Sustainability Practicum Weekly Reflection 1

The first week of Sustainability Practicum focuses on Mike Kiernan’s workshops on Leadership skills, Storytelling and Persuasive speaking, your observation and activities in town and with local people.

For your first essay, we would like you to reflect on what you have learned from the workshops, and summarize your personal experiences so far.

Post your essay as a comment to this post by Thursday, June 21st, at 11:55 pm (Beijing time).


  1. Rahmel Pacheco says:

    This first week of Middlebury’s Scool of The Environment has been one that is busy along with learning new skills and reaffirming skills that I am already familiar with. This program seems to focus a lot on leadership and storytelling, which, I believe both go hand in hand. Learning to be a leader is important since we, either as a society or personally, become stagnant if we do not have strong leaders. Listening to Brian Lindens journey from lower working class and barely going to school, to being a founder of an organization that wants to help brighten and teach students about a new culture and broaden their horizons towards current and possibly future situations is amazing, and that is what makes Brian Linden a leader. I believe that everyone has the ability to become a leader, whether a strong one or not. Being a leader should not be viewd as a managerial position. A leader should have collective concern for the group and respect their colleagues stepping into a position of leadership. Leadership and storytelling go hand in hand because as a leader you want to tell others your story to inspire them to be leaders. Mike Kieran’s workshop on storytelling was helpful in making the process more simple. I feel that after that workshop we all realized that we are all storytellers; That people either consciously or subconsciously create stories. As someone that spends their free time reading comic books and watching video essays on movies, I knew and understood Frank’s workshop on storytelling. I look for the compelling characters and know what makes which character more relatable. I found his information on interviewing, knowing when to ask questions and how to, very helpful. Mike Kieran once again simplifies what can be, sometimes, a very anxious feat in his persuasive speech workshop. His first two exercises may have seemed weird and different but they both affirmed that relaxing yourself and taking in your surroundings is a key component before starting your speech. His advice on losing track and nervous ticks were also helpful. Throughout the short speeches and pitches we did as a class, I noticed that we are a class filled with so much strive and intelligence. I hope to see more of this through the stories that we all construct personally and together and with the help of these workshops I am sure that it will happen.

  2. Reed Hutton says:

    I love telling stories.

    I love hearing stories.

    Mike’s workshop, which I attended only last night, created a unique opportunity for half of my current classmates to sit in a circle and share stories with each other. We shared vivid dreams that we have had, memories, or even tall tales that may be centuries old. Underneath a starry sky, and from the comfort of chairs, we laughed, mourned, and listened collectively as each person shared a new story to the group.

    Throughout the workshop, Mike distributed to each student a card that challenged the holder to listen to the stories a little more closely. Some were asked to state how one’s story made them feel, emotionally or physically, while others were asked more challenging questions. On my card, Mike described how storytellers are tasked with creating a modern mythology that represents the challenges of the current age. How, in this instance, did Alex’s story create a mythology for the common age?


    I guess I should briefly explain the story Alex chose to tell. A few years ago at his lake house, Alex and a few of his friends canoed to an island roughly two miles off the coast from his house. Once in the canoe, one of Alex’s friends expressed how nervous he was, for he had never sat in a canoe before, and did not know how to swim. Alex told him not to worry, that nothing bad would happen, and that canoeing is quite fun and safe.

    Let’s flash forward about ten minutes.

    Alex described how the wind began to pick up, and quickly the calm excursion turned into a stormy, rather nerve-wracking ordeal as waves began to strike the canoe from all angles. Amidst battling the waves, Alex’s canoe capsized and he, along with his friend, fell straight into the water, with an overturned canoe, roughly a mile offshore. The only way to fix the situation? “Well” he said. “We just had to swim back.”

    I’ve never really considered how simple stories may criticize, explain, or describe the “current age.” Luckily, I was the last person to comment on Alex’s story and had plenty of time to think as we went around the circle, and each listener answered the question posed to them on their card. By the time it was my turn to share, I felt that I had a good answer.

    “The common age” is a rather broad phrase, and I would like to say that we, collectively as a group, are in the age of China. And while we are all visiting this foreign place, we may all be confronted with our own version of a choppy lake – a situation where we may feel uncomfortable, uneasy, or even scared. This could take the shape of trying a new food, biking along a new route, or conducting an interview with a local who does not speak english. And, based on the moral of Alex’s story, it could go disastrously wrong. We may plunge right into the cold water of our personal lake, not at the fault of our friends or ourselves, but just because something went wrong. And, the only solution? Well, we may just have to swim out of the lake, whatever that may mean.

    As we have explored the old city of Zixhou this past week, I imagine we have all encountered our own lake in some capacity. For me personally, I received a bowl of food that was not even close to what I thought I had ordered. It was not the cook’s fault. It was not even my fault. I simply received a dish that I was not expecting to. The only way around it? Well, why not dive in and try something new. Most likely I will not order the same dish a second time (it wasn’t the best thing I have ever eaten), but that’s okay. Alex’s friend may never set foot in another canoe, and that’s also okay. It is the adaptation, the survival, and the pride that comes with overcoming adversity that makes travel, and living in Zixhou, so much fun. I almost look forward to the next lakes I encounter. What will go wrong? How bad will it be? Who will I be with? How am I going to swim to shore?

    I look forward to sharing my own version of Alex’s lake story to my friends and family back home. Maybe, just maybe, it will help the next listener be a little less afraid of their own lake.

