Organizations across the country, from the non-profit sphere to the corporate sector, are standing at the gates of a tremendous opportunity to create new processes and policies that intentionally set a tone of inclusion and that truly value all voices and perspectives of their staff.
Fundamental organizational culture change cannot be engineered through top-down edicts, or generalized policies, nor designed and imposed on staff by outside experts. Diversity Training and Implicit Bias Workshops are not effective when offered as a multiple choice, hour-long seminar to be tossed at individuals in order to check a box. Individual employees must be given the opportunity to engage topics and conversations deeply, and at their own pace, in ways that are relevant to their lived experience, cultural orientation, and personal communication styles. They must be invited into meaningful conversation, in which they feel their voices are respected and honesty is valued. This is especially true when challenging topics such as bias, racism, power differentials and conflict are involved.
Center for Council has worked with a wide variety of teams to strengthen internal culture, helping to develop concrete skills and practices to foster greater collaboration, build community, navigate power, privilege and diversity issues and effectively manage conflict. The council practice provides the container for sincere reflection as well as the space to listen to the lived experiences of others. The practice offers tools for individuals to have honest conversations that lay the foundation for genuine understanding. Council values every voice, reinforces respectful communication, builds positive relationships between participants, and neutralizes hierarchical dynamics and conflict. It is a resource for increasing compassion and engagement and recognizing our essential human interconnectedness. Center for Council's programs deliver customized, on-the-ground, community-building solutions; its evidence-based programs have been shown to increase mindfulness and engagement, enable participants to connect with others in new ways, create safe and supportive environments for self-expression without fear of judgment, and help with the development of effective communication skills and resilience.
The importance of meaningful connection and mutual understanding is ever present, and the current moment in society underscores the need to listen beneath opinions and rhetoric to people’s lived experiences involving identity, inclusion, and bias. This is exactly what the council practice offers: the opportunity to listen to personal experiences, and share one's own story. Authentic action that affects change must come from a foundation of honest self-reflection, on an individual and on a group level. In order to look forward with clarity and integrity, we must look inward to discover new possibilities.
Learn more about Center for Council’s professional staff trainings here.
Are you or someone you know classified as an essential worker during the COVID-19 pandemic? Essential workers have been on the frontlines working selflessly and tirelessly in order to keep our communities healthy and safe.
Center for Council would like to express our gratitude to those who are working for us by offering a free Social Connection Council to all our essential workers. Our virtual Councils encourage slowing down and bearing witness to our minds and bodies during this stressful time. Together we will listen to the sensations in the body, learn how to settle the nervous system, and ease feelings of fear and anxiety while fostering a real connection with others like you who find themselves working during this vulnerable time.
These Councils for Essential Workers will be facilitated by Dr. Ann Seide, internist and Medical Director of Palliative Care at Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks and Council Trainer.
Together we can openly grieve, find the support to heal and the ability to flourish through these challenging times.
Whether you work as a healthcare provider, as an administrator in public health, a law enforcement officer, at a 911 call center or hospital, or are working in a grocery, pharmacy, convenience store, or restaurant, this council is for you. You can read more and watch a video interview with Dr. Seide here.
If you know of others who are classified as an essential worker and may be interested in this offering, please feel free to share this information with them.
We are working to offer more Councils for essential workers in the coming weeks and want to know what times and days work best for your schedule. Please fill out this short Google Form if you are working on the frontlines of this pandemic in any way and would be interested in participating in these Councils in the future.
In this extraordinary and challenging time, there is a great need for space and opportunity to breathe, to connect with one another, and to cultivate a deep sense of community. We are working to create those spaces for everyone.
Center for Council is offering pay-what-you-wish virtual Councils for all who are looking for a place to connect with community and check-in from the heart.
