By Olivia Braley

Coming to Touchstones has been a fruitful experience, one of personal growth that I couldn’t have anticipated prior to joining the staff. My first experience with Touchstones was almost ten years ago when I was at Annapolis High School. We had a day of English class where we put our desks in a circle and went through a Touchstones lesson. Years later, I don’t remember the text discussed, but I do recall analyzing the group dynamics. The fact that this stands out to me even now is in itself significant. I’ve asked a few friends if they remember this day, and each one has a strong memory of some part of the Touchstones lesson—most have to do with the style of discussion or the discussion map. These are elements of the Touchstones programming that are distinct from a traditional classroom experience and certainly unlike any learning model I’d had at that point.

Touchstones discussions empower participants to be invested leaders in the learning of their community. The promise of such a discussion is equally exciting and intimidating. How could I live up to these ideals? Since joining the Touchstones staff and participating in various workshops, I’ve found a welcoming environment in which progress is always strived towards, but each participant is met where they are. The group encourages continuous growth and improvement, without judgment. This philosophy noticeably carries to the office environment as well. I believe we are able to accomplish as much as we do as a staff precisely because we are trained in the Touchstones model to cultivate skills such as active listening and collaboration.

As I’ve become more familiar and comfortable with the Touchstones model, I’ve had the opportunity to assume more leadership in discussions. I did this gradually, and fortunately had our Executive Director to help guide me, as well as an extremely supportive group of participants: the women of the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women Touchstones Volunteer Corps. This culminated with my co-leading a Touchstones discussion on our last day of the workshop.

Even with the skills and confidence I have gained, I was unsure what it would feel like to lead a discussion in practice. However, once I started the discussion, I felt immediately comfortable and that other participants in the group were eager to support me in my leadership role. Even small comments like “that was a good question” were significant in developing my confidence. At the end of the discussion, I had almost forgotten I was nervous in the first place. In just a few months, Touchstones has had a profound impact on me, and I look forward to further developing my skills through my work here.