2015 Fall Soulforce Leadership Retreat

“It is by no accident that we are all here together.”
— Tino Tugwete Soulforce Leadership Fellow 2015

The Setting

On November 15th, 2015 we held a beautiful ½ day retreat at the Hidden Villa Organic Farm in the Los Altos Hills. 

15 people came together to explore the possibilities of how youth can define the “new story,” and how we can create an organization that will do that.  Tino Tugwete, a 2015 Soulforce Leadership Fellow, started us off by framing why we are here, leading us in a meditation, & having us introduce ourselves by connecting to our core values.  The main purpose of the retreat was to think about the future of Soulforce Leadership as an organization.   Attendees included students, parents, and community members, our coaches, and community leaders.  We grounded ourselves in the new story, which enables us to reflect on our emotions, connect to our deepest values, and align ourselves to the synchronicity of life that is fundamentally interconnected.  We want to shift from a competitive, dominant, control-driven model that ultimately keeps us separated from each other. We did some meditation and took a walk around the farm to enjoy the beautiful fall weather in the mountains, and engaged in whole group and small group discussions.


As the founder and director of the program, I am mindful that I’m at the center of planting this seed as this program begins, and wants to move into a circle that establishes more of a garden that begins to flourish on it’s own, with the youth and guiding values at the center.    I shared these thoughts with the group, and it was a good space for me to articulate this concern I have and ask for help.   Margaret Wheatley's leadership model from"hero to host" has been a helpful framework to think about the leadership model that inspires me.   So one of the most important strategic questions we have right now is:  How can Soulforce transform from a single idea with a primary owner to a larger ecosystem owned by many?  Working with a small committed team will be critical in 2016.


We reflected on evaluation findings from the first year of the pilot and helped imagine what could come this coming year.  (We will be publishing those soon so stay tuned.) There were several important findings from the evaluation, based on surveys and interviews we conducted with each fellow, mentor, coach, and community members.    Poonam asked the retreat group to act as a “community board,” and help define the possibilities of the future by taking a look at these evaluation findings.   

One member advised us to consider whether we want to grow our founder board into a large, traditional non-profit board or consider another structure.  A few people really wanted us to consider what a generosity-driven organization could look like.   What would it look like to ask people to donate what they feel moved to give?    Perhaps we evolve to something all together different that puts the constituents at the center of the work and hold the most amount of power.  

Many trusted mentors were not in the room with us but had gotten us to this point and it is important to acknowledge them, including Julien Phillips, Eric Barela, Nancy Guituriez, Chand Nirankari, Prasad Kaipa, Kritika Kailash, Nipun Mehta, Pancho Ramos-Stierle, and Audrey Lin. All of these guiding lights were with us in spirit, and my conversations with them were informing our discussion at the retreat.

A touching moment was when one member asked the group to really think about whether we are listening to the youth.  After she spoke with vulenrablity and emotion, one fellow followed and spoke to the feeling of truly finding happiness after Soulforce because she feels she found purpose to the bigger purpose of why she is here and serving her community.  Another fellow talked about having to be on a never-ending treadmill of life that asks you to just follow a path, instead of being conscious of why you are doing things and that Soulforce asks you to reconnect and center with what you are, and really consider the choices you are making in your life.    This is a sort of LIBERATING education, and it is liberating in different ways from students from different backgrounds.

My belief is that it is only youth who can create new rules for how we will work as a society, and we need to follow them.   If our world has a shot of surviving, we need to equip them with the space and context to do the work they need to do.   The United Nations recently issued a historical statement that working with youth is the most important way to respond to terrorism. 

Small group break out:  How do we reach out to new groups this coming year? 

Small group break out:  How do we reach out to new groups this coming year? 


Another theme of the retreat was fundraising. Sustainability is imperative as we think about the future.  There was energy around looking into corporate sponsors, possibly looking into the folks who care about mindfulness within those companies.  We would like to ask specific corporate partners to help sponsor launch, help us pay for a location, help sponsor individual students, etc.  Given the innovation in Silicon Valley, it would be ideal to engage business leaders in our work as a means of building partnerships with local companies.   Would local companies like to get their employees involved as mentors, support local change efforts led by youth, or provide general support as a means of strengthening the local communities they are apart of?  How does what Soulforce do really align with what companies care about?    How can the program be financially sustainable using local support? 

