It wasn’t until a year after getting involved in the Inmate Council Program that I mentioned Council to my family; and that was only because I was invited to speak at Center for Council’s Social Justice Council Project celebration via speakerphone. Before the event all my family knew about Council was that it was a group that I attended on Tuesday nights and that the program was helping me make significant changes in my attitude and my outlook.
That event was where my family experienced first-hand exactly what I did each Tuesday night in the Delta Yard Chapel. They got to sit in Council circles; they shared stories about their lives; they learned about The Four Intentions that setup the foundation for the Council practice: speak from the heart, listen from the heart, be spontaneous, be lean of expression. They listened to the stories of other participants sitting in the circle and heard so many similarities to their own narratives. At the end of the day, my family walked away with a better understanding of what it was that I was doing, and they had so many questions for me: “Why didn’t you tell us about this thing that you do?” “Do you know all of these people?” “How do we get involved?” “Can we do Council too?” They didn’t’ know that Center for Council existed outside of the prison setting.
From that day forward, in most of the conversations that I had with my wife, Jolene, there was some mention of Council. After witnessing how much Council had changed my outlook and behaviors, and experiencing the joy she felt after engaging with the practice herself, Jolene joined the Trainer Leadership Initiative. And because we both were now involved in the program, we would discuss how we would practice Council with our kids during their visit to Salinas Valley State Prison. Jolene and I were started using Council techniques when we’d talk with each other; we weren’t arguing like we used to. We were actually listening to each other, paying attention to each other, and before we knew it, our marriage improved. We couldn’t wait to have a Council with the kids. When we finally did, it brought our family closer together.
Our first Council experience as a family was very emotional. After giving the kids a brief description of what Council is and what we would be doing I then placed some pillows on the floor, arranged in a circle, to sit on. And I even left a place for the empty seat. I put a blanket on the floor for our center and now all we needed was a talking piece. There wasn't much to choose from in that family visiting unit so we settled on my daughter's hairbrush and a NERF football. I then went over our prompt and demonstrated the process of making a dedication. After that, we dropped into Council. The conversation began light and lively, and as we shared our story and our truth we began to carry the conversation deeper. Giving our kids the space to talk honestly about what they were experiencing while I was in prison gave me a better understanding of who they were and what they were going through. I was able to look at them with compassion and empathy and actually understand their perspective. It was amazing to actually HEAR their stories. Sitting in that family visiting unit gave us all the time that we needed to explore and address all the issues that we hadn’t had a chance to talk about. And, because Jolene and I knew how to navigate all the emotions that were coming up, holding this family Council was very restorative. It didn't matter that we were in a family visiting unit, in that moment that space was sacred.
We still have Council as a family, and when we can’t sit in the circle because of time or space, we always try to use the Four Intentions as a guide in our everyday conversations. We know how to give each other our full attention.
Ray Tucker is one of Center for Council’s senior trainers. A former law enforcement officer, Ray leads Council trainings for incarcerated men in prisons across California as part of our Inmate Council Project. He has also trained numerous professional organizations in the Southern California region, helping them to integrate elements of the Council practice into their company culture. We sat down with Ray to learn a bit more about how he first found the Council practice, and what propelled him to want to become a Council trainer.
Center for Council: What was it that encouraged you to make the shift from working in law enforcement to facilitating Council circles?
Ray Tucker: In January of 1994, I had an experience as a police officer, that no academy ever trains you for. They train you to shoot, but they don’t train you to know what it feels like to shoot someone. They cannot prepare you for what that experience is like. For the next five or six months, I wasn’t able to talk to anyone about how that incident affected me and impacted my life as a police officer as well as my personal life. I carried that experience with me. My work ethic declined, I started showing up late for work, sometimes I didn’t bring my weapon home. There were times when I went to work with no bullets in my gun.
I went through a period of not being able to make decisions in my life, big or small. I couldn’t even decide what clothes to wear. I didn’t feel like I had a safe place to go to talk about what I was experiencing. I didn’t feel like I could share with other officers what I was going through, so I didn’t say anything to anybody. About a year later, after much thought, I decided that it wasn’t safe for me, or for my fellow officers, to continue working on the force, so I retired.