In this extraordinary and challenging time, we are finding that there is a great need for space and opportunity to breathe, to connect with one another, and to cultivate a deep sense of community--even during physical isolation. Social Connection Councils are held on Zoom and integrate the guidelines and intentions of Council practice in an intimate virtual setting (with a maximum of 16 participants). Participants speak authentically and give voice to what is alive for them in that moment, expressing what is present and true and listening to others as they share the same. In fostering both spontaneity and honesty, participants have the opportunity to slow down, to speak authentically, and to actively listen to stories and experiences that remind us of our shared human journey.
Contemplative practices like Council are needed now more than ever. As we individually process the circumstances of our external world and sit with the anxiety, fear, and uncertainty of the current moment, having a communal practice that encourages us to slow down and bear witness helps to settle the nervous system, ease feelings of anxiety and overwhelm, and foster real connection with others.
In times that challenge us individually and communally, it’s important to recognize our collective resilience and our capacity for deep compassion for one another. Social Connection Councils provide a forum in which we can envision and emerge into the next chapter, helping each other along as we heal, grieve, support and flourish through these challenging times.
To register for an upcoming Social Connection Council, sign up here: Social Connection Councils.
Inmate Council Program receives the American Correctional Association's 2019 "Innovation in Corrections Award"
The American Correctional Association has awarded Center for Council's Inmate Council Program its 2019 "Innovation in Corrections Award." This prestigious award honors the powerful work C4C has done building programming for the state's incarcerated population, now reaching 22 of the state's 35 prison facilities. The Inmate Council Program is a six-month intervention where participating inmates are trained to facilitate Council sessions for their peers, empowering them to become positive agents of change, on the prison yard, and in their lives. The program contributes to a shift of culture within prisons and equips participants with tools for successful reentry and reintegration into their communities upon release
The award was presented on January 14, 2020, in a ceremony at the end of ACA's Convention. The award was presented to Center for Council "For its outstanding efforts in reducing recidivism and promoting future success for offenders" and was accepted by Sam Escobar and Jared Seide.
ACA President, Gary Rohr, and Chair of the Awards Committee, Vicki Myers, presented Sam and Jared with the award. The American Correctional Association is the oldest association developed specifically for practitioners in the correctional profession. The ACA provides a professional organization for individuals and groups committed to improving the justice system. The annual "Innovations is Correction Award" is intended to broaden the knowledge and familiarity amongst the membership of the ACA of successful rehabilitative program interventions and to recognize an outstanding correctional program.
A wide-ranging new study, led by Principle Investigator Dr. Stacy Calhoun, of the University of California Los Angeles, has found that Center for Council's statewide Inmate Council Program demonstrated "significantly positive outcomes" for the subjects involved in the study.
This study involved 399 inmates participating in ICP groups throughout eight different facilities, and examined quantitative measures, as well as qualitative assessments of program impact. The study looked at factors including changes in physical and verbal aggression, anger, hostility and PTSD symptomatology and found notable decreases in those areas, among inmates who participated in the program. The study also found statistically significant increases in measures of resilience, empathy, mindfulness and social connectedness. Dr. Calhoun's report states that "findings from this evaluation suggest that this program is having a positive impact on participants who complete it, with many indicating a high level of satisfaction with the program."
The study utilized a range of academically validated measurement scales, including the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), Brief Resilience Scale (BRCS), Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire-Short Form (FFMQ-SF), Short-Form Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire (BPAQ-SF), Social Connectedness Scale-Revised (SCS-R), Mental Health Inventory-5 (MHI-5), The Active-Empathic Listening Scale (AELS), and the PTSD Checklist for DSM-5 (PCL-5). In addition to statistical analysis, the research team also conducted interviews and focus groups with participants, as well as program staff.
The research design has been developed over several years of analysis of the ICP, which has been offered to inmates in CDCR facilities since 2013. In 2018, Center for Council was asked by the Office of the Inspector General to present its approach to research, which focuses on shifting criminogenic factors like empathy, impulse control and anti-sociality, to the California Rehabilitation Oversight Board. Methodology developed for this research has been referenced in the state's CARE Grant program, enacted into California penal code in July of 2019.