On the marketing front, we are considering how to evolve, as well.  We had a hard time reaching Asian, male, and white students this past year, so we are looking into how we may want to re-brand our work, while maintaining our authenticity.   We are imagining that we will need to emphasize some important aspects, such as how this will help students become leaders, enter college, build important connections, and be smart about how we use the language that will appeal to the authentic interests of these groups.  


We plan to move Soulforce into a yearlong program, with a once a month meeting that follows during the year.  The once a month session will be an evening rejuvenating session for Soulforce fellows to reconnect with the core values that are embodied in the program.  The fellows have spoken that creating a space like this is very important in a school structure that is so dominant and quite oppressive in many ways.   We imagine the program remaining small in it's second year with another small cohort of students.    

After that we'll see....but our plans may involve launching a teacher-training institute with a subsequent plan to roll out Soulforce Leadership youth leadership training in communities in other communities around the world.    We are working with Leadership and Global Peacemaking Network based out of the Harvard Kennedy School, as they will be providing us with some incubation support to further expand this idea. 

Another area we are exploring is whether we want to provide some further resources for the fellows so they have mini-grants to help them implement and advance their ideas.  

Next year, our program will be rooted in nature, and we got a taste of that while at our retreat at Hidden Villa.  Receiving the support of the land was very powerful and it is important we establish this connection with the earth.   

We will also significantly integrate the use of technology.  Technology will be a critical part of the learning experience next year. We will also set up the infrastructure so we another site to expand into another site. 

We are excited for the possibilities of the future, and to have the opportunity to learn and improve after our first year. 


                                                      The beautiful Hidden Villa Organic Farm.

                                                      The beautiful Hidden Villa Organic Farm.

Treat the earth well; It was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children.
— -Native American Saying

2015 Soulforce Leadership Presentation Day

Our 2015 summer fellowship program culminated on a hot August Saturday morning in front of nearly 80 community members and supporters who came together around common values of justice, community, love, and youth leadership in our beloved hometown of Mountain View. 15 brave, passionate, and dedicated young leaders stood up in front of their parents, family, and friends, as well as city leaders including our Mountain View Mayor McAlister and Councilmember Kazperzack and Councilmember Siegal, and spoke passionately about what matters to them and what kind of change they want to see in the world.  

Below are some more pictures and highlights from the event.

Picture Slideshow

Guest Speakers 

We had the privilege of learning from 5 inspiring guest speakers:  

We had two "love experts," as I like to call them who anchored our program.  Panchos Ramos-Stierle provided an emotional and engaging talk about the global community we live in and that it are powerful moments of love that transform injustice. Nipun Mehta spoke about Vinoba Bhave and the choices you have to make when you view the world, and ultimately love transforms relationships with power.

Our session ended with some inspiring remarks from our city leaders. Mayor McAlister brought up the idea of using meditation in his City Councel Members!   He also talked to us about learning all sides of the story. Councilmember Kazperzack reminded us that city leaders are human too and that he would be ready to have coffee with anyone.  Councilmen Siegal offered us perspective and encouragement to simply keep going and hold the perspective that the seeds we plan now will continue to nourish for years to come.

Summary of Projects & How to Get Involved

Team Despoina spoke about strengthening images of positive girl identity, particularly around body image and self-worth.   They conducted a survey and surfaced surprising statistics that revealed the extent of issues happening in our own community, including a high rate of self-harm & being abused by a loved one, even in high school.  They build a dynamic and interactive website as a place to share resources, stories, and get educated around these issues particularly targeted at middle school students. Here is a link to the Despoina Prezi presentation if you want to learn more.  

Team ASE is concerned about the lack of student voice in high school, particularly around issues of students connecting with other students, teachers, and administrators.  They ran a pilot meeting this summer to learn about the format they would want to adopt for the structure of their meetings, which includes meditation and time for sharing in pairs and raising issues as a community that matters to them.  Here is a link to their presentation if you want to learn more.

Team Youth Initiative for Housing (YIH) is focused on housing displacement.  Sign the petition here.  They received over 1000 signatures and would like to go to a City Council meeting, as well as link up with other housing groups to create broader systemic change.  Here is link to their presentation.

