The Good News

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.

Posted in Associational Life, Citizenship, Community, Environmental Care, Leadership | Leave a comment

“Real” America

It’s a week before the mid-term elections. During campaigns, I’m always reminded of Sarah Palin’s “Real America” mantra so prevalent during the last presidential campaign. Somehow she positioned folks from the heartland as having one up on the rest of us, to which I’ve always had something of a visceral reaction (hey, I’m Real too!)

To me, that people from Middle America are what constitute “real” is a bit off base. At first, I used to wonder how could they experience REAL when their demographics make up a fairly homogenous group of people who may not have been to an inner city, or a diverse environment laden with all the folks they claim to hate. It’s easy to hate that with which you’re not familiar.

I checked online: the Mirriam Webster dictionary’s definition of “real” is: a : not artificial, fraudulent, or illusory : genuine <real gold>; also : being precisely what the name implies <a real professional

What is scary or unknown can be considered unreal – how can we have connection to something if we don’t have any concept of it?  What if it’s not like us?  It gets labeled as a threat (to fear), or worse, becomes totally ignored.  I often wonder how humans have become so woefully wonderful at de-humanizing each other.  Easier to deal with I suppose, to make what’s not like us become the enemy. Then we don’t have to deal with it on a deeply emotional or practical level, and can just throw it away (but where is away?)

This objectification of “bad” allows us to not take responsibility for our own behavior.  It gives us permission to ignore our own contribution to the negativity and to create an ongoing cycle of intolerance, overreaction, and retribution.

So Sarah Palin’s version of Americans may be PART of “Real” America, which I believe is much broader and more diverse in scope.  To me, Real America is inclusive of those who seem “different” – all those gays, lesbians, and transgenders, our black president, Arab-Americans and Muslims, different colors, races, religions, behaviors, the poor, the rich, and our shrinking middle class.  It is made up of people who have different opinions, look different, live in different parts of the country.  It is our “melting” pot of history and the tradition of so many cultures that used to be what made this country so unique.

In fact, maybe “Real” America is the inner city, the outer city, the suburbs, our rural communities and everything in between.  “Real” includes our prisoners (who we like to throw away behind bars) but most of whom will come back to our streets.  It is our police officers, and fire fighters, and politicians, and all of our citizens.  It is the collective.  One type of person or place does not make for real  – all of us do.

Instead of the labels, I wonder what might happen if we replaced suspicion with curiosity, and our hoarding mentality with generosity towards others?  What if we smiled and embraced our differences rather than belittled them?

What if we found our compassion, humanity and power again in the strength of community and citizenship rather than “us” against “them”?  What if we stop depending on our leaders to lead us, and led ourselves through an acceptance and celebration of diversity and action?

What if we didn’t try to change others’ beliefs, but focused on cultivating our experiences to be more worldly through open examination and allowed people’s experiences to inform their beliefs rather than have others dictate their advice to us?

What if we accepted that constant change is the nature of things?

What if let our acts of kindness and care define us rather than our stuff?

All of our America is rich and full of diversity.  That is what makes it “real,” at least for me. And I continue to want to find ways to pull us together, not apart.

Posted in Community, Politics | 1 Comment

Why do I help “criminals”?

Despite the recent revival of the death penalty controversy here in California and what “those people” must be like behind bars, there are reasons why people like me spend time working with prisoners.

Recently our Insight Garden Program co-hosted the first ever “green career fair” in collaboration with the California Reentry Program for men living in San Quentin…so they could learn more about green jobs, green careers, as well as food, farming and urban agriculture. The fair connected more than 200 men to organizations throughout the Bay Area interested in making a difference and promoting “eco-equity.”  Needless to say, it was a huge success, and fits nicely into our reentry eco-initiative to provide men with landscaping, gardening and “green jobs” when they leave prison.

So just a day after the career fair, I answered a blocked call on my cell phone, thinking we might have a new fan.  I correctly assumed that the caller had read one of the media articles about the fair.

Without warning, he began the rant. “I was the victim of a Crips shooting at McDonalds.  WHAT ARE YOU DOING HELPING CRIMINALS when people like me can’t even get a job?”  In the moment, I was too shocked to answer, so I reactively hung up the phone.

But the question he asked was right on. Why do I help criminals?

It’s a complicated answer (which I predicate with the knowledge that there are definitely people who should remain separated from society because of the danger they pose to others. But the men we work with will parole and return to our communities).

