Volume 19 Number 1
Reaching for the Heart of the Superpower
01 February 2006

Will Jenkins travels across the US with an international team of young people.

WHAT KIND OF America do you want? It seems everyone in the world has an opinion. But how can idealistic hopes translate into concrete actions? Last autumn, ten people from seven countries came to America to find out.

ACTION (for a change) was a ten-week leadership development programme, exploring the issues confronting America's communities and identifying ways to create change. A multigenerational, multicultural team set out on an incredible journey through the heart of the superpower.

The ACTION team included Elnora Allen (USA), Zoryana Borbulevych (Ukraine), Natalia Ghilascu (Moldova), Howard Grace (UK), Will Jenkins (USA), Hoang Le Danh (Vietnam), David Ruffin (USA), Wambui Nguyo (Kenya), Florencia Ruiz (Argentina) and Ashley Sider (USA). They travelled in two mini-vans through the country, from the east coast to the west coast and back, and visited 13 cities, where they were hosted by teams of volunteers.

'I could never have guessed that in ten weeks I could accumulate so many tools for being a transformational leader and a dependable team player,' said one participant after the trip. 'We must assume our roles and begin the journey where it is most difficult-in ourselves.'

That was the slogan for the journey: 'Change in the world can start with change in you'. ACTION met with thousands of students, politicians, religious leaders, social workers, business people, farm workers, reporters and regular men and women on the street. They asked what kind of America people wanted and what steps could be taken to create a country free from fear and greed.

ACTION also explored the painful histories of racism and exclusion in the US and the continuing divisions between people of different ethnicities. As national newspapers featured retrospectives on the impact of the 'Mother of the Civil Rights Movement', Rosa Parks, ACTION walked through the history of the bus boycott at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. It was an added honour for the team to give a special presentation at the museum about its vision for bridging the continuing divisions in America. One participant later reflected that the experience 'opened doors in me about racism and my personal growth around it that I did not expect'.

In Los Angeles, ACTION was able to have honest conversations with students at Jefferson High School, which had recently been in the national news because of violence between the Hispanic and African-American students. In one discussion group, many students said they felt they were the only ones who cared about trying to make a difference in their neighbourhood. When they heard each other saying the same thing, they realised they could work together.

Living into the worlds of host families was another highlight. The level of care and hospitality surprised many participants because of their previous views of the US. Wambui Nguyo said, 'I came to the US with so much prejudice about America and her people. My experience came as a pleasant surprise and I've learned not to judge the other but to be open.'

Through it all, the team tried to model a global community working together while still acknowledging differences. They continually grappled with how to communicate and cooperate in a multicultural community. One key lesson was 'separating intent from impact' because so many times what people meant to say was not what others heard. This often led to hurt feelings, confusion and conflict, but through regular times of reflection and sharing, the group found ways to move forward as a whole. This is the kind of teamwork ACTION wanted to demonstrate to America. As a woman in Boston commented after sharing a meal with the team, people could see ACTION's message 'just by watching the participants interact with each other'.

Linda Lane, from Fort Myers, Florida, said that ACTION's visit 'has started transformation in this community... I feel there is a possibility for honest conversation among racially diverse people right here at home. There is a groundswell of support here in Southwest Florida-several people have said to me, "We need to continue this, and I want to help." '

As Hoang Le Danh declared, 'Suddenly you realise that you could be an agent of the changes you want to see in the world.'

See more photos and stories at www.action.iofc.org