Trying to change the world for the better — being an activist, social change agent, do-gooder, whatever you want to call it — can be exhausting and dispiriting, especially for young people launching into it full of energy and hope. What activists need most is … well, money. They’re all stressed about funding.

But what activists need next most is, for lack of a better term, recharging. They need to get together and relax, share stories, celebrate each other’s victories, commiserate over defeats, and get back in touch with deeper convictions and purposes. That’s what gives them the energy they need to keep going in the face of setbacks.

Remarkably, though, there are very few venues or programs devoted specifically to that purpose. Occasionally organizations will have their own retreats, but those tend to be glorified company picnics. Changemakers see each other at conferences and professional events, but bad PowerPoint presentations and awkward small talk around the coffee dispenser are less than fully rejuvenating.

There should be more recharging stations for social change agents. It’s on my mind, because I visited one a couple weeks ago.

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It’s a place called Hollyhock, which bills itself as a “lifelong learning center … to inspire, nourish, and support people who are making the world better.” It’s on Cortes Island, up at the north end of the Salish Sea, perched between the British Columbia mainland and Vancouver Island. You will rarely see a more beautiful place, like some artist’s technicolor dream of what the Pacific Northwest should look like: gentle seas lapping in deep inlets, evergreen trees towering everywhere, mountains looming in the distance, bald eagles dive-bombing for fish, deer nibbling at the edges, each sunset and sunrise a major motion picture event. It’s like waking up in a postcard.

I was one of four or five invited speakers at a retreat put on by the Social Change Institute, attended by around 80 people, all of whom are working in one way or another on social change, via NGOs or government or just citizenship.

I should note for the record that I don’t really consider myself an activist. My job is to provide information and perspective. I’m well-suited to solitary, thinky work and I’m pretty sure I would be a disastrously bad activist. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to spend four days among them.

The retreat was full of what Hollyhock veterans affectionately call “woo.” Lots of sitting in circles for small group exercises, lots of sharing, lots of “deep listening,” lots of affirmation. And, yeah, hugging. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. The woo.

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If I had known what it entailed beforehand, I probably would have bailed, and missed out. I am allergic to woo. Like any left-brained, emotionally semi-literate American male (including, I suspect, many readers of this blog), I have an aggressively critical mind and several layers of ironic distance meant to prevent my feelings, insecurities, and needs from showing through. I’m not about to go flashing them to strangers for cheap emotional thrills, right? I did all this protective work for a reason!

But I’m not going to lie to you: The good vibes got me in the end. It’s just impossible to resist, being with a group of people, eating together, singing, dancing, soaking in the hot tub, grilling oysters on the beach, swimming in the ocean, and talking (and talking and talking). You can’t fight it. Eventually your muscles unwind and you leave your defensive crouch and you begin to take joy in the fact that you are not alone in this shit. Hell, by the last night I was on stage with an a cappella group singing a Cyndi Lauper song in a talent show. (True story. I was baritone.)

Hollyhock 2013

Zack EmbreeThis portion of the talent show was somewhat more impressive than my singing.

The woo might be a faintly silly way to get to that place of openness and peace together, and there’s certainly plenty of opportunities to roll your eyes if that’s your thing. (I could tell you some stories.) But I don’t know of any other way to get to that place. Do you? And getting there periodically is important, even for us hard-headed types.

Anyway, it was a pretty intense experience, which is not something I can say about most conferences I’ve been to. If you get a chance to go to Hollyhock, or to send some folks from your organization there, you really should. Everyone left full of new energy and purpose — even your faithful curmudgeonly blogger.

PS: It’s worth noting that Hollyhock is a charity, so if you have a few bucks you could spare for the cause, spare them. It’s powered mostly by solar, with most food grown on the premises — pretty extraordinary all around. Huge thanks to board chair, ringleader, host, and local bon vivant Joel Solomon for his gracious hospitality.

PPS: One of the best things about the experience was meeting tons of amazing, inspiring women. One of them, Heather Bauer, wrote a song just for the occasion. Here it is:

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