Women, Tech, Leadership

Change/Transformation, Leadership, Power/Privilege, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

Today was the first day of the Advancing the Careers of Technical Women (ACT-W) conference in Portland.  I was selected to facilitate conversation about Servant Leadership, and these are the notes from that session.  It was an excellent conversation, and I am deeply appreciative to everyone who participated.  I didn’t get pictures of the whiteboards, but here’s what I remember from the conversation, my presentation, and some additional resources on the topics we discussed.

  • Coaching up
  • Culture trumps everything” (Change the culture, change the world); when people feel authentically heard, the culture automatically shifts
  • Building listening skills; importance of giving indications that you’re engaged including body posture, eye contact, reflective listening (rephrasing or summarizing what you’ve heard), head nods, encouraging verbal responses
  • Slowing down processes and thinking slower  allows integration of a variety of emotional intelligences
  • Using data and metrics to demonstrative the effectiveness of inclusivity; redefining success
  • Self care:  Your role is not as a therapist.  It is NOT your job to walk your colleagues or employees through their personal problems.  The best thing you can do is refer them to appropriate resources.  Expending large amounts of your time on one person does a disservice to your other employees, your company, and yourself.
  • Receiving feedback:  Helpful to detach and receive information from a neutral place; process and respond later
  • Rules of dialogue include suspending judgments and assumptions

recommendedreads

These are the books I had with me, there’s a longer list of books here.  If you’re interested in continuing the conversation, I run a Servant Leadership meetup and you’re welcome to join us.  Thanks again for your interest and participation.

After the Purge

Change/Transformation, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

Sitting down to write this post took an enormous effort of will.  I finished an online creative nonfiction course a few weeks ago and I stopped writing regularly as soon as my final essay was complete, so it’s been maybe two months of unexpected and welcome relief.  For the last two years, writing about my experience in the prison has been a release of sorts.  It helped capture my thoughts and feelings, although it’s unclear whether it helped me release either but probably not.  Nothing short of a complete separation would have accomplished that feat.

Today, I’m close to eight months away from my last day at CCCF.  Most of these last eight months have been spent de-toxifying from my time there, and learning how to operate as a normal human being again.  Those years, combined with the years of stress and uncertainty preceding them had turned me into an anxious, brittle, and fearful woman.  I had some success hiding just how anxious, brittle and fearful I had become, but I was never able to hide it from myself.

Those years ate my light; they consumed everything I knew of beauty and grace and joy and spirit.

Lately though, the writing has been pressing on me, memories lingering in my consciousness.  The stories of my time there, my relationships with the women I taught, and observations about the system constantly break the surface, jarring me with their presence.  I can shove them back under, but they are still there. I’ve asked the non-intellectual part of my being to grieve and celebrate this enormous transition and it’s been thrilled to comply, so I’ve been processing mainly through art these several months.  But as much as I love exploring drawing and illustration for emotional release, I cannot tell these stories through that art.  Words are my medium, and the words are softly demanding my attention.

I just don’t know how to start again.

Being away from all that pain and suffering makes it less immediate, and reduces the feeling of urgency.  That voice that demanded, constantly, that I let people KNOW and do my part to change the system has quieted.  It rouses occasionally, but it is lackadaisical, at best.  I’ve stepped away from all the information sources that used to stimulate my awareness,  deliberately choosing to set all that pain to the side.  It is a position of privilege, but I cannot bring myself to feel shame or guilt about this choice.

I feel light and happy and safe. Work doesn’t feel like much work, it’s a delight to do something less fraught, where a mistake won’t mean drastically increasing someone else’s suffering.  This new path is a great gift, and all I want to do is enjoy the days, do art, and drift.  Even thinking about writing that story feels hard.

I’ve realized that almost all the writing I do is somehow related to suffering – to trauma and oppression and the misery of the world.  When I think about writing a memoir, whether it’s about CCCF or not, my thoughts focus on the sad and miserable things that brought me to where I am today.  How do I write about all of those things – feelings, events, circumstances, choices – without putting myself back in that grueling, grunting space?  It’s not a matter of self-judgment, it almost feels like self-preservation.

How do I stay connected to this precious gift of light and space and relief if I’m writing about those pain-soaked years?  I know they are part and parcel of who I am, but I’m ready to write a new story about myself.  How do I hold this new facet, and gently touch and release the old?

Figure vomiting words

Give It Up

White Discomfort

Change/Transformation, Hard Stuff, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

This is a post for white people everywhere, myself included. Any time you find yourself uncomfortable or unhappy in a conversation about race, don’t say anything until you consider this : For hundreds of years, black people died or were tortured for saying anything beyond “yes” or “no” and possibly even for that.

There is no way to ever justify or right that wrong. None.

The legacy of those hundreds of years has brought us to the point that black people today not only need and want to discuss their thoughts and feelings about this terrifying past, they have the platforms to do so, in ways they never have before.

Because so many black and brown voices have been brutally punished or silenced, we are given a great honor when these same voices continue to speak, continue to demand justice. They give us the chance to be better than we are, to make the right choices, and be our best selves.

Given that history, when I consider that black and brown people call themselves my friend and are kind to me, it seems the least I can do is deal with a bit of discomfort. I may feel defensive or ashamed or guilty, but those feelings are normal, if unwanted. It is MY job to hold them, not my friends’ job to make me feel better.

I don’t like making shaming comparisons, but my feelings of discomfort and guilt are minor next to the massive system of racial oppression that has existed in the US for centuries. Those feelings are almost nothing compared to the pain, degradation, and deaths of millions of dark-skinned folk. Next time we’re feeling antsy, remember that black people have felt like this for hundreds of years, but have kept silent for fear of their lives.

