In October of 2023, Center for Council initiated a unique partnership to support social-emotional learning, enhance character-building and improve school culture with Fortune School of Education, a system of tuition-free, college preparatory public charter schools.
Located in San Bernardino and Sacramento, which boast the second and third highest Black student populations in California, Fortune focuses on closing the African American achievement gap. While their emphasis is on academic excellence, Fortune leadership had come to feel that essential elements of the educational journey were not as strongly present on their ten school sites as they could be and that school culture had been declining, particularly in the challenging post-pandemic recovery period. Fortune’s brain trust knew that something was needed -- and reached out to Center for Council to engage its insight and expertise.
After a series of presentations, strategy sessions and an introduction to our process over the summer, fourteen Center for Council trainers set out for multiple Fortune campuses in Sacramento and San Bernardino to present simultaneous Introduction to Council workshops to resource the teachers, school site staff and, ultimately the scholars, as students are known at each school site. Two-day intensive training workshops invited teachers and site staff into the practice of council, unpacked the pedagogy, explored the methodologies and offered educators a new approach to building community amongst their teams, as well as inside their classrooms.
As is the case in many schools returning to a post-Covid environment, our trainers realized that teachers' emotional resilience and capacity was stretched thin. Administration understood that scholars and families were concerned about “voice and choice,” as well as high suspension rates. There was a real interest in shifting culture and prioritizing relationships between school leadership and teachers, as well as with scholars and their families. As the workshop sessions unfolded, faculty were able to see that, as they learned more about colleagues in council, a strong container started to form. As teams were given the opportunity to get to know one another and share stories, they began to build bonds in ways that were new and welcome. Some reported hearing their colleagues’ first names for the first time. As the two-day trainings unfolded, collegial relationships were strengthened and the growing team spirit was palpable. Teachers expressed feeling more supported by their peers and more engaged in their environment than they had been before the training. The benefits of the practice of council for staff were apparent -- and its value as resource for engaging scholars became clear, as well.
Despite coming in the final hours before a much-needed holiday break, the response to the council training workshops from administrators, teachers and trainers across the sites that participated was very positive: “Everyone shared great gratitude for the time, each other and the practice,” described a trainer. “They lit up on Day 1, when they learned one another's first names for the first time. The teachers were so open with their sharing and let themselves be vulnerable. The seemed to LOVE it!”
One of our trainers observed: “Participants left feeling very enthused about Council and more connected to each other. Faculty was able to see that, as they learned more about colleagues, the container started to form.“ Another trainer noted that, “The group participated with joy, open hearts and kindness. Their questions were reflective of deep listening and desire to learn this practice and build community.”
Many on our trainer team have decades of experience bringing council to schools. One of our veteran trainers was struck by how intensely this training workshop resonated. “It went very deep. Many tears and tissues, and laughter as well. At the end, we witnessed by speaking into the center in no particular order... and the witnessing went on for a long time. There was a collective sigh at the end, a sense that something really powerful had shifted. The people who'd been reticent during Day One showed their attentiveness and support to the process and the rest of the circle. I've experienced a lot of these, and this one was really a WOW. By the closing council, some people shared that they hadn't even been sure they would stay at [that school site], and now felt connected and inspired again.”
The most poignant feedback came from the teachers themselves
Despite working together in intense conditions for some time, many staff had never had the opportunity to really connect with one another to hear stories of their shared challenges, inspirations and aspirations. At each site, our trainers coached teams to self-facilitate their first of many Council Huddles in smaller groups, as the below video captured:
We are excited to deepen and expand our partnership with the Fortune community and eager to help nourish the seeds that have been planted in these initial workshops. Center for Council's programs for educators have had a profound and transformative impact on a wide variety of school sites. Teachers and other staff develop a greater sense of connection, community stakeholders engage more deeply and youth feel seen and valued, leading to a more meaningful educational experience that promotes equity and opportunity. Council not only increases campus well-being, but also provides a dynamic platform for the development of creative school curricula, instructional strategies, support services and restorative justice practices.
We are looking forward to growing our collaboration with the Fortune team!
If you are interested in exploring bringing council to your school or institution, please reach out to us to discuss setting up a training program by filling out this form.
Trainers with Center for Council’s POWER Training Program for law enforcement officers traveled south to San Diego for the last session of a three-month intensive workshop involving officers from the police departments of four local universities: University of California San Diego, California State University San Marcos, Palomar College and Miracosta College.
