I’ve recently been reflecting on ways to reweave the fabric of our community through leadership and citizenship. Much of my shift in thinking about what makes great leaders and citizens (or citizen leaders) and indeed – sustainable, healthy communities and ecosystems — is based on the work of Peter Block, Fritjof Capra and others in the realm of organization development and ecoliteracy — as well as my real-life experiences working in a prison environment and dealing with people many would just rather just dismiss.
We often think that the issues of poverty, crime, low economic status, disease and our global climate crisis as serious problems that need “fixing.” This mindset is based on a world view that something is wrong with someone/something else and that they are responsible for the demise of our current socio-economic and environmental ills. Reactively, I would add into the mix corporations, special interest groups, politicians, and those Wall Street guys. The tea partiers would argue its large government and our scary Muslim president. Rich people might blame the poor people. Poor people might blame the system. The list just becomes endless. And the media is just a reflection of our retributive mentality, always focusing on the negative –its what sells because we watch it.
Working in a prison, and with populations that seemingly fall into some of the toughest categories around, I wholeheartedly agree with Peter Block that the consequences of retributive systems market fear and fault and emphasize more laws and oversight, over-obsession with leadership (and dependence on formal leadership to lead us), the marginalization of hope, and devaluation of associational life. And, likewise, based on my experience working with gardens and prisoners, I do agree with Fritjof that “nature (itself) sustains life by creating and nurturing community.”
So the conversation has to shift from talking about what’s wrong with communities to the root causes of community break down and what role we have all played in that. These “issues” are symptoms of something much deeper – our disconnection from each other and the natural world. If we weren’t so disconnected from the natural world, do you think people would have the “conquer nature” mentality or have such ignorance or disregard for our place in it?
Is there a way through this morass? Yes. We can shift our thinking to place greater value on associational life. Social capital (and environmental care) is built through connectedness. We shift the conversations from problems to possibility; fear and faults to gifts; and law and oversight to preference for reweaving social fabric through accountability and ownership. We CAN rebuild our communities, take back our projections, and create a different future.
And this requires a deep, uncomfortable shift in thinking and doing. It means we rethink our definition of citizenship and leadership. We have to be willing to not only question authority, but also ourselves. We have to take accountability and ownership for our place in our communities and the natural world, and stop depending on or demanding others to do it for us. We have to become the leaders we wish to see in the world.
In our work at San Quentin, we take the approach of co-creation, accountability, and ownership to build community within our prison class (and sometimes even beyond). We work in small groups to build trust and care among the men. Although we ask lots of provocative questions that can really stir things up, our classes are a “safe” space. Men start to reflect on their pasts, the present, and the possibility for different futures. Even that reflection alone leads to a shift. They can never go back completely to the past, because they know that new possibilities exist and there are no longer any excuses.
And then we add the natural world to the mix. To reconnect men to their true nature and to nature itself, we also work in our lovely organic flower garden. Being in the garden means that men start to nurture other living things…and that care flows back to themselves as well as each other. They work in mixed race teams (which normally they’d never do on a prison yard), sometimes with sharp instruments (with which they are ever so careful). The tough demeanor disappears and they start to smile (a lot). The care flows both ways. In understanding their interconnectedness with each other and nature, they become environmentally aware. And they want to bring their newfound knowledge back to their families and neighborhoods outside of prison.
People who have always been marginalized are brought into the center of the circle. We just provide the space and the questions. We avoid advice (control) and replace it with curiosity. We create possibilities – together. We allow room for dissent without judgment. And through this work, responsible, engaged leadership and citizenship emerges. These strong, able people who shed their egos and their blame, shame and victim mentality realize they, too, do have gifts. We all do.
In the media, our work at the prison would be considered a “human interest” story. But we’re a real story (worth telling) about real people trying to create change within ourselves and together. By nurturing community through connection to the natural world, even inside the prison walls, healing begins.
We are the good news.