Gilbert is a sophomore and an intern for the CIL from Mississippi. We talked to him about his conception of leadership and his involvement in the Swarthmore Conservative Society and the Human Library.
What do you think drew you to the Center for Innovation and what skills do you think you’ve developed as an intern?
Well, I think that my understanding of what leadership is really grew out of my first semester at Swarthmore, because I never necessarily thought of myself as a leader. I thought that leaders were these big people who always more or less yelled and told people what to do. But I was the first person in my family to go to college. Most of the people from my high school went into the military or went straight into the workforce, a lot of the time into a factory. After my first semester at Swarthmore, I returned home, which is a small town in Mississippi, and there were a lot of mothers with high-school kids who said “Hey, can you talk to my son for a second. I want him to talk to someone who is in college, so that he can learn that this is something that is possible for him as well.” And that’s when it started to dawn on me what leadership really was, and what setting an example and being a role model for future generations also was. So I went to a CIL workshop last year. I remember they had us put on blindfolds and try to make a square out of rope and [laughs] my group failed miserably. But it was a lot of fun, and I found the CIL to be an important and valuable resource here on campus, so I was excited to apply for an opportunity to work to help other students have positive experiences. I think that an organization like the CIL is especially important at a liberal arts college, where you might not necessarily have exposure to as much pre-professional development as you might like.
You’re also involved in a bunch of other clubs on campus, namely the Human Library and the Swarthmore Conservative Society. How have you learned to integrate what you know about leadership into your experience with those clubs?
So yeah, I think the main two that I’m involved in are definitely the Human Library and the Swarthmore Conservative Society. The Human Library was a project that came together very haphazardly. There was a post on the Swat 2019 Facebook page where some guy that I had talked to before maybe once or twice said “oh hey, this is a project that happens in Denmark, it would be pretty cool if it happened here too.” We applied for a grant, and some of my friends and I put the project together. The way that the CIL teaches you to have a vision, put it into practice, and then actually make that vision a reality would have been very helpful for me in this project, and so I think that the skills that the CIL promotes, even if they are typically geared towards entrepreneurship or innovation on a large scale, are definitely applicable to starting clubs on campus. And then as far as the Conservative Society goes, I think that what the CIL is focused on in terms of bringing together lots of different people and having them all work together towards a common goal is something that’s really important to me as president of the Conservative Society. Because even though it’s called the Conservative Society, it’s a mixture of moderates, libertarians, conservatives: people really all over the ideological spectrum. Our exec board right now is a mixture of civil libertarians, fiscal conservatives, and social and religious traditionalists. So the CIL has helped me a lot with working with a bunch of different people in a cohesive manner in order to achieve a common goal.
What did you find about the process of starting something new like the Human Library?
It was interesting because we had a very different idea of what it would be like in our heads and what it actually turned out to be like. One of the most important things that I learned is to be flexible when things don’t necessarily match your expectations or plans. It could even be a good thing, to realize that it’s not a sign of failure, but that you need to adjust your expectations to fit the reality of a situation.
Do you think that your concept or idea of leadership or innovation has changed in any sort of radical way from your time in high school versus coming to Swarthmore?
Yeah, absolutely. I grew up in very authoritarian, traditional areas. My parents are both from northern Mexico, and where I grew up in the South was a town heavily influenced by the military, so ideas of leadership were mostly very orderly and structured. Being able to come to Swarthmore and see that leadership can be more about taking accountability and helping keep other people accountable and not necessarily commanding other people to do certain things for you but finding out what those people are good at and putting them in an environment where they can achieve the things that they’re good at is, I think, a very radical change, and a change that also needs to happen in American society in general.
You’re the co-president of the Salsa Club. Do you have a second favorite dance that you like to do?
[laughs] I’m terrible at bachata, but we do like to do it sometimes, because we’re a very small group, so everyone learned. So yeah, I can do bachata terribly, but I’m still getting better at it, and hopefully one day I’ll be proficient!