How many times have my black and brown friends and fellow humans felt uncomfortable or afraid because of the color of their skin? How often have I? How many times have they wanted to speak about their discomfort but were afraid of significant retaliation? How often have I?

For most of us white folk, if we are being truly honest, the answers are rarely and even more rarely. Our skin color has given us the right to openly discuss our discomfort and not fear retaliation based on our race.

This message isnt directed at people who are passively enjoying their privilege as beneficiaries of a racist system. Those people don’t care and probably won’t feel uncomfortable anyway. But for those of us who are trying, part of our work is to find the courage to own our discomfort, and not look to our black and brown friends for comfort.

It really is the very least we can do.

image

Working the seams

Change/Transformation, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

Since I’m on a Seth Godin roll, I’ll mention that his blog about seams struck a chord.  It resonated because we try so desperately to hide our seams.  Major life transitions – unemployment, aging, death, marriage, childbearing, illness – they’re all seams, ruptures in the glassy, smooth life we envision.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m in one of those big transitions, and struggle with how to feel and how to present myself publicly.  I often wonder how different our lives would be if we could acknowledge the seams more openly, not feel shamed or embarrassed that we’ve hit a rough patch, or a season of change.

Octavia Butler, in Sower of the Talents and Parable of the Talents creates a religion (Earthseed) based on change.  Its premise is that change is the only sure thing.  The central verse of Earthseed is given in the following:

============================

Consider: Whether you’re a human being, an insect, a microbe, or a stone, this verse is true.

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

(Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler)

The central paradox of Earthseed is:

Why is the universe?
To shape God.

Why is God?
To shape the universe.

(Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler)

===============================

While I don’t ascribe to any religion, I find these verses comforting.  Accepting change (and death) as the only constant can be useful.  Cultivating flexibility, resilience, and curiosity in the face of surprising events is the best strategy I’ve seen for managing change.

Pema Chodron talks about how the sticky nature of the unexpected can be a tar pit when we fasten ourselves to a specific vision or result.  I’m not Buddhist, and I don’t claim unattachment to outcomes.  Outcomes do matter to me, no matter how much I wish they didn’t, and I find myself struggling with the tar more often than not.  I believe the best I can hope from myself is to work to create several outcomes, even if I prefer one over another.

The verses say that god exists to shape change, but they don’t give us a definition of god.  I like to believe we are all extensions of the living awareness of the Universe, which means we are all part of that life, however you conceive it to be.  So shaping change is part of who we are, part of our work in being.  Some days, remembering that is helpful, some days, not so much.

change-alone-is-unchanging-quote-1

Change the Talk, Change the Walk

Change/Transformation, Leadership, Peace/Conflict, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

My friend Britt said many of the things I’ve been thinking about the Bernie/Hillary “split,” and many are identical to the Hillary/Barak split of 2008, although the stakes didn’t feel as high then. I’m going to vote for whoever is the Democratic candidate. Having total Republican control of this country is unthinkable for me given the current state of the Republican party. It’s not clear to me that the rank and file Dems of this country understand how critical it is that Bernie and Hillary NOT annihilate each other during the primaries, women especially.

The Republicans are positioned to have control over not only our federal branches, but our state and local governments also. They’ve spent years and billions getting governors and state legislators elected, city and county officials, and large numbers of conservatives judges at the state and federal levels. THIS IS WHERE WE LOSE.  If we continue spraying vitriol at each other, we lose the power we need in order to stabilize the leakage of civil and personal rights at the state and local level.

We don’t lose because we have a Republican president, we lose because we’ve lost the states, and that means we’re losing to people who have been hornswaggled and bamboozled into thinking big money interests are their interests. It’s been happening for a long time (and here), and the tide shows no hint of turning back – our country is becoming more and more divided between those who can accept the forces of change and those who simply can’t tolerate the thought. You can figure out who is on which side – the people in power want to stay in power and that’s human nature.

But if we spend our energy fighting each other – which is what we’re setting ourselves up for – then we have nothing left to win the bigger battle. I hate using a war metaphor, but that’s the system we’ve got to work with – whether or not we agree.  We have set up a system that not only pits the parties against each other, it pits the candidates from the same party into almost as brutal a battle!  That’s insanity, and its symptomatic of the black/white, either/or thinking that is now polarizing our citizens.

I don’t write all this because I hate Republicans, tradition, or conservative values. I believe we have much more in common than we allow ourselves to realize. I believe the Republican party – the people who could help us keep a close eye on government reach, help us make and enforce moderate fiscal policies, discuss the importance of reasonable immigration policy that is sensitive to the needs of our nation and suffering people coming here and bring insight to all those other crucial issues – has been hijacked and destroyed by the greed and corruption of a few with limitless coffers.

Bernie and Hillary are going to duke it out – there’s nothing we can do to stop that fight. But the supporters of each candidate DO have a choice – we can choose to limit our involvement in name-calling, bullying, hateful rhetoric, and general nastiness that we’re throwing at each other.  We have the choice to stop all of that behavior.  Not redirect it toward other candidates, but STOP IT COMPLETELY.  When we choose to maintain more civility and kindness, we have more energy to take the work where it needs to happen – at the state, local, and individual level.

