This post has initially been published on my LinkedIn profile

Today – October 17th – marks 1 year since me and 19 other European folks got on planes and embarked on a wonderful journey as Marshall Memorial Fellows. I heard a lot about this program before applying to it, but did not quite catch its magic before our first gathering in the hotel lobby in Washington, DC, these 365 days ago.

This is a kind of an insider text about our European group of Marshall Memorial Fellows – or #Marshmellows as we started to call and keep calling each other. This is a tribute to all the friends I made during our US journey: in DC, Cleveland, West Palm Beach, Phoenix and NYC in my case (every fellow had another route): from our cohort, from the American group, from the wonderful GMF staff and hundreds of people we met.

Every person from my cohort was different, unique. We represented various sectors, various backgrounds, various political views. We had different tastes in music, books and HBO/Netflix series. Some of us were going to the gym at 6 every morning. Some were searching tirelessly for churches on Sundays. There were both extroverts and introverts in the group. There were people running a food bank, fighting for human rights, working with migrants, or helping start-ups flourish, or even working as steel plant engineers. With the very first glance at the “MMF manual” we could say that we do not have much in common. How on Earth did they choose us? And how will I fit to this group?

And yet, when we were asked during one session “How do you support inclusion in your workplace?”, we all brought so many ideas to the table that my jaw dropped for long hours. Apparently, we all were doing things in this area: some of us were especially focused on supporting single parents, some were devoted to gender equality, some were fighting for their teams to be age-diverse and respectful to all the ideas, no matter how experienced or inexperienced a contributor was.

This is what was linking all of us – not only a big word of leadership, but simply inclusion.

This happened to be even more apparent when we were asked to come up with principles that the whole group should follow during our 24-day-long trip around the US. The major principle that is still with us, when we get in touch via Whatsapp, is a pure and basic definition of inclusion: “leave no fellow behind” (although I think that our city coordinators liked us even more to follow the “pace yourselves” principle ().

We were always there for each other. One particular example was the fact that some of us were parents and we supported each other in struggling with the “I-want-to-go-home-NOW” emotions or sleeplessness after talking to our spouses and children in the middle of the night. When some of us received bad news from home, we again could count on each other: on good words, on hugs, on walks in deep silence or on some laugh when needed. We also understood when some of us wanted to be on their own, to be in a way “left behind” for some time, just to see their smile at breakfast next morning.

We built a kind of a safety net for each other. I personally felt it pretty strong when, quite the contrary to my usual self, I started asking our guests and panellists many, many questions and felt so good with it. My fellow fellows started talking about “Kata-questions” (meaning: tough questions you will struggle to answer) and were saying: hey, I made notes from your questions, not from the answers. I have never felt more flattered in my life! I think it was the first time in my life that I thought: I can really do this, I can lean in and have my say at the table. Yay! You did this to me, Marshmellows!

I hope we all felt the same – that our minds, our brains mattered. That what we had to say was interesting and enriching to our fellow fellows and to our guests.

At strongest, I experienced the power of the human brain and also the importance of dreaming big during my Florida-stage of journey. On one (of just two) day off, together with two other Marshmellows, I visited the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral. One fellow, Alex, was dreaming about going there for some 18 years and Igor (another fellow) and I decided to accompany him in realising his dreams.

The tickets were not cheap, but when we were leaving the Center, we even wanted to pay the owners extra for the whole experience. Thanks to the Microsoft’s augmented reality devices we could walk on Mars and almost touch the Curiosity Rover. We saw 3D movies convincing us that soon the human foot will step on the Red Planet. We saw “Atlantis”, the legendary space shuttle. We saw movies about the Moon Race and had lunch under a gigantic copy of one of the Apollos.

We took a bus ride to places where SpaceX rockets were launched and tested. Just next to them we saw alligators swimming lazily in ponds. It was so unique to be so close to the place that will soon take us far into the future (yes!) and to the creatures that are the longest-living species on Earth. Prehistory meets sci-fi in this particular place. An extraordinary symbiosis.

