Riley’s Way is My Way

By: Ashley, Retreat Participant, WA

Despite the political polarization and toxic narratives that can drive society today, Riley’s Way has shown me that kindness isn’t just a buzzword. Kindness isn’t limited to kindergarteners on a playground, characters in Dr. Seuss’ seemingly unrealistic stories, or even just the nonprofit sector. Kindness is a positive-sum way to live in any field of work or study that allows individuals to listen to each other’s truth, learn from each other’s experiences, and lift each other up.

I became the newest apprentice of kindness a few weekends ago, at the first-ever Riley’s Way Youth Leadership Retreat at Timber Lake Camp in Shandaken, New York. This Retreat convened over 100 fellow female changemakers and their mentors for two days of resilience-building through connections, skill-building through relevant and timely workshops, and impact-building through peer-led conversations and support. It was a weekend of fun, inspiration, and growth. I came to envision myself as a fundamentally different type of leader—a kind leader. Riley’s type of leader.

Before the Retreat, I saw kindness as a positive trait to have in leadership (and in life in general), although ruthlessness and assertiveness were often valued in the spaces I work in: entrepreneurship, venture capital, re-imagining education policy, etc. In a little under 48 hours, I realized that kindness isn’t just a positive trait to have. Kindness is a crucial trait to have if you intend on creating effective and sustainable change, and it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive with taking initiative, working hard, or making yourself heard. The girls and staff at the Retreat showed me that. They showed me how to listen to, learn from, and lift up others through kindness.

First, to listen. We often talk about creating space for other people’s voices, but what good is that space if the people in it aren’t respected, listened to, and taken seriously? During the Retreat, participants agreed on group norms, one of which was our shared commitment to open, honest, raw, and vulnerable discussion. With such discussion comes the need for good listeners, who can listen without judgment to others brutal and beautiful (brutiful, as a fellow participant put it) stories.

Whether it was hearing Ian share about Riley, the beautiful young girl who always had a smile on her face and loved connecting friends from different worlds, or listening to the story of the camp nurse returning to her childhood school in order to support students struggling like she had struggled, I watched kindness grow in the space between the people who so bravely share their stories, and the people who so thoughtfully listen.

Second, to learn. The magical thing about listening is that you often hear things you otherwise wouldn’t have known (what a surprise!), which leads to new and more informed perspectives. Kind leaders allow themselves to simultaneously be a student and a teacher, to fully recognize, consider, and embrace the value others bring to a conversation. The best ideas can be found in the least expected places, and kind leaders are always cognizant of that.

Furthermore, kind leadership also means circulating knowledge and power. This can come in the form of networking skills, learning how to give a personal pitch, and even learning how to use inclusive language. Throughout the Retreat, Riley’s Way staff organized a fantastic line-up of workshops, speakers, and activities that allowed participants to hear from adults, and also each other. Some of the deepest learning I’ve ever experienced came from these candid and thoughtful peer-to-peer conversations, spontaneous conversations in the dinner line, and even yoga by the lake.

Finally, to lift. Kindness is a positive-sum action within limitless power. You can create kindness from nothing, and with kindness, you can enable others to do anything. When I was invited by a girl to sit with her girl gang at dinner, when another girl and her mom stopped to ask me how I was doing, when a camp staff member reminded me to take time for myself, I felt like I mattered. I felt like I was a part of a community with a shared vision for the future. At Riley’s Way, I felt ready to tackle anything that came my way and keep climbing, and to share this feeling with others as well.

Ultimately, as women, as minorities, as young people, we are told that there’s only one seat at the table. To secure that one seat, it often seems like we have to tear each other down. Kindness shares the secret that there can be more than one seat, if the person at that seat uses their voice to create more seats at the table. Even though it sounds sappy and childish and Dr. Seuss-like, kindness is recognizing that we’re all better off when we’re all better off, and what goes around, comes around. Kindness is going above treating others like you would like to be treated, and treating others like how they would like to be treated. Kindness is being empathetic, genuine, tenacious. Kindness is empathy and caring in the face of obstacles and discouraging odds.

Kindness is Riley’s Way, and it is now mine too.