Finally, Gentrification Awareness Project is all about sharing stories and the human side of gentrification.  They cared videos and story montages of what this kind of displacement looks like and ask people to get involved and to start reaching out to their neighbors.  It is the people who have privilege who are not aware of these issues that need to start speaking up.  Here is a link to the presentation.

If you would like to get involved with any of these projects, please email us at poonamsoulforce@gmail.com to get an introduction.


We are so grateful for the support from our community.  We had several local teachers, school members, business leaders, and city leaders attend, along with many friends and family members.  Even our local newspaper, Mountain View Voice, wrote a piece about us you can check out here.

Although the projects what was they did externally, it is the change within themselves that was profoundly transformative.   It was the friendships that will change the way they see in the world.  

Probably my favorite moment of the event was the last 15 minutes when the program ended and our beloved Jiwon Chung  led us into a closing circle, where we meditated and connected with ourselves again.  Jiwon reminded us about why we do our work, and had us connect with each other with our hearts and remembered that our work is really not about the event, but it about the work we do in our own hearts and with each other.  


Finally, this program would not have been possible without Mady Miraglia and Marie Thullier. They were 2 coaches that were involved the entire summer and they blessed everyone in this program.   We love them, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to learn from them and with them.   I also want to thank the coaches and guest speakers and community mentors who helped out during the Leadership Institute and community mentoring sessions:  Dorit Perry, Gautam Biswas, Natassia Pura, Belinda Liu, Kim Grose Moore, Maria Marraquin, Sima Sanghvi & Jenny Wun.

We as coaches were so humbled to serve these leaders.  Thank you 2015 Fellows!  

  • Donna Trot 
  • Chris Remplado 
  • Ana Cortez 
  • Anna Antonio 
  • Simge Yildiz 
  • Sonia Iyer 
  • Christina Pao 
  • Kevin Chan 
  • Tino Tugwete 
  • Valery Padilla 
  • Sydney Casey-Dimirtijris 
  • Nusly Zuniga
  • Adera Ahern
  • Joceline Montebello
  • Emily Mez


Closing inspiration 

Anand Giridharadas says in his 2015 Ted Talk that we can either become more divided and polarized from each other, or we can work toward a common vision for improving the future.   What that requires is elevating important values of dignity, democracy, compassion, and love for all. We believe educating the next generation of leaders will help us achieve this larger goal.     

Thank you all for a successful first year! 

The moral challenge of my generation, I believe, is to reacquaint these two Americas, to choose union over secession once again. This isn’t a problem we can tax or tax-cut away. It won’t be solved by tweeting harder, building slicker apps, or starting one more artisanal coffee roasting service. It is a moral challenge that begs each of us in the flourishing America to take on the wilting America as our own
— Anand Giridharadas

2015 Summer Leadership Institute

The 5-day 2015 Leadership Institute was an amazing way to kick-off the summer fellowship. There were tears, laughter, and a lot of dreaming & connecting.   The week began by exploring ourselves and our own stories and how to tell our story in a way that inspires others to act.  We also went into understanding systemic oppression and conflict in society, understanding how we may have compassionate conversations with others, as well as how to create systemic change in society.   They meditated every day, and asked for more.  They shared with more authenticity and courage than I see in many adults, and we learned so much from them.   From this foundation, small diverse teams came together to begin to discuss what projects they wanted to embark on over the summer.   Friendships were formed and we all left with a sense of possibility for the future.  .     

Visit to Casa De Paz

7 Soulforce Fellows & 2 coaches had the privilege to visit Pancho Ramos Stierle at Casa de Paz in Oakland. What a wonderful visit it was!  

We arrived at Casa de Paz and began our work with Pancho by engaging in a 15-minute meditation.  There was a quiet strength and energy to our time together.   Pancho shared stories of what happened during the Occupy Oakland movement a few years ago, and that he left his house at 3 am to go and meditate when there were police trying to disrupt peaceful protestors who had set up tents in downtown Oakland.  Pancho's response to the violence was to meditate in the midst of this chaos, so he sat for 3 hours meditating as violence disrupted around him. With that radical act, he presented an image of love to the world, while also protesting what was happening around him.

