"I never knew what would come of me joining the Inmate Council Program, but when I saw what it did for me and my family I was convinced that this is something that I want to do for the rest of my life." – Sam Escobar
Sam Escobar was introduced to the Council practice during his time in Salinas Valley State Prison. Skeptical of the Inmate Council Program at first, Sam spent many sessions watching other men in the circle speak honestly about their lives, often unearthing emotions and offering up a vulnerability previously unseen within the prison setting. Seeing this unfold within the circle, Sam realized that Council was a space where people would leave their comfort zone, speak openly from the heart, and let their guard down—something that, growing up in gang culture, Sam was vehemently warned against. Sam says he came to see that the authenticity and vulnerability he was experiencing was a result of the unique quality of nonjudgmental listening that the program participants brought to the circle.
It took Sam a little while of observing how the group held space and what others were sharing before he was able to get out of his own comfort zone and open up. In a story for ATTN, Sam writes:
“For someone who was once involved in street gangs and prison gangs and who participated in race riots and prison stabbings, letting my guard down was a big turnaround. I no longer saw other inmates through the lens of the gang, as the enemy, but as a prospective member of the Council, someone who could fill the symbolic empty seat in the circle. I see them as someone waiting to be heard, listened to, understood with compassion and empathy, potential links in this chain of peace and human kindness.”
Over the next few years, Sam became the Chairman of the group and helped expand the program throughout the prison, and even introduced Council to interested officers. Earlier this year, Sam was released on parole. His Parole Commissioner made special note of the transformation Sam had undergone due to his participation in the Inmate Council Program and his leadership of Council circles within the prison community.
We are thrilled to welcome Sam back into the Los Angeles community and even more excited to announce that Sam is now an official member of the Center for Council team! As Center for Council’s new Outreach Associate, Sam will help us present future programs to agencies and individuals and work with our team in visioning new program opportunities. We are honored to have him speak about his unique and impactful experience working with Council and how it has the power to transform individual lives just as it did his. In addition, Sam will be lending his voice to our Center for Council narrative, contributing stories and articles about his time transitioning back into the community from prison and how he continues to integrate skills he learned practicing Council in the face of both challenges and new opportunities that arise for him. Keep an eye out for Sam’s stories in the coming weeks!
The Department on Disability is one of the 15 organizations currently participating in our third round of the Social Justice Council Project. The Department on Disability ensures that all city programs, facilities, and services are accessible; supports people with disabilities and those impacted by them; and provides prevention and education programs for those at risk or impacted by HIV/AIDS.
Center for Council recently spoke with the Department on Disability’s Chief of Staff and Public Information Officer, Nicole Willett, to get a sense of the impact that the Social Justice Council Project has had on the agency and its staff members. Nicole reported an experiential shift in their organizational culture; one both unique to the Department on Disability and simultaneously echoed in the experiences of so many other organizations who have participated in our Council Training Program. Nicole talked about how staff members have extended the practice of Council past the circle and into the office, noting that Council circles have encouraged collaboration between departments and created a warmer, friendlier environment for staff to work in. Read her interview to learn more about how Council can create a cultural shift within a professional environment.
Center for Council: Was the staff at the Department on Disability open to the practice, did anyone have any reservations going in?
Nicole Willett: One of the important things for us was that I was able to personally vouch for the training and trainer. We have trainers come in a lot for other programs and other trainings that aren’t aware of cultural pieces around disability or aren’t comfortable addressing contexts of race or gender. I really wanted to know we would have a trainer that would be inclusive.
I coordinate all of the trainings in our department and it’s the only training I’ve never gotten a complaint about. Everyone felt that it was very inclusive and that the trainers were open to shifting language as we asked them to. That was a really key part for us.
Did you notice a shift within your organization?
People enjoy the slowing down and the coming together. We’re a small department, we have a huge mandate, and it’s go-go-go all the time. A lot of time it’s not go-go-go all together.
There has been a greater understanding among all of our staff members. Council’s fundamentals of attentive communication, in that there is no interrupting and an encouragement to listen without judgement, has allowed people to feel comfortable in sharing their stories.
Have you noticed a shift in how your organization operates?
People are more willing to assume good intent among their co-workers and there’s much more communication about personal things like, “how’s your son doing?” around the office, which generally helps to boost the mood. I have noticed more willingness to collaborate across divisions, where before if staff members didn’t know one another that collaboration wouldn’t have happened. Across our department, there is an increased ease of collaboration.