  3. Molly Welsh says:

    I’ve noticed a theme in all of Mike’s workshops and that is making personal connections. Whether it is with your audience or a personal connection within your story. This not only draws the attention of your listener, it captivates them. A fun fact Mike shared with us was that adults daydream an average of 30,000 times a day. This is not only astonishing, but it is a bit worrisome. If each daydream lasted for a mere one second, that is over thirty percent of our day and that is not even including sleep. This fun fact that was so casually mentioned but it stuck with me. Not only have I been living this new self-fulfilling prophecy of excessive daydreaming, I’m now wondering how to captivate someone’s attention with this reality. The reality is, that it’s all connected. To be a good leader you must persuade and connect people with your stories. Although I am not a fan of public speaking, Mike did such an incredible job of uniting everyone and creating a comfortable environment for speaking which allows for necessary practice. In the Persuasive Speaking we learned importance of rehearsal and embracing your audiences’ emotions and the power of silence. This allows your audience to feel and engage. You can make anything into a story whether it be your dreams or a past or upcoming event. How you convey your message is your story. The leadership skills workshop invoked a lot of emotion. By taking note of what you and the people around you considered to be compelling qualities and reflecting what you embody and what you lack really inspired motivation to change to be one’s best self. This was pressed with our personal mission statements. As the final workshop ended I stopped to talk to Mike. I told him how I’m grateful to have learned all these useful tools and tricks to captivate your audience; but what about overcoming overwhelming anxiety? I can use all these modalities to be a better speaker, but that doesn’t change my palms dripping with sweat or my shaky grandma voice combined with tripping over my words, and his response was to own your humility. Accept your shaky, sweaty hands and grandma voice and forgive yourself. That in the past the speakers he’s seen grow the most and achieve some of the greatest heights from his workshops were two women who literally cried during the exercises out of fear and anxiety. But by owning humility, forgiving yourself for messing up when you do… because it will happen, and by not dwelling on the negative and allowing growth you can and will achieve great success.

  4. Kalina Harden says:

    Each of Mike Kiernan’s three workshops taught us important skills: how to listen, how to lead, and how to understand. These skills, when wielded by the same person, give immense power for change.
    One important thing that I has really been driven home during my short time in Yunnan is that everything and everyone has a story. Since I have been here, I’ve found snippets here and there, which have woven together to form a hazy but colorful picture of Xi Zhou, and the surrounding land, as well as my peers here at the Middlebury School of the Environment. Through the tour of the Linden center, I learned the story of a building and the wealthy proud man who called it home. Participating in the storytelling exercise, I heard about fish coming out of eyes, fruit smoothies, and near-fatal incidents. Trekking around aqueducts and rivers under the hot sun, I followed the story of water from muddy rice patties to clear bathing areas.
    When we wrote down what a good leader does, one of the recurring attributes was listening. Without understanding that people and places are a complicated confluence of tradition and circumstance, one cannot empathize. Without empathy, we are selfish, a principle trait of a bad leader. However, in order to hear someone’s story you have to ask. So far, I have been impressed with the amount of sheer curiosity that my fellow students and faculty have about everything. From economics in Africa to birds from A to Z, the combined knowledge in this compound is staggering. Equally impressive, however, is the level of caring. The number of things I have borrowed (sunscreen, bug spray, water, a hat, just to name a few) in three days is not just a testament to my own incompetence, but also to the generosity of spirit people here have for other human beings.
    So far, the warning that we would be busy has not been unfounded. Here I am writing this at 10:28 p.m., which is pretty late for an early bird like myself. However, while I may be fighting to keep my eyes open, I am also really hopeful. I am hopeful because I believe that this program will help make me an effective, but also a good, leader.

  5. Jingying (Nikki) Situ says:

    I still remembered when I first time got to Yangzhuoran, I didn’t know anyone in this place, and I am the only Chinese chinese here. I was nervous to speak out and was hard for me to get involved. Part of the reason that I felt the distance to everyone else is that I was a less-confident person. Also, language challenged a lot to me, especially since I struggled for a long time to remember different people’s names. In the begging of the week, my mind was just like a piece of a blank page because I had no idea what I would do in the following days or what I would encounter later. I was nervous but excited about living with everyone for six weeks together.
    In this week, I feel like I gradually get used to different classes and stay along with different people more. I can tell that this kind of experience will be so amazing and memorable for my whole life. It’s probably my first time staying with people who have similar interests together, and we are all so engaged and passionate about what is happening around us, both academically and culturally. I think my experience may be a little different from others because of my identity. I really enjoy learning Chinese stuff with all foreign students here. I found out I was actually not familiar with my own culture, and I’m touched for several times about foreigners looking at something from a completely different way. I’m really thankful for what Mr. Linden and his wife had done all to take responsibility and risk to protect Chinese historic heritage in Xizhou.
    Mike’s workshops are absolutely remarkable. For me, I love the leadership workshop the most. I learned a lot about good and bad characteristics of being a leader. Most importantly, I really enjoyed partnering and talking to Kuame for just a couple minutes about most memorable events happened in our life. I’m totally amazed about the outcome of these couple minutes — We found a lot of similar life experiences while talking to each other, and we got to know so much about each other in just a really short period of time. Storytelling workshop and persuasive speaking workshop are both so great. We did learn a lot from these two workshops. There are a lot of common things that I found in both telling stories and speaking persuasively. For instance, it’s always important to know more about audiences in order to design and deliver stories in a more attractive way. In addition, silence brings a huge power to the speaker and to the whole speech. It’s the most important point that I really need to make progress about.
    Before I went here, I never imagined doing a lot of cool things with people around. I really love doing research outside of the classroom. In our environmental analysis class, we go out to the field and walk along the river to do discharge experiment as well as interview local people. One thing I find really cool is collecting data and learning others’ views toward something without using textbooks or attending lectures. This process requires a strong connection and engagement in what we want to study. I’m passionate about talking to people and translating those words to other students to get a better understanding about ecology, political economy, and cultural value of local people in Xizhou. In addition, I really appreciate the openness of our final project, and we have our own choices to investigate what we are truly interested in and full of opportunities to go out and meet different people. That’s will definitely be more most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life and I’ll cherish the process of doing that with all the nice people around me.
    I really enjoy working and chilling with all the people here so far, and I’m looking toward to know more about Bai Culture, finding my passion in experiencing different things here, and having a great time staying here with all the amazing and cool people.

