What I Didn't Expect to Learn at a Conference

by Gabriela Ines Gonzalez '17
March 9, 2015

Gaby is Co-Chair of SEEED @ Brown, an organization of students that helps organize an annual conference on social enterprise ecosystems on campus. She is also a Social Innovation Ambassador at the Swearer Center, working to expand the social innovation community at Brown. She is a sophomore concentrating in Public Policy and Development Studies. 

Last weekend, I flew to Washington DC to attend the Ashoka U Exchange at the University of Maryland. Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with the mission of enabling an “everyone a changemaker” world. The Ashoka U Exchange is an annual conference convening stakeholders with unique insights and perspectives on social innovation in higher education. My goal at the Exchange was to learn how students at other universities are fostering a community for social innovation.

I expected to leave with a list of tangible to-dos to share with my peers at the Social Innovation Initiative. Instead, I left feeling like I’d attended a weekend long therapy session – in a good way.

Every workshop and panel I attended made me feel really vulnerable. At the Exchange, Ashoka showed attendees, by example, how to foster the “inner changemaker.” Practicing empathy, interactive feedback, radical generosity, and introspection are just some of the skills practiced during the weekend.

The last hour of the last day sums up what I mean pretty well.

The workshop was called “Fear Means Go.” I walked into a stark conference room, filled with chairs in rows facing each other. Every seat had a pen and post-it pad on it. Once everyone got settled, we were instructed to write down our biggest fears on post-its. They should be specific and thoughtful.

We then stuck the post-its on the walls. The display of fears and vulnerabilities surrounded us. We were instructed to walk around the room and read the fears and pick someone else’s that resonated with us.

After reflecting, I was paired with another student from UC San Diego. I was instructed to speak, uninterruptedly for four minutes about my fear. We then switched. This was followed by a guided interchange of questions about each other’s fears, what we might do to overcome them, and what we just had to accept we could control. 

She was honest, empathic, and validating. I felt relieved to vent, but it wasn’t a strange exercise for me. I see a therapist every other week and experience this satisfaction often. It’s not a privilege most can enjoy.

After the activity, the whole room was asked to share their experiences. There were tears shed. Warm embraces given. Some people shared their fears of not finding true love, of losing loved ones, or of being lonely. They are fears that resonate with us all, yet we never talk about them.

In a field driven by people who aim to help others, there are many who feel lonely and misunderstood.  The fear of failure is stifling. I was surprised to find that so many people were willing to be vulnerable and share their fears and inhibitions. I think it was so emotional for many because we’re not given the space to feel in our day-to-day. Our society values compartmentalizing – you don’t mix personal with professional or feelings with work.

And when we bottle things up inside we often cope in unhealthy ways. The problem is that unless you’re able or willing to foot an expensive therapy bill, you probably don’t ever really feel pain, sadness, guilt, serenity or joy.

At the core of Ashoka’s mission is the belief that everyone can be a Changemaker. And during the Exchange last weekend, I learned that changemaking, at its best, requires self-awareness and reflection.

Brene Brown, professor, author, and expert in vulnerability, courage, shame, and worthiness, sums it up beautifully in her Ted Talk:

“When we work from a place, I believe, that says, 'I'm enough,' then we stop screaming and start listening, we're kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves.”