This blog has been silent for about two weeks – and with good reason. For the past couple of weeks, I have been in Denver, Colorado, USA, to volunteer for Up With People's Premiere of the new Global Education Program.
In that time span, I reconnected with my host family; caught up with some dear friends from my tour; made more new friends; intensely rehearsed nearly 15 songs, dances, and rhythm segments; volunteered at the Up With People office and at an elementary school; got elected to the Board of Governors for the Up With People Alumni Association as Era Rep (I am representing casts and crews from 2004 till 2010); and did many other things in between. It was a very packed fortnight, with barely a break, but it was also lots of fun and immensely relaxing.
The first thing that struck me about the whole experience was the atmosphere. In Denver, especially in the Up With People office, things are more laid-back and there is a greater sense of trust. People say "Please", "Excuse me", and "Thank you"; they hold doors for you; they chat with you in lines; they smile. I felt very safe and secure, and didn't need to worry about harassment or danger – whereas back home I have to arm myself with pepper spray and guard against the constant barrage of perverted truck drivers. Indeed, I could feel all my stress and anxiety melt away as soon as I landed in Los Angeles International, one flight away from Denver.
I spent a week volunteering at their office in the mornings, and it was a calm pleasant atmosphere; with fun rituals (ringing a bell whenever there's a new deposit payment), decorations (such as the very hilarious To-Do list on a whiteboard, which includes – amongst others "Party when we get the $$$" and "Make a witty remark"), freedom to talk and work, and general camaderie, there certainly was a warm family feel (especially since three non-profits are sharing the same space) and there is no notion of trying to out-do each other or putting each other down. Such a contrast from my current job, where there is a lot of back-biting but not much of looking out for each other.
The school we went to, Whiteman Elementary School, was also interesting to examine in terms of atmosphere; while it is in a pretty well-off residential community, most of the students were from refugee families. The class I helped co-manage (we were in teams) had people for whom English was not even a language, but they tried their best to get involved and get themselves heard. It was rather harrowing to hear some of the students talk about "beating each other up" or having family members in jail – it really reflects the tough family situations they live through every day. But yet somehow they manage to create this sense of camaderie and togetherness amongst themselves; that no matter what happens, we are in this together. And with our Stand For Peace lesson plans, about world peace and respect for each other, we hope we have made a difference. (The principal told us about the lessons the students have learnt thanks to us, and it really touched us all, especially DeeAnn who worked so hard almost singlehandedly on the project!)
A school with refugee children, who have seen the worst of humanity – and they manage to create the best situations for themselves. Yet there are schools with supposedly the "cream of the crop" as students, and the atmosphere is one of bullying, overcompetitiveness, stress, and narrow-mindedness. How strongly does atmosphere really reflect what they learn! It really does make a difference. You could have the best students in one room, but if it's not holistic or if no one considers welfare, not much can happen in terms of their education.
It was also very interesting to meet the rest of the cast (Cast P, as one member named us); most of them were alumni since before 2000, and had a different concept of the organization than the few of us who did the WorldSmart program in 2004 and 2005. A few people weren't directly related to Up With People; they were either from the Leader's Challenge program (a leadership program partnered with Up With People targeted to high school students) or were part of the theater scene in Denver. We had a very short time to get to know each other, learn all these numbers, and pull them off for a full-house audience, but somehow everything came together and we pulled it off (with flying colours and flying scarves and flying who knows what else.) The different perspectives, experiences, cultures, and skills of everyone – from absolute professionals, to absolute beginners like myself – as well as the collaboration with local cultural and arts groups like the Rocky Mountain Children's Choir and Words Can Heal, with the Denver Metro Boys & Girls Club, made for a very diverse, colourful, entertaining, and educational experience.
One thing I learnt from that experience was something repeated to us by one of our trainers, Michael Bowerman (active in music and theater): It's better to get a step wrong but with lots of energy, instead of getting the step right but being tentative about it. Especially in Up With People, but also for many other things in the world, passion is what counts; if you can convey the energy and passion you feel for something, your message will go through. There were people in the cast who were more nitpicky about getting the show "right", and that brought the energy down (at least for me); far more important than whether we were standing staggered or in a straight line was whether people would understand what we were trying to say – that we can bring the world together. It's all about being real, and about believing in yourself and your message. Everything else comes together from there.
Overall, it was an amazing experience, and I definitely felt that "thrill to your toes" feeling – not just in my toes but all over me. Unfortunately I was not selected to be part of the Road Staff this time round, but I did learn why (nothing personal, but a very enlightening conversation) and the whole experience has strengthened my resolve to be part of this organization in the near future, or at least look for more opportunities like these.
How else do you feel the thrill in your toes? And how does expressing your passion and being real get you to your goals and ambitions? Is it always better to be energetic even if you messed up rather than being right but unconvincing?
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