  6. Hellen Li says:

    After receiving multiple texts from friends who had previously visited Dali raving about its sheer beauty and delicious food specialties, I was expecting to be in a place bustling with life and culture. Upon arriving to the gate just outside of Yang Zhuo Ran, I was confused by the vast amounts of construction projects occurring and why May and I were walking into an alleyway away from the main road. I definitely did not envision Xizhou, Dali to filled with so much dust, noise pollution, and little alleyways. As days passed and I had more time to explore by getting at restaurants, touring the Liden Centre, conversing with the local people, learning about the Bai ethnic minority present, and looking at the architecture, my initial perceptions of Xizhou, Dali changed drastically. I began to see why so many of my friends fell in love with a town full of culture, tradition, fresh fruits, and little shops. Not to mention, the breathtaking view of the Cangshan mountains with its 19 peaks and the seemingly endless rice paddies only added to the beauty of the place. Although a sharp contrast from Shanghai, where I had stayed for a week prior to Dali, Xizhou had its own charms and appeals. Bonding with the local owner of a delicious dumpling location, I learned that non-ethic individuals are drawn to Dali specifically for its temperate temperature where it is not too hot nor too cold throughout the year. She had moved here seven years ago for the weather and for its picturesque views. As seen by the vast number of couples who travel from surrounding areas, the rice paddies by the Linden Centre provide excellent photo backgrounds. In addition to its abundance of markets, restaurants, and shops that sell incredible hand-made products, the town is so rich in culture. I cannot wait to speak to Bai people and listen to stories of their ancestral background and experience living in Dali.

    While waiting for the group to finish hiking down Cangshan mountains, I had the opportunity to sit at a café with Brian Linden and hear about his and Jeanee’s story about how passion fueled their efforts to obtain the Linden Centre and successfully run it. This conversation combined with Mike Kiernan’s workshop on Leadership skills taught me how to differentiate a good leader from a bad leader and attributes each have. Good leaders are humble, passionate, charismatic, relatable, willing to go beyond what is merely expected, and most of all a good listener and someone who grounded with the right values. By writing on our personal notecard attributes that resonated the most with us and then evaluating ourselves in relation to the listed ones, I also realized what I needed to work on to become a better leader. This particular workshop not only taught me the skills I need to develop to be a good leader but also of the importance of developing a mission statement – goals that I want to strive for in my life. I always had a hazy plan of what I wanted my future to resemble but never took the time to really think of a mantra or a consistent single end goal I want to strive towards.

    In Mike’s storytelling workshop I gained new insight on how to tell a captivating story. In order to be a good storyteller, the speaker should use different tones and voice inflections throughout the story, taking on the different personalities of the characters or varying the characters’ voices, engaging the audience by keeping them on the edge of their seats, using hand movements, and providing background and detail behind the characters to develop connection. The qualities of a good story teller also correlate to the qualities of a persuasive speaker. In that workshop I learned the three secrets to giving a captivating persuasive speech: clarity and simplicity are of the essence, the power of silence and stillness – decisive movements, and recognizing the psychological state of the audience. The most important takeaway from this particular workshop personally, was maintaining eye contact and relaxing – being comfortable in the environment as the audience is.

  7. Yoshinari Fukuzawa says:

    If it wasn’t for Frank Sesno’s video chat, I would have written a completely different reflection for this blog. Since he suggested that a good story zooms in on a single character, I would like to use this reflection as an opportunity to casually tell stories about two people I have encountered so far in Xizhou, Dali.

    While I was listening to the welcome speech that Brian Linden was making at the Linden Center, I was impressed with the initiative that he took to protect and restore the building that he found to have a cultural value. As a foreigner in China, he faced a tremendous amount of hindrance in his restoration process, but with grit and patience, he has been able to restore it to its original beauty and receive national protection for the building from the Chinese government. What surprised me even more was that he chose to come to China only because he didn’t know where China was. To come to a foreign country with two young children, a few thousand dollars in cash, and without much prior knowledge of the country seemed to me to be a very brave action. Through his story, I can certainly see that he held characteristics such as courage, perseverance, patience, and ambition.

    After taking Mike Kiernan’s workshop on leadership skills, I would say that these characteristics that I can see in Brian were all in my list of attributes that a good leader should possess. Such courage and ambition, in particular, are something that I can certainly learn from him. Mike’s workshop on storytelling and persuasive speaking also made me reflect on Brian’s lifetime story. Brian’s storytelling was very effective and convincing. His story made me feel anxious to know what came next—it made me hope for a certain outcome. It also induced certain physical or emotional response from me and gave me a glimpse of Brian’s own moral compass. I was very hooked into his story, and while I had some moments of doubts while listening to him, his story was still very convincing. It is definitely one of the great examples of storytelling and persuasive speaking, especially one from a dreamer.

    Besides Brian, I have also learned a story from the owner of a dumpling restaurant that my friends and I went a few days ago. After the owner sat us down, we entered a conversation in which she told us her general background. Contrary to my guess, she was from northeastern China and has been living in Xizhou for seven years. When asked of why she chose to come and stay in Xizhou, she told us that she came to look for a suitable weather where it was neither too cold nor too hot. Similar to Brian, here was another example of a dreamer, who came to Xizhou in pursuit of a better life. She opened her restaurant in Xizhou on handmade northeastern dumplings as she believed that her dumplings could offer some cultural value as well as some economic value in Xizhou. Her story is definitely worth listening to. It is one of hope, ambition, and eagerness to come to a place that offers a better condition for her. It is also an example of leadership as she is a pioneer in bringing northeastern cuisine into the small village of Xizhou.

