Amplifying the Collective: Reflections on the River of Hope Summit

by Janessa Gans Wilder

Rivers can be turbulent and intense, placid and calm, or chaotic and swirling. The River of Hope Summit was perhaps all of those things. But there is an underlying current and flow to rivers that was so evident in the time together—a higher order that seemed to be governing what transpired in the room and in our hearts.

From the first day, recognizing Euphrates as a “living system”, we learned that “the only thing you can predict in a living system is that it will surprise you.” No one could have predicted the depth of connection to people we were meeting for the first time, the rapidity of trust established amongst the group, and the space that was created to see and be seen—to listen, question, probe, and shed tears of both pain and joy, and to be truly motivated to do more in each of our little corners in the world.

One meaningful surprise of the Summit was the deeper understanding we gained of indigenous issues in Northern California. During a workshop, a Native American questioned the difficulty he and others face in accessing conversations of consequence in our community, and how often minority groups are ignored, marginalized, or disparaged. A powerful silence followed, then after a comment of recognition, the program continued. Another participant interrupted the presenter to give voice to perhaps what we were all feeling—(I know I was!)—how could we ignore such a powerful statement of consequence and not directly address it? Another indigenous member stood up in tears and recounted the history of unspeakable crimes and the genocide against her people on the land on which we stood and how often that happens in her world—that someone in her community is brave enough to speak up only to be shut down and life expected to continue as usual. The result is a history of her people mentally and physically shutting down, compartmentalizing, and soldiering on.   

The day had started with all participants in a circle and at that moment the circle was re-formed  so we could hold hands and be connected, creating space for healing—not only for the voices of those shut down and marginalized, but for those of us  living in ignorance and privilege unwittingly.  Within the circle, songs emerged that connected and cleansed as tears flowed freely around the room. The trust created in that moment—the courage to speak, the safety of a space, the willingness to be humble and acknowledge ignorance, the gift of listening, of bearing witness to struggles, and to realize we are all in it together—was just one of many tangible unfoldments of in-the-moment peacebuilding and Love present that transcended borders, ethnicities, religions, and races.

To my former Washington D.C. bureaucrat self, I would be asking how an experience like this matters to the systems in place and powers that be, but I believe now that this is the work of consequence, work that matters. This work is at the heart of transformation and is effected through lives lived based in service, sacrifice, humility, compassion, and a deep understanding of how social change and progress come about. Change does not come from governments and bureaucracies; it comes to them from the people. There are many systems in our country and world that are broken and ineffective, and it is our efforts that are creating new models and communities that will make a difference. We witnessed in the River of Hope a community that is whole and the impact on us all was keenly felt and real.

During a visioning session, Summit participants offered directions that Euphrates could take, and how the purpose, values, and vision of Euphrates might take form.  We feel a deep debt of gratitude for the wonderful ideas that were generated. Euphrates is now embarking on a strategic planning process to realize those ideas with community input and feedback. Our broader work as Euphrates community members is continuing to nurture the relationships and collective energy that was experienced at the Summit, using that as motivation for each to do our inner and outer part more effectively in our little corners of the world. Doing our part deeply matters to each one of us. We need you. We need us.

“I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” MLK, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1957.