice program on campus called “INVST.” I thought to myself: Leadership? That’s me. Social justice? I’m all about it. So I went to the meeting.
It was a two-year program that combined the study of social justice theory, which we learned in a 3-credit class during the school year; with practical skills, such as meeting facilitation, conflict mediation, and grassroots organizing, which we learned in a 1-credit practicum; and real-world experiences, including an internship during our first year and two summer community service trips.
A big part of what INVST teaches has to do with living and working in community—derived from the novel concept that, if we want to train young people to be good citizens, we should equip them with tools to help them cooperate, resolve conflicts, and participate in true consensus decision making. So, the idea was that you would go through the entire two-year program with the same small group of people.
I started INVST in the summer of 1996. That year, the program accepted eight chicks and two dudes. Not everyone who applied got in. The curriculum was academically rigorous and included serious courses in sociology, political science, and global economics.
The reading list included everyone from Gandhi and Martin Luther King to Paolo Freire and Ram Dass. We studied real case studies of political movements, nonviolent protest, liberation theology, and civil disobedience, as well as intense histories of oppression and injustice throughout the world—from the unbelievable atrocities of the “disappeared” in Latin America in the 80s; to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; to Aung San Suu Kyi’s fight in Burma, and on and on.
We read about environmental destruction, poverty, racism, and white privilege. And we disagreed. We argued. We were encouraged to explore all angles of an issue, so we often played devil’s advocate to each other.
On top of all that, we had our personal relationships with each other, which brought up all other kinds of issues. We got comfortable enough to get on each other’s nerves and the INVST program encouraged us to approach these conflicts using tools we learned in our practica—such as active listening, and objective reasoning that helped us separate our emotions from the facts at hand.
We learned how to set ground rules and structure our meetings to ensure that no one person could dominate. We all participated equally. No one was above anyone else. And if someone was bringing something toxic to the group, we were encouraged to address it openly and honestly.
I could not have had better training for the real world than that. We were being prepared for a different kind of leadership. Not a “power over” kind of leadership, but a model of shared power, equal opportunity, and encouragement of divergent perspectives (so long as they were presented respectfully). I use something I learned in INVST every single day. It was like an intensive on how to live in a democracy. Or at least how it is supposed to be.
Unfortunately, you realize once you graduate from INVST that all of your great practical skills are a lot harder to use in the real world, where most other people have not had similar training.
It is especially hard to enter the workforce and find so many people who feel powerless, and who seem to have no outlet for their frustration. INVST helped me to understand that the hierarchical system of leadership just doesn’t work as well as a community-based model—it doesn’t work in classrooms (as Freire taught us), nor does it work in economics, or in social welfare.
When small groups of privileged people are given the authority to make the rules that everyone has to follow, the wealth does not “trickle down.” The privilege is rarely acknowledged, and, typically, the least powerful are made to feel that their poor situation is their own fault—a result of their laziness, bad upbringing, or wrong decisions.
INVST helped me to understand that there is another way. Real community is absolutely possible, but we have to have integrity in our actions and respect for divergent opinions.
Most importantly, we have to really listen to each other and make persistent effort to better understand the other’s point of view. That is the only way to generate enough compassion for one another that we can start to tackle the real problems facing all of us. Like, for instance, the environmental degradation of the planet and the fact that by 2020 (in SIX years) the United Nations estimates that there will be 1 BILLION people worldwide who are living in extreme poverty in urban slums. These are the kinds of problems we need to put our minds together to try to solve.
And I haven’t even mentioned the summer service experiences yet, which were in many ways the most impactful part of the INVST program. So, here goes:
The Domestic Summer Service Experience
My cohort met only a few times before departing for our first trip together in the summer of 1996. We came together to do a little bit of fundraising and we had a few days of orientation, then we hopped in a van and headed to New Mexico for a “wilderness experience” in the mountains outside Taos.
It was kind of like an Outward Bound experience: We did group-bonding exercises and played games. Our facilitators (who were former INVST students themselves) gave us self-reflective journal assignments. At night, the facilitators led discussions and guided us through exercises to help us make deeper meaning of the experiences we were having. On this portion of the trip, we talked a lot about human impact on the environment, and what can be done to preserve the wilderness.
The second part of the trip was to Denver, where we spent a week in the Samaritan House Homeless Shelter. I wrote about this in my last post, so I’m not going to do it again here.
The final two weeks of the first summer were spent in the four corners area, on the Navajo (Dine) and Hopi reservations, where we volunteered with the Black Mesa Permaculture Project. Basically, we dug ditches for two weeks in the summer in Arizona.
Permaculture is a system for shaping the desert land—by digging irrigation ditches, and building burms—so that when it actually does rain (which is obviously rare) the water has places to collect and enrich the soil, making it possible to grow vegetation.
We studied the effect of the coal industry on the four corners area, where the Peabody Coal Company (the largest private coal company in the world) has forced or coerced the Navajo and Hopi people to relocate repeatedly in the ongoing quest to satisfy Americans’ insatiable consumption of fossil fuels. We talked with the local people, visited a school where we ate our weight in fry bread, and even participated in a sweat lodge.
And we had a lot of fun too.
After the first summer, we were a pretty solid group. Then we had a whole school year of classes and practica together, where we reflected on our experiences, read, theorized, argued, and discussed. And we each did an internship at a local organization.
I was a legislative intern for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) in Denver. I helped organize phone banks and lobby politicians. I worked closely with the volunteer coordinator, Molly Harlow, who was also an INVST alum. It was an incredibly educational experience. I realized that political organizing is really, really, REALLY hard.
The International Summer Service Experience
The second summer, we went to Mexico. Before we left, we were required to read all about Mexican politics and history (which, if you think the U.S. has issues…) This was right around the time that President Clinton enacted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), so we read a ton about how U.S. consumerism fuels shady manufacturing practices just over the border.
We learned about “maquiladoras,” the U.S.-owned factories on the Mexican side, which employ mostly young women who work for measly wages and suffer humiliating treatment as they assemble the clothing, medical supplies, and other products that we use every day. Thanks to NAFTA, U.S. corporations were now free to exploit Mexico’s cheap labor with little to no restriction or oversight.
After our border experience, we headed to the small fishing community of Bahia Kino on the West coast of Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez. There, we volunteered teaching English and doing other odd jobs like painting the school.
There is a lot more I could write about Mexico and about my wonderful friends from my INVST class, but those are stories for another time.
After completing the program, any INVST alum can apply to be a summer experience facilitator, and lead a whole new group of INVSTers on their trips. I was a facilitator twice: Once for the domestic experience and once for the international experience. I can’t find any pictures from the international trip that I co-led with the amazing and fantastic Carol Lynn, but I do have pictures from the domestic trip that I co-facilitated with Gig.
INVST is still around and still making a huge difference in the lives of its participants, the local community, the nation, and (yes!) the world. You can find out more about this amazing program on their website.
[Just to be clear, I did not take all (or possibly any) of the pictures in this post. After each trip, we would all get together and share our photos, so unfortunately, I don’t know who to credit.]
Finally, although I am not going to write a post about it, another very important part of my college experience was singing with All Rights Reserved, a women’s a capella group at CU-Boulder. It was just another mind-blowing, enlightening exercise in group creativity that I treasure to this day. I also don’t have many pictures of All Rights Reserved. But here is one:
Tune in next time for 6 Organizations That Changed My Life, Vol. 2: The Wiseman Group Interior Design, aka, How I Moved To San Francisco and Immediately Got a Job that I Was Not at All Qualified For.