Sarah Richmond, a recent graduate of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, has just joined the Alaska Humanities Forum. She will focus on bringing community voices into program design during her nine-month long fellowship as part of the Alaska Fellows Program.
The Alaska Fellows is a postgraduate opportunity that places recent college graduates from around the country with organizations in Anchorage, Juneau, and Sitka. The program was initially launched in 2014 with Yale University graduates as a way to bring motivated, talented college graduates to Sitka for nine months to live together and serve the community. The program has since expanded to recruit young people from schools around the country.
The Forum's Public Programming Manager Grace Gallagher recently sat down with Sarah to learn more about her interest in community and her work with the Forum.
Grace: Tell me where your strong curiosity about community comes from.
Sarah: I grew up in a really tight-knit town, and felt very connected to my community there from an early age. I didn’t quite realize how special those connections were until I moved abroad and then to a big city. Through trying to create own intentional community, I realized that people love to use that word (community) but they have a really difficult time defining it. A lot of people I’ve met also have a difficult time really feeling like they belong to one. Being a member of a community is a very active process; it can take a lot of work.
Grace: That special community stuff, what does that look like?
Sarah: Allowing space for vulnerability and being allowed that space. Ideally, it’s a space where you can let your guard down because you know there are people there to support you.
Grace: When you said you took your tight knit community for granted, do you have a visceral memory paired with that realization?
Sarah: I had been living in Ecuador for a year before I moved to Portland, and settling into both places was a really difficult transition. I was away from everyone I knew. For most of my life, I was surrounded by people who had known me since I was a baby.
In Ecuador, I remember this time being on the bus, wanting so badly to communicate with my coworkers and being so frustrated that I didn’t have the language or the shared context to connect with them. I think that was a really pivotal moment for me realizing that just wanting to connect with people doesn’t make it happen. It takes a lot of effort, it takes stepping out of your comfort zone and listening to where people are coming from. That is definitely a lesson that I continue learning each time I find myself in a new place.
Grace: I’ve had similar experiences with culture shock, feeling like I didn’t have the tools to connect, and I’m making an assumption here that you ultimately learned to embrace this type of discomfort and press into it?
Sarah: Yes, I think it’s important to seek people that aren’t just like me. In Portland, I made an effort to seek out friendships across generations and tried really hard to get involved outside of just my college bubble. I found this takes a lot more work, to try and explain who you are and where you’re coming from, and also to be open to learning about the other person. However, stepping out of my comfort zone in this way is what has led to many of my most treasured friendships.
Fostering that sense of connection between people takes a lot of work and intentionality. In our culture, work typically equals hard skills - writing up the report or analyzing data, but to me cultivating relationships and the way we listen to one another is equally if not more valuable. We need to appreciate the labor that goes into creating healthy and strong relationships.
Grace: That’s right, people don’t view these as things you can develop or grow in like traditionally viewed skills.
Sarah: We can definitely develop our ability to connect, but it can come at a cost. It can be uncomfortable and draining to hold conversations that go beyond superficiality. I think it’s really easy to become emotionally spent doing this kind of work.
Grace: Have you found a way not to be so emotionally drained?
Sarah: I’ve been exploring this because it happens to me a lot! So, at this point, I don’t have an answer. I’ve thought about viewing this from a budget standpoint with my energy. Identifying boundaries on how much I can do in a day, knowing that when I commit to an intense conversation, it might be the only one I have that day.
One thing that I try to focus on is leaving an intense conversation or interaction with one new idea to hold onto and think about. I try to walk away with a new intention, however small it might be. I believe that healing can take place by seeing something in a new light. Deep conversations can sometimes overwhelm with their inherent complexity. By starting small and just focusing on one thing, it can make the larger issue seem more approachable.
Grace: I appreciate that perspective. Lastly, tell me a little about your experience so far at the Forum.
Sarah: I really love how things are seemingly always dynamically in progress here. I hear all the time, “Why are we doing this and how can we be doing it better?”. Working with a group of people who are comfortable with questioning their work like that is not a typical environment.
I love how all the programs here respond and seek to provide answers to the questioning of the humanities, and I’m excited to see how I can contribute to that.
Grace: Thank you for your time and insight!