It’s fine to disagree, but the level of hateful, vile speech happening within the Democratic party is reprehensible.  If we’re going to walk our talk, then our talk needs to change.

kindess

I Can’t Move

Change/Transformation, Life, Poetry, Random Observations, Uncategorized, Writing

blocked blocks, round round, all rounded

puzzle pieces filling

fitting, seamless and tight and smooth

lost last spaces further

and further

away

optional is no longer an option

liberation is now less than a k

it’s not ok. I can’t move.

 

multiplication

diversification

gentrification

 

grasping grunting gobbling grabbing

high higher highest; close closer closest

packpackpack

 

tinned, salted, oiled, canned; metal keys roll us back

we’re beginning to smell

three fish or three days; reeking of never-ending visitors

 

olfactory assault | auditory hallucination | kinetic disarray

visual opulence and luxurious cultural overload

words of hipster wisdom “you’re so Erin Brokovich”

Graging?

Change/Transformation, It's Personal, Laughter, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I’ve been trying to think of a word that combines aging with grace, and came up with the post title – graging.  Now that I see it, it could also be a combination of “rage” and “gray”, which are also part of aging, although not exactly what I had in mind.  It’s a weird word, a fake word, clumsy and ugly.  Maybe it’s the perfect word to describe how most of us increase our years, and all those moments when we say to ourselves “Is this what it feels like to be X yrs old?  I don’t feel X yrs old.”

Isn’t is amusing how the only people talking about the process of aging are those of us who are “of a certain age?”  When we’re in our twenties and thirties, we are most definitely NOT thinking about our upcoming years of graging, except in terms of retirement funds.  I know this is true because I’m close enough to my thirties that I can remember NEVER thinking about what my forties would be like!

I think it’s a psychological development.  We hit some level in our biological development and bam!  we’re suddenly pondering the nature of life, our contributions and legacy, our vulnerability, and what the end of our lives might be like.  It’s a curious paradox that our society and culture disregard our elders, fetishize youth, and yet every. single. one of us will grow old and die.  It’s one of the very few absolute givens in human existence – we, you, I, will grow older and eventually die.

I’m writing this piece more as a way to inject some humor in this process for myself, because I can’t even describe how vulnerable and alone and afraid I feel sometimes.  I can’t because thinking about it too much crushes my spirit and darkens my light, and I need a way to acknowledge my fears without letting them own me.  So maybe the word “graging” will now symbolize those parts of growing older I find both familiar and uncomfortable – the fear and anger, loneliness and uncontrollable changes – things we all struggle with most of our lives.

Naming a thing makes it less scary, in part because it makes it more real.  Perhaps the real key to growing in grace is realizing and accepting that all of these parts are inevitable and unavoidable, and that the best I can do is be kind to myself when they show up.  Kindness and grace don’t combine easily into a fun word, probably because they’re both so deserving of separate attention. There are no shortcuts to either of these states – they take courage, work, heart, and intention.

I feel better now.  Graging over.

Graduation Day

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

This is a long post, but Graduation for my students is a complex, rich experience and deserves significant reflection.

———————————————————————————————–

I find that I am often befuddled when people remark, with surprise, on the poise, clarity, and eloquence of my students. I am befuddled until I remember that they don’t see them as I do. They may have only seen them, for years, in their darkest places of mind and body. They likely have never seen them at their best as mature adult women. And that’s what I see from the beginning – I see not only the possibility, but the reality. I see it and I hold it for them, until they can see it and hold it for themselves. Graduation is an opportunity for their friends and family to see that person, to see the person I see.

The three months leading up to the big day are often the most stressful for me. We’re not only trying to finish all the coursework, I have to oversee the planning and creation of whatever decorations they want, handle all the security/event details, and begin the process of recruiting a new class.  All those things combine into a slow-cooking stew of tedious detail, frustration, an ongoing effort to maintain patience and find ways to keep myself healthy and sane.

By far, the biggest source of stress is the students.  By the time we’re planning graduation, they’ve been in the program for about 12 months.  They’re tired, ready to be done, and starting to hit the “ending is in sight and holy shit, what next?!” phase.  There’s a real risk of self-sabotage for some – I lost one this year just six weeks before she would have finished.  There is a lot of fear of transition and change – of endings, a new routine, different supervisors and co-workers.  They’ve built a strong, safe community in this room and there are no guarantees about what they’ll face elsewhere.

I am able to help a few get other positions, program graduates are usually in high demand.  They’ve proven themselves trustworthy and reliable, and they have good, solid transferable skills.  Some stay with me as clerks (three or four usually), some are going to treatment or are releasing in the next few months, so they take whatever jobs they can get.  But even with all their learning, support, and new skills, they are aflutter with nerves, and with good reason.

For most of them, this is their first significant accomplishment.  Ever.

You read that right – most of them have never completed anything important, or even truly given anything a focused, concentrated effort.  Some have – there are a few high school completers (they all have at least a GED), fewer still who have some college success.  Most have held crap jobs off and on, but few have held legitimate jobs outside of fast food, waitressing, or low-level service work.  The majority of them have survived however they could – all types of illegitimate goods and services, prostitution, theft/burglary/robbery, gambling – you name it, they’ve done it.

Completing this program, for them, is a statement to themselves and their families that they are doing everything they can to leave that world behind.  This may be the best they’re going to be for a while, and they have every right to be proud, accomplished, nervous, and afraid.  None of us ever knows when we are going to fall short of our expectations of ourselves.  We are rarely prepared to fail – especially on a grand scale, and we spend far more time punishing ourselves for our failures than anyone else ever would.