    After listening to these two people’s stories, I have realized that they both share a commonality: being a dreamer. They both came to where they are now because they wanted to be in a better place than they were before. But why specifically here in Xizhou, Dali? I wonder if Dali, or particularly Xizhou, is a place for dreamers. I hope I can find an answer to this in the next several weeks.

  8. Charlotte Massey says:

    I’ve participated in many of Mike Kiernan’s workshops in the past few years at Middlebury. I enjoyed the workshops he chose to run with us this week because the focus was on experiencal learning and growing closer as a community. Many public speaking workshops, and some of Mike’s other workshops that I’ve participated in previously, focus more on imparting tangible skills. Those skills, such as breathing techniques and story organization, are very important to understand eventually. However, at the start of an intensive program like this one, it’s very nice to have space set aside for telling each other stories and connecting with another person one-on-one.
    During the first workshop, I was very tired and jet-lagged. The whole day I was fighting to stay alert, no matter how interesting I found the tour of the Linden Center and discussion of future coursework. The first part of the workshop, we wrote down leaders we admired and thought about skills good leaders have and actions they take. It’s useful to think about what aspects make people good leaders, but this is an exercise I’ve done before many times and I was tired enough that I struggled to add anything new or insightful. Circling the skills we want to work on was very helpful and I like it when we make concrete plans on how to improve at workshops like that.
    The second half of the workshop, we spoke with a partner. We took turns telling each other our life stories. The listener asked questions about an important choice the speaker made in their life, and then repeated back what that person seems to value in their lives. This activity was completely engaging and the only time all day that I felt fully awake and present. I felt like my partner and I connected in a way we wouldn’t have without this workshop, and I wish we created space to tell each other about our lives more. I’d love to start each week with an activity like this.
    The second workshop, we told each other stories. I mightily enjoyed telling and hearing stories from my classmates, but I don’t know how much I learned from the exercise. I would have loved a little more targeted instruction on techniques to tell better stories and how to create spaces to make people feel comfortable sharing their stories in everyday life.
    There’s an activity we did at MiddCORE and also at our First-year Orientation Program training that could be really useful here. In that activity, you identify your leadership style. There are four types of leader, and many people are a combination. This activity is very useful when you’re about to start a lot of group work because it allows you to identity other people’s and your own strengths and weaknesses, and ovoid feeling frustrated when others work differently from you.

    I didn’t participate in the third workshop, at Mike’s recommendation, because I have done the same activity with him several times before. Instead, I went and painted with two Malaysian artists, a monk from Shangri-La a painting class from Kunming.

  9. Samuel Kamau says:

    Walking through the streets of Xizhou every day has brought me a deep appreciation for simplicity and culture. On an early morning stroll to the market, I saw people open their businesses. Around the corner, a local dentist lays out his equipment in preparation for patients who have already started filing in. Walking towards the intersection of the alleyway I am in and the main street, I hear the humdrum of the town build up. Cars, motorbikes and horse-drawn carts and people fill the streets. I turn left and hear a loud hoot behind me. Instinctively, I give way. A car drives past, closely followed by a motorbike carrying some farm produce. I shift my gaze and it lands on an old lady carrying one of the largest baskets I’ve ever seen. I cannot help but marvel at her strength as she walks along in her blue traditional dress. I keep moving. To my right, a middle-aged man sweeps outside the antique shop. As I pass by, he smiles. I say good morning and walk on before he can ask me to have a look inside. The sound of onions frying, combined with a line of people buying ‘Xizhou Baba’, a fried dough dish prepared either sweet or salty – unique to Xizhou. Edging towards the mango stand, I cannot help but smile. Xizhou is beautiful.
    Mike Kiernan’s workshops this past week have been an other-worldly experience. With unique insights and even more elaborate exercises, I have learned to be a better leader and storyteller and to speak persuasively on a variety of topics. During the leadership workshop, I particularly enjoyed forming our vision statements. Under the guidance of Mike, I wrote a paragraph that I hope to encompass my guiding principle over the course of my life. I learned to listen attentively when the group split into pairs and we had to introduce our partners. Additionally, I learned to be concise and to discern the fundamental values that guide those I am listening to. Through this, I can not only work better with others, but I can also be more effective in understanding their intentions and finding the right way to communicate mine to them. When we listed qualities of good and bad leadership, I was able to add on to my list of qualities of good leaders and review the ones I personally need to acquire.
    Over my evening storytelling workshop, I was able to listen to members of the group tell stories and learn to craft my own by exploring my feelings and thoughts as they narrated theirs. I learned the importance of forming characters in stories and taking my audience through their journeys. Most of all, I learned how there is no specific form to a story – in fact, I am telling one right now.
    Spending Thursday morning with Mike again over the persuasive speaking workshop enabled me to learn an important yet overlooked on speech delivery: getting and remaining in tune with your audience. Speech preparation, and especially our short but effective rehearsals made me learn how to practice moderately and to include my own personality in the delivery. I also learned how to incorporate body language, silence and eye contact to effectively grip and maintain my audience’s attention.
    Edging towards the end of week one in Xizhou, I cannot wait to see what the next few weeks at Middlebury School of the Environment hold.

  10. Raquel says:

    Hello SoE2018!

    The first thing I want to say in this blog post is that Mike Kiernan is very awesome. For the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed attending to “coaching” workshops. Every time I’ve attended to this type of workshop before, I’ve felt very bored and I didn’t feel that the speaker had the necessary knowledge and self-awareness to teach a workshop about leadership, storytelling, or persuasive speaking. However, after attending Mike’s workshops, my opinion about “coaching” has radically changed. He talks with this deep, paused voice that inspires trust and calls for attention, in a way that I have seen very rarely before, and he is also very prepared and experience in his field. Mike is this extremely fascinating person, and I think I’ve learned a great deal about myself and ways of dealing with my own thoughts in the past days.

