May 27, 2010

Retreat combines sustainability with spirituality

Students and staff worked together to keep balloons in the air and played "sustainability bingo" as part of an experience-based workshop to promote teamwork, leadership, sustainability and interfaith dialogues April 25 in Stewart Park.

The Sustaining Our Power retreat aimed "to bring together those who are active in sustainability, service projects, diversity and social justice work with those who have faith-based practices, so the two can support each other," said Jim Volckhausen, assistant director of the Cornell Team and Leadership Center, who co-led the workshop with sustainability coordinator Dan Roth and Rabbi Kate Speizer, director of Jewish education and programs at Cornell Hillel.

Spanning the afternoon and evening, the retreat was divided into three parts -- team-building activities, reflections in nature and a meal -- and attracted participants from such Cornell groups as Sustainability Hub, Farms to Table, Hillel, Protestant Ministries, Cornell United Religious Work, LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Council, Outdoor Education and the Team and Leadership Center.

"When you are trying to deal with sustainability issues with people across campus, leadership is the limiting factor and change point," said Volckhausen. "It's easy to come up with the technical skills to install solar panels, for example, but it's harder and more important to build consensus across groups involved that [an issue] is important." Natural leaders have a tendency to "dive in and burn out" and so it's important they have support systems in place, he added. In such cases, faith and spirituality can be an important resource for maintaining commitment, he said. To that end, the retreat focused on building engagement and leadership, and deepening a participant's relationships to work through faith and spiritual awareness.

For example, the group spent time reflecting in nature, staring at Cayuga Lake or at a tree to seek stillness from within. They were asked to use "nature as a mirror or teacher" and question whether what they saw in nature reflected a current theme in their lives, said Volckhausen. They then wrote journal entries about their "deepest work."

During the retreat's team-building sessions, each participant wrote their most important values on balloons, and the whole group worked together to keep the balloons afloat. Later, they discussed the meaning of the values, the dynamics of teamwork and how those lessons might reflect back to their life work.

In an active listening exercise, participants formed two lines facing each other to exchange questions and answers, with the questioners engaging in reflective listening as they repeated back what they heard. And in sustainability bingo, participants filled their bingo sheets by finding others in the group for whom a statement was true, such as finding someone who bikes more than 20 miles a week or someone who has installed a solar panel.

The group plans future meetings that will include biannual retreats and such experiential activities as dragon boating or a ropes course.

The event was sponsored by Cornell Outdoor Education, the Sustainability Office, Cornell Hillel and Repair the World Cornell.