POWER (Peace Officer Wellness, Empathy & Resilience) provides first responders with tools for self-regulation, stress management and self-care, while supporting wellness and relationality.
In addition to the operational challenges inherent in the job of policing, the toxic climate of dysfunctional agency culture, local community resistance and distrust, and the national political discourse around policing all serve to increase the stress that first responders bear. The accumulation of stressful incidents over the course of an officer's career can lead to a host of adverse health outcomes: increased incidents of injury and illness, diminished cognitive performance, mental health impacts including anxiety, depression, addiction and elevated risk of suicide, increased incidents of domestic violence and reduced life expectancy.
The POWER curriculum provides a novel approach to these risks, using a trauma-informed lens to educate officers in scientific understanding of the physiology of stress. Participants learn mindfulness practices and compassion-based communication exercises, training in skills that foster greater self-awareness and self-regulation, cultivating authentic, positive relationships with self, others and the environments in which they operate.
POWER includes 32-hours of in-person training, delivered over 12 weeks. During these sessions, participants learn about the autonomic nervous system and how stressors impact our physical, mental, emotional and relational health. Participants are introduced to innovations in neuroscience through discussion, videos of officers in previous POWER cohorts, mindfulness activities and interactive assignments like automatic writing and scavenger hunts, as well as a series of large and small-group council sessions.
In addition, the program provides 12 weekly online units that include self-directed activities, TedTalks, Podcasts, articles and journaling suggestions. Each week, small groups meet together in self-facilitated “council huddles” and address topics that mirror the 12 weeks of online assignments. Skills taught in the in-person workshops support self-facilitation of their independent huddles throughout the program (many groups continuing to meet in their huddles well after the program ends). Like previous cohorts, the feedback from officers from the recent group of San Diego campus police agencies was very positive.
The POWER program’s council huddles continually receive enthusiastic feedback and are what separates POWER from other wellness programs. Council huddles give officers an opportunity to come together to practice council; sharing stories and offering one another non-judgmental regard. Some comments from the recent San Diego cohort:
The POWER workshop that our team delivered recently in San Diego was a bit different from others, as our trainers collected biometric readings from officers both before and after the training program for a research protocol developed by our Chief Medical Advisor, Dr. Ann Seide. While the data is still being analyzed, the results, so far, are quite striking.
In designing POWER, we had hoped to mitigate the increased incidence of heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and shortened life-span seen in law enforcement personnel. Through technology available through a company called HeartMath, Dr. Seide is now able to measure Heart Rate Variability (HRV) both before and after training in a variety of domains that relate to measures of overall health.
Watch a video of Dr. Seide discussing her research below:
In March 2024, instructors from the POWER Training Program will present findings on the research conducted in San Diego at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Officer Wellness Conference, in Louisville, KY. Moderated by our friends at the DOJ's Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office, our team will lead a session entitled: Curbing Empathy Fatigue: Skills for Building Compassion and Wellness.
2023 Marcia Slater Johnston Award for Outstanding Leadership in Community-Based Efforts to Reduce Social Isolation and Loneliness goes to Jared Seide!
The Marcia Slater Johnston Award for Outstanding Leadership in Community-Based Efforts to Reduce Social Isolation and Loneliness is conferred annually by the Foundation for Social Connection at its Action Forum, which took place this past October at Harvard University. This year's recipient is Center for Council's Executive Director, Jared Seide.
The Foundation for Social Connection was founded in 2020 with a vision for all Americans to have the opportunities and evidence-based support necessary for a socially connected life. The Foundation engages in education, increases public awareness, promotes innovative research, and spurs the development and implementation of evidence-based models that address social isolation and loneliness and promote social connection. The annual Action Forum convenes the best and brightest thought leaders and change-makers from across the globe to raise the visibility of our nation’s crisis of connection, spotlighting ground-breaking innovations, spurring commitments to action, and promoting real evidence- and system-based change for a more socially connected future.
The Marcia Slater Johnston Award is presented each year to one recipient who exemplifies exceptional leadership and dedication in reducing social isolation and loneliness and promoting connection in their community. The award recognizes exceptional work at the community, local, or state level to address Social Isolation, Loneliness, Social Connection and Social Wellbeing. Recipients must demonstrate identifiable impact that is trackable and has the potential to scale to a broader level, with added resources and support.
In conferring this award, the Foundation for Social Connection celebrates Jared’s achievements in creating a wide variety of council-based offerings that foster a culture of social connection, engagement and resilience for system-impacted, incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated individuals, educators, students, healthcare and mental health professionals, community leaders and law enforcement officers.