    One of the most interesting things I have learned from Mike in the past days is to create a vision statement to follow in my daily life. The Leadership workshop was a good way to understand my strengths and weaknesses a little better, and use them to create a vision statement that is realistic, hopeful, and useful. I loved hearing his own vision statement, which was something similar to: “I embrace the next 30 minutes of my life, and I will live them based on my deepest understanding of this world.” I also learned from Mike about the power of silence and resonance in the Persuasive Speaking workshop. Two quotes from Mike in relation to public speaking that I also loved said something like: “Leadership is the ability to evoke resonance”, and “Just be you, speak your truth.” These quotes really changed the way I understand speaking in front of an audience, and I’m very excited now to put them into practice. Finally, the only thing that I’m going to say about the Storytelling workshop is that it made my day, and I hope we do it more often as a group. It was so much fun!

    Now that I’m done speaking about how much of a Mike fan I am, I want to talk a little bit about my experiences talking to people in Xizhou and my impressions of the first week. Specifically, I want to talk to all of you about my experience with bargaining! Bargaining is not something that you do in Spain, and I’ve done it in very rare occasions when visiting Morocco, where it’s a common practice. I’m used to having a set price for everything, and I’ve been taught that discussing the price of something is seen as extremely rude and cheap. These rules that I’ve been taught to follow all my life were very unhelpful two days ago, when I went with Sam and Lina to an antique store to buy one of those very long smoking pipes. Sam asked the owner for the price in my name (with his awesome Chinese-speaking abilities!), and I was so shocked when he said 600 RNB. I understood that it probably was an antiquity, and that it might be made of a nice material, but 600 RNB just sounded too expensive compared to the price of everything else you can buy around Xizhou (specially for a pipe!). It was even less helpful when Lina tried to convince me that 600 RNB was a very reasonable price, because the owner said that a monk smoked from it (pero te quiero Lina!). After trying for a little bit, we decided to leave, because I was not ready to spend 600 RNB on a long smoking pipe used by a monk a long time ago. I’m hoping to come back to the antique store in the next few days, and actually bargain it down. Wish me luck, and I’ll let you all know how it goes in the next blog post!


  11. Grace Carter says:

    Mike Kiernan is a character. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I saw his brightly colored shirt, kakis shorts and flip flops; but it couldn’t have been good. The leadership workshops I’ve been to in the past revolved around “what makes a bad leader?” and then to avoid that at all costs. This workshop was nothing like that. It brought together people who previously haven’t spoken much and made them interact in a personal and vulnerable way. You got to tell your story to another human being and just have them listen. Listening is a quality that is so far removed from my everyday life – even my friends are always planning the next thing with no regard to the present. Let alone listening to a stranger’s story completely. This led to the other person (technically a classmate, in reality a stranger) introducing you to the SoE and highlighting some of the qualities they noticed in the short time you had to show them who you are. His workshops have a way of dissolving emotional walls without making you feel pressured to share.

    While I am a self-identified adventurer, coming to china has been hard for me. I’ve never had to struggle about being in a place where I didn’t know any of the language, or being unable to read a menu or how to order a pot of tea at a cafe. It has really made me appreciate my family who came to the states without knowing how to speak English – let alone going to class in another language. While we have classes about understanding place I have lost the ability to feel at peace in my own skin. During the storytelling session Mike just waited if we (the students) started talking and getting distracted. He waited as if he had all the time in the world, and wasn’t like a petty teacher at all. He just wanted all of us to get all of the information that we could. It was a very nice thing not being rushed to listen to the stories and just letting them happen organically, building off one another’s ideas and remembering things we haven’t though about in a long time.

    Mike had us practice being able to own your own space. He made us stand up in front of the group (with everyone staring at you) until you felt comfortable enough to step away from the “speaker spot.” What was actually second’s felt like hours because of the social anxiety’s attached with speaking in front of people? The actual assignment for the class was to present a persuasive speech to the group. Mine was about oysters because I’ve had to give the speech about how an adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day and with a billion oysters could filter the entire volume of the Hudson River in just 3 days!!! That’s totally insane! I loved hearing the group share their own persuasive ideas because it gave me a better idea of who they are as people.

    I couldn’t have picked a better group to learn with or to explore Dali and Kunming with!

    Looking forward to future adventures,

  12. Pele Voncujovi says:

    Pele Voncujovi

    I believe that Mike Kiernans Leadership Workshop was extremely helpful in aiding me to pragmatically envision and structure my journey towards becoming the person I want to be. I cannot recall the last time I reflected upon the qualities and traits of people I consider as role models, and thus digging deeper into why I tend to appreciate and respect the people I do helped me explore some subconscious aspirations I have. During the exercise, I tried not to be harsh on myself and generously circled positive leadership traits that I admired exemplified in my daily actions. That said, I was rather surprised at how many poor leadership traits I was able to identify within myself as well [ I was purposefully being harsh ] . Although they manifest in varying magnitudes, I tried to make note of them because the path to self-improvement is an endless journey.

    I also enjoyed having the opportunity to listen to snippets of people’s timelines and the varying experiences that helped shape them to their current states. However, I couldn’t help but remain skeptical about the integrity of the peer introductions given the short timespan of our conversations. I found myself extrapolating miniscule details and concluding broadly about my partner’s life. Molly actually corrected the core of my mock summary because I had made a massive assumption that was absolutely false.

