Kindness, Leadership, and Identity: 2023 Riley’s Way Youth Leadership Retreat

By: Sunya Afrasiabi (2022 Riley’s Way Call For Kindness Fellow and 2023 Continuation Grant Recipient)


Waking up around 3am on a Friday morning to catch a flight to Newark airport in NJ was not a difficult feat. After all, I had hardly been able to sleep the past night, excitement coursing through my veins. As a 2022 Riley’s Way Call For Kindness Fellow and 2023 Continuation Grant Recipient (for my project #MyStory Program), I had already attended a few Retreats and workshops with Riley’s Way. After each of these events, I came out with the sense that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. Riley’s Way has a wonderful community- one that I looked forward to reconnecting with at the 2023 Youth Leadership Retreat.

Upon landing in Newark, I was greeted by familiar faces, including Riley’s Way Team Mentors (college+ aged Riley’s Way Alumni who came back in a role similar to a camp counselor) and past Call For Kindness Fellows I had met at previous Retreats. We exchanged warm hugs and updated each other on the amazing things we had all accomplished since the last time we saw each other. Over the course of the trip, I would meet other like-minded individuals from all over the country who were leaders in their own communities in different ways. On the bus ride to Tyler Hill Camp in Pennsylvania, where the Retreat took place, conversation filled the bus with everything from politics and social justice issues to nonsensical chatter and jokes. Witnessing these young people come together in one place to share ideas and build connections was very empowering. I have never met a group of people as passionate and genuine as the Retreat participants and Team Mentors. It truly gives me hope for the future.

The rest of the day was spent with discussion as we met our cabinmates, participated in activities, and reflected on the concept of identity. My group participated in a “tree” activity, where we wrote down and shared parts of our identity, then glued them together to create a tree. It was a very vivid and powerful way to demonstrate the different branches of our lives. My cabinmates collaborated on a list of community norms that we would all follow, so that we could respect each other’s boundaries. These events were a great way to open up the theme for the weekend: “From Roots to Ripples: Leadership and the Power of Identity.”

The next day was packed with exciting activities and engaging workshops. I began my day by joining a group in the big gazebo for meditation and reflection. Following this, I attended an interactive panel featuring Paul Aviles, Alia Carponter-Walker, Jiahao Guo, and Andreanela Ordoñez. These people shared their powerful stories of success and how that intersected with their unique identities. I found Paul’s experience as a Latinx man of transgender experience to be very fascinating, especially as he described how he was able to balance all aspects of his identity. Afterwards, I attended a workshop led by Alia Carponter-Walker, which focused on the importance of media presence. In this workshop, we shared our “visible” and “invisible” identifiers, and how we can share these aspects through photography. It gave me new insight into how I can take advantage of social media to give people the impression that I want. Then, I attended a session led by Riley’s Way Co-Founder, Ian Sandler, and Youth Advisory Board Co-Chair, Agha Haider, which explored the power of networking. In this session, I learned techniques to maintain the professional relationships I have built with others. It was an educational experience that left me with the  knowledge I needed to further connect with other changemakers. After the workshops, I joined a small group to experience a ropes course (an exhilarating experience that truly gave a complete feel to the camp experience). I attended the Asian affinity group, where we delved into the topic of Asian identity and its impact on our lives and unique leadership styles. We ended the day with reflection- writing a letter to our future selves and gathering around a campfire, making s’mores (truly the quintessential camp experience).

The following morning was a time for evaluation. As the buses loaded up to return to the airport, tearful goodbyes and promises to stay in touch were exchanged. Everyone left the Retreat feeling either inspired or empowered. Before the Retreat, my identity was simply an uncontrollable aspect of my life that I paid little attention to. However, following this Retreat, I became more aware of how my identity and my unique life experiences shaped everything about my leadership style. For example, my biracial identity has encouraged me to be more aware of other cultures, which is reflected in my empathy to others. Understanding the unique and diverse life experiences of others helps me promote a kinder and more inclusive leadership approach. Having attended Riley’s Way Retreats before, it came as no surprise to me that I encountered so many kind and passionate individuals. This Retreat was an opportunity for me to learn countless valuable lessons and make impactful memories. Riley’s Way has undeniably nurtured my growth as a leader and as a person. Retreats like this one have given me the confidence to take my potential for impact with the #MyStory Program and expand it as far as I can. With a newer appreciation for multifaceted experiences and identities, I can now better support the immigrants/refugees I work with. I also believe that I can take these lessons into other areas of my life by both leading and working with others with compassion.