By Elina Sergejeva, CIEE Internship USA 2018-2019 participant
At a time when my home country of Latvia was so far away, I started connecting with others in a new way. Allowing myself to disconnect from what is familiar and known, I entered this experience with curiosity. I challenged myself to see what others see, to feel what others feel, to listen selflessly, to respect our differences, to care for and to love. None of which of course came easy.
Global Pathfinders Summit brought 150 emerging leaders from 47 countries to Virginia, the birthplace of modern democracy, to engage in a conversation about the future of democracy. I felt honored to be a part of this group of amazing, ambitious, mission-driven people, impassioned to shape the future of our own communities and countries. As we discussed topics like equality, human rights, climate change, wealth, community movements and leadership, we found ourselves making business contacts, connecting with potential mentors, forming friendships and even expanding our own sphere of influence on others.
Aside from inspirational and thought-provoking talks and panel discussions, we also engaged in community service. I had a chance to volunteer at the Friendship Court Apartments community garden. Friendship Court Apartments is a community of 150 affordable housing apartments where all families earn no more than $14,000 annually. It was both, beautiful and heart-breaking, at the same time. Seeing how much work has been done to grow their own food, seeing how a garden had the power to bring people together made me see hope, yet hearing that this place will not be here next year because it is a desirable downtown spot for new development, made the work of this community seem so fragile and unprotected.
The most tangible outcome of this Summit was a document we all created together called “The Virginia resolutions”. With this document we aspired to shape the definition of democracy on a global level. We defined the living values of civic engagement, chartered what civic engagement looks like in 21st century, laid out steps for overcoming the challenges of civic engagement, and eventually all made commitments to improve the quality of life and governance in our communities. It was a unique process of collaboration, transparency and lots and lots of listening. Can you imagine 150 opinions from 47 different backgrounds writing a resolution together? It sounds like the most painful group project in my academic life multiplied by 47. It was challenging but made me realize that I believe in people more than I believe in power. I believe that creating a safe space for everyone to share their thoughts, was what made it possible. And what got us over the barrier of differences was respect, inclusivity, common purpose and forgiveness.
This experience brought reassurance that I am exactly where I was meant to be. For me, civic engagement means taking responsibility, taking action and speaking up for the benefit of a community rather than me as an individual. I have spent the last 10 months here in America working for a non-profit community developer called PLACE. We design and build communities for people from all backgrounds across the income spectrum that feature the arts and affordable living opportunities. Yet we recognize that buildings do not create communities, people do. Through our work, we have seen lives and communities change because of stable, affordable housing and the chance to live in empowering, creative and inclusive communities. In building communities, we cultivate relationships, shared experiences, and neighborliness to spark commitment to a common vision. Residents, neighbors, staff, visitors all become producers of community instead of consumers of housing.
But still, civic life begins at home. It is where we plant roots and take ownership over our community, participate in local life and form relationships with our neighbors. It is only after we begin to see a street as our street, the park next to our house as our park and the school as our school, that we can become engaged citizens, dedicating our time and resources for causes that benefit all of us. Working on behalf of common good is the engine of democracy. Some have called this impulse "love for country" or "patriotism", but whatever its’ name, its foundation is the home. What else is a nation but a fabric of cities and towns, cities and towns a fabric of neighborhoods, and neighborhoods a fabric of homes?
In the future I see myself working to tackle social issues through community planning and urban design. My fellow pathfinders assured me that I am capable to follow my mission and do so much more. I am happy to say I have wonderful, inspiring and remarkable people all around the world cheering for me and for each other. Now I know - by allowing myself to connect to the world, I found my own self and realized that we are at our most incredible and capable when we are our authentic selves.
To whomever read this far, I will leave you with my favorite words by Albert Camus:
“In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.
I realized, through it all, that…
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back”.
Thank you for reading,
A Latvian in heart, but a global citizen in mind
For more information on Internship USA, please visit our website.