    I felt very connected during the persuasive communication workshop today. I also really enjoyed how the session had a focus on eye contact and how to create a sense of connection with an entire crowd through mindfully connecting with a few individuals within the crowd. My biggest takeaway was that the speech occurs within the mind of the listeners and that being able to resonate on the same frequency and listen to the audience is as important as being able to deliver your speech.

    Frank Cesno’s motto on keeping it relevant and local was an interesting tool in helping to narrow down the focus of a story. Defining the narrative relative to the target audience allows them to empathize more deeply, and ultimately makes the story more effective. That was the inspiration behind my choice of what topic to advocate during the persuasive communication workshop. … I also saw a lot of merit to his answer on how to approach uncomfortable topics. Using multiple angles to fish out deep and personal answers from an uncomfortable subject is an important skill to learn.

  13. Caroline Bartlett says:

    Sarah and I arrived in Xizhou late at night; as we twisted through alleyways, guided by the stars (and Alex), I wondered where the hell I was in the world. Stepping into the courtyard for the first time, I let out an animated, “Whaaaattt!?!” as I was struck by the place we would call home for the next three weeks (sorry to anyone that I may have woken up!!). A week later, I am still just as fascinated and grateful. Our hike to the UNESCO heritage site was the perfect way to familiarize myself with the area; the views were striking and it was fun to learn from the faculty about ecological features along the way. Although I had heard about Yunnan’s incredible beauty, my expectations were completely blown out of the water. Hiking down from the Cloud Path, I felt that I was beginning to answer the foundational question I posed to myself that first night: where am I?

    On the academic side, our week was packed with workshops, classes and assignments. Storytelling definitely emerged as the main theme. The first Mike workshop was a good way to learn from each other and provided a solid introduction to storytelling. The added benefit was bonding with the group and sharing some good laughs! The second workshop, however, was so packed with tricks and tips that I left concerned that I didn’t know these things before! Most importantly, I learned the value of listening to and connecting with the audience, how to efficiently prepare and practice a speech, and what to do with my body while speaking. UAlthough I know I have a lot more work to do, I feel much more confident in my ability to present and I think I will enjoy it a lot more going forward. These two workshops complimented our video call with Frank Sesno perfectly. While Mike taught us the skills required to deliver a story, Frank emphasized the importance of getting people to care. Most importantly, he explained how compelling characters should be used to engage the audience, and that a good story should always have a transition or realization in it. In relation to our purposes, it made me think about how I can convey the distinctiveness of this place and find things that make it relatable to others.

    Of the many curiosities that this week fostered, I developed a slight obsession with walls. I was first interested in the layers of different building materials exposed due to decay and degradation. Wandering through the village, I noticed old bricks covered with hay and mud poking through large openings of painted plaster, hinting at the layers of history embedded in this village. On a larger scale, walls play a huge role in Chinese society. For example, the importance of reflecting walls to keep the feng shui in, and the Great Wall that originally kept the Mongolians out. This got me thinking about the physical, political, and cultural boundaries that define my experience, and more importantly, how to connect with everything and everyone that exists on the other side. I’m super excited to see where this curiosity takes me and use the storytelling framework I learned this week to implement these ideas in my final project!

  14. Kwame Mukasa says:

    On Monday, we as a group had the pleasure of having Mike take us through a leadership workshop that involved some exercises that I can honestly say I have never done. Starting out we thought about people we believed are good leaders and then drew from the characteristics of the people we chose. We then thought about what makes bad leaders and I am glad that we didn’t spend too much time on what a good leader is not. I appreciated sharing thoughts on what makes a good leader and I felt that the group created a list of skills that captured the traits of good leadership. I learned that a good leader is not one characteristic, but also there are different ways someone can be a leader. Looking at the list leadership skills and matching my strengths to the list I identified what I needed to work on to become a better leader.
    Finally, Hearing Mike discuss his activities before performing was very inspiring, repetition of his vision statement helps him put life into perspective and give him focus. The vision statement is something I spent time thinking about and what I did was ask myself at a certain point in my life where is the vision achieved and what it looks like. I think having the end of the journey is important for motivation as well as focus, but I also put importance on the journey to the vision, which is why I think the timeline of my life’s most significant moments brought good balance to the vision. Talking to Nikki was great and I loved the fact that we could share stories and find some common interests and goals oriented around the environment.
    I also strongly agreed with what Pele said about taking the time to speak to people and learn about each other. The same way a picture never captures what it is truly like to visit a place, taking the time to get to know a person is the best way to understand their journey in life rather than hearing it from someone else.

    The story telling workshop delved into the technique of how human beings relate to each other. It was fascinating and very true that one person’s story inspires or triggers a story in other people’s lives. I think it’s because humans are social creatures and we often find meaning and empathy in the experience of others, and the similarity of the best and worst experiences in life makes us more in touch with humanity. What started out was very humorous stories about dreams and experiences transitioned to stories of struggle and pain. Rommel shared his story and it made me think about the subtext of the story and the themes that stretch across different cultures. In a final story about the horror of a grandmother dropping her babies from a window, Yoshi’s story made us think about the unfathomable suffering people will encounter and how people rebuild their lives after going through traumatic events.

  15. Benjamin Renton says:

    The first week of the inaugural summer of the Middlebury School of the Environment in China consisted of a host of workshops as well as the beginning of our understanding of the place we have come to know as Xizhou. Xizhou is a very different place from the other places I’ve traveled to in Yunnan, as I feel it is not as rural as some villages I have stayed in up north but also not as urban as Kunming, our next destination. The streets around our home at Yangzhuoran have been filled with locals selling fruits at the market and a rather large number of wedding photoshoots. I’d be interested to take a closer look at the effects of tourism on the area, as I believe the numbers of tourists would be higher now than a few years ago. As part of our curious questions assignment, I hope to explore more around Xizhou and use the town as a contrast between the rural and urban regions in China. This knowledge will be supplemented with our continued studies in Kunming in July, where we will be able to interact with locals in an urban environment.

