by Jet’aime Lewis, ATC Summit Coordinator

Creating Community in New Spaces

The COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in my plans, as far as post-graduate opportunities. Almost a full year after completing my master’s program, I hadn’t found an opportunity to combine my interests of working with folks on conservation-related topics and making the outdoors more inclusive. As I continued to scroll job boards, I eventually found and applied for a position with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). This led to one of many exciting conversations I would have with Julie Judkins, ATC Director of Education & Outreach, and Van Tran, ATCEducation Network Coordinator. When Julie and Van asked me to assist in executing a three-day virtual summit for “Emerging Leaders,” with an emphasis on creating connections on and off the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), I was optimistic but a little confused. However, I was in a season in my life where I needed a shift— to do something. Take a risk and act on it.

With Dr. Robin Wall Kimmer’s words fresh in my ears, I was reminded that “… it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.” Despite my experience with event planning, doing this in an online format seemed – counter-intuitive. I didn’t need to know how we were going to pull it off at that moment; I agreed to come on as one of two Summit Coordinators. Just a few months later, I and roughly 40 folks became nothing short of an impassioned community on the first day of the ATC’s Emerging Leaders’ Summit. Despite the lack of “in-person” interaction, I was overwhelmed with the authentic relationships happening over a computer screen.

The day started off with an introduction by National Park Service superintendents, Wendy K. Janssen and Tyrone Brandyburg, who empowered individuals as young as 16 years old and as seasoned as 70. A main tenant of the Summit was to provide participants with resources to be able to make connections, which was made possible during sessions on “Successful Interviewing” with Amanda Noe, ATC’s Talent Acquisition Manager, and “Federal Resume Writing” with Sylvia Staples. Sylvia shared with inquisitive young people, how to format a federal resume that brought out the best in them and prepared participants for competitive government positions. Amanda highlighted how preparation, authenticity and practice are key to successful interviewing and also provided an overview of common interview questions as well as techniques for researching employers and preparing strong, succinct responses in advance.

Summit participants smiled as they entered into an hour-long session with Ambreen Tariq and Alexandra “Alex” García in a session entitled, “JEDI Through Action: Mobilizing Your Whole Self to Promote Meaningful Change.” Participants were challenged to visualize how to bring their whole selves, embrace their intersectional identities, and best support each other. Ambreen and Alex walked us through their personal journeys of being minorities in white spaces, with different but equally inspiring testimonies about the importance of boundary setting and passionate, specific goal setting. The session ended with participants laughing and a few grateful tears for the transparency they received. One participant even reflected that the session was, “a breath of air after an uphill climb in DEI work.”

After a brief break, attendees could attend a general networking session where they could mingle with folks from many backgrounds, share initiatives they are pursuing, and discuss opportunities for collaboration. Concurrently, those interested in federal careers re-joined Sylvia in discussing USAJobs and the Resource Assistance Program.

Next, Anna-Marie Smith led a session on “Making Money Moves,” where young folks were encouraged to make financial goals and think through how to have a better relationship with their own financial stability. Some of the spaces that offered a strong opportunity for connection were the Regional Networking Hubs, where participants could intentionally connect with people from specific areas of the United States and around the world. There was ample storytelling, career advice, and community creating all within a short 55-minute session. Individuals commented positively about the ability to pick a region that they had never visited before and were excited about what their futures may hold there— the value in speaking to others working in those areas was immeasurable. Overseeing the regional hubs, and coordinating with the various speakers, gave me a subtle but powerful reminder that career paths are often non-linear.

Heading into the evening of our first day, we were introduced to a new study from Harvard University, led by Linda Towers Tomasso. Linda’s Ph.D. work invited us to participate in one of the first-ever nature studies of its kind, which uses personal information gathered on and off the trail to summarize how time spent outdoors may affect us as individuals. This new research study aims to track patterns surrounding health and wellness on a more individualized and demographic level. You can find more information about this study and how you can get involved at!

The final two sessions of the day taught us skills on nonviolent communication and personal resilience. MC Ellis led an uplifting and personal session that reminded us all of our humanity. She emphasized the importance of recognizing that emotions are a natural, biological response to the events in our life. While giving us a lesson on neurobiology, she simplified why our bodies respond to things the way they do and reminded us to not suppress our true selves for the sake of society’s expectations. We debriefed by sharing with others what made us happy. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on what made me happy; the work I was doing for the ELS, and watching it unfold alongside a team of fantastic leaders sure did. Trained Nonviolent Communication (NVC) facilitators, Roberta Wall and Daniel Suber, highlighted the importance of NVC and how being honest, present and specific about your own needs, and requests can translate into courageous and inspiring leadership.

The day ended with powerful closing words by the ATC’s new Indigenous Research and Partnerships Coordinator, Jay Levy. He walked us through a land acknowledgment, reminding us that the Appalachian Trail runs through Indigenous territories from traditional Cherokee land in Georgia to the land of the Penobscot in Maine. Highlighting that we can not forget the violent, colonialist actions brought upon early Indigenous peoples during the creation of the United States, Jay encouraged us to partner with current Indigenous communities and work together “…alongside our youth, [to] be good stewards of this land.”