Why I Cried Reading a Rumi Poem to Graduating Camelback Fellows
THIS IS A LOVE LETTER
The setting: an August afternoon in Oakland at NewSchools Venture Fund. I had been scheduled to give the session’s Daily Closing because I had to leave later that night to actually attend my own graduation from a two-year Venture for America fellowship.
And that weekend, I didn’t cry when I graduated from my own program, but in Oakland, while I read the poem I had picked for the Camelback Fellows, I sobbed. And not cute sobbing. Like real loud, sniffly, crying that I unsuccessfully tried to stop by crouching like a small gremlin.
This is not just a story of that afternoon, but a reflection on our 2017 Cohort that officially graduated just a few days ago at the beginning of September. For y’all to know how we all got here, we have to rewind.
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HOW WE GOT HERE
Last summer, I moved to New Orleans in the height of humidity and started working at Camelback Ventures. Insert every start-up phrase you’ve ever heard about “hit the ground running,” “baptism by fire,” “drinking from the hydrant,” and I felt all of those. I was passionate about the work, and the fact that our team mottos were built around ideas such as “be unafraid of failure” and “be ruthless for good.”
Soon after I started, we began the recruitment and selection process for our 2017 cohort. We spent days locked up in our office debating every application, reading and rereading essays. I remember emphatically slamming my fist on the table after a video interview with Tyler Brewster from Peer Connect. Aaron left his conversation with Sage Salvo and said, “He’s got it,” it being that indescribable zest and connection with an idea that entrepreneurs need. Jon tapped my shoulder one day saying, “You have to watch this” -- it was one of Tony Weaver Jr.’s videos that uses Grand Theft Auto as a metaphor for being a Black man in America. These three individuals became Fellows, but the conversations those days were full of hard work and intensely close examination of each candidate.
My work also included making all the graphics, which included designing announcement placards to share the candidates moving forward to the next round. This made my knowledge of each applicant oddly intimate. I had to find and resize their headshots, double check their names, pull and read organization descriptions. My coworkers often didn’t see applicants’ pictures until the very last round; but I knew their faces every step of the way. So, when I made the final announcement graphic, I shared it and pinged our Slack with a boisterous, “Look how ****ing dope they look!!!!”
And they did look dope.
This cohort was a labor of love for our Camelback team -- it was the first cohort that we new employees had experienced from start to finish. It’s only the third one Camelback has ever done. It’s the most social justice oriented cohort. And this, especially to me, felt significant. Our application season ran concurrently with last year’s toxic election season. I recently re-read a blog post I wrote days before November 8 -- it’s about strong female storytellers, and there is an energy of hope that has been harder to come by since. I learned to treasure the application readings, the long debates -- I knew that, even when it felt like everything else was going to hell, I could return to the work the Camelback applicants were doing and be inspired.
That hope and inspiration has been easy to come by, thanks to the 2017 Fellows. They are doing The Work. They are utilizing text messages to bring mental health to every child; they are demanding a society that breaks the school-to-prison pipeline; they are using Drake to teach Shakespeare; they are cultivating unique educational spaces in New Orleans. I could go on-and-on (and definitely have), but I encourage you to learn more about all of the Fellows’ ventures, if you haven’t already.
Instead of blurbs on their work, I want to share with you things that you can’t find on the internet about each of these Fellows. I’ve had the privilege of having many incredible moments with the Fellows over the past six months, and I want to share them with you as a celebration of these amazing people and the work that they do. (And don’t worry, Ima get to that cry.)
A FEW FAVE MOMENTS
- Tyler finishing our video interview early because she is open, honest and self-aware. And then, getting to watch her bring this attitude throughout the Fellowship.
- When we are stuck in an elevator together in New York (which happens to be one of my deepest darkest fears), Ashley, mental health extraordinaire, rubs my back and talks me through breathing exercises. The moms, Hattie and Melanie, keep checking up on me and scolding the elevator folks to get it together and just call the fire department already. It was so cool.
- The same night, running off the adrenaline from the evening, we later all end up at karaoke in K-Town. Sage and Vincent lead an empowering singalong of “I Believe I Can Fly.” James throws in a few lines of beatboxing and some chicken wings.
- Cory's email greeting of "peace." And that time the Fellows watched the NBA Finals at his home during Summit 2.
- During a busy day at Summit 3, Yannell still fits in time to do a video interview* with me about her experiences as a Latina founder. She time manages to a T.
- Wisdom refuses to have small-talk conversation; whenever we talk, he gets philosophical and personal. When he listens, it is clear that he hears. During a Daily Opener I ran about mutual inspiration, he ends up getting Sage to sing Bill Wither’s “Lovely Day” that resulted in a group hug/circle.
- At every Summit, Michelle goes out of her way to give heartfelt compliments and appreciation to the Camelback team and other Fellows. I have one of her post-it notes with a compliment on my design by my desk.
- In his Showcase pitch, Tony whips off his blazer and reveals a Batman cape. He also remembers the names of students referenced from his Fellows’ Fellows pitches, referencing them in an inspiring and energizing speech that, as he goes, the crowd turns into a crescendo of claps and “YAAAAS!!”
- The showcase itself is filled with empowering moments. Our guest speaker, Leslie Miley, attests to the changes that must be made to the culture in startups that continually push out underrepresented entrepreneurs. Hattie calls out to her team on a Facebook live stream, and they cheer back in the comments. Vincent gets the whole crowd to join in on a call and response of, "2% // is not enough!" regarding the number of Black male teachers in America. Chloe Jackman, our amazing photographer, captures an incredible group, all-audience pic in the Kapor Center.
I share these memories because these Fellows are more than just brilliant innovators. They are kind, generous, funny, sharp, innovative people. They are unafraid of failure. They put themselves out there every day of our Fellowship. They are my friends.
And hence, that afternoon in Oakland.
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A POEM BY RUMI
This we have now
is not imagination.
This is not
grief or joy.
Not a judging state,
or an elation,
Those come and go.
This is the presence that doesn't.
I read this poem, crying, to the Fellows because I felt that it captured how I felt with them. That this presence of inspiration, intensity, kinship -- this is a constant that existed before, during, and after the Fellowship program. I am so proud of the Fellows, probably more than I deserve to be, but I am. I am so honored to know them, to have read their applications, to have 1:1 workshops with them, to call them my Camelback family.
That afternoon, like any good family, they laughed and cried with me. They circled around me in a hug. And then we had some really delicious cake.**
So, 2017 Fellows -- congratulations on finishing the Fellowship. Thank you for this year. I am so excited to see how you and your work continues to grow, and I hope that you’ll always know you can lean on me.
*This video recently went live and shares what a day in the life of a Camelback Fellow is like. Check it out here.
**Found by one of our summer interns, intern Ta’mara Hill (check out her recent blog post on balancing poverty and joy), from Alice Street Bakery.
Photos featured here are from our Showcase in Oakland and were taken by our talented friend, Chloe Jackman.
Amanda Tien is Camelback's Director of Creative and Marketing.