The results of the study will be published in an upcoming article. The evaluation report can be viewed here.
Center for Council Awarded State Grant Funding for New Prison Programming with Focus on Victim Impact
Sam & Jared with Warden Tammy Foss and the leadership team of the ICP at Salinas Valley State Prison
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has awarded Center for Council with new funding as part of the sixth round of its Innovative Programming Grant. This round of funding was intended to support rehabilitative programs with victim-focused restorative justice components that emphasize "offender accountability" and develop insight into the perspective of those harmed by criminal acts. Council is a powerful practice for developing empathy and taking the perspective of "the other," through deep listening and authentic presence. Exploring the perspective of those harmed is an important part of the work of the Inmate Council Program and we are eager to develop this aspect of our program curriculum with this new opportunity.
There was enormous interest expressed in this funding opportunity and CDCR received grant proposals amounting to over six million dollars in proposed programming. Only 17% of the proposals submitted were successful. We are grateful for this opportunity to provide our programming at two facilities, the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, in Corcoran, and Ironwood State Prison. Both programs will operate for two years, and will set the stage for self-sustaining programming, facilitated by inmates who will eventually co-lead the program and who, we hope, will join our efforts to build and support programming for impacted communities upon their release.
Center for Council's Peace Officer Wellness, Empathy & Resilience (POWER) Training for law enforcement officers has now been recognized and certified as an effective and valuable training protocol by California's Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). In granting this statewide certification, POST will provide officers who participate with credit toward their annual requirement of training hours in the areas of "De-Escalation and Interpersonal Communication." Participation in POWER will also satisfy the annual "perishable skills requirement" in the area of interpersonal communication.
This recognition by POST is a powerful affirmation of the importance and efficacy of innovative training programs like POWER and will help establish this program as a critical tool supporting officer wellness, self-regulation and performance.
Center for Council launched the POWER Training course with six cohorts of LAPD officers (150 officers), initially, funded by resources provided through the state's Innovations Grant Program. Statewide POST certification will enable C4C to adapt and customize program delivery to meet the needs of a variety of other interested law enforcement and corrections agencies and to further expand this training program throughout California and beyond.
Center for Council confirmed the certification of twelve new Council Trainers in a ceremony at Temescal Gateway Park's Stewart Hall on December 14, 2019.
Center for Council's Mentor Circle has been shepherding and supporting each of the candidates through a rigorous three-year process of trainings, assignments, internships, practice, observation, co-leading and self-reflection.
Uniquely, this cohort all began their path to certification as Council Trainers through their participation in the Trailer Leadership Initiative, funded by our friends at the Angell Foundation. All twelve have earned this recognition by demonstrating mastery of the core capacities required of a Council Trainer.
The complete list of newly certified Council Trainers is as follows:
Ricardo (Ricky) Miranda
Goreti da Silva
Sofia Rose Smith
Center for Council is thrilled to welcome all twelve dynamic practitioners of this work into the ranks of Certified Council Trainers, working to foster deeper connection, greater presence and more compassion in our world.
Through the generosity of local philanthropists, a team of Center for Council trainers travelled to Jacksonville, Florida, to engage with local community based organizations, and with law enforcement, in the hope that the work of Council would be a nourishing and relevant practice for this diverse and challenged community.
Our team sat in Council with the staff of several dynamic and energized CBOs, including JASMYN (Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network), NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), JPEF (Jacksonville Public Education Fund), JCRP (Jacksonville Community Remembrance Project), and K-9s for Warriors. In addition to this diverse group of organizations, our team was invited to meet with Sheriff Mike Williams, and the staff of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, about our Peace Officer Wellness, Empathy & Resilience Training program.