Even the Grand Canyon that I had a chance to visit on a later stage of the journey was not as breath-taking and life-changing, as the Kennedy Space Center. I could see the mottos “failure is not an option” and “dream big” everywhere. Now I feel that NASA speaks to me all the time and I cannot stand still while watching “The Martian” or “Hidden Figures”.

But yet, filled with this “brain power”, “dream big” stuff I flew from sunny Florida to even sunnier Arizona, where the bubble broke and we were thrown out of our comfort zones with no mercy: we were sent to jail.

I mean, we went to see the Tent City Jail in Phoenix – a place we all were reading stuff about before, that was much more terrifying than we could imagine. We listened to the rules implemented in that place, we saw the facilities, the inmates and the surveillance system. It was the only time when some of us got so emotional that an argument started. We thought we already knew a lot about the US penitentiary system but experiencing it directly cost us much more than we expected. Apparently, just like Jon Snow, we knew nothing.

Actually, “you know nothing about America” should be the motto of our journey.

Take food, for example. I still remember the Halloween party we went to in West Palm Beach where the whole group of ours spent half of the night standing not by a bar, but by .. a table with some carrots, peas, broccoli and cauliflower. We missed vegetables so much! Seriously, dear Americans, how can you survive eating bagels and chips so often and drinking beverages that taste like pure sugar?

Other topics we eventually got to know we knew nothing about?

Guns – I spent a couple of days in Cleveland, Ohio – a state with an “open-carry status”. Our discussions with various circles and political activists were full of questions (not only mine!) and efforts to understand how one can live next to so many gun owners. So unfamiliar to our group.

Police – again in Cleveland, we were taken on police rides, during a baseball match (Indians vs. Cubs) and expected a lot to be happening. And it was so, so quiet on the streets that some of us got bored…

In the same Phoenix where the Tent City Jail is located, we also met with the chiefs of the City of Phoenix Police and were given the best leadership lecture and discussion throughout the whole fellowship (my apologies to all the other panellists and guests we had!).

Basketball – OK, I truly did not know nothing about this sport before going to Phoenix, but when we went (thanks to the courtesy of the City of Phoenix) to see the game of Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trailblazers, I realised that we entered a brand new sphere of entertainment. You could know no rules, no players, but would still have so much fun that you would dance throughout all the quarters and overtimes (you see, I eventually learned something about basketball).

Rock&Roll – one of the best places my Cleveland team visited was, obviously, the Rock&Roll Hall of Fame. I took some 500 pictures there and really did not want to leave the place. Metallica, Elvis Presley, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Queen, Nirvana – and our wonderful guide who told us so many stories about the roots, the history and the contemporaneity of the Rock&Roll. The present day actually surprised us most – I did not know that Salt’n’Pepa, Beyonce and even Madonna fitted the definition of Rock&Roll. If the Rock Hall presents and acknowledges them, they do! OK, let it be 🙂

Entrepreneurship – apparently, everyone is in a fund-raising mode in America. Constantly. I loved the spirit of talking about money just like about weather. I loved it when I saw charities and NGOs fighting for money and doing their great work with huge smiles on faces. I admired this notion of counting on yourself and your close ones – not waiting for anyone to do the job for you. No matter where we went: to an eco-farm, or a female-supportive charity, or an organisation helping migrants.

And obviously we understood we knew nothing about America whenever we were touched by the presidential campaign and by the election night itself. But this is a whole different (and much longer) story.

To some extent, before embarking on the MMF journey, we also knew nothing about ourselves. Even if Marshall Memorial Fellowship did not change us very much, it surely taught us a lot about who we were and were going to become.

One year on, so many memories are still so clear and come to mind very often (these mentioned above are just a few of hundreds of stories). And these are so good memories! I will be eternally grateful to everyone who made this journey possible.

This journey has not stopped when I landed back in Warsaw and hugged my family. It continues, whenever we write or see each other, even if these are just birthday wishes. Or congratulations on new children being born. Or postcards from holidays. Or greetings about new projects. #Marshmellows rule!

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