But for women (and men) who have been incarcerated, the fear of failure exists at a whole new level.  Until this moment, their lives are a testament to failure, and society incessantly reminds them of those failures. They have failed as daughters, women, wives, sisters, mothers, employees, citizens, lovers, and humans.  They have wreaked havoc on themselves and those they love, extending that damage far and wide to innocent bystanders, property, businesses, and the community. Incarceration is the ultimate symbol of failure, one that seems impossible to ever shed.

Because they have done so much damage to their relationships, success in prison often comes with a price.  Families, full of rage and pain, demand that they live in a state of constant self-punishment.  “Why are you smiling in that picture?! Are you happy to be in prison?” they ask.  Or “Why should we come to graduation? You want us to be proud that the only place you can finish something is in prison?” Or “We won’t bring your children, they don’t deserve to see you locked up” and innumerable other thoughtlessly cruel statements.

I don’t hold judgment on these families.  While they all have their own broken dynamics, it is impossible to deny these women have done great harm.  While the family itself may have put the girlchild’s feet on the wrong path, the choices were ultimately her own, even if they all pay the price.  It’s not my place to say that a family shouldn’t be angry, ashamed, disappointed, broken-hearted, they have a right to feel however they feel. But the weight of all that pain and anger is a heavy burden for my students to bear, and adds to their already extraordinary levels of anxiety, heightening their fear of failing yet again.

I had a student collapse in my office sobbing, in part because she was ashamed at the pride she felt in herself for completing the program.  She cried and cried while she tried to reconcile her feelings and her desire for her family to celebrate her success.  How much worse to fail again after such a glowing, exciting success? How much worse to let yourself and your family down again, after making such a concerted effort to create a different life?

The risk they take in claiming success, in attempting to trust themselves again, is enormous, as is the amount of courage necessary to take such a risk.

In this program, inside these walls, they are at the top of the heap.  They are in a position of privilege, they have credibility, they have the trust of staff and security, they trust themselves, they can see and measure their success and accomplishments, and their confidence grows.  But once they leave, they go right back to the bottom, and that plummeting drop is enough to drain the courage out of anyone.

They are now faced with freedom of choice and action, they have to pick up the burdens of daily living, supporting themselves and their children, finding healthcare and childcare, and often dealing with aging or sick relatives.  They are expected to make amends for their past sins, make endless reparations, and successfully navigate the roadblocks and obstacles society puts in place for those with a criminal background.

Their successes inside the walls become meaningless to everyone but them.

And that’s the ultimate fear:  that it wasn’t real, that they haven’t truly changed, that they won’t be able to hold onto this new self.  It’s hard enough to carry a strong sense of self-worth and pride, even harder with the weighty legal and personal burden of past mistakes. What if they can’t do it?  What if they can’t maintain their sense of self-worth and dignity?  What if all they are is what they’ve always heard?  What if the new person they’ve struggled so hard to become is just a mirage, with no lasting substance?

None of these questions have answers because the answers are different for every student, for every human being. These questions aren’t even specific to them, although they take on particular weight for this population.  These are questions we ask ourselves, all the time, or should be asking.  “Am I good person? Am I a person I can be proud of?  Am I making the best decision for myself and others?”

That they now not only ask, but care deeply about the answer is one sign of fundamental, personal change.  If they can keep asking the question and caring about the answer, that’s as good as most of the rest of us, and better than some. That’s the weight of graduation day for us – a symbol of accomplishment that simultaneously carries enormous risk and hope.  It is worth the work, though, for them to experience themselves as successful, proud, confident, intelligent, and valuable, for as long as possible, and to share that new self with their families.

It is a new path forward for all of them, a chance to walk forward together, in a different direction.

Some words on Caitlyn

Change/Transformation, Peace/Conflict, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized

I’m not a sports fan and I didn’t watch the ESPYs.  I only caught a glimpse of the controversy through some of the postings about Caitlyn’s speech.  I admired her line about “call me whatever you want, I can take it. But transgender children shouldn’t have to.” While trans rights and advocacy aren’t my primary focus, they’re on my radar as part of larger issues of social justice and equity for all people.  I met a friend for dinner this evening, though, and he asked me my opinion, so I had to think it over more carefully.

He’d expressed a familiar sentiment, something along the lines of “why did she have to make a big deal of it?  why did she deserve an award?  why couldn’t she just do it quietly and not put herself in the spotlight?”  Those are common questions when someone does something that makes people uncomfortable, makes them question what they know and, often, how they see themselves. It’s a sign of privilege, of whatever kind, that we feel affronted and inconvenienced by someone else’s statement of identity or independence.

But with regard to Caitlyn’s ESPY award, I’m reminded of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, and the controversy that raged around when it was awarded.  I had my own mixed feelings.  He didn’t really “do” anything to deserve the prize, but he certainly represented an enormous step for the US in moving toward a more equitable future.  Whether someone’s symbolic value deserves that level of international, global recognition isn’t clear, but I believe that awarding that prize to Obama was an attempt to recognize our nation and its (bumbling) efforts to progress.

I believe the same is true of Caitlyn’s ESPY. While Bruce was an Olympic athlete deserving of every honor, he was out of the sports world for decades, and Caitlyn has never competed.  But I think the award was bestowed for a similar reason as the Nobel – as a symbol of progress toward our betterment as people.  That we can accept a trans woman as a high profile public figure, celebrate her courage and beauty, and give her a platform to be a role model for others struggling for acceptance, is astonishing.

So while I remain of mixed thoughts about both awards, I believe that they were given in a spirit of recognition – as a way to respect and honor what they represent, if not the individual themselves.

