I write this filled to the brim with energy to take action to spread liberty in the world. That is the impact the ESFL Top 100 Leadership Retreat has had on me all three years I have attended. It is the impact that matters most.
Our work in SFL is so much more than the impact it has on our leaders. The result of our actions is immeasurable. Our many conversations cover a vast array of topics; with each one getting to the core of our challenges for the future and how our own trajectory and plans will make an impact where we live.
I cannot say the impact that a man like Matko Mavračić has on the grand scheme of things but his talk ‘Freedom is an Inner Feeling’ certainly impacted me and many others in the room. He spoke about being true to your own vision, and to live from the inside-out and not from the outside-in. We are eager to bring freedom to others, but if we do not have freedom within its impossible to share freedom with the rest of the world.
The global team of the year is the awesome Students For Liberty Georgia and it was an absolute privilege to be surrounded by this inspirational team. The reason this team was awarded this becomes obvious in their presence. Their Regional Director, Lia Janelidzé is experienced and meticulous in choosing her team. Lia understands the importance of impact and how it’s necessary to filter out bad characters who could potentially disrupt the flow and team ethic which the team has created. This has helped them create a massive impact on the ground in Georgia. Their regional events are so filled with fresh minds interested in learning about the ideas of liberty, that there is rarely space to stand due to the atmosphere they create. Hats off to them, they blow my mind!
Another amazing team is SFL Spain. SFL is decentralised and doesn’t enforce a top-down regime. Local teams can organise and structure their activities as they see fit, Spain is the perfect example of this. They have tailored regional programmes and training which are conducted in their native Spanish. From this, the leaders who excel are invited to the Local Coordinator programme where they can join the wider European movement. With over 500 volunteers involved in SFL Spain, they are one of the most impactful groups across Europe and the World and were recognised as such at the retreat.
In many ways, this event was a rite of passage. The ending of an era, and the birth of a new generation of leaders. Former ESFL Programmes Manager, and a very dear friend of mine, Kevin Flanagan is moving on, being promoted within the organisation to Leadership Development Manager. His talk on ‘C.U.L.T.U.R.E’ was amazing. It made me and many others cry. That was his impact. In his talk, he made me the butt of many of his jokes, but that wasn’t the reason that I found it emotional. No, the impact was from the realisation that ESFL culture transcends individuals, and is something that we share amongst all our groups across Europe. His talk reminded me that the work we do is important, but despite that responsibility and significance, it is also vital to have fun and cultivate great relationships within the organisation. SFL has created so many bonds for me and I know they will be lifelong relationships, that will continue to impact me long after I am not an active member of SFL. Of course, who knows if that can even happen, as the hoodie Kevin received had the phrase ‘One simply does not leave ESFL’ embroidered on it. In plumaria veritas.
So many of the younger generation (all so young compared to me) really stood out this year. Student of the Year, Piotr Markiełaŭ, has been regularly imprisoned for his activism in Belarus. Yet despite his hardship he happily spent the week taking incredible pictures of the event and his SFL family. When Piotr speaks, you listen. He speaks with such passion about liberty, that liberty is left as your only answer. I often feel that liberty is vital to our region, yet hearing about the reality leaders in places such as Belarus face, where they have unfriendly regimes on a daily basis, you realise that we are playing a very important (if minor) role in a larger fight. Our impact is not welcome by those in power, and they will try to use force to silence us. Piotr and the leaders from his region are true inspirations in the fight for freedom.
In my own region of Ireland & UK, we have recently discovered so many amazing local leaders. Leaders such as Danny Al Khafaji, head of King’s College London Libertarian Society. Danny has recently launched his campaign to tackle the UK-wide university crackdown on free speech. In the talk that he presented to attendees, he spoke of the historical conclusions resulting from a lack of free speech, and made a commitment to impacting the university landscape across the United Kingdom this year with his campaign: ‘Free to Speak’. Danny hopes to set the agenda on many UK campuses, combating the draconian rules universities are implementing, and ultimately wants to free students to express themselves without fearing institutional retribution.
Another local leader who impressed was Michael Way, from Northern Ireland. He spoke about his journey from conservatism to liberty compared to his sister’s. Both are now libertarians, but each was convinced by very different vehicles. Michael was convinced by the works of Herbert Spencer, and his sister was convinced through the great work (or rather lack of work) of Ron Swanson from the TV show Parks and Recreation. In a very entertaining talk (which he later revealed was his first ever) Michael encouraged us to harness the power of pop culture as an unlikely vehicle for exposing people to the ideas of liberty. Many people won’t read Human Action or The Road to Serfdom, so Michael argued that specific elements of pop culture can act as a conduit through which our ideals can percolate throughout society and ultimately act as a catalyst for more liberty based conversations to emerge.
I should also mention something which occurred when Piotr uploaded his pictures of the event, which highlights the ideas Kevin championed in his talk. Michael took Piotr’s pictures and made many hilarious memes of the leaders that Piotr photographed and had the facebook group in convulsions of laughter for a few days. Being on the end of the joke in SFL is so light-hearted it’s even enjoyable, because you know your family don’t mean any harm #SFLove.
I should not make light of my own impact in the last few years within the organisation too. I was awarded ‘Bright Spark Award’ 2018 at this years’ retreat. It earned me a new nickname too – ‘Sparkie’. I was shocked when I received the award, but on reflection, I am proud of the work I enabled in my region. When I took over as Regional Director, we had very few active leaders, which meant that our impact was limited. Now, we have over quadrupled the amount of leaders active in the region and there is an incredible culture in the region as we work together to spread the ideas of liberty.
I realise now, that impact is not about what you say to someone, the impact is about what people realise about themselves and their own potential that can be put to action. I am not the greatest speaker, but I am great at listening, noticing and reflecting on what people say about themselves. I can be a mirror to help people make personal revelations which enable them to take positive actions, and make a real difference to where they are. This is the impact I love making with my clients. This is the impact I strive to make in SFL. We all have the power to bring about the world we want together, by understanding the impact we have and owning that.
There’s so much I haven’t mentioned, and so much I won’t be able to. The awesome Speak Freely editorial team met in person for the first time this week. These guys produce high-quality liberty related op-eds every other day. They provide an amazing commitment and quality of service to leaders learning to write about liberty.
So many leaders approached me to talk about their future and the direction they should take. It is humbling to listen, to talk, and to give some words of encouragement to young people I admire greatly, and to feel their appreciation for that time and respect.
This week strengthened my resolve and made me feel the work we do is worthwhile. I will continue liberating and inspiring all those who will listen. We all will. That is our impact as members of Students for Liberty.