I had the privilege to be part of the 20th cohort of the Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute (VNRLI) for the past nine months. On paper, VNRLI is a professional development program for leaders who seek new skills in conflict resolution and collaborative problem solving. We covered an array of topics during our six meeting sessions over the nine month period, each session being 3 days long. But this feels like I am telling only 1% of the story. Writing out a blanket description of VNRLI after having gone through the program is like reading the definition of parenthood just before giving birth.

VNRLI is first and foremost a space to learn without judgement. The general feeling was ‘come as you are, just have an open mind’. In this thoughtful atmosphere I was able to explore phenomena and ideas completely new to me without fear of ridicule or seeming unprepared. Such concepts and content like ‘Post Traumatic Growth Syndrome‘ and Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’. I could describe the four domains of emotional intelligence and the seven Covey habits. We learned to differentiate between a manager, a leader, and an authority, while recognizing that our management styles may be very different from our conflict styles. Such concepts, lessons, and theories have placed me on a path to more effectively and attentively fulfill the needs of my team and role in our organization. And while leadership growth was my goal, driving my evolution and emergent responsibilities at the Alliance, I am now realizing that none of this would truly define my experience or VNRLI for that matter.

I could provide you with a different life lesson from each session, or a different inspirational quote from Chad, even a different poem from Michelle. I can tell you how to carve a duck decoy just like Robbie, and thanks to Kim I’ve learned WAY too much about Ohio State. I know that Kendyl is the embodiment of understanding and compassion, especially for Hampton Roads (757!). Meagan, Kathy, and David would go to battle for their gardens…and for Beth’s native seeds. Don will never let me forget that game of Phase 10 and Jenn still can’t get us to play Killer Bunnies.

In short, VNRLI is defined by its cohort.

I can point to this even on our first day together when I felt like I did not belong. I actually told this story to our class at our final session. I told them that on that first day I couldn’t believe I was chosen to be in a room with such inspiring professionals. We spoke about what it meant to be a role model and the responsibility that title holds. I tried to be honest in my response and said “I don’t think I’m a role model. I’m by far the least experienced person in this room, how can I call myself a role model?” One of my classmates who I had yet to meet immediately corrected me. He said the fact that I am even in the room trying to become a better leader makes me a role model for so many. This was my first taste of the beauty and support that was and still is VNRLI.

On top of the cohort, I think the experience of the 20th class was truly unique. We were told when the class began that we were the most diverse VNRLI class to date. While that created very rich and powerful discussions, our class was also serendipitously hosted during drastic social changes. We were able to attend 4 sessions together before COVID-19 broke out. At our 5th session, hosted virtually, the conversation could no longer just be about effective leadership but needed to address skills for leading in a crisis. Leading when there are so many questions and so few answers. Adding this layer to the already complex themes and discussions (paired with the stressed, preoccupied minds) could not have been easy for our staff or facilitators. However it was a challenge we could all handle. Then George Floyd was murdered.

Session 6 was by far the hardest, heaviest, and most painful session of all. Many of us felt lucky to be part of a cohort that could lean on each other and learn with each other. We were at the same time angry with what had occurred and inspired by the aftermath events. Many of our classmates shared first hand experiences from the protests and from general systemic oppression in America. Throughout our whole time as a cohort we had discussed race and ethnicity on many occasions. How it has played a role in the history of Virginia and its natural resources. The themes of justice and equity have been part of all our sessions but were intimately woven into our 6th. At the end of this session one of our cohort provided a very poignant insight for us all to consider. She said “There is a reason we are all in VNRLI together during such social changes. We are all on a path together, and we are going to hold each other accountable.”

A group of strangers came together nine months ago to learn how to be better leaders. Some of us got promotions and others got married, some had babies and even bought houses. We shared our lives with each other by opening ourselves up to vulnerabilities, through joy and pain and inspiration. We supported each other, challenged each other, learned and cried with each other. As our facilitator Tanya said, “We have been cracked open together.”

This course was made whole thanks to the people that were part of it. VNRLI is not your everyday management training so I cannot define it as such. It is no more and no less than a transformative experience.