Did you notice a personal shift, or was there anything that came out of the training that surprised you?
My boss, our Executive Director, has really taken to the practice and wants to use it in every aspect of our department as well as personally. He has commented numerous times about how it has changed his life. And, you know, he was very open to it already, but it was really cool to see how he embraced the practice of Council so fully.
The Social Justice Council Project is made by possible by a generous grant from The Angell Foundation.
For the first time ever, Center for Council has begun working with Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers. The Wellness and Resiliency Skills Training is intended to teach mindfulness techniques and the Council practice to mitigate on-the-job stressors and enhance performance, cultivate awareness, and improve community relations. Currently taking place in the LAPD South Bureau, our program is led by Center for Council Executive Director Jared Seide and Richard Goerling, a police Lieutenant who regularly brings mindfulness workshops to police agencies around the country. Center for Council’s program focuses on enhancing skills for wellness and resiliency that support self-awareness, self-regulation and situational awareness, leading to a healthier culture of policing, more adept stress management, and more skillful relations with communities.
The Wellness and Resiliency Skills Training format includes an immersive training workshop, followed by weekly mindfulness and Council practice assignments for small groups of participants. The six-month program is comprised of four modules with exercises and readings that explore physical, mental, emotional, and energetic awareness. The curriculum offers a deep exploration of the science and experience of mindfulness and compassionate communication as it relates to stress, resiliency, performance, and community building. Unlike other mindfulness programs, the Wellness and Resiliency Skills Training presents an interactive, engaged, and on-going series of workshops and activities that provides participants with the tools and skills to integrate this work into their professional and personal lives. The Council process is a flexible and peer-led format for integrating the material covered over the course of the program and is intended to offer an ongoing and sustainable resource for deepening individual skills, building community, and strengthening team support. The response thus far has been overwhelmingly positive and engaged, with participants reporting that they have been “sleeping better and being more mindful” and are more easily able “to decompress at the end of the day.”
For Center for Council, this program has been years in the making. "We are deeply committed to building compassion-based practices to foster individual and community health -- and a critical priority for us is supporting law enforcement officers in an effective and holistic way," explained Center for Council Executive Director Jared Seide. We are thrilled to expand our reach to law enforcement officers working in our Los Angeles communities.
For the first time in the festival’s history, SXSW broadened its 2018 programming to include a series of workshops and panels exploring spirituality in the 21st century. With topics ranging from spirituality in political activism to the challenge of creating spiritual communities online, the inclusion of the series represents a shift in the traditionally arts- and tech-focused festival to include a wider audience, and demonstrated a willingness to tackle deeper cultural issues of inclusion, connection, and meaning.
Center for Council Executive Director, Jared Seide, spoke on a panel, “Finding Spiritual Community Both On and Offline,” as part of SXSW’s new spirituality series. Seide, along with Rabbi Neil Blumofe, explored the triumphs and challenges of community building in the digital age. The discussion shed light on a multitude of ideas and challenges we face in our technology-heavy world, one in which we are increasingly connected to our screens, but not each other, and the information we receive about our world is carefully curated, particularly through the algorithms engrained in the social platforms we use. Much of the information that comes to us is intended to confirm our biases, and sometimes stoke our fears, in service of the agendas and platforms that want to keep us engaged.
Seide explained at the panel, “Our brains are designed to process complex, non-linear, environmental information. We orient to and depend on a diversity of input to understand community, to figure out how we feel about safety, about belonging, about compassion. We depend on sensations and micro-expressions and body language and that mysterious sense we get when we feel ‘some kinda way.’ That stuff doesn't come to us through technology, at least not yet. We really need to show up, with other humans, face-to-face, in real time. We need to convene. We need to connect. And I'm worried that our over-reliance on our screens just reinforces our diminishing experience of real relationships; it diminishes our relational skills; it diminishes community. We crave connection, and human contact, but that's not what we get from screens. Online interactions, and now VR, can extend some experiences, and maybe extend our reach, but these things cannot replace human connection."
Center for Council is thrilled to be at the forefront of these exchanges. In a time that favors advancing technology, how can we hold on to practices that reinforce human connection, build community in the physical realm, and foster compassionate relationships between individuals?
