by Christina Oyelowo, ATC Summit Coordinator

Finding Connection and Expression in Nature

On August 13, 2021, we gathered for the third and final day of the Emerging Leaders’ Summit. Under the theme of expression, this day offered participants ways to discover and experiment with artistic and personal expression, by using nature as a lens.

As one of the ELS Coordinators, I was excited to bring fresh ideas to the team. Like many of the participants, I have several different passions. I value learning new things, but at times I have lacked the knowledge and skills needed to take my interests further. When picturing the ELS, I wanted to give youth from all over the country, of all backgrounds, the opportunities that I might have wished for. I wanted to help create a space that would allow youth to explore and develop different skill sets, so that in the future they may be more open to different paths and possibilities. After closing the Summit, I feel that we did all of that and more.

Through great resources like Zoom and Whova, the ELS offered 40+ workshops, featuring five keynote speakers, 71 panelists and instructors, and over 250 registrants. The third day’s performance hour, followed by several development workshops, allowed participants to come together and build community despite the physical limitations in place. Through this, we incorporated some of the week’s earlier messages and themes: act and connect. As Amal Kassir stated in her keynote: “Write down your recipes. Tell your story. Seek the wisdom and pass it down. Your light needs to shine for us to see.”

After a brief introduction by myself and Van Tran, ATC’s Education Network Manager, Amal led us through a rhythmic and welcoming speech. By sharing her own story of nature’s impact on her life, Amal connected the theme of expression to the muse of nature. Drawing inspiration from the different mountain ranges in the world, Amal’s words showed us that we can all encapsulate their tenacity in our daily lives. Feeling empowered to tackle the day, we took the lessons from Amal’s speech and let our vulnerable sides show in the performance hour, emceed by Derick Lugo. Participants from around the world shared poetry, stories, and their vulnerability. The connectivity amongst everyone couldn’t be denied, and we committed to the first day’s theme of ‘connect’ as we built our virtual community.

Following this, participants opted for two concurrent sessions meeting with either Frank X Walker or Marley Pefier, who shared their talents with workshops titled “Note to a Superhero(ine): Crafting Poems in the Tradition of Lucille Clifton” and “Nature Journaling: A Powerful Tool for Learning and Change.”

In Frank X’s workshop, writers explored and examined several Lucille Clifton poems. Listeners then worked on drafting poems that mirrored or utilized Clifton’s style but had the freedom to make it their own. Motivated by Frank X’s dedication and thoughtful approach to this subject, listeners were encouraged to reflect on personal experiences with their loved ones and use that in their work.

In Marley Peifer’s workshop, we learned how nature journaling can be more than just a hobby. I was eager to have Marley involved in the Summit— he brought originality to this practice, making it relatable and encouraging everyone to try this activity. He emphasized that this skill could be accessible to almost anyone. The emerging artists that attended this workshop practiced techniques and approaches central to the core of nature journaling. Students also learned how to apply various techniques used in this session for personal nature connection, and community-level environmental action.

After the first round of sessions, we paused for one of our Mindful Movement Breaks. When planning the ELS, the Coordination Team knew that due to the Summit being virtual, sitting at one’s computer isn’t ideal. As a solution, we wanted to actively encourage our participants to take breaks and explore active movements in between sessions. As one ELS survey respondent said, “I [really] enjoyed and appreciated the inclusion of Mindful Movement Breaks. I think it really helped me avoid burnout and elevated my enjoyment of the Summit overall.”

Later in the day, we continued learning about expression through Alyce Bender’s workshop, “10 Key Principles to Nature Photography: Ten Basic Principles for Better Nature Images.” Bender walked participants through key aspects of nature photography, defining them and discussing how to achieve them. By learning these principles, participants left the session feeling empowered and ready to engage with nature in a fun and modern way.

Leandra Taylor, shared how nature can be used as a space for adventure, rest, and creative inspiration through her session, “Reaching New Summits.” Leandra shared her personal story of connecting with nature and how it managed to inspire her artistic side. After hearing her story, I felt ready to conquer the mountain and the summits in my life, and eager to engage with the environment around me.

In our final round of sessions, participants again got their juices flowing via a yoga session with Devin Everett, and a session called, “Storytelling & Freestyle: Claiming the Power of Spoken Word,” led by Stefan Moss and Michael Numinous. These three leaders, like everyone else involved in the Summit, were a joy to work with. While attending Devin’s yoga workshop, I felt my worries fade away and the relaxation set in immediately. The breathing exercises and nature imagery that she employed helped me feel centered and balanced despite being in the middle of a busy city, thousands of miles away.

Both Stefan and Michael made the process of crafting narrative through spoken word seem so easy. The way they managed to teach the process of crafting stories was relatable and understandable. The duo left participants with increased confidence as they learned to voice their truths and experiences, finding the courage to share in life’s cipher.

In a fitting close for the day, we heard once again from ATC Director of Education & Outreach Julie Judkins, Van Tran, and Jay Levy. Julie’s thoughtful words, accompanied by Jay’s poignant introduction to a tribal drumming circle, helped us to celebrate and acknowledge the community we had created: one built upon respect, understanding, and common core beliefs.

When I first accepted being a coordinator for the ELS, I was curious about how it would turn out. A three-day virtual conference seemed like quite the challenge, but I knew that our team could thrive under the pressure. Everyone involved in this conference contributed a huge amount of energy into helping it come alive, and we should all take a moment to celebrate a job well done. All members of this community were dedicated to building an accessible and beneficial space, to helping our youth to engage with advocacy, to creating and bolstering new connections, and providing a space for artistic expression with the Appalachian Trail and nature as muses.