The response to this initial engagement was extremely positive and inspiring and has led to design of a more in-depth training program that will unfold throughout the Jacksonville area over the Spring and Summer of 2020. We are thrilled to be collaborating with this dynamic community, engaging deeply with staff of both the social justice and law enforcement community. Our programs are tailored to meet participants where they are, providing a nourishing container for staff to reaffirm their commitment to their mission, strengthen their ability to sustain and flourish in highly stressful environments, explore ways to collaborate internally and with allies, and develop useful skills to serve their clients and stakeholders. Ultimately, the intention is to explore weaving unlikely allies in the model of C4C's "Cops & Communities: Circling Up." We are very excited to partner with the Jacksonville community in this powerful and critical work.
As part of a new initiative funded by the State of California, Center for Council will partner with the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), to train LAPD officers in Council practice and mindfulness. The intensive program, Peace Officer Wellness, Empathy and Resilience (POWER) Training, is the first training of its kind to be certified state-wide for police and correctional officers through POST.
Center for Council’s POWER Training features a robust science-based curriculum, supporting the understanding and integration of mindfulness training and compassion-based dialogic practices. This innovative six-month course teaches participants to cultivate an enhanced awareness of themselves and their surroundings, and an ability to acknowledge and articulate thoughts and emotions without immediately reacting to them. These principles aid in decreasing use of force and officer-involved shootings by providing a path to de-escalation that is discerning and compassion-based, rather than reactive.
Through learning the practice of Council and engaging in selected mindfulness activities, participating officers will receive training in wellness-related areas such as stress management and self-care. The course will explore issues of implicit bias, use of force and de-escalation, as well as cultural diversity, and community policing. Officers will meet weekly in “Council Huddles” to explore together the ways the curriculum and weekly mindfulness practices are impacting them.
Center for Council is thrilled to continue to expand our work with law enforcement agencies. The organization is deeply committed to addressing systems where compassion-based practices can positively shift the culture and build a more connected and resilient community for all.
We are very pleased to announce the launch of our newest program: the Organization Wellness Project! Formerly called the Social Justice Council Project, the Organization Wellness Project is designed to serve and strengthen those working on the front lines of social justice in Southern California. This year’s project will engage the staff of 10 dynamic organizations from across the region, representing powerful and diverse work within the social justice sphere.
Our new cohort includes these participating organizations:
Esperanza Community Housing Cooperation
Los Angeles Black Workers Center
Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance
National Council of Jewish Women
Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice
Community in Schools of Los Angeles
We are thrilled to be partnering with these 10 wonderful non-profits to help integrate the practices of attentive listening and heartfelt dialogue into their critical and much-needed work. The Council practice has been proven to enhance communication and strengthen connection between individuals, supporting more resilient, creative, and collaborative work environments.
Though the evolution of the Organizational Wellness Project, Center for Council continues to support mindful communication and authentic, non-judgmental dialogue, helping build internal cohesion within staff, as well as more dynamic engagement with the communities that organizations serve. Non-profits selected for this cohort will participate in a series of on-site community-building experiences, coupled with immersive Council training for a select internal team. Center for Council will also provide mentoring and hands-on support as the site team integrates the practice of Council into each organization’s culture and operations.
“We’re so excited to be partnering with a diverse group of remarkable organization in this round of the program,” says Executive Director, Jared Seide. “We’ve learned so much about really listening to our participating sites’ needs, and customizing our work to their unique culture, ethos and approach. The practice of Council truly strengthens Center for Council as an organization--and it’s inspiring to see how nourishing the practice can be for our partners!”
The Organization Wellness Project is made possible through the generous support of The Angell Foundation. Click here to learn more about the Organizational Wellness Project.
It wasn't until a year after getting involved with 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.
Center for Council is partnering with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the University of Southern California to host a series of public screenings and panel discussions exploring ways to build bridges between seemingly disparate groups. Bringing together international peace builders, policy makers, formerly incarcerated individuals, and law enforcement officers, these events will focus on rising above the polarizing views of “us and them” to create a healthier and more compassionate society at-large.