So here’s my list, in no particular order:

  • I have always believed in empowering people to understand options available to them so they might lead healthier, more productive lives.
  • By helping people less fortunate than I am, I live more fully.  I also get back from the men we work with much more than I give – in terms of respect, care, and compassion. Prisoners are people, too. The men have a saying:  “You get what you give, and you give what you get.”
  • Everyone has a heart (believe it or not), and though hearts can be deeply mired in hurt and pain (which is often anesthetized by alcohol and drugs and very bad behavior), I know from first hand experience that hearts can heal.
  • I believe in second chances (and maybe even third or forth – however many chances it takes without re-victimization).
  • As a citizen, I have a responsibility to care for the collective, especially if people who have offended against society take responsibility for their behavior, make the effort to change, and are willing to give back.
  • If we help one person, their whole relationship system outside of prison potentially benefits when they leave.
  • By setting boundaries (which many men we work with haven’t had), the cons can’t “con” me, and there’s a shift in respect.  When I’m for real – they get real.  One man in reentry recently shared that he never believed there were good people in the world until he joined our program.  Now knowing that there are “good” people in the world inspires him to become a better person.  He wants to make a difference, too.
  • Working with people in prison (who ARE going to leave) so they gain the skills they need to lead productive lives outside means that taxpayers don’t have to dish out almost $50,000 a year/inmate in our vastly overcrowded California prison system. Since 70% of those people return to prison, it becomes a revolving door of incarceration, with enormously negative impacts on the men, their families as well as the victims of their crimes.
  • California releases approximately 120,000 prisoners/year. Whether we like it or not, most prisoners eventually are released and come back to our communities. So why not work with men on the inside so they stay out once they leave?
  • Being tough on crime means sending people out of prison in better shape than they came in, with the skills they need to make it so they will be LESS likely to re-victimize others.  THAT enhances public safety.

And finally, I do this work because I have experienced and witnessed first hand the power of transformation through connection to the natural world. That is what has given me faith in the human capacity for change, time and time again.

Posted in Prison Reform/Prisoner Rehabilitation, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Power of Plants

Use the power of plants to transform people, communities and institutions!  Being in nature – and working with it – has been studied from seed to bloom, and there is no doubt either empirically or emotionally that working in gardens heals, offers a place of peace, and teaches us everything we need to know.

Knowing that gardens and the natural world help us reconnect to ourselves, our communities and the natural environment is the mission of our rehabilitative gardening program at San Quentin State Prison. Plants are powerful.  They create transformation. And actually working in nature multiples that transformation.

For almost every week over the past 8 years, I’ve entered the grey, colorless place of San Quentin to facilitate a gardening program there.  Sprouted from a desire to make a difference doing something I loved, it all happened quite accidentally – with an invitation to build a garden in a bleak, depressing prison yard.

Of course, no one told me what it would be like to work in a prison environment, with a culture bent on punishment and authority.  No one told me how resistant to change the staff would be.  And no one told me, that despite these challenges, the transformation of our class participants could impact my life so deeply.

And we did manage to build a gorgeous, colorful organic flower garden on a prison yard that is enjoyed by all (note blog photo!)  Now we’re working on a vegetable garden with almost 3 years of negotiations with the prison…

We have managed to continue our weekly classes to nurture the inner and outer gardener in all of us. And it works.  I may not have all the scientific studies to prove it, but as facilitators of “inner” and “outer” gardening, human ecological connections, food and urban ag and green jobs – combined with actual work in a garden – the men shift.  They go from “numb” to feeling, and from scared and in denial to hopeful and committed to change.

For instance, recently before Jerome’s parole, he mentioned in class how angry he was that his parole date was delayed.  “And then, in front of my advisor, I shut my eyes and just imagined being in the garden…and the anger just disappeared.”

This moment of Jerome’s enlightenment brought tears to my eyes and is what makes it all worthwhile.  Speechless.  Being in the garden for him was a place to rest his weary body and mind, a place of peace he could go back to in his memory – even after prison.  As we write in  our certificates to paroling men: “May the memory of our garden always rest in your heart.”

Gardening in our lovely plot has brought together men of diverse backgrounds, of different colors, religions and world views — and with a multitude of crimes.  But they don’t really care that they’re different in the garden; indeed, they learn much from one another.

Transformation to them happens just by being there, working with hands in dirt, naming the bugs, petting the bees, getting upset when they break through an irrigation line (which is just another reason to have an irrigation class).  Prisoners are people too.  I’ve found if I treat them with respect and it comes back in droves.  I am very fond of “the guys.” Despite the hardness of their lives, they have hearts…we just give them a chance to plant some seeds and bloom.

Posted in Gardening as Transformation | 2 Comments