TEDx comes to prison

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Creative, Reflection, Social Justice, Uncategorized

There have been a number of TEDx events in prisons, both in the US and internationally.  Now, TEDx is coming to Oregon.  More specifically, it’s coming to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Oregon’s women’s prison.  I and six of my students are auditioning, I feel confident I’ll see at least two of them onstage.  Their audition pieces are stellar, and they’ve been working on them nonstop.  I did my audition early because I’m out of town next week, here’s the video.

I wrote the piece for this blog several months ago.  I wanted to do something else, but simply didn’t have time to create and polish something entirely new.  I hope it’s good enough to make it through to the end, but I’ll be even more happy if some of my students make it.  I can always audition for another TEDx event, this may be their best shot for a long time.  GO STUDENTS!!

Twitter-fied

Change/Transformation, Feminism, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Writing

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel confused most of the time.  This constant confusion is a result of an ongoing and bewildering mixture of wondrous, joyous, human decency with stomach-churning vileness, and moments of deep, personal sadness.  I find it impossible to determine whether I’m merely “having a rough few days/weeks/months” or if (as the beautiful, late Stephen Covey put it), I’m simply experiencing the “permanent whitewater” this shapes our lives in this time.

I believe that most of my bewilderment comes from a mental picture of my past as a more calm and stable period but I also know that probably isn’t true.  Even if it were, it all began to change in 1998 (17 years ago, almost a third of my life now) and hasn’t been “calm” since.  Everything I read tells me that most people experience some amount of upheaval throughout their 20s and 30s, and that shit really gets tough in the 40s.  But I can’t shake this nagging suspicion that somehow, this is a result of me making wrong choices, that I’ve somehow brought it, whatever “it” is, on myself.

So that’s  my personal baggage, this belief that I’m simply incapable of creating some idealistic, perfect, shining life where I make only the best decisions and experience only the best outcomes.  And yes, as I wrote that, my eyes nearly rolled out of my head.  It’s astonishing sometimes, how writing down the words in my head highlights their obvious silliness.  But….onward.

Today, despite my personal griefs and hiccups and grouchiness, looking through my Twitter feed brought my feet, head, heart, and hands into a smiling, happy place.  All the posts about the two recent SCOTUS decisions, big wins for Obama and the citizens of the US, rainbows and hearts everywhere, more scorchingly incredibly quotes from the Notorious RBG, the incredible bravery and grace of Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate flag, reminded me that things are not always going to hell in a very, very small container.

Today I am reminded that people can be brave and generous and kind and loving, at least for a few moments.  It is true that there are many, many people who feel the opposite about all of these events but for the moment, I’m not thinking of them.  I’m thinking about all my dear friends whose marriages will now be recognized in the entire country, all my students who will be able to get and afford healthcare after they parole, the women who look to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993), Sonia Sotomayor (2009), and Elena Kagan (2010) as glorious role models and shining feminist spirits, and now, to Bree Newsome, whose act of nonviolent civil disobedience helps mark our ongoing struggle to address the deep wounds of racism in the US.

Thank you, Twitterverse, for making my soul lighter and my day better.

CIhPMuzUMAEgtxQ

For my black friends

Change/Transformation, Hard Stuff, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Power/Privilege, Reflection, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

The names of the victims:  Clementa Pinckney, 41, the senior pastor at the church; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, an assistant pastor; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Myra Thompson, 59; Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49.

There is no good way to write something like this. Everything feels wrong and awkward and pandering, none of it feels quite on point. I grew up in North Carolina, with a few years each in South Carolina and Virginia. Make no mistake, NC and SC are both southern states, with many of the attendant  attitudes, ignorance, and hatreds.

I keep going over what I want to say and it doesn’t get any better. Apologies mean nothing if the same brutal acts keep happening. I can’t keep my black friends and loved ones safe, they can’t keep themselves safe, and a significant portion of our population deliberately pretends not to see the reality of racism, hatred, and domestic terrorism that’s happening.

When President Obama simply mentioning that the suspect had a gun and that, again, access to guns has rendered a terrible result, has a whole chunk of people are angry and screaming about their violated rights. When another group of people simply refuse to acknowledge this hate crime as racially motivated and instead insist that it was an attack on Christians, and proof of the pesecution of Christians, and I am left with my mouth gaping open, jaw swinging in the wind. When these things happen, I am ashamed and embarrassed that I share any human biology with these groups of people.

We just watched the trial of the remaining man involved on the Boston Marathon bombing. We immediately agreed that he was a terrorist, and that his was an act of hatred toward people simply because they were US citizens. He targeted them based on something they couldn’t control, some portion of who they are.

Why are we so fundamentally broken that we won’t even acknowledge this fact in this case? That white man was radicalized and groomed, then sent on a suicide mission to terrorize and kill the people in that church. That he is still alive is almost irrelevant, it’s a physical state only. That depth of depravity can’t leave much alive inside his mind and heart, there is probably only a black, bleak wasteland of hatred and isolation.

There is no way I can apologize for this, no way I can comfort, or reassure, no way I can see to promise it won’t happen again, or that you and your family will be safe. I can continue my work of being an ally, of addressing white people’s issues, and transforming our minds and hearts, but that is cold comfort in moments like this. I have long been in awe of the black community’s capacity for moving forward, and aware that there is so much that, as a white woman, I don’t know and will never know. Maybe one day that will change, and the world will be safe enough for us to share more deeply.