The first event in the series, hosted at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles on March 14, 2019, 6:30pm, at 6505 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90048, will begin with a screening of Center for Council’s short documentary: Cops and Communities: Circling Up. The film, an insider’s look at the organization’s most recent project of the same name, documents a gathering of law enforcement officers, community activists, and formerly incarcerated individuals, meeting for the first time, searching to find commonality amidst their diverse backgrounds. As the participants share stories from their lives and listen to the stories of those around them, labels and prejudices yield to a recognition of our shared human journey, former adversaries become allies, and new, deep connections emerge.
After the screening, noted international peace-builder John Paul Lederach, State Senator Holly Mitchell, and Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman will speak on the power of celebrating our common ground and shared humanity. RSVP for this event here.
On March 28, 2019, at 7pm in USC’s Ray Stark Theatre, 998, 900 W 34th St, Los Angeles, CA 90089, Center for Council will again screen Cops and Communities: Circling Up. The panel discussion following the film will feature Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries, along with Samuel Escobar, a leader of Center for Council’s programming during his incarceration in state prisons, and LAPD Lieutenant Gena Brooks, supervisor of a cohort of officers who have been participating in Center for Council’s officer training program. RSVP for this event here.
Each panel will be moderated by Jared Seide, Executive Director of Center for Council.
Bios of panelists:
State Senator Holly Mitchell, was described by the Los Angeles Times as "the legislature's moral compass." Senator Mitchell has proven to be a social justice champion in the state legislature. Her many successes include improving human services, expanding access to healthcare, defending the civil rights of minorities and the undocumented, and reducing the numbers of children growing up in poverty.
John Paul Lederach, Professor Emeritus of International Peacebuilding is an acclaimed author, scholar, and pioneer of Restorative Justice work around the world. Lederach is known for his work in conflict transformation and conciliation work in Colombia, the Philippines, and Nepal, and countries in East and West Africa.
Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman is the Director of Youth Learning and Engagement at Temple Beth Am, providing organizational, educational, and spiritual leadership. As a community activist, he serves as a rabbinic adviser, activist and outreach expert for issues related to LGBT inclusion, Women's issues, and education.
Father Greg Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world. He has received the California Peace Prize and been inducted into the California Hall of Fame. In 2014, the White House named Father Boyle a Champion of Change. He received the University of Notre Dame’s 2017 Laetare Medal, the oldest honor given to American Catholics.
Lt. Gena Brooks is Lieutenant in the South Bureau of the Los Angeles Police Department. She was introduced to the practice of Council as part of Center for Council’s Wellness and Resiliency Skills Training for law enforcement officers in 2018.
Sam Escobar was introduced to Council as a member of the inaugural Inmate Council Program at Salinas Valley State Prison. Having witnessed the impact of Council in his own life and in the lives of his fellow inmates, as well as in the lives of his family members, he has become passionate about carrying this work into a world in need of connection.
On April 6, 2018, I was found suitable for parole by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Board of Parole Hearings. The work I had done to transform my perspective and character had paid off. I had no idea that it was after I was granted parole that I would go through the real fire. The last 120 days of my sentence were the hardest, most challenging days of my time in prison. As soon as word got around that I would be out on parole, inmates who had never challenged me before became aggressive toward me. Not because they were bigger or badder than me, but because they knew I had something to lose. They knew that I wouldn’t respond to their advances the way that I would have in the past. It was then, as I was walking away from the insults and the challenges, that I realized that I was, in fact, ready for freedom. In all my years in prison, I had never been tested the way that I was during this time. I surprised even myself when I responded to their challenges with empathy and compassion.
