The energy of this year’s virtual Lift as You Climb conference is hard to gauge at first through the screen of a computer, but as the opening keynote by pastor and author Tyler Sit commences and he speaks to the necessity of embracing the weird moments, nothing but smiles and nods can be seen across the screen.
Lift as You Climb brought together students, community partners, staff, and more, to connect and share their service experiences, stories, and skills. Held October 26-28, the conference took on a special relevance this year by providing ample opportunity to reflect on a maelstrom of a year. Amidst social upheaval and a global pandemic, many people have experienced a change in situation and a lot of “weird moments.”
But as Sit says in his keynote, “My experience as an agitator for change in the community is that it’s the weird moments where there is as much change as possible...this is the time to be leaning in and changing.” Sit is a reverend from New City Church in Minneapolis, MN bringing an effervescent energy and winsome smile to his interactive speech on place-based service and finding your calling. He spoke of how to show up for a community and practice active and consistent listening, but he also emphasized that such work cannot be successful until you work on yourself and understand what it is that drives you and makes you passionate about a particular cause.
Detailing how growing up biracial and gay in a town that was not very diverse made him feel like an outsider, Sit found solace in nature and his religion, eventually realizing that his true passion was for creating a sustainable, diverse community around love and God. He implored the attendees and aspiring service leaders to do the same, starting with asking yourself: “What has [your] life been preparing [you] for?”
Although change-making can be exhausting, it is incredibly rewarding work. A large part of what a change-maker must do is be able to listen to their community and its needs. Lift as You Climb covered this skill further with a workshop titled “Active Listening: Be Here Now.”
The workshop was led by Eleanor K. Letcher and Michael Cilino, leaders with CONTACT of Mercer County, NJ, an online support and referral suicide prevention line. A crucial aspect of their work is listening to the people who call them so that they can navigate crises, and in this workshop, they shared their wisdom.
The tip that they especially focused on was the fact that active listening means striving for understanding, not problem solving. That is why, when active listening, Letcher and Cilino expertly recommend using the technique W.A.I.T.: “Why Am I Talking?” In a close conversation with another person, the goal should be to help the other person gain an understanding of their feelings rather than rebuke them.
With these practices, CONTACT proudly boasts the fact that rarely do they need to call for a rescue. Most of the time, talking about a person’s issues is all that they need. This shows that one of the best ways that a person can help their community is also one of the most simple: by listening.
In addition, Lift as You Climb hosted workshops on a variety of other topics to both provide greater context and understanding of issues impacting communities and bolster student learning. Such sessions included:
- Public Service in an Urban Context: Exploring Challenges and Opportunities in Trenton with Trenton City Council Member and political organizer Jerell Blakeley.
- Purposeful Processing: Exploring Modes of Reflection with the Pace Center’s Field Guide to Service.
- Emergency Medical Services in our Community in the Age of COVID-19 with Mark Freda, president of Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad, and Allie Persky, vice president, who provided an overview of how emergency medical services are delivered in the greater Princeton community and detail how essential volunteers are to this effort- especially amidst a global pandemic.
- Finding Your North Star with Cherry Oakley, executive director of support coordination at Neighbours, Inc.and former Pace Center Community Partner-in-Residence.
- How to Engage at Home, which took a look at mutual aid networks, how to plug into community needs in your town, and where to find virtual volunteer opportunities.
- Digital Community Building and Engagement with the Rev. Sit.
- D.I.V.E. Into Action with Dr. Tiveeda Stovall, director of Campus Compact for Virginia, who shared tactics to actively engage in social change.
Ultimately, Lift as You Climb reminded us that outer work in a community cannot be done without first completing the inner work of knowing yourself, your passions, and the things that revive you at the end of a difficult day of service and work. “Where do you affect places in the world?” Tyler asks. “There is something that shaped you as a human. Being in touch with that story lets you show up in certain places in the world.”