    I was particularly draw to Brian Linden’s story of how he established the Linden Centre in China with little U.S. government support. He has truly taken the essence of this place and not only made it his life’s mission to protect it, but he has also embraced it and wants to educate others on the topic. He has preserved Mr. Yang’s former mansion and courtyards and his story motivates me to appreciate the Bai culture and further discover this place.

    In addition to our coursework understanding this place, I have also enjoyed Mike Kiernan’s workshops on leadership, storytelling and persuasive speaking. Mike taught us how to identify good and bad leaders and come up with our own vision statement for our lives as leaders. In a relaxed storytelling setting, we shared our own stories and I really enjoyed how Mike provided us with prompts (such as asking us if we were waiting for a certain outcome or describing our emotions during the story). This enabled me to dissect the components of the story and tailoring my story to a specific audience.

    We were also fortunate to have a conversation with Frank Sesno. His main point for storytelling, which he repeated multiple times, was “compelling characters face obstacles to achieve a worthy outcome.” This opened my eyes to searching for characters in my daily life in Xizhou. Even inanimate objects can play characters in our stories, such as walls or jars of mayonnaise. One of the things I took away from the talk was that we must make our stories apply to the anticipated audience. For example, when we conduct our interviews, we must use terms suitable to our interview subjects and ask people why they care. In our next Environmental Analysis fieldwork day on Tuesday, I will strive to start with an open-ended question and let my interview subject set the agenda.

    The first week at the School of the Environment has been full of learning and excitement and I can’t wait to explore more of Xizhou and further understand its people.

  16. Jay Mahato says:

    I cannot start my blog post comment without praising Mike Kiernan. He is just amazing. He is not only great at teaching and sharing his leadership, storytelling and persuasive speaking skills but he is also a great human being.
    His style of teaching leadership skills was simple yet compelling. Every part of the workshop made me reflect on myself, people and things around me which I had been missing for past few months or even a year. Through this reflection, I felt I don’t need an inspirational quote or speech to awake and find out my leadership skills. Instead, I need a better self-reflection of my positive capabilities, missing skills, and the hindrances to acquire my missing skills. Then only, I will be able to fill out those missing gaps to take one further step towards my leadership path.
    Not being a very good public speaker, Mike’s another gift, persuasive speaking, made me challenge myself and walk out of my l comfort zone. I got to learn that public speaking is much more than mere speech. It also includes the body language to convey speaker’s message to their audience. A speaker must also be a good listener and good observer because the speaker is speaking for his/her audience. And, he/she cannot deliver his/his intended message without engaging his/her audience. I find out public speaking is (can be) a conversation where the speaker is expressing his ideas by speaking whereas the audience is replying by their facial expression and other body languages. So, it should always go hand in hand.
    Moving towards my personal experiences in Xi Zhou for the first week, I felt the vibes of being at home because when I went to the local market on the next day after I arrived in Xi Zhou, I saw the market structure and local transportation matching with my actual market and transportation facilities. However, the topography, food, cultural and some other factors here at Xi Zhou and at my hometown are hugely distinctive. Xi Zhou is a hilly/mountainous region with a variety of meat options whereas my place in Nepal lies in the Sothern plains with mostly vegetarian options.
    One of the most interesting observations I had in Xi Zhou was a weighing balance. It was a very different than bean balance which we usually use back home. Other than that, the buildings here are old but fascinating. People seem to be very friendly because I don’t know Chinese yet people in the market treat me and my friend nicely and in a welcoming manner with positive body languages.
    I had a chance to go to Dali Old Town last Wednesday which was an amazing experience. One of the eye-catching thing for me was a wide main street with English signs in shops which is not very common in Chinese shops. Another interesting part was the old buildings with modern shops in them. Moreover, another beautiful part was the garbage bins which were designed like a local Dalian Buildings.
    I am already in love with the place and I am very much looking to the things it has to offer and introduce to me. Also, I am looking forward to exploring local Bai culture and other interesting parts which are not generally exposed to people like us.


  17. Sarah Haedrich says:

    I’ve broken down the story telling process into two parts. The first part is exactly what Frank Cesno told us about last night — find the story. This involves choosing the characters, asking the questions, and discovering the characters’ unique human identity. The single task of the interviewer is to understand the interviewee’s life experience. Through this process, the interviewer and interviewee develop trust and an understanding.
    The second part of the process is Mike Kiernan’s workshops —“I have a story and now I want to tell it.” As his final message, he emphasized that a story should be designed around “the perceptual apparatus and the psychological state of the audience.” In other words, listen to and understand the audience so that the story I tell will resonate with them. Otherwise, what is the point in telling the story?
    These two phases of the process require that I listen to the other person and form an understanding of their existence. When I go to interview a person, I must listen, learn about their situation and choices, and ultimately form an understanding. Then, when I go to tell the story, I must look at my audience, listen, and then read their emotional state so that the story I tell will connect with the audience. Both processes require a human connection, which means we must also be ready to make ourselves vulnerable.
    Looking ahead, these lessons will be helpful not only for our final projects, but also the time we will spend in Yunnan and our greater travels. Both Frank and Mike emphasize the importance of listening to and understanding the person I’m trying to connect with. While my encounters with the local people have been brief, they have already heavily shaped my perception of Dali (in the best way). On the second night, we all went to The World Cup Bar (I’m not sure the Chinese name yet). On the third night, we went back. This time, Caroline and I introduced ourselves to the bartender and used the translation app to exchange a few words about how we prefer our beer. On the fourth night we went back again. This time, Tom, the bartender, gave us a sample of his yak jerky that he was sharing with his friends. Few words were actually understood, but we have started to create a rapport. I’m curious to see where this relationship will lead, and the potential connection we can develop through listening to both body language and words. Tom is just the first of the locals that I’ve become familiar with, and just one of the many people that will shape my understanding of Dali.

