Beyond the Choir is excited to report that the 2017 Veterans Organizing Institute was a smashing success!

Over the weekend of November 2nd to 5th, we brought together 27 diverse veterans from around the country for an intensive three days of leadership development, skills sharing and community building. Our newly expanded facilitation team and alumni leaders put together an amazing program and participant feedback was glowing. Generous foundation support subsidized room and board at The Watershed Center which allowed us to offer this retreat to veterans at an affordable sliding scale.

We revamped our 2016 curriculum to better meet the needs of our veteran leaders. We added more applied skills workshops to the curriculum, included a detailed training scenario to guide role playing and other exercises, and wrote new content that aimed to draw a stronger connection between domestic and international issues.

The first new module, called “Our Context, Our Work,” asked participants to situate their advocacy within the larger arc of U.S. social justice movements, and to map the key historical events which have shaped both their personal lives and the modern political landscape. We also developed a new module called “Telling Our Stories as Veterans,” which provided a space for participants to reflect on their individual trajectory from civilian recruit to service member to their current experience as veterans. Participants then worked in small groups to identify resonant themes from their personal stories which they further developed, adding new considerations like audience and tone, with the goal of turning their story into a call to action.

The capstone exercise for the training was the “Mock Town Hall” exercise that simulated a City Council considering whether to spend limited resources on military equipment for its local police force. Facilitators played the role of city councilors, and the participants acted as veteran community members who were advocating against the proposed acquisition. The mock town hall brought together all of the skills participants trained on throughout the weekend including narrative strategy, media skills, bird-dogging, and action planning. We filmed the entire event and asked participants to review the footage as part of an extended debrief the following day, with the goal of drawing out best practices. We intentionally designed this scenario to simulate the intensity of the current political climate, and were impressed by how actively the participants engaged with the exercise. During the debrief and written evaluations, many of the participants said they had never attended a town hall or similar event, but had gained enough confidence that they were already making plans to attend local town halls in their own communities following VOI.

In 2018, we plan to build on this momentum. We will launch a webinar series for alumni and applicants who were deferred until future training retreats. We are also planning for two VOI trainings scheduled for the summer and fall. In addition, we will continue to cultivate leadership by mentoring participants and engaging them in our ongoing campaign work. As we anticipated, the VOI is serving as a pipeline for progressive veterans into strategic action and campaigns through Common Defense, #VetsVsHate, and #SupportTransTroops.

Photo credits: Walter Hergt