Foundations of a Family

We interviewed 30 people for this project. Almost everyone talked about the importance of strong personal relationships. Many consider their fellow organizers as more than just friends—but as a sort of family.

These relationships are built from a unique shared experience. And they don’t just happen. They are made when groups are able to take the time necessary—usually at a retreat or multi-day training. But how?

Experiential education. It’s the process of engaging in direct experience and reflection to make sense of the world—to develop new skills, gain knowledge, and clarify values. It also drives toward action, either personal or collective. And it’s a popular philosophy in both social action training and positive youth development.

Experiential education 1) values the sharing of lived experiences of people from diverse backgrounds and 2) fosters new shared experiences through reflection and dialogue. As young people are learning to be leaders for positive social change, they are also learning about each other.

“We always ended the first night doing a bonfire, and we allowed people to speak when they felt moved to speak,” Darrin from Urban Underground in Milwaukee, Wisc., told us. “It’s just every time, there hasn’t been a year where people don’t unpack their trauma and really create a space of authenticity and support in that moment.”

There hasn’t been a year where people don’t unpack their trauma and really create a space of authenticity and support in that moment.
— Darrin, from Urban Underground in Milwaukee, Wisc.

Sharing personal stories of struggle is a practice used by groups to create a strong foundation for relationships.

Why is this important?

  • It builds a space of safety and courage. It’s powerful to see your peers model vulnerability, and it’s comforting to know that when they do that, they’ll receive the support they need.

  • It lays a foundation of respect and empathy. When you understand and relate to where the people you’re working with come from, it not only makes working together easier, but it makes the work stronger.

  • It fosters bonds based on shared experience. The moment you realize you’re not the only one going through something is the moment you’re no longer struggling alone.

These bonds are often what make the stress and difficulty of this work bearable, and the difficult times are inevitable. At least they don’t have to go through it alone.

Amaii and Jynise, program participants at Urban Underground, talk about the importance of relationships in the work.

For more resources about experiential education, check out Training for Change, Alternatives to Violence Project, or the Association for Experiential Education.

by Becca Folkes-Lallo