  18. Alexander Haver says:

    What do my Grandpa and one of my best friends have in common? They both happen to be some of the best story tellers I have ever met.

    I’m going to start with my grandpa. If Grandpa (my grandpa) and me and my brother were under the same roof, that night, without a doubt, a White Feather story would be told. What is a White Feather story? Well Grandpa was fascinated by Native American history, and thus the adventures of Brite Star and White Feather began. His stories were always so interesting, fun, educational, and most important, made on the spot. I have always admired Grandpa and his ability to spontaneously create such incredible stories and feel upset that the storytelling jeans were not passed down to me. Until Mike Kiernan’s workshop earlier this week, I believed that these jeans were truly lost. However, what Mike helped me realize is that storytelling is something that is inherently human. It’s something we do every day, and it’s something that I already do every day. Storytelling does not have to be something with a clear exposition, theme, climax, and so on. Storytelling is a way of sharing memories, or ideas in an entertaining manor. All the dreams that I have explained, ghost experience stories, funny or traumatic childhood stories and so on—all examples of storytelling. Another realization that I came to was that I have actually been training to be the ultimate storyteller since I met one of my best friends,’ Tabbi Cavileiri.

    I was on the floor, laughing, as Tabbi finished telling me about her trip to the grocery store. How could she do this? How could she tell me about such an everyday boring thing, and make it so interesting? How could I do this? Suddenly, I found myself telling similar stories, in a way that my friends, family, or whoever find my story interesting. In Kiernan’s storytelling workshop, I came to the realization that I have been telling stories my whole life. It is this realization and self-awareness that I learned, that will allow me to grow as a storyteller. I learned this is something I can do, and something I can work on. Through improving stories in my social life, I can improve how I communicate information in a clear, entertaining and effective way. It is this realization that I learned that I believe will allow me to grow as a communicator.

    I want to now reflect on my whole experience here in China. If I were to pick some words to describe how I felt during my first week here in Yunnan, I would say, stressed, worried, anxious, excited, impressed, taken back, in awe, impressed again, full, curiosity, and excitement again. I have eaten some of the best meals I have ever eaten. I have met some of the most interesting and unique people I have ever met. I have entered a community that speaks a language that I have been studying for the past 2 years. And on top of all of this, I am jet lagged. I cannot possibly express the feelings I am feeling. The scenery is just breathtaking, and the culture is so rich and complex. I am intreagued and excited to learn and to grow and to explore and to create.

  19. Lina Beron Echavarria says:

    I had always thought about stories as the by-product of life, as something that comes about passively, like a puzzle that falls into place in all its spontaneity. But after these past two workshops, I have realized that I can even make up a story out of the way I used to think about stories and the way I think about them now.

    Yes, you can extract and/ or produce a story out of anything and nothing. But why do that? Because looking for stories forces you to think more intensely about the experiences, events, places, people, and problems that you meet along the way, it compels you to derive connections between these, and thus it leaves you thinking about them in the most creative of ways. I hadn’t realized this until yesterday night when we were talking to Frank Sesno and he asked us if we had any stories to share yet. The awkward silence that followed filled the room with flying sparrows, forcing me to look inward in search of a story. My memories from this overwhelming past week fluttered into the reception of my brain, and I contemplated snap-shots of these days fall like a messy cascade. I could not think of any story at that moment, but my mind wasn’t blank; it felt like a mushy mosaic of vivid images from the past week. In this crazy confusion, one image stood out: the blindfolded god that sits on the second floor of the Linden Center.

    When we visited the Linden Center for the first time, Brian Linden showed us one of the pieces in his collection: a stone god that he took from a nearby temple. The temple had caught fire and the god was going to be thrown away, so the Linden Center decided to buy it. Before taking the god out of the temple, they covered its eyes with a bright red fabric so that it didn’t know that it was being dislodged from its original sacred home. I remember feeling sorry for the guy, knowing that I, foreign and mortal, knew more about his physical situation than him, so when Pele raised his hand to question the ethics behind his displacement, I felt like he had raised both of our hands. Brian agreed. It wasn’t optimum to fool the god out of its sacred niche, but in this case preservation was more important than connotation. He then argued that most, if not all, museums had to deal with this kind of dilemma since the meaning of things changes hand-in-hand with their place.

    As the conversation with Frank progressed, this memory became an elephant in the crowded conference room. Looking for a story, I decided to render the god the thought it deserved, and, to my surprise, I was able to look at the god in a more three-dimensional way. I thought about the extensive plots of corn and tobacco that abound in the region. Transported continents away from their land of origin, these plots have been displaced in the same way the god in the Linden center has. Were they also blindfolded as they crossed the seas? Did we even care to do so? I doubt it. But now, centuries after the Columbian Exchange, I, as a Latin-American student and visitor, feel entitled to answers about who didn’t respectfully blindfold the corn that gave birth to the Aztecs. But as I fantasize about the environmental implications of this story with legs but no ending, Frank drags me back into to the room with a very smart piece of advice: the problem with environmental story-telling is that it is full of pinpointing and tedious nagging. I was developing an environmental story, fertile as the fields that encompass XiZhou, but one that would not represent the sentiment of an audience. As people who work towards environmental peace, we should be aware of how we decide to deliver our work, our discoveries, our fears, and our concerns with the rest of humanity. I did not come out of the conference room with a solid story, but I did come out knowing that with every day that passes, I fill my head with billions and billions of images, thoughts, sounds, and faces that are potential stories if I tie the knots properly. And after today, listening to a series of creative and moving persuasive speeches, I am more than convinced that words can lead to wide-scale behavioral change.

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