Nobody warned me about the anxiety that kicked in as the days turned into weeks and months. When you’re granted parole, there is a review process that can take up to 120 days. Your case goes before a review committee and then goes to the Governor for a final decision. Even though you may be granted parole, the decision is not final until the Governor’s review, or until the 120 days is up. I went from knowing my release date to not knowing. At any point during the review process, the Governor has the power to reverse or affirm the parole board’s decision. And if at any time during the process you get into trouble, that decision could be affected as well. I’ve never had so much hanging over my head. And still, this wasn’t the worst part.
The worst part of my last 120 days was the toll that this waiting period began to take on my family. I had been away for approximately 17 years. I had never been physically present in my children’s lives; they were all born while I was incarcerated. The most time that we’ve ever spent together was in a “family visiting” cottage. Our lives were built around me being in prison. So, although we all were very excited about the news that I’d been granted parole, we had no idea what to expect. All we knew was that there were a lot of changes headed our way and the anticipation made it worse; the slow pace of the review process only added fuel to the fire. We caught ourselves arguing over things that we’ve never argued about before.
So, there I was, trying to navigate the parole transition period, not doing anything that would jeopardize the parole board’s decision, while at the same time trying to handle family life and the anxiety of moving through all of it. There was a point where I began to feel overwhelmed and I decided to just sit in my cell and stay out of the way. I cut myself off from my routine, from the prison world, and in doing so, from some of the things that had been keeping me going in prison. I began to get agitated, angry, and frustrated that things weren’t moving along at the pace that I hoped or expected they would.
I am thankful that I had the practice of Council to help me explore and hold all these emotions and unexpected twists and turns that life was throwing at me. As I was facilitating Council circles during this process, there were stories of patience and perseverance coming from my fellow inmates that helped me cope with the issues I was facing in my own life. If I didn’t have the skills that I had developed in Council—to find comfort in stillness, an ease in the unknowing, and the ability to listen to the stories of others—I believe I wouldn’t have made it through my last 120 days inside. It was in the collective wisdom of the Council circle where I found my strength and peace. It was there in the circle with my brothers where I found my way home.
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.
This year’s Social Justice Council Project Celebration honored our non-profit partner organizations participating in the Social Justice Council Project. Held at the LA River Center and Gardens, this day-long program explored the impact that Council can have on an individual and a community. It also celebrated what happens when we take time to simply listen to one another without critique and speak from the heart without worrying about how we might be perceived.
Center for Council was thrilled to have so many partner organizations there to celebrate. Staff from participating organizations exchanged stories and ideas about how they are implementing Council into their organizational culture or using it personally, as a way to cultivate compassion for others, find a greater sense of clarity, strengthen their communication skills, and develop a more rooted belief in themselves within the day-to-day.
Hearing how organizations are using Council was an uplifting reminder of how significant the elements of Council truly are, even when practiced outside the circle. Many reported that sitting in Council with their coworkers had brought them immensely closer, and that they are more apt to collaborate with one another on professional projects. One of the most basic elements of the Council practice is the circle in which participants sit to tell their stories and listen to one another. The circle’s shape enables each participant to see and be seen, neutralizing normative hierarchies of gender, race, or job title.
It was an impactful day for all of us at Center for Council, to be able to witness our friends—old and new—coming together to share in our mission of fostering individual and communal compassion and empowering heartfelt, honest dialogue to promote collective understanding and resilience.
Before being released from prison, I worried that the world I would be returning to would be a scary place. On my very first day outside, I noticed that most people walking down the sidewalks of LA were looking down at their phone or some type of device that connected them to social media. People didn’t take time to look up and acknowledge one another. Nobody was paying attention to what was going on around them; or next to them; or who was behind them at the checkout line at the grocery store.