Mathew was introduced to the practice of Council through Center for Council’s Inmate Council Program at Correctional Training Facility, in Soledad, California. Through the program he found a practice that enabled him to internalize and reflect on what had been brewing inside him before imprisonment. It also helped him consciously create a new way to move through the world so that he can connect with and relate to those around him, regardless of their difference in backgrounds or ideology. The Inmate Council Program helped him articulate his thoughts and feelings about how he had previously existed in his community.
Randy has been the warden at both Correctional Training Facility and Salinas Valley State Prison, in Soledad, California; he is currently a Commissioner on the Board of Parole Hearings. After learning about the practice of Council and witnessing the transformation and shift in attitudes of the prisoners who participated in the Inmate Council Program, Randy facilitated a circle with his correctional facility staff. It was an informal circle, around a small conference table in his office, but the effect of that single practice was no less profound. In a working environment where being vulnerable is discouraged, where the traumas and stresses that one is exposed to while on the job can be overwhelming, Randy knew how important it was to create a space for his employees to be able to be open and honest.
Jolene’s husband, Sam, had been in prison for over a decade when he began participating in Center for Council’s Inmate Council Program. It was through him that she discovered the practice of Council, a space where she could talk about what was really going on in her life. For Jolene, Council filled a much-needed void and reconciled the inability to share her story and connect with people around her. Center for Council has impacted Jolene’s entire family in profound ways.
Center for Council sat down with Jolene to learn more about her story. Jolene explained that she and Sam were married and then divorced while he was in jail. Their son and daughter rarely talked to their father and Jolene wasn’t able to speak with her family about what was happening with Sam. After they had separated, Jolene began to notice a change within Sam; he was kinder, more empathetic with her when they spoke and during visiting hours. Jolene was hesitant at first, wondering if the change she was witnessing would last. After a while she asked Sam what had caused this shift within him. It was through him that she learned about Center for Council.
Edward encountered Council for the first time at Ironwood State Prison. He was one of the first participants to sign up for the Inmate Council Program there and became a leader within the group after completing both the Council 1 and Council 2 training workshops offered by Center for Council trainers.
Edward was incarcerated for 27 years before being called for an interview this summer before the Board of Parole Hearings. That interview led to the granting of parole and Edward is now in the process of reintegrating himself into the San Diego community. Edward credits the success of his rehabilitation efforts, and the granting of parole, to skills and perspectives he learned in the workshops and practice groups offered by the Inmate Council Program.
When CDCR’s Office of Public Communications arranged for Center for Council to videotape inmate testimonials about the impact of the program, we were struck by Edward’s extraordinarily clear and insightful perspective. His articulation of the power of the work of Council remains a highlight of the short film on the Inmate Council Program (find the link below). Center for Council caught up again with Edward recently and asked him to share his thoughts on the reentry process and how the practice of Council has helped him transition back into the world outside the prison gates. Edward’s passion and positivity is contagious; it is apparent that he doesn’t take a thing for granted.
Center for Council: Edward, could you tell us about your experience in general with Council and what it has meant to you?
Loren is the Senior Program Director of Leadership & Summer Programs at Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), an organization that provides free programs in academics, arts and athletics for underserved youth in LA. As part of Center for Council’s Social Justice Council Project, Loren helped to organize a Council training program for 30 staff members, in January of 2016. He recalls it being a wonderful experience that gave him a depth of understanding about the practice of Council and offered his staff the experience of listening deeply to one another and sharing personal experiences in a new way. Developing a regular practice of Council has given staff members a new sense of the possibility of sharing that can happen at HOLA, both amongst staff and with the youth that they serve.
Loren: I work at a non-profit youth center called Heart of Los Angeles, or HOLA. I’m Senior Program Director, head of the Leadership Department, and I help to coordinate summer programs here. I’ve been with HOLA for 16 years, and I came to this work with a background in theatre, so I started off incorporating a lot of theatre games that I’ve noticed, in the world of Council, are also commonplace: ice breaker games, team-building activities, etc. I used those activities to build communication skills, connection between the kids, and jumpstart some self-reflection.
3 Minute Storyteller Sits Down with Center for Council Director Jared Seide to Discuss the Need for Compassion in Today’s World
“We have a responsibility to step up to the enormous suffering that is caused by buying into this illusion that we are not profoundly interconnected and interdependent.”
– Jared Seide, Center for Council, in an interview with 3 Minute Storyteller.
