It wasn’t the high-energy social affair that capped off previous fellowships, but the 2020 cohort of Seeds of Peace GATHER Fellows had much to celebrate when they logged in for the final virtual session of the program in December.
Like the team behind the program itself, many of the participants faced points throughout the nine-month fellowship for adult social entrepreneurs when they weren’t sure how, and if, their work could continue amid the pandemic. But for the program designers, it became clear early on that if ever a time that if ever there was a time to offer support in personal growth, community-building, and project development, this was it.
“From the outset there seemed to be extreme appreciation that we decided just to hold the space,” said GATHER Director Jonah Fisher. “Even if it was a modified version of the program, it was something that people needed. That pushed us and it pushed the Fellows to reimage what participation would look like and our needs and priorities, and that carried us through.”
Whether they were standing up to gender-based violence, creating bridges between divided communities, or empowering refugees, every single Fellow in the program for adult changemakers had to find ways to pivot, realign and re-emerge from the impact of COVID-19. For many, GATHER provided the tools and support to do so.
“The pandemic deeply affected the ways in which things were done on a global scale, including the work of young people trying to help their communities,” said Sajia, a Fellow and 2009 Afghan Seed. “At a time when maintaining connections and trying new things were so restricted, GATHER successfully created a virtual environment where my cohort and I could brainstorm ideas, connect with like-minded people, and take the initiative to develop new ways of doing things.”
Some even found ways to significantly expand the reach of their work, despite experiencing the effects of COVID in very personal ways. Saurabh, a Fellow from India, extended his line of social-impact superhero comic books by creating new characters and even working with Sajia to translate issues into Farsi, all while simultaneously combating the virus himself.
“Personally, I never felt alone during my recovery from COVID due to the support from this group. Professionally, I was able to create stories with female superheroes on social issues and take them to a large audience,” Saurabh said. “It was not easy to build a circle of trust in a digital environment, and we had our own share of disagreements. However, what came out of was compassion and support for each other during these difficult times. Looking back, this came at a time we needed it the most.”
Fisher attributes the program’s nimble adjustments to a resilient cohort that was deeply committed to the program and to one another, and to a team that had built a sturdy foundation over years of working together—imagine a skyscraper that sways, rather than crumbles, when an earthquake shakes its core.
And while the GATHER team hopes to return to some of the elements that made it successful over the last five years, 2020 revealed that some of the program’s recipe could, and should, be reimagined. This spring will bring the launch of programs that offer continued development, support, and connection for GATHER alumni; an alumni advisory council is being formed; more accessible virtual programs are under consideration; and the staffing makeup of the team is changing to be more reflective of the GATHER community.
“This cohort did not grant themselves a pass on identity work—they were holding each other accountable, and us, as a program, to align ourselves around questions of power and accountability,” Fisher said. “We’re now taking time between programs to ask those questions seriously, and to move into exploring how to create further pathways of access to these impact experiences we create.”
The 2021 Fellowship is still under design, but an application is expected in late March or early April. To learn more or sign up for 2021 GATHER alumni offerings, visit seedsofpeace.org/2021offerings.