In prison you learn very quickly to notice EVERYTHING. “Keep your head on a swivel” are words to live by. Paying attention in prison will save your life. Even when you’re on the yard playing sports or chess— your attention is never fully on the game. You’re scanning the yard from end to end as a lifeguard would a swimming pool, looking for signs of danger. If you see someone digging in the dirt it’s likely that he’s burying a weapon or pulling one up. If they’re digging in their waistband it’s likely they’re pulling out a weapon or putting one away. You learn to look for the signs. Most of the time the people you’re watching are watching you watching them; and the correctional officers watch us all. There is a lot of eye contact in prison, acknowledgement of one another. You really feel noticed. It is even a sign of disrespect to walk past someone without taking the time to acknowledge them in some type of way—a nod of the head, a smile, a hand shake, even a simple hello.
When I joined the Council program I learned about “reading the field” and paying attention to body language and things that were unsaid. What got me the most is that I had already mastered these skills. So when we learned about mindfulness and paying attention to the present moment without judgement, these teachings only reinforced and put into words what I was already doing. After I became a Council facilitator I was applying these tools in a more positive way, to really benefit myself, and they stayed with me for the course of my time in prison. Council enhanced these skills for me, my awareness of what was happening around me deepened. I was NOTICING more. And the more I noticed about the world around me, the more I noticed about myself. What began as a means of survival became a way of life for a different purpose: the bigger picture, the third consciousness, the reason why we do Council, and that has carried over to the way I interact with the free-world.
What I have been encountering out here, though, is that people don’t live by the same rule of thumb: sometimes I get weird looks when I say hello, or good morning. Other times people seem shocked to receive a friendly smile or help from a stranger. But then there are the ones that seem to be as alert as I am. There is a familiar look in their eye; they have the look of someone that has been on a prison yard, having to play by the rules as a means of survival. Usually they can be spotted by the tattoos they wear, their piercing eyes, or the weathered look of someone that has spent a little too much time in the sun. I may not personally know this individual, but with the simple nod of the head we have a connection. It feels good to be seen.
Everyday I wake up and I set the intention to acknowledge the world around me in all of its forms. It may be a random stranger that needs to be heard like a guy I met at a gas station that just wanted to congratulate me for having such a beautiful family. He didn’t even know that I was just released from prison only hours before. Or it may be a cashier at a Walmart that wanted to talk about her brother that was released from prison after serving twenty-nine years. Or even a homeless person on the sidewalk that asked me for a cigarette. Or the police officer that helped me find the train station. In all of these encounters we shook hands and introduced ourselves, and walked away with a smile and a sense of humanity. In all of these encounters I walked away feeling refreshed and relieved to find that the world isn’t such a scary place after, all as long as we take the time to see one another.
"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?
Just recently, Mathew was released from prison and is reintegrating back into his former community. His story is similar to many inmates who participate in the Center for Council Inmate Council Program. For three years now, Center for Council has provided programs inside prisons across the state of California, teaching inmates to practice and facilitate this work. Council programs have been proven to decrease aggression, heighten one’s sense of empathy and compassion, and help those who participate to find their voice. All of these skills benefit both the individual and the community at-large.
In September Mathew spoke about his experience with Council and how important it was for him to participate in and facilitate Council circles for fellow prisoners. Mathew opened up about the difference between Council and other rehabilitative programs and how, through learning to work with Council and listen and speak from the heart, he was able to experience meaningful rehabilitation.
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.
Correctional staff and officers who work within prisons are experiencing very high rates of work-induced anxiety and stress, often resulting in symptoms mimicking those of soldiers returning from war zones. Randy was struck by the openness and candor of his staff during their Council circles. Council provided a space for them to individually and collectively process some of the things they had witnessed on the job, as well as to reconnect with one another in a supportive and uplifting way.
Center for Council is now beginning to work with law enforcement officers, training them in the practice of Council so they will be able to facilitate circles themselves. Council is an adaptable, generative practice, serving all communities and circumstances. Through the transformation of individuals who participate, who share their stories and listen deeply to the stories of others, the entire community can feel the effects of the change. In September, Randy spoke about his experience with Council and how important it was for him to facilitate Council circles for his staff.
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?
