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Karen Lischinsky: From Organizing to Helping Heal Communities



Alyssa: Karen is both a professor and a practitioner of sociology as she has been at the forefront of efforts to create spaces for communal healing and understanding including through restorative justice in the Massachusetts prison system. Prior to becoming a sociology professor Karen served in the United States Army Reserve and worked as a community organizer where she helped to establish better working conditions for some of the Bostons workers. As a professor of sociology Kare teaches a range of classes including a class on race and ethnicity and class on trauma workshops for members of the law enforcement community. For many years Karen has served as a volunteer coordinator of the restorative justice group at the Massachusetts correctional institution in the north Massachusetts. She has also served as the founder of the transformational prison project and has hosted a two-day restorative justice retreat that brings together prisoners, systems and members of the law enforcement community in the justice system. Through these efforts, Karen helped create spaces for people to navigate and transcend individual and group traumas so that real accountability and healing can emerge. Thank you, Karen, so much for joining us today.

Karen: Thank you Alyssa for having me here.

Alyssa: I thought maybe we could start by having you talk about some of your childhood experiences particularly those experiences that were formative for you in terms of your journey towards restorative justice, sociology and the work of creating spaces for healing?

Karen: Great question. I really feel that before I start this conversation I should give respect to those in California who helped us move forward in bringing what I call restorative justice inspired trauma work to the prisons of Massachusetts. So is it okay for you to just take a moment to thank folks like Amanda Berger in California who helped the transitional prison project think strategically about how do we move this kind of healing work forward. Belden out in California whose wisdom that it brought to us in Massachusetts continues to this day. Amazing editor as well. When we first started with thinking about bringing restorative justice work to the prison a lot of these incarcerated men, particularly at Norfolk Prison, lead a lot of the work done by Sujatha Baliga, so I have a great debt of gratitude to her. Folks in the prison project out in California but then, of course, the main thing Sonya Shah who many people in Massachusetts and in prisons know who Sonya is for his amazing wisdom, vision, empathy and just guidance to me and so many others goes onto this day and I'm just honored to be able to call her my friend, mentor and colleague. So I just want to put that out because we stand on the shoulders of many other people who have helped us move the work forward in Massachusetts and around which has inspired trauma work.

Now you know I thought a lot about this question about who am I as a person and how that impacted the work I do. A lot of people ask me this and I always use to respond by saying I do what I do but I also respect your question and I want to be as transparent as I can and authentic as I can in trying to answer the question in this moment at this time. But I also think there is a mysteriousness to the question that I don't think I completely know. And I think that I am in work in progress trying to drop down deeply into our heart center space. To think more about what moved me in one direction versus another. I can't tell you that I think I have experienced the road of some dark places and I think that those dark places made the lightness brighter in my life and also created a heart openness in a way that I don't think would have been available for me if it weren’t for those dark spaces.

But having said that I know that a year from now we had another conversation. I might be able to articulate more information about my childhood experiences. But for right now what I can tell you is that there are number of experiences that have profoundly affected me. Whether they moved me to the left or the right I can’t answer that. I can tell you that they affected me and so I can tell you that growing up as a working-class kid and watching my family struggle financially absolutely had impact on me and my siblings, and I don't think there was ever a time in my life in which my father didn't work at least two jobs and my mother worked as well. And I think experiencing that kind of inequality although growing up that's not what I was calling it, but it certainly profoundly affected me. Had me experiencing issues of marginality, classism clashing and I'll always say that I didn't go to the discipline of sociology. The discipline of sociology sort of came to me because through my experiences in the felt experience of clash shame, I could not articulate exactly what it was, I just could tell you that I was feeling something. And I think sociology taught me the terminology and the analysis to make sense of the experiences that I would was being impacted by class. I can also say that a major life experience for me was my mother's illness. My mother died of Leukemia but it was a prolonged protracted illness.

And as I said when I wrote you know those questions that you asked me to fill out, I was able to take part in experiencing in which my mother's grace and her beauty and in her sorrow and in her joy and sadness and in the grief, a complexity of emotion that I was able to go through this process with her which I wouldn't trade for anything in the world. But having said that I, my family also experienced through the brutality of the medical system that lack of care and compassion, that stunned me. My mother was just a number. My mother was just a case. People were not interested in helping professions in seeing my mother as a human being and what she wanted. The medical profession was not interested in hearing the concerns of my family and so that was stunning to me and still is with me today but it was also that there was no one to bear witness to what my family was experiencing or to say something or anything to my family that they knew they could validate what we saw in terms of what was going on in terms of the lack of care.

