A recent trip as a Sierra Club Service Outings Leader was eye-opening for me. I’m almost embarrassed to admit my revelation, but it was relevant and I learned from it.
Over the past ten years, I’ve been on three or four of these trips as a participant and began leading them a few years ago. “Women Weeding in the Wild: Service in Anza Borrego, Ca” was the fourth trip I’ve led but it was unique for several reasons. One – it was a women only trip. This wasn’t something I decided to do lightly, as it was definitely out of my comfort zone. My professional life was in a male-dominated, testosterone-filled world of the US Navy and even my volunteer work with Team Rubicon mirrors that atmosphere. It’s not that I don’t like working with women, but I just don’t have much experience with all-women groups. Admittedly, I had some preconceived notions about the challenges. Some were spot on, most were not.
The other unique aspect of this trip was not by design. Most of the 12 volunteers that signed up for the trip had never been on any trip with the Sierra Club and many had never done a service vacation like this at all. Each had their own reasons for joining the trip: convenient timing, great locale, women-only, love of nature, their friend invited them, or some combination of these and oother reasons. Despite my concerns about a dynamic group of women sleeping in tents and working together for a week, it was this other thing that caused me to stumble in my leadership of the group.
In the Navy, we were taught to leave our burdens at home and work for the common goal. Our personal agendas and issues are set aside, we function as a team, and we get shit done. In most units, there are weeks and months of opportunities to build a certain camaraderie that makes the machine work. Similarly, on past service trips, most of the volunteers have done this type of group work before and show up prepared to work as a team. Sure, there is an abbreviated “storming and norming” phase – usually the first few hours where folks introduce themselves and maybe help each other set up camp. Or, if the leader is spot-on there’s an opportunity for some of them to work together on a camp-related task to break through the initial getting-to-know each other phase.
The women on a recent trip, for the most part, didn’t come from that background. Some had volunteered in their own communities, but after a few days, it dawned on me that not many of them had really been part of a collective team effort like this. As Outings Leaders, we work really hard to set realistic expectations for our participants, but I didn’t have realistic expectations of them. I was frustrated – until I figured out I was the one with the problem! Everyone worked hard and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves but I never felt like we were really a team working toward a common goal. We were simply a group of individual women in the same place at the same time doing similar things. Which wasn’t terrible. The work itself may have contributed to this, as we were removing invasive plants – a very individual effort. But even on other trips of this nature, there was more of a positive group unity that just sort of naturally developed over the first few days. Not so with this trip. Despite this dynamic, each brought something positive and gave of themselves in some small way, and I’m happy I stepped out of my comfort zone to lead an all-women trip, but I think it could have been better. I think I expected too much. I think I could have done a little more. I think I was worried about the wrong things initially and it clouded my preparation. Once I let go of certain expectations, everything improved (for me!).
Life is kind of like that. Sometimes we have to step back and evaluate our own expectations and adjust them based on the realities. It is much easier said than done…forest for the trees and all that. But if you can at all remove yourself from the situation and give it an honest assessment, sometimes the answer smacks you in the face.
I’m always relieved when the trip is over and I haven’t had to use the first aid kit or had any “issues” to resolve, but those are not the only measures of a successful trip. The work we accomplish is always satisfying, but that also is only a fraction of the thing that makes it a successful trip to me. What makes me feel good is when a new participant says they’ll do it again – then DOES it again. So I’ll have to wait for the surveys and hope I see these awesome ladies again on another trail someday. But if nothing else, I learned something. And that’s why I keep doing it. That and the awesome sunrises!