Edward: When it first started out, we didn’t quite know what it would be about. But once the program got started and we went through the training, and were able to see how it played out, it was a wonderful experience for me. To be able to sit with other guys and hear each other’s stories, and see that we were all similarly situated, it was an awesome experience. Like I’ve said before, it was actually a real healing process for me.
Before Council, I would never speak in front of people, never in front of a group. And in Council, there were 20 or so people in the group. You know, I had to prepare for my parole hearing and Council played probably the biggest role in helping me get my parole. Being able to open up and sit there in front of people and talk about my struggles in life, in terms of the abuse I went through, and growing up with my parents, and being involved in gangs. Council brought that out in me in a way where I was able to talk about it openly, something that I would not have ever done had I not participated. It helped me tremendously.
Council is one of the main groups that people want to participate in. When you leave Council and you go out into the yard, people were always asking us: “What is this group?” And they wanted to join it because they saw the attitudes of the people that came out of the group. Everybody was upbeat, cheerful, and everybody felt good. The people that participated in that group said it was the best group they had ever been a part of. Before I left Ironwood there was like a line of people waiting to get into the program.
It’s very healing. It’s a place where you can just get peace of mind and learn about yourself. To be able to tell stories about your life, where each story is different, it’s amazing. Sometimes I become speechless in trying to explain it because of the experience. Because, when you participate in it, and allow the process to work, and you go through the process, it gets you to that place. And I’m grateful for it.
Center for Council: How has the transition been for you since leaving prison.
Aw man, it’s just amazing. A lot of people wonder why I’m so happy and wonder about the way I see things. Well, I appreciate everything. And coming from prison, and living in that environment, where I was down for 27 years and the element that’s in the air—in terms of the people -- you know there’s a lot of hardcore people up in there. And to have to deal with that mentally, and then come out of it and to be able to see people for who they really are, people that are loving and kind, people who you should love just for being a human, because that’s what we should all be doing... You know, we’re all united or connected in some way or another and so to see that in Council brought that side out of me and gave me an appreciation for people in a way I had not seen before. And so, coming out here, into society, after 27 years, the transition has been smooth. It has been wonderful.
I’ve been accepted by everyone I’ve come across. When they hear me speak and they see my experience… they’re just very welcoming. I know that Council had a lot to do with that because before coming to Council, although I was working on myself and rehabilitating myself, and participating in other groups, Council opened that door to where I was able to see people’s points of views and the deep things in people’s lives and be able to connect with them.
On a level where the things you go through as children, whether it’s abuse or neglect, or whatever… you go through those things and you become this person that ends up joining a gang because of the influences that were in your life at that time. And, for me, wanting to be a part of something, and then ending up going to prison and having to go through that... And then finding my way out of that and coming into a program like Center for Council where you’re accepted, where you’re not being judged, your story can be told and you can speak about your life without feeling like someone’s going to judge you for it… it was an awesome experience for me. So I feel like I’m doing really good transitioning from prison back into society with the experience I got from Council.
Part of my transition was to make sure I got everything in line, in terms of identification, social security, Medicare, and things like that. I also participate in programs at the transition house that I’m in right now. They just recently had a celebrity golf tournament where they were raising money for the program itself. The owner of the program chose me as someone to participate in that because of my personality and my spirit. He heard me speak before at a meeting and invited me to the event. I’ve been invited to a couple events like that, you know, where I have had the opportunity to speak with different people and meet different people and acclimate myself back into society. Right now, I’m getting involved in lots of programs and going to the colleges and classes to speak about my experience. I’m sure I will be using those skills that I learned from Council.
I just want to say thanks to Jared and Ray, for coming into the prison and bringing Council. Like I said before, it was a wonderful experience for me to get involved in that group and be able to open up to people in a way that I was comfortable speaking about myself and my life.
(Hear more of Edward’s insights about the practice of Council, recorded when he was still an inmate at Ironwood.)