So that experience really helped me clarify what hearing witness and validating people's experiences is incredibly an important practice. And my hope is that I carry that practice into everything I do whether I'm in a classroom or on my college Campus or if I am in a circle in a prison or I am in a circle with survivors outside the prison and so forth. So those are some of the experiences though there are a lot of other experiences I can't actually tell you what was the thing that pushed me in one direction or the other. This is something that I continually think about and process through with people that I really care and trust.

Alyssa: Thank you Karen there were lot of wonderful things that resonated with me in what you just said and I just want to say that I really appreciate your openness and authenticity with the question because I know it's sometimes it's difficult to figure out or diagnose what it is that influenced us and in what way but appreciated that share and one thing that I was hoping to maybe follow up on is you mentioned with your experience with the healthcare system that there are these systems in place that maybe aren't as conducive to caring or bearing witness as as you put it in validating people's experiences and so with that in mind how do you start creating opportunities for people to cultivate caring within systems that maybe an environment that may not be so conducive to that for example in the prison system environment and I imagine going along with that this is where the sort of where restorative justice process and the circle process may be able to cut through that so I was just wondering if you could speak about that.

Karen: Well I think that in a culture of capitalism it's extremely hard to stay connected to careingness. Is that a word? Even on my college campus we have a nursing school and I have a lot of nurses that are in my classes and I know they know how to put blood pressure I know they're learning that and I know that there are book-smart and able to pass exams. But I really am interested in how do you know how to cure, how do you cultivate curinging when you don't want to and again I think that is a practice. One of my favorite quotes by Thich Nhat Hanh says "Understanding is the very foundation of love and looking deeply is the basic practice.”

So I think that having people be willing to really draw from the head and I heard one time I think it was eighteen inches or sixteen inches, it's a big drop from the head to the heart. So how do you cultivate that dropping into your heart space whether you're a nurse a doctor with all those pressures around you, how do you stay connected to that kind of energetic energy and do the work with love and compassion and I think that asking my students just in general some of who are criminal justice majors and nursing students in particular I think that is an important question. It's a lifelong question, and I'm not quite sure you're going to get it in a text book. You have to cultivate and practice it daily and you have to think about what are some of the energies or restrictions that are keeping you from going deeper. Now having said that the criminal justice system you know is punitive, and so it has taken a huge effort on the part of a lot of people here in Massachusetts and again with the help of a lot of other people like Sonya Shah to bring information and education to prison officials to be in discussion about what you are worried about. Like safety is an issue. We hear you but what we're also saying if we need to cultivate healing spaces within a prison that creates safety by definition. So I think it takes a lot of energy to sit down with other people's energy who are not interested in the beginning in terms of thinking about in a prison environment is it really possible for men and women who have inflicted harm to sit in circle in a healing conversational dialogue space. And so that has taken many many years and it continues to take a continuous dialogue with many who are the officials at Massachusetts to think about providing us the opportunity to come into a prison and what I consider as a sacred space a circle.

Alyssa: Wonderful. One of the things that really resonated with me when I read about your work as you mentioned it, it's a lot of work to cultivate caring but what is so fascinating to me personally that it seems that with with your prison work there are some people who think you really take to it for example from the people who may have been sent to a life in prison I think you've noticed that there is a real receptivity to circle and to creating these spaces and to really sitting in that energy and I was wondering if you could maybe speak about it and about experiences with some of these people who have really taken to that and are stepping up this process for others.

Karen: Here I think taking a lot of different workshops and being mentored by a lot of folks in California and just thinking about this turns my own life that what we know from research is that if trauma and violence are linked then accountability and feelings are linked as well and so often when I hear from prosecutors or judges is care what about the accountability. And I often use this example if I take someone and they don't know how to speak Spanish and I just put a piece of paper in Spanish and I say read it, they cannot do it. I could lock them up for one hundred years take them out and say, “read it now.” And they still can't do it. I could torture that person. I could be brutal with that person they still cannot read it. Again it's not until there is an understanding and learning of Spanish that leads to change. And so what we see is there are many men and women in prison who have a strong desire to try to understand what is the cause of the cause of the cause that has been sitting in a prison for X. number of years. And so the circle process provides the conversation and dialogue to do a hard work to try to connect those dots in your life. To figure out well what were some of the things that affected me and impacted me that I have been sitting in this prison and I also just want to say that that conversation just isn't about the story of the individual.


It's about looking at structural inequality and social conditions that create harm, that then may cause or divide someone, impacting someone in a harmful way. So we always in the circle try to broaden the lens, widen the lens, so that the story isn't just from a micro perspective but looks at all those other social conditions that impact people’s life chances. When I say that, that isn't to make excuses because we actually can hold multiple realities. We can hold the reality that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, that it all exists. And it can also be a 200% reality that we did it.