The truth in practice

Change/Transformation, Classroom/Curricula, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

When I discovered Karen Armstrong’s “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life (book and a summary),” I knew I had found my framework for living an ethical, meaningful life.  As I read and re-read the words of those who have influenced me most (bell hooks, Riane Eisler, Ron Miller, Betty Reardon, Shawn Ferch, Stephen Covey, Dr. King, Ghandi, Christ, and so many others), I am pierced to my soul, again and again.  They all say the same thing, the same thing their mentors, muses, and guides said, and those before them:

Be kind to one another.

That’s it.  That’s the message that matters, and it’s the one we most often disregard.  Yesterday, I had one of the best conversations with my students I think we’ve ever had.  We were discussing the 5th Habit (from “7 Habits of Highly Effective People“), “Seek First to Understand,” and we explored so many areas.  We discussed why we don’t try to understand, what it feels like to be mean in comparison to being kind, why we are afraid to be kind, what it means to have never received empathy, the nature of ethical character, the feelings that form the foundations for both meanness and kindness, the criticality of self-awareness and self-honesty, and the truth that being kind is a practice.

Kindness is both a skill and a frame of mind and being that we can actively cultivate and practice.  It isn’t an accident, a happy mischance or inborn talent.  It takes constant work and attention to practice kindness and compassion, to build the internal strength and fortitude necessary to maintain its gentleness in the face of cruelty and brutality.  But, as with any skill, habit, or practice, it is our choice to continue or not.  It is my hope that they will continue their practice, for the rest of their lives.

Every time I think about these conversations, about how I came to this point in my life and the potential for the futures of these women, I possessed by feelings of such immensity and power that I have to breathe deeply and allow them to pass through, around, over.  I believe these are moments of alignment, when my heart, mind, body, and spirit are perfectly in tune with our universal purpose.  In my more calm and accepting moments, I am humbled by my journey – how each phase of my life prepared me to be this person, to care for these women, to bring something meaningful into this world.

I spent so many years of my life with no purpose, not knowing what purpose meant, or that I might seek and find such a thing. It would be easy to spend time regretting all those ‘lost’ years, but I can’t.  Without remembering those meaningless years, my current state would lose much of its richness.  Neale Donald Walsch wrote, in one of the “Conversations with God” books “First, you must be who you are NOT in order to be who you ARE.” I believe this is true for both myself and for my students.  More than I, more than most of us could ever know, they have been who they are NOT.

Now, they will get the chance to show us who they ARE.

Six days and a wake up

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Hard Stuff, Reflection, Relationships, Uncategorized, Writing

That’s how much time until N, former student and assistant, paroles.  It’s such a bittersweet moment for me, their parole date and all its attendant excitement and anxiety and uncertainty.  The only thing that is certain is that they are leaving, prepared or unprepared, and the nature of our relationship changes with their freedom and newly recovered autonomy.

Now, they have the freedom to stay in relationship or not, and that is as it should be.  We should all have the freedom to choose our relationships but, in prison, that freedom is removed.  Even though I try to be someone they want to listen to and learn from, there’s always the underlying question – would they be doing this if they didn’t have to?  Would they be so cooperative and willing if they had a choice?

Most of them don’t stay in touch when they leave, or they stay in touch only briefly.  That is sad, but I think it is also right.  They need to live their lives and make their choices on their own – rebuild their confidence, and trust in their decisions without my support.  While part of me would love a regular email update, the other part of me thinks “they need to take the lessons they learned and move on, find new teachers and mentors, and create new futures for themselves” and that can mean they completely break their ties with friends and staff.

It’s all part of the ritual of leaving.  The promises to keep in touch that are only sporadically kept, giving away belongings, parties and sharing spreads, making beautiful, elaborate goodbye cards – all sentimentality at its finest.  But the grief is real, the loss is real, even if the gratuitous displays of emotion are a bit much.  I’ve spent so much of my life leaving or being left, and it still feels as if I am standing still, while the person leaving is accelerating away, faster and faster til they’re just a speck in the distance.

I feel a “happy loss,” I suppose.  I understand and accept the change, with both a sense of loss and hope for their better future.

Romance vs Reality

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Feminism, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

I write about incarcerated women and corrections education because I see how prison (and all its attendant systems) does so much more harm than good.  The prison system was designed by men, to dominate and control other men, and those practices are even more traumatizing and harmful for women.  Women were never a significant part of the prison population until the early 90s.  Between 1990 and 1995, the number of women’s prisons in the US more than doubled, and by 2010, women made up nearly 7% of the prison population.

There are many reasons for this – ‘tough on crime’ laws, including mandatory minimums and three strikes, and increased criminalization of drug use and non-violent offenses.  What I see is that women are punished for making bad relationship decisions, being poor, uneducated, black, and having untreated mental health and addiction issues.  Literature and reporting reveal that the vast majority of women in prisons have suffered some form of abuse, with at least 25% of them reporting abuse while they were minors.

What does all of this have to do with romance?  Given all of these factors, it becomes almost impossible not to romanticize incarcerated women.  It is far too easy to think of them as innocent victims, as people at the constant mercy of men, systemic abuse and injustice, and their own broken-ness.  While all those things may be true, casting them in the role of victims and martyrs is a mistake.

When we cast people as victims and insist that that they think of themselves in that way, we remove their autonomy and their responsibility for their choices.  This is such a crucial component of working with women that it bears repeating:  We must not cast incarcerated women in the role of victims and martyrs.  When we do, we remove their autonomy, and their sense of responsibility for their own actions. Accepting their responsibility, regardless of the why, is a key step toward understanding that they can make different choices.

