A Journey between Four Sacred Mountains

Jun 21st, 2019 | By | Category: BLTN NextGen, Featured, Summer 2019

Before I can begin, you should know how this all started…

After completing a “gap” year, Robbie Spencer (Louisville, KY) will soon begin his freshman year at Ithaca College, where he intends to study cinema and photography. He loves relaxing, but he also likes tackling as many creative tasks as his mind can handle.

There were so many times that I can remember feeling left out in high school. Not socially, but academically. The classroom would like to sell itself as a place where all ideas can live and grow, but only those valued by a broken education system.

Fortunately, What’s the Story Louisville?, an offshoot of the eponymous Vermont project and a NextGen-sponsored site, helped launch me into meaningful work. Our job was to learn about what we wanted to in a way that would emphasize our strengths. All of our work was based on social justice in our community. I found the topic of ‘Hair’ an interesting one to dive into, especially as it relates to the self-image, societal pressure. What is the idea of “good hair” and how often do black women think about that question? I went on to create a short film, interviewing four black girls at my high school who shared stories about their hair.

The success and all that came with it after was very unexpected. Other students around the school began embracing the idea of wearing their natural hair. I even presented that short film in front of 2000 teachers at an educational symposium hosted by my school district. The film eventually caught the attention of the Breadloaf Teacher Network through teachers involved in What’s The Story?

And so I found myself on a lengthy and transformative journey with NextGen.

Now we are here at the Navajo Nation two years later, in a land between four sacred mountains…

From the moment I arrived, I felt that the mountains were trying to tell me something. Four large mountains serving as a natural barrier extending beyond the current day reservation. There was something ethereal about the soil between them. The wind that blew sounded like words in a language that humans don’t speak. Sunlight that cut between the teeth of clouds carried no temperature, just feelings. At this moment, I was confident that there was a reason I was here. Everything that I have done to get to this land on this day was more than just social work, it was the anatomy of my being.

The drive through New Mexico into Arizona was a bit nostalgic given that I had been there before. Looking out of the window, I began to reflect on what I’ve done since my last visit to the sacred land a year before—my promotion with the Bread Loaf Teacher Network, my new job as a digital media director for a multimillion dollar company, a new car, admission to Ithaca College—I attributed it all to NextGen.

When I walked into the Quality Inn dining room in Window Rock, AZ, for the first dinner gathering on that Thursday night in March, everyone else was already seated. There had to have been at least 70 of us, but one face stood out to me: James Valentin-Mora. He stands out in particular because he’s an important part of my journey as you will learn.

Dinner started with an ice breaker. We introduced ourselves, where we traveled from and a small bit about what we do back home. During my introduction, I didn’t really recognize myself. Normally, my public speaking reeks of anxiety and shaky speech patterns. This time around I felt power in what I was saying and how far I have come. Despite being one of the last to speak, the attention span around the room never dropped, as is custom of NextGen audiences. We are always eager to meet new people, faces and stories everywhere we go. Every moment with NextGen is a reminder of what love feels like.

Friday morning came. She greeted us with open skies and yellow blankets of sunlight that coated dirt land. Free range dogs as gentle as they looked coexisted with the locals. This was an especially memorable day. One of my travel companions from Louisville, Princess, whom I had met for the first time the day before, had suddenly become my best friend overnight. Throughout the day, we both talked about our personal lives and discovered that we had more in common than ever imagined. The first day of the conference was nothing short of amazing. Each writing session was engaging. Some sessions forced me to think in ways that I would not normally think, and from that I learned. Some youth spoke of celebration and culture appreciation. Some spoke of being the hope that rises from ashes in their communities. Some were workshops that put us in touch with our better selves.

The first day ran for about 13 hours–exhausting but worth it. We returned to our hotels to mingle among the other youth leaders. We all joked and laughed, picking up right where we left off. It was as if we had all been living in the same house for years. Princess’s energy constantly matched mine. It made all of my social anxiety go away and I was actually able to enjoy myself in a social setting. I remember feeling a connection to James again–something I thought I had lost long ago. He was always such a good friend who had good things to say about me. If there is one person from this Network that has impacted me the most, it is him. I could never clearly explain why, nor could he completely understand, but he knows, and appreciates the sentiment.

The next and final day of the conference came. Morning greeted us a second time, but the light was different and it revealed a warning to me. I did not understand it at the time, but she was right. NextGen’s appointed documentarian, Ed, pulled me out of a session for an interview. He informed me that my input was pivotal, given that I am one of few who have been a part of the network since the founding of NextGen. This put a lot of weight on my shoulders, so I just told my story. With every sentence I became emotional thinking about how far I had come. I thought about my first mentor, Alicia. I thought about my feelings toward James. I thought about my connections made with people like Ceci Lewis and Dixie Goswami, and then the next question came: What do you think will happen now you are going to college?… Will there be a natural drift away from NextGen? Tears rushed to my eyes before I could answer as if to answer for me. I held them back and expressed my fear that any such thing would happen. NextGen is my family and to lose any of them would be the equivalent of losing a sibling or godparent.

I had never been so in touch with my own self and it is a feeling I won’t ever forget.

I returned to the writing session I had been pulled from. Rich Gorham, the session leader, introduced a new prompt. It was a sentence fragment that he wanted us to finish as many times as we could. “I remember…” Those words were heavy given the interview I had just been through. I began writing my poem, “I remember…” Before I could finish I was choking in tears. It had been so long since I have cried that hard but this wasn’t sadness. Just pure emotion that refused to be expressed in words. A combination of happiness, anxiety, fear, remorse, and gratefulness. It was as if everything I had ever experienced since that first weekend in vermont had come back to look me in the face as a writing prompt—“I remember…”

The final dinner was that night. I knew it was the last time I would see many of these amazing people for a while. I knew it was the last time I would see James for a while. He and I spoke occasionally throughout the conference and that was enough for me—to know that he and I were still good friends after going so long without seeing each other. As a group we all proposed ideas to stay in touch and ensure that NextGen survives. We owe that much to the youth that will come after us. We said our goodbyes to those leaving that night. James gave me a hug and through him, I somehow felt connected to the past I spoke of in my interview with Ed. On the car ride back our hotel, that same overwhelming heap of emotions hit me, and I cried again. Later that evening, Princess and I and I sat alone in my hotel room and talked. We talked about everything, from our personal lives, to our home lives, to our love lives. I told her about a boy named James; she told me about a boy named Chase. We drew parallels between our stories and lives back home. We both laughed and cried, then laughed some more. It truly spoke to the wonders of this sacred land between four mountains that somehow held the power to forge an everlasting friendship over the course of two days.

You take that new found better piece of yourself and you share it with the world…

The conferences are more than their mission statement. It’s not about the writing or the field trip experience. There is more to it than just cross-cultural exchange and a mutual passion for social justice. This Navajo Conference gave more truth to the idea that when you attend a NextGen conference, you leave a different person than before. You will know that you have made a difference because you have encouraged others do the same. We will pass these lessons and characteristics on to the youth after and their youth after and so on. This idea of progression among such a widespread Network may be unheard of and that is okay. That is why we are the Next Generation—that is why we are here.

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