We, Not I: Annual Nonprofit Symposium Emphasizes Community

Meg Springer, associate director of Bowdoin’s Career Planning, kicked off the 7th Annual Nonprofit Symposium with a quote from The Every Girl blog on the importance of a community being inclusive. “Remember that a community is not a clique, it is an organism that must evolve to survive, taking in new members, new friends,” she said.

A healthy community, she continued, can also make its members stronger. “A community is your support network on a broader scale, your pool of inspiration, the cast of characters that color your life, and your opportunity to serve and encourage others,” she said. “Best of all, the stronger your community grows, the more power you have to change the world.”

When planning this year’s symposium, Springer wanted an evocative theme, one that would “really make you think.” She decided on connecting communities, and named the symposium, Embracing Difference: Connecting Communities Through Nonprofit Work. “I just kept thinking about connecting rather than dividing,” she said during her introduction to the symposium. “The importance of establishing connections and inviting people in rather than pushing people out.”

The schedule included a luncheon, keynote address, round-table discussions, a panel discussion with a Q&A, and concluded with an opportunity for students to network with nonprofit professionals. After Springer’s opening remarks, keynote speaker Alain Nahimana delivered an address, “#ThePowerofWe.” He focused on his experiences as the executive director of The Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, as well as the necessity to make decisions loud enough to show that we are really embracing diversity.

Nahimana was born in Burundi, educated in Switzerland, and returned to his homeland to start a public relations firm and participate in politics. However, his criticism of the government eventually resulted in his arrest, imprisonment, and torture. After his release, Nahimana sought asylum in Maine. He became involved in immigrant advocacy work, vowing to wake up happy to go to his job everyday.

However, his move to America provided a new type of challenge in securing work. “Where I come from, I was not black,” Nahimana said. “Being black in America has all sorts of connotations. And people judge you by the color of your skin, not the content of your heart.” When he met with other immigrant rights groups, Nahimana was shocked and dismayed by the lack of diversity, as well as lack of actual immigrants, on their decision making bodies. He made a point at his own agency to do things differently, and currently The Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center has the most diverse board of all nonprofits in Maine.

Nahimana also described the work his agency does. The Welcome Center is working on three separate, but interconnected, ventures to help improve the lives of immigrants: a digital language app, a business hub where immigrants can get connected and use their skills, and assistance with engaging in civic activities, starting with a path to citizenship. “At the end of the day, an immigrant is a natural helper to another immigrant,” he said.

“It’s about the power of we,” Nahimana said in the concluding minutes of his opening speech. “It’s about making the dream become the reality, and the reality become the dream. It’s not just me, and it’s beyond you. It’s about community.”

This year, the symposium was attended by members of the Bowdoin community, including 12 Bowdoin staff and faculty members and over 70 Bowdoin students. The Nonprofit Symposium is freely available to students and makes nonprofit agencies accessible to those who may see a future career in this sector. Professionals from 21 different agencies attended and were seated at tables with students. The networking hour that concluded the symposium gave students an opportunity both to more fully understand the sector and establish connections.

Students walked away with both new contacts and reflections. For Swapnika Mallipeddi ’19, the symposium was an opportunity to “reflect upon the role of such organizations in my community as well as reinforcing the need to embrace difference in order to grow as a community.” June Lei ’18 said the symposium presented an opportunity to learn more about the “range and scope of community work being done in Maine.”

It was senior Sydney Avitia-Jacques’s second time attending the conference. “I really enjoyed hearing from professionals with such a broad range of experiences,” she said. “This year, the ‘building connections’ theme confirmed for me that nonprofits are a field where creative collaboration is welcome. I don’t know for sure that nonprofits are the field I’ll work in, but I’m sure that whatever I do I’ll be making connections with nonprofit workers in some way.”

The event was generously funded by the Preston Public Interest Career Fund.

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