My advocacy does not mean that I wear blinders, or rose-colored glasses.  I am keenly aware that the women I work with have committed crimes, wreaked havoc, hurt people, destroyed their families, and left swathes of devastation in their wake.  I speak with them openly about this, because having those blunt, uncolored conversations about accepting responsibility must happen.  If they are to heal, we cannot pretend that they didn’t do terrible things, or that those choices somehow weren’t theirs.

Before I started working at CCCF, I leaned much more toward the romantic view of incarcerated people – men and women.  I had vague notions of unjust imprisonment, oppressive systems, and innocent people being victimized.  I realize now that even though those things are sometimes true, society still has to manage people who endanger themselves and others.  We don’t always do it well, which is why the system needs vigilant watchdogs and advocates and transformation, but we need to do that work with our eyes open and unclouded by romantic ideals.

Mental illness or unchangeable habits?

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Obstacles/Challenges, Uncategorized

One of the most confusing and troubling aspects of my work is differentiating between what I can work with and what I can’t.  This shows up most often when students are starting to struggle and I have to determine whether it’s learned behavior, or something deeper and more serious.  If they are running into old, dysfunctional patterns of self-sabotage, there’s a solid chance I can help them, if they’re willing to do the work.  If it seems that I’m dealing with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, there’s often nothing I can do until they self-destruct.

The level of ambiguity and lack of clarity in these situations is jaw-dropping.  I often have nothing to go on except my knowledge of the student, and my intuition.  DOC is extremely limited in what it can do, or offer, with regard to mental health and illness, and I have access to none of that information.  If an inmate isn’t an immediate danger to herself or others, they are treated as if they are “stable”.  If an inmate doesn’t have a previous mental illness diagnosis, the chances of getting one while incarcerated are almost nonexistent, which means no treatment.

DOC offers little cognitive therapy and that only to the most severely mentally ill inmates. Those who can get mental health services (a minority of inmates) are largely treated using DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), not cognitive therapy.  This means their counselors help them deal with their immediate situation – strengthening their coping and rational thinking skills.  While this is necessary, it does nothing to relieve the underlying reasons why they continue to make bad decisions, or the chemical and biological causes for depression, mood swings, and erratic behavior.

About a year ago, I had a student in her early 20s.  She’d gotten caught up in some shady stuff her mother was doing and ended up getting a seven-year sentence when she was 18 and a first time offender.  Her mother got only five years, but that’s another discussion.  I accepted this young woman into my program late, when another student dropped.  The New Student (NS) had to do a lot of work in a short period of time to catch up and she did – we were all excited and pleased because she was off to a good start.

She managed to maintain herself for a while, but then we (my program clerks and I) started to notice a cycle of behavior.  She consistently had trouble with acting out while under stress, even with extensive coaching and new tools, and about every six to eight weeks, she’d have a major blow up.  We’d have a debrief, a big discussion, create a plan with specific goals and steps, and discuss consequences.  This happened maybe three times and when the cycle began again, I knew something had to change.

I don’t remember exactly what happened, but NS was headed toward another blowup and, hoping to stop the cycle, I brought her into my office to talk.  Because she’d started the program late, she was still finishing up the first module after the rest of the class had graduated and gone.  She was the only student working, and we were prepping for the next class and finishing up interviews.  She only had another three to four weeks max until she’d be done with the entire course, and I had hopes we could help her hold herself together long enough to finish.

One of my clerks was with us, and the discussion progressed.  This time, though, something was different.  NS had a harder edge, was more aggressive than she had been and before I knew it, she had slammed her head backward into the wall.  It wasn’t hard, but it was on purpose and far, far beyond the norm of acceptable behavior.  I immediately called security and two officers came.  One, a calm woman who has since retired, stayed in the room and the other, also steady and calm, stood right outside.

I continued my conversation with NS, hoping she would de-escalate and pull herself together, so I wouldn’t have to see her walked out in handcuffs.  She managed, but not until I told her she could either throw herself on the floor and have a real tantrum, or go back out and continue working like a grown adult.  I was not sure what choice she would make and almost expected her to throw herself on the ground and start punching the floor. She decided to go back to her seat, so I let her and left further conversation for another time.  I didn’t feel that anything was resolved, but I hoped her choice was a good sign.

It might have been, but making one right choice wasn’t enough to stop her from completely sabotaging everything she’d worked so hard to build.  Within a week, she’d gotten into a serious fight with one of my newly chosen students and both were taken to Medium, to Segregation.  She was lucky she wasn’t beaten more badly, and I suppose I dodged a bullet with the incoming student.  But the whole incident was horrible and it felt like all that work with her had just swirled down the drain, mixed with the blood running from her cut face.

To this day, I don’t know if her behavior was a sign of a mental illness, or an attention-seeking behavior so deeply ingrained she just couldn’t pry it loose.  I’ll probably never know, but it drove home for me that every single person I interact with has a complex, hidden self that I know nothing of, but that influences and permeates every interaction, choice, and behavior.  While this behavior seems shocking, it isn’t.  Teachers all over the world have to deal with students who are violent, aggressive, sick, mentally unstable, and mentally unwell all the time.

For me, this is another demonstration that these women are human beings.  They work and find ways to deal with the issues that come up for them because they feel they have no choice.  To give in and act out in their old, self-destructive ways isn’t an option for most of them any more, so they manage, then take another step forward. Given their limited access to resources in such a stressful and negative environment, I also believe they have the strongest desire to change their lives that I’ve ever seen.