Casa De Paz has a flag of the world billowing in several places around the house and gardens. There is a place upstairs to meditate and pictures of Gandhi throghout the house.  We talked about the idea of Satyagraha, and how on Sep 11th, 1906, Gandhi came up with the idea of "Love in action," as a method of peaceful, nonviolent active resistance to injustice.  At Casa De Paz, the doors are kept open in the community to send a message about where our security really comes from.  You can come into the house to meditate or to eat a meal.  He realized that community is fragmented in the Fruitvale where violence can be prevalent, so he leaves the doors open to invite people to talk to each other. There is a community garden where there used to be trash, and he gives away fruit to the community instead of having to rely on the liquor stores or fast food chain stories which are prevalent in the community.   He cites a funny story about how he tells the "homies" in his community that it's the "drive-thurs" not the "drive bys" that are killing us.    Pancho also talked to us about how we have 400 million subconsious cells in our brain, yet only 40 of those are processed, and so our most of actions and feelings are being triggered without our active awareness.  Like watching the water get clear when a rock is dropped, we have to to meditate to really understand what is happening with us.  When conflict comes our way and we have the choose to "fight or flight", that there is a 3rd way and that is to connect with what is happening with ourselves.  

Pancho heard about what the groups are working on, as well, and gave his feedback and thoughts to the group projects in place, and we were grateful to spend some time with him.  He encouraged us to speak up and get our voices heard.   He was excited that our groups are taking on such important work.

He's a real life example of Soulforce. We often used the phrase:"What would Pancho do?" during our Leadership Institute, and now we have a real picture of that. We are grateful and inspired!  

Part 2 of our field trip was visiting our friends Nipun Mehta and Sima Sanghvi at Karma Kitchen!  More on that next time!  

From Subservient to Success and finally to Service

By Poonam Singh 

The first phase of my life was thinking humility meant being quiet and subservient.   My voice was relatively quiet and I thought I was doing what was expected of me.   I did want to raise my hand and speak up, and I always noticed the voices that weren't getting heard in the room, but I wasn't able to really step forward.  

The second phase of my life was trying to change authority, who I blamed for creating and maintaining the oppressive systems I saw around me.  I wanted to shake them and found myself getting angrier and angrier.  I could always connect with the marginalized perspective or person and I held this injustice deep in my heart.  I knew there was a relationship between the micro-inequities I saw daily & the violence we saw in society.  I also felt the efforts being made in poor communities of color were deeply troubling because of the fundamental stance of saving, fixing, the poor and it felt arrogant and condescending to me. 

 But then an interesting thing happened.....I got a taste of power and success .  Now I thought I had arrived in my career and in my work. I could change things.   I was getting all of the right messages in society--that I was making a difference and making an impact, yet I felt farther and farther from myself.   I even created some enemies along the way.   I found myself doing the things I hated in others in order to win.  Had I become the oppressor?  (In India, it was other brown people who were oppressing other brown people with a small percentage of white people in the background in power.)    Before I knew it, my behavior would be in direct contradiction with the change I wanted to see in the world. 

Now I'm at a third phase of my life which is about service.  It is now about working on myself and seeing the best in everyone to appeal people's highest values.  It is about constantly speaking up, not being quiet.  It is how we sustain ourselves in this work. We can't come to this work to fix others, to colonize others, or to control others, because we are not dealing with our own pain or our own egos. I've seen too much of that. We can't come to this from a place of ego because it makes us feel powerful and important.  It is time to serve, and partner and hold "love for the enemy" as Gandhi talked about and doing the hard work.   We have seen time and time again that systems of power can shift when we work in a framework of non-violence.  Gandhi led a revolution.   Martin Luther King Jr. followed. They were spiritual leaders. Time and time again, it is a story of revolution led by love.  It is a story of partnership that brings people in, not alienates or excludes others.   No matter how severe the violence, the capacity of our heart is huge to speak up for what is wrong and unjust & talk it out and work toward creating change. 

This is why we started Soulforce Leadership.  It is about creating a space for leaders to challenge injustice in themselves and in their own communities from a place of love.    We began with young students because we know they are the closest to the truth.

In gratitude and service, poonam