Shannon Mannon, founder of 3 Minute Storyteller, sat down with Center for Council director Jared Seide to discuss the critical need for Council practice in our challenging and increasingly-polarized world. Shannon relates her own introduction to the power of empathy-based practices like Council and how the simple act of listening attentively and sharing authentically can transform a community and foster compassion and alliance.
Read about Shannon’s unique experience with Council practice and her compelling story by clicking 'Read More.'
We are so pleased to announce the launch of the third round of our Social Justice Council Project! Designed to serve and strengthen those on the front lines of social justice work in Southern California, this year’s project will engage with 15 organizations from across the region.
Program participants include: Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network, Brotherhood Crusade, Community Health Councils, Los Angeles Department on Disability, The Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), My Friend's Place, Para Los Niños, Project ALOFA, Proyecto Pastoral, Rosemary Children's Services, Social Justice Learning Institute, Safe Place for Youth, and Youth Action Project.
For the first time, two law enforcement agencies will also participate in the program, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. We are eager to include officers in this round of the project, acknowledging their critical place in the social justice continuum, as well as the enormous challenges they confront managing stressful situations and cultivating positive community relationships. Council can be a powerful new resource in this environment.
Immediately following the Council training workshop that Center for Council’s Director Jared Seide led for the NGO Dejusticia in August of 2017, Dejusticia staff traveled to southwest Colombia to hold a conference with human rights activists from around the world. Council practices and perspectives were incorporated into the conference, as Dejusticia’s Executive Director César Rodríguez Garavito shared in the email he sent to Center for Council, excerpted below.
We’re still recovering from the exhilarating workshop with 19 human rights activists from around the world last week. One of the first things I wanted to do post-workshop was to thank you kindly on behalf of the Dejusticia team and the community of fellow activists that was established last week, thanks in no small part to your teachings and generosity during the Council training.
Center for Council Director Jared Seide recently traveled to Bogota, Colombia, to consult with and lead a Council training workshop for the human rights organization Dejusticia. Below is a reflection on his experience there, and the tremendous importance and applicability of Council in today's world.
Two days before our Bogotá Council Training began, FARC guerillas handed in their remaining guns. The historic Colombian peace accord, agreed to in the Fall of 2016, stipulated that all arms be surrendered between June and August of 2017. And while the peace process has been hailed as a success, some signs of trouble have appeared. In a referendum intended to demonstrate public support for the negotiated agreement, the vote was very close – with “NO” votes garnering slightly higher number than “YES” votes. Underlying this ambivalence were some profound cultural issues that may prove a real hindrance to a lasting reconciliation and peace. As coalitions mobilized to advocate for a political solution, issues of religion, economics, gender, as well as forgiveness and justice, were activated and in some ways played out just under the surface of the public relations campaign around the referendum. Cultural issues touching on “traditional values,” economic disparity, environmental degradation, and political corruption seem to have corollaries to the American political landscape.
Center for Council Director Jared Seide delivered a talk at the Zen Life & Meditation Center of Chicago (ZLMC), on June 4, 2017, during an "Introduction to Council" workshop for that community. In this talk, Jared speaks about the practice of embodying compassion through Council, the way in which Council can intervene and reintroduce the human touch in systems, and the context and history of Center for Council, as it emerged from The Ojai Foundation.
ZLMC is a community committed to promoting social justice and the "Three Tenets" of the Zen Peacemakers: Not Knowing, Bearing Witness and Taking Compassionate Action. Jared describes the way in which the practice of Council encourages "listening from the heart" so as to open to the fullness of the human experience, the celebration of our "common ground," and the collective wisdom of community.
"Allowing ourselves to preference 'not knowing' for a little bit," he says, "opens this world of connection – and our capacity to recover our innate human goodness in community."
Listen to Bart Campolo's intimate conversation with Center for Council Director Jared Seide on his podcast, "Humanize Me."
Bart is a secular minister, speaker, author and Humanist Chaplain at the University of Southern California. Son of renown evangelical minister Tony Campolo, Bart's public journey of finding his voice, and helping to shape a new humanist path of service has been the subject of a book, a documentary and feature stories in many outlets, including The New York Times. His popular podcast invites thought leaders in the areas of community building and service to explore and explain ways they have found to support this critical work bringing together individuals and communities. Bart's 60-minute interview with Jared in an engaging and powerful interchange (though it takes a few minutes to get going – don't be deterred, it's worth the listen!).
Listen now by clicking below.