In 1995, I was looking for an ethnically diverse middle school for my daughter. One of the schools I was considering, Palms, had just started a Council program the year prior, which really interested me. In my research before enrolling her in that school, I had the opportunity to sit in a parents’ Council circle. At the end of that Council I felt so connected to the parents and so connected to the school itself. I decided to send her there and join the Council program as an intern to learn how to facilitate Council circles in the school myself. I’ve been doing Council ever since that time.
What drew you to become a Council trainer?
Since I had retired from law enforcement, I was looking to do something that would make a difference in the lives of young people. A really positive difference.
In addition to the regular parents Council at Palms, all 6th and 8th graders were also participating in Council. I would sit in the classroom and observe the Council circle with students and learn from the experienced facilitator that was leading it. After about two years of interning, I became a co-director of the Council program at Palms.
Did you feel that something shifted in you after that first Council circle, or as you began to understand the practice more?
I don’t know if something changed in me, but Council spoke to me. I immediately felt how amazing it was to listen to the stories of others and realize how connected we are even though we don’t know one another.
After being involved in Council, I truly believe that, if there had been a program available for officers that allowed them to openly talk about what was going on and what they were going through, I could have stayed in law enforcement. Council would have been an opportunity for me to really verbalize and express what I was actually going through. I think having a program like Council could be so beneficial to officers who might be going through something similar, or might just need a way to be more deeply connected to one another.
What did you daughter think of Council? Did she take to the practice as well?
She took to it immediately. It helped her integrate into the middle school experience in a healthy way. I think Council helped her find her voice and learn about other people in an organic environment. She was able to develop friendships and relationships with people she didn’t know before. At that time at the school, it was 30% African American, 30% Caucasian, 30% Hispanic, and 10% other so it was a really rich opportunity for her to learn about other people with other backgrounds.
What was the Council practice like in schools? Did the students enjoy it?
It built a culture of caring amongst the students and a sense of being connected not only to one another but also to the staff and teachers, because the teachers were able to share their stories in the Council circle as well.
One weekend someone sprayed graffiti in the school and when the kids came back and saw it they were really upset about it. The student who had done the graffiti happened to be in my Council circle. We held a Council about the incident, both for the students who were angry about what had happened and for him as well. He was able to come and sit in Council and talk about what he did and why he did it, and it really helped the kids heal around the incident because they were able to hear his story. It was so beneficial for him too, to have the courage to share that story and have his story be accepted by his peers. It was really healing for everyone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A critical challenge for social justice organizations as you advocate for positive social change is to listen deeply to the communities in which you work. Recognizing your mandate to voice the needs of the populations that you serve, your team will serve most effectively by developing the capacity to listen deeply and understand the context and history of your communities.
At Center for Council, we believe that when a staff participates in Council, an opportunity emerges for employees and peers to develop greater rapport, trust and a deeper sense of community.
CP: How do you personally define the “Local Peace Economy?”
JS: I think there are some profound “fundamentals” that are shifting – that must shift – in order for our culture and our world to be sustainable. The immense imbalance amongst us in resources and access has created unhealthy and corrosive conditions for a great many… and systems seem to be breaking apart under the strain. Any read of political, economic, health-care, educational, correctional systems reveals much to be concerned about. And it feels to me that underneath it all is a fundamental, fear-based sense of separation. It is simply impossible and unbearable to continue to pretend that we are not deeply interconnected. The story of the “other” is unsupportable. As we pay attention, we see that what happens to you, impacts me; what emerges in me is about all of us. And in our fast-paced lives, driven by all these systems and efficiencies, it sometimes takes a backward step - a slowing down - to pay attention. Systems that dehumanize in the service of efficiency are unsustainable. I see a great need to bear witness, lean in, grieve, celebrate and embody the re-humanizing evolution at hand. Many of us are engaging in practices that enable us to embody and enact this inter-being – and I am sensing that this shift is finally mobilizing broad-based support from across the cultural and political spectrum.
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