Behind the Curtain

Change/Transformation, It's Personal, Laughter, Leadership, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I’ve been interested in leadership – theory and practice – and in various styles of leadership for many years.  Recently, I’ve been exploring the structure of Servant Leadership and have found that most of what I teach my students falls directly into this framework.  Not only do I take a Servant Leadership approach, I teach them to be Servant Leaders.  I don’t discuss it in those terms, but I train them in listening, compassion, kindness, supporting others, empathy, foresight, and care for the world.  I’m training them, hoping to seed the world with these budding humans.

It’s amusing, the internal conflicts that arise from considering myself a Servant Leader, amusing and sometimes aggravating.  As an ambitious, intelligent, and talented professional, I want credit for my work – I want to be acknowledged for my accomplishments, my dedication, and my passion.  But Servant Leadership is about leading from behind and beside, commitment to the growth of others, and not so much about being the star.

So where does this leave me?  Struggling between wanting acknowledgement and internalizing an approach that focuses on strengthening and developing others, it seems.  But even as my internal conflict sputters along, I know that I have chosen the right path, and that my desire for personal glory is fleeting compared to building resilient, compassionate human beings.  If asked how I manage my craving for personal acknowledgment with continuing to work as a servant leader, I don’t know what I would say.

Even writing a blog post about it feels uncomfortable – calling attention to myself in an un-servant-like way.  But it is true – I consider myself in this way and most of my decisions about what to do and how to do it come from this paradigm.  Writing this post feels awkward and uncomfortable, as it should.  I’m acknowledging my sticky, prickly human nature, and bringing her out from behind the curtain.

Bedtime existentialism

Change/Transformation, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I’ve written before about creeping into middle age; waking up one day to find myself post-45 and so confused – what happened to all those years?  I have no answer, no one ever has an answer, but it seems we’re all compelled to ask “where did so many years go?” Childhood and young adulthood seem both close and infinitely far, unreachable.

As I move further and further from those stages, memories fold in on themselves, colors bleeding, edges dulling.  I remember bits, snippets of videos – gifs now – things that were once so critical.  I hear only my voice, narrating scenes – riding with my friends, galleries of images from my undergraduate and graduate studies, friends who have long since disappeared, bad and sad relationships, stupid dates, moving, a montage of family footage, so much dancing, glimpses of my occasional travels, and the geography of my internal landscape.

So much doesn’t seem real anymore – it’s hard to remember how all those moments felt.  I can see them happening, and describe them but, as they grow more distant, it’s harder and harder to recall the feelings, the physicality and presence of me.

That distance seems both blessing and curse.

I was not an exceptional young person.  I was not a stunning beauty, talented athlete, genius musician, or great intellectual.  I had some moderate successes, but they were because my peers were less educated and trained than I, rather than any outstanding natural talent.  That trend has continued throughout my life – moderate ability and success at a number of things, but no “one great thing” that I’ve excelled in.

Perhaps that will continue, or perhaps I will find my “one great thing.”  As I note the years passing, though, and gain insight into what it takes to truly excel, I become less and less sure of both my ability and my desire to make that kind of mark.  I know what it takes to be expert, and those 10,000 hours don’t come easy.  They come harder later, not impossible, but far less effortless.

I think, maybe, that walking the road of the moderate talent has been by unconscious choice. I’ve lived on the outskirt of the spotlight for many years, supporting others and feeling content in that role.  I continue play that role today and while I have a measure of contentment, something else is stirring.  Many times I’ve felt unrecognized and unappreciated, but it’s hard to know if that stems from a surface desire for recognition, or a deeper sense of always being unseen, of always being a step outside of the golden circle.

As I look to the middle and elder stages of my life, I find that I am like every other human – I desire to leave something of myself behind, a legacy or even a memory. I wonder if it is my destiny to leave this world better, but unremembered.

I do feel fear, occasionally, of growing older.  Women over 50 are often relegated to silence, voices suppressed, disregarded in so many ways.  I don’t want that to be my fate, I don’t want to grow older with only those melting, self-narrated scenes for company.  Like so many before me, I want to be relevant and useful and desirable for as long as possible.  I am afraid that I won’t get more chances, that I’ll be discarded, consigned to the cold hands of memory.

There is no comfort here, no warm acceptance of the nature of life and of time.  I don’t feel a special resolve to age gracefully, to step aside so others can have their turn.  Do I want to live forever?  No.  But do I want to be present for every moment until I die?  Yes.

Middle Age

Change/Transformation, It's Personal, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

The exquisitely edged path of middle age runs between regretting what I haven’t done and embracing the new paths of my life.

Looking back, my heart droops for all those lost opportunities of youth – adventure, exploration, burning and freezing love, children, family roots, backpacks, oil and brushes, typewriters, endless reams of paper covered with ink in meaningful shapes, fantastic voyages, sick beats, pointe shoes, leotards, Julliard, glow sticks, lollipops and suckers, judo, and flying.  I mourn my lost fearlessness, so rarely used, belief in my own immortality, blind idealism, insatiable curiosity about everything, boundless and endless hope in humanity.

I miss my childish eyes and youthful heart.

Forward is different, an unfamiliar and awkward adjustment in thinking and being.  I long for the undiscovered country of grace, wisdom, gentle silver beauty, vibrant color and sounds that thrill.  I feel my heart open to the warmth of intimate gatherings, happy dancing friends, food and growing things, exploring unknown areas where words and music and illusion meet, thrive, and move, a world of complexity and chaos, a world that needs us to care for each other above all.

I welcome my soft eyes and gentle heart.