The California Correctional Peace Officer Association (CCPOA) has taken an important step in addressing officer stress, burnout and dysfunction. Recognizing that a negative correctional environment is damaging to the mental, emotional, and physical health of correctional officers and inmates alike, is damaging to the quality and efficacy of rehabilitation programs aimed at reducing recidivism, and is costly to local governments as well as the state, CCPOA hosted a by-invitation policy convening on Officer Behavioral Health and Wellness, March 27-28, in Sacramento.
A cross-section of individuals were invited from the corrections, healthcare, curriculum and training, research and policymaking communities. Presentations and discussions touched on the way a stressful workplace and career can cause adverse health issues and how the toxicity and dysfunction often found in the corrections environment impacts everyone involved.
Officers spoke compellingly about how the job had impacted them: “You have to become somewhat shut off – unfortunately that leads to being jaded and mistrustful because you see ulterior motives in everyone…” Union leaders spoke on their behalf: “We want our members to hear that it’s okay to feel, it’s okay to care,” said one.
A recent survey presented some striking preliminary findings: 1 in 3 correctional officers have people in their lives who have expressed concern about their mental/physical health; 30% binge drink on a regular basis; 1 in 9 have considered or attempted suicide and 69% say they would "get out of corrections" if they could find a suitable job in another arena. Interestingly, 88% of correctional officers want more “stress management training.”
Our team of veteran and prospective Council trainers spent a dynamic and energized day with Detective Lieutenant Richard Goerling, of the Hillsboro Police Department in Oregon. In addition to his experience in the Coast Guard, Richard has worked in civilian law enforcement for over twenty years and has extensive experience in patrol operations and criminal investigations. He has developed a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training for first responders focusing on resiliency and performance/leadership in a policing environment.
Over the last decade, Richard has spearheaded the introduction of MBSR-based training into policing in the United States and is a leader in the greater cultural transformation toward a compassionate, skillful and resilient warrior ethos.
We hit the ground running in January with the launch of our Trainer Leadership Initiative. With the generous support of the Angell Foundation, this brand new program will provide intensive yearlong Council mentorship and professional development for 30 dynamic individuals, many of whom are alumni of our Social Justice Council Project.
The new cohort of prospective trainers will receive an immersion in the skills and knowledge they need to lead their own programs and trainings and to extend the work of Council within their own organizations and communities, growing a more robust network of Council leaders throughout Southern California.
We are so energized by the range of experiences and objectives of these 30 unique and diverse men and women, and we think you will be too.
Check out our website for intimate profiles of some of these dynamic emerging leaders!
Center for Council has recently received word that we have been awarded funding to bring the Inmate Council Program (ICP) to eight more California State prisons. Three of these new sites will be funded for three years of ICP programming. Council is now being practiced and taught within 22 CDCR institutions around the state.
The ICP offers council training as a "rehabilitative resource" and teaches inmates how to independently facilitate Council circles on the yard for other inmates. Our preliminary research with RAND Corp and University of California has demonstrated that our Council programs "lead to reduction in anger, aggression and hostility and better communication, cooperation and pro-sociality." And we know that the work is profoundly shifting prison culture in a positive direction.
We are thrilled to expand this work and eager to support an ever-growing circle of incarcerated carriers of Council as they find their way into the practice and bring it to others on prison yards around the state.
Center for Council Director Jared Seide recently traveled to Auschwitz to coordinate daily Council circles at the annual Bearing Witness Retreat in partnership with Zen Peacemakers.
Read a detailed description of this incredible, invaluable, and powerful work.
In these heartbreaking times, we feel grateful to have the means to come together with open hearts to bear witness, take stock, deepen community, and to celebrate our common humanity.
We want to share with you a little of what we've recently been up to.
Each year, Center for Council's Social Justice Council Project provides a select number of community-based, social service and arts organizations with individualized Council training and with resources to support their missions, help enhance and deepen their work, and bring folks together in Council.
On June 24, 2016, Center for Council was so pleased to host the Social Justice Council Project Gathering and Celebration at the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens. At this event, all of this year's Social Justice Council Project participants came together to share how they're integrating Council into their important and unique work in the world.
Check out Sam Escobar's powerful and inspiring essay on leading Center for Council's Inmate Council Program at Salinas Valley State Prison, recently published online!
Center for Council, in partnership with Zen Peacemakers, offered a Council training workshop in Sarajevo for a group of Croat, Serb and Bosniak peacemakers, organized by two dynamic Imams.
“Coming Back to Ourselves: Notes on a
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