Mitch Highley was serving a life sentence at Ironwood Prison when he first encountered council. It was definitely not love at first sight! In fact, when Mitch walked in on a group of Lifers he quickly identified as adversaries from rival affiliations -- sitting in a circle around a centerpiece covered with talking pieces -- he almost turned around and walked out. He remembers saying to himself, "This is not for me!"
The year was 2015 and Mitch had found himself at something of a crossroads. Despite the discomfort, he recognized something compelling about this unlikely group of men, talking softly and opening up about things not usually discussed in public, even less so in prison. He made a choice to be curious and he kept coming back to the group, week after week. He soon found the practice of council to be surprisingly freeing -- and even inspiring. The depth and poignance of the stories shared were striking and Mitch found that one person opening up about something challenging led others to do the same. "It kind of put me in a place where I could be vulnerable in a place you're not supposed to be," he observed in a 2016 video, captured by a crew from Center for Council. Mitch became hooked. "There’s no group on the yard that makes me feel the comfort that council does," he reflected. "It actually builds my confidence and gets me comfortable with who I really am."
Mitch's amazing transformation was confirmed by a grant of parole in 2019 and the launch of an inspiring new chapter in his life. Seven years after that first video interview, Center for Council's Brie Thiele paid a visit to Mitch to check in on his extraordinary story of redemption and triumph. Mitch and his wife Marybeth had welcomed their son, Gage, four months earlier and Brie reports that the couple has taken to parenthood very naturally. Their cozy home is decorated with family pictures, and their friendly dog, Freedom, stands guard over his terrain. The future is bright for this new, budding family and they were kind enough to chat about their journey.
Have a look at Brie's video of her visit to the Highley household below:
Mitch credits council with helping him develop a better understanding of his emotions and motivating him to rediscover his true self. Despite his life sentence, Mitch committed himself fully to his self-improvement and education in prison and he achieved a Bachelor's Degree in Sociology with an emphasis on Criminology while inside, as well as certification as a Substance Abuse Counselor. And Marybeth was by Mitch's side every step of the way. He fondly refers to her as “the real gangster,” holding down the fort as he moved through an uncertain and scary time, confined to a maximum security prison in the middle of the California desert. During this time of incarceration, Mitch never imagined that, several years later, he’d be Center for Council’s Program Manager, an integral part of our prison programming.
These days, Mitch is responsible for managing all of Center for Council's programming in prisons. On any given week, he can be found traipsing around the state with Center for Council's Executive Director, Jared Seide, as they check in on prison programs launched in 29 facilities and serving thousands of incarcerated individuals.
The Council for Insight, Compassion & Resilience program that Mitch manages is a three-month intervention in which participating incarcerated individuals are trained to facilitate council sessions for their peers, empowering them to become positive agents of change, on the yard and in their lives. The program contributes to a shift of culture within jails and prisons and equips participants with tools for successful reentry and reintegration into their communities upon release. After the successful 2013 launch of the program at Salinas Valley State Prison, the program has now grown to 29 California prisons and received 2020’s “Innovation in Corrections" award from the American Correctional Association.
CICR’s pedagogy is based on restorative justice principles, focusing on taking responsibility for past behavior and the harm caused to victims, and to others who have been impacted (friends, family, community), as well as to the trauma passed down through generations. Center for Council also provides services to those moving through the journey of rehabilitation and reintegration, launching the Council Reentry Program (CRP), managed by James DeBacco, who was actually first introduced to council as a member of the same Ironwood Prison group as Mitch! CRP works to address the needs of formerly incarcerated individuals returning home with a customized approach that offers warm hand-off support services initiated during incarceration and continues throughout the release and reintegration process with case management, ongoing council sessions for participants and their families, and advanced training in council facilitation for those who have found healing in this practice and want to carry it to their communities.
As an outgrowth of its work with individuals moving through incarceration and reentry, Center for Council created Leaving Prison Behind: A Council Before I Go, a powerful illustrated novella intended to offer a resource for individuals facing challenges on the path to freedom. It weaves the words, stories and insights of system-impacted individuals and those who support them.
Center for Council is committed to providing as many copies as possible to individuals who are incarcerated and who are somewhere in the process of coming home, as well as to all those who work with and care for them on this journey.
Your support of our programming helps us expand our capacity to provide this resource to as many individuals as we can. Copies are offered to our supporters, as a gift of appreciation, when you become a donor.