Each year, halfway through their field placements, Emerson Hunger Fellows gather from around country to a central point in the U.S. to participate in the annual Midfield Retreat. During this time fellows spend a week in rest, connection, laughter, and shared learning. Though this year’s retreat didn’t occur in a quaint and remote setting but rather a continued usage of our screens, the Midfield Retreat was still full of laughter, connection, and an abundance of discussion and learning.
During my time as Program Associate for the Emerson Program, I’ve often compared my experience to the new and ever-changing digital experience of the 27th class. Last year, the 26th class gathered in Adamstown, Maryland, and spent a week outside of the busyness of the cities where we lived during our field placements. We gathered around a fire, took long walks, and shared meals together. As we began to plan this year’s digital Midfield retreat, I was cautiously optimistic that the Hunger Center staff would be able to recreate a remote and genuine experience over Zoom.
At so many points this year, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how resilient and dynamic the cohort is despite so much change and uncertainty and I’m happy to report Midfield Retreat was no exception to that. The fellows exchanged inside jokes, updated each other on their work, and even kept the tradition of “A Day in the Life” field work presentations going through edited videos on a Slack Channel. Though sending a campfire to everyone in the mail would have been logistically difficult, the secluded and personal feeling that comes with a retreat was digitally duplicated for our week together.
The week opened with an incredible presentation from the Kairos Center, focused on the Poor People’s Campaign. An Emerson Alum, Jarvis Benson, who still works for the campaign, was able to share insights and inspiration with the fellows while calling them to action.
Throughout the course of the week, there was space for connection – whether it be laughter during breaks, thought-provoking breakout room conversations, or Emerson Fellow Niisoja Torto digitally DJ’ing song requests between sessions. Programming was adapted around the needs and interests of the fellows while they continued to navigate their field work remotely. Dr. Marisa Franco joined us, as a part of her on-going Connection School series, where she has been teaching the fellows how to create and maintain relationships during these largely isolated times. The fellows took part in the third of an ongoing series of sessions on racial equity, underscoring and connecting the importance of those conversations to their work. They also had professional development trainers lead sessions on using and growing fellow’s talents and skills in a work-from-home environment.
For me personally, the highlight of the retreat was watching the fellows collaborate and present in small groups on topics they chose. These ‘teach-in’ sessions spanned five different hour-long mini-classes, highlighting both the expertise the fellows had coming into the fellowship as well as their ability to collaborate and analyze new knowledge. The sessions ranged from Child Nutrition Programs’ adaptation to COVID-19 through Sustainability in the Food System and beyond. It was wonderful and enriching for the fellows to be able to collaborate on topics they were passionate about and engage in shared learning during the retreat. It highlighted their deep level of expertise and the closeness of the cohort that has continued to develop, despite having yet to actually meet one another in real life!
Virtual or not, one of the great consistent things about the Emerson Fellowship is the ownership fellows have over their experience and learning. And during a year where most well laid plans have been completely turned upside down, the Midfield retreat highlighted how much autonomy fellows still have over their experience. They enthusiastically showed up day after day, despite Zoom fatigue, to continue investing in themselves and each other. It was wonderful to spend a week with them, to answer their questions, and to formulate a dozen more in their place. Despite it being a year not like any other (hopefully), the Midfield retreat felt incredibly full, familiar, and enriching in so many ways.