The Power of Immersive Experiences

Years ago, I was looking for a new job.  After a couple of rounds of interviews for a position I was really keen on, my potential boss let me know that I was a finalist for the opportunity and asked me to complete a take-home assignment: plan a one-day agenda for a convening on a particular topic.  There were no design parameters on location or budget, so having spent the previous few years directing immersive learning trips to other regions of the U.S., I felt like this assignment was right up my alley. 

I put together a solid draft agenda that included a tour during the afternoon where people could see the work that was happening in the community and hear first-hand from the people doing that work and how they approached it.  To me, it was a no brainer, I had chosen the location because it was a rich source of learning on the topic I had been assigned.

I remember receiving feedback that the potential boss didn’t like the tour idea at all, and I was asked what else I would recommend doing at that time.  I also remember pushing back and saying that it would be a missed opportunity to convene people in a city and not get them out of hotel meeting rooms to experience and learn from that place and its residents. 

It’s nearly a decade later, and I find that I am an even more adamant advocate for immersive learning now than I was then. I have seen the power of these experiences to deepen our exposure and understanding of complex history and diverse cultures, to open our minds up to greater possibilities and new ideas, to reconnect us to our own humanity and strengthen relationships with the people we are learning with and from.  (There’s also a lot of academic literature on this topic which bears my observations out including this article on leadership for social justice and equity and this one on using experiential learning and reflection for leadership education.)

      

I share this, because last week, I had the honor of traveling in Georgia and Alabama with 26 medical residents and faculty members from the University of California, San Francisco’s Pediatric Leaders Advancing Health Equity program.  Over 4.5 days, we traveled from Atlanta to Tuskegee to Montgomery to Selma to Birmingham and back to Atlanta – meeting with leaders and historians, civil rights campaigners and social justice advocates and medical practitioners and health professionals along the way.  We learned about the still real legacy of mistrust of government and health institutions created by the United States Public Health Service’s Untreated Syphilis Study (1932-1972) at the Tuskegee University Legacy Museum, the vision and adaptability of movement organizers during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts at the Rosa Parks Museum, and the courage and determination of unarmed demonstrators marching  for their right to vote and being attacked by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge (Selma). 

We visited the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice which commemorates the over 4000 known victims of racial terror lynching  and countless more who are unknown, and The Legacy Museum which makes visible the through line of slavery, lynching, segregation, and mass incarceration as permutations of racism. We learned about the Children’s Crusade at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 16th Street Baptist Church, and Kelly Ingram Park.  We returned to Atlanta and dug deeper into the work of Dr. King and nonviolent resistance at the King Center, and met with today’s leaders who are working to advance health equity at the Centers for Disease Control.

The power of immersive experiences is not just what and where we get to learn – from the people and their descendants and on the land where culture was shaped and history took place.  It’s also how we get to learn – not in isolation or in competition, but alongside colleagues, practicing trust and humility and listening and openness as we learn together. We are practicing the very behaviors required to make positive and equitable change.

Along the way, there were daily reflection questions, one-on-one conversations, multi-racial group discussions over meals, race-based caucuses to process the experiences in spaces freed up from the need to self-edit and code switch for the benefit of people of different identities. 

There was tears and anger, there was numbness and the sense of being overwhelmed, there was laughter and hugs.  There was a closeness that developed, that a group of people rarely has the opportunity to create at their home institution or in a classroom or hotel meeting room.  There was a depth of honesty and vulnerability and mutual support that high-achieving individuals who are rigorously trained – like doctors – rarely get to experience.

The power of immersive experiences is not just what and where we get to learn – from the people and their descendants and on the land where culture was shaped and history took place.  It’s also how we get to learn – not in isolation or in competition, but alongside colleagues, practicing trust and humility and listening and openness as we learn together.  We are practicing the very behaviors required to make positive and equitable change.


What immersive experiences have been powerful for you? How did it impact you and the others you were with? Share your thoughts in the comment section or tweet at me (I’m @AKGold11) using #OptimisticAnthro.