So we want to have a wider picture and story for you to make more sense about some of the behaviors that you have been convicted of and sitting in the circle. So it's a long process and it's a lot of hard work. That's the other thing that I think often people misunderstand about the work that we do. In terms of what I call justice inspired trauma work is that there are many men and women in prison who can walk the yard and convince themselves that they did nothing. There's no accountability in that. But if you choose to sit in a circle and engage in conversation with other incarcerated folks and some outside facilitators and really look at some hard things. Hard work is hard and so we try to do the hard work. And take a look at and center your voice, maybe for the first time in your life where we are going to bear witness and validate your experience, that there's some healing in that. And I really do believe that when you go through that kind of process having other people be our witness, with an open heartedness, that it allows for physical space in the body to then bring in survivors who've been affected by, say, their child was murdered or women was sexually assaulted, to bring people in and sit in circle that that man or woman who has gone through this process, where we have beared witness and we are validated, when we have shared stories back and forth, where we matter to each other in the circle, that they will hear the stories of those who've been harmed in a different way, in a more healing way, that it kind of naturally leads towards accountability. That is a lot of hard work.

Alyssa: Thank you. You provided us with a really good sense of all parts of the process and like the hard work that goes into that because it's one thing to say but it's a much different thing to do and I really enjoyed the analogy that you gave about it's like telling someone punishing them for something that they don't fully understand or haven't probed or haven't had their experience validated is like telling them to read a language they've never learned and never giving that the tools to learn that language. So along those lines, have you found that people once they're in the circle actually have those tools themselves to be able to kind of probe - Okay, what is this cause of the cause of the cause and to really excavate those underlying dimensions? Or is it one of those things that you know maybe in listening to others then they're able to start understanding what's going on with themselves more? Perhaps it is a combination of all of the above? I guess I'm trying to ask what are those tools that enable people to really dig deeper and excavate those cause of the cause of the cause?

Karen: So once again I'm just going to go back I really going to try to answer your question as best as I can. But I also think that there is a magical spiritual quality to a circle that by definition is healing. When we're in a circle, the the humanization process is inescapable ?, because we're in that circle, that we're seeing each other, that if one person decides not to come to the circle, there's a hole there, it effects. And for many men and women you know in a prison setting, mattering doesn't matter. But in the sacred space of the circle, particularly the prison setting, there is this connectivity of mattering, that is incredibly healing and also trust is earned over time.

Every circle in a prison setting is not a Kum ba yah ("Come by Here") moment, there are tense times or conflictual times. But there is a commitment to the process. We have a saying - in a prison, trust the process. And what I've seen is when we sit in that circle people dig deep to find the skills they have, they just need to uncover them and know that they matter in the circle to begin to explore some of the skills that one needs to deconstruct some of the things that brought them to prison.

The beauty of the circle in the way we do it is no one is expert, that everybody has their authentic voice in their own story and that their story matters and then in the telling of the story, we're not going to judge that story, we're not going to be punitive with a larger structure of the justice system, we're going to bear witness, with a benevolent heart. And ask people to really take a look at some hard stuff. It's really asking people to dig into what we know is there. To take that little step of trust in the process of the circle and once one person starts talking usually we see other people saying "oh yeah that happened to me too". And so there's this connection that actually I'm not the only one. I'm not alone and OK I now want to share my story. And it sort of has this momentum and energy that builds over time. Some people might be more quick to give more parts of their story and other people by the 16th week we may hear a little bit more. And they may be a little bit like me, still in the process of figuring out their story. But what I've seen is that people are committed to the process and trusting the process, even when it gets really complicated & difficult.

Alyssa: I'm curious now, I imagine that being in these circles that it has a transformative impact on you as well. In that, everyone is connected in a circle and everyone has their own set of energy restrictions, as you put it. And an emotional blockage is another thing to work through. So curious as to whether there's been times or experiences where being in that circle process even as a facilitator where that had a transformative impact on you and able to continue to grow personally and in a community setting.

Karen: Yeah I mean this is a collective effort. No one is not touched by the circle. I think that sometimes for me it can be this parallel process in which the moment can be a gift, in which I have an aha-moment and I think there have been many of those aha-moments for me. And I think one of them has been the work that we do, we have different kinds of Justice Inspired Trauma work. But one of the groups that we run is based on the work of a doctor Kent Hardy and Tracy Lebowsky and the book is called "Seems to hurt"?. The word "seems" to be misleading because I'd actually assigned the book to students on my campus, police officer, a lot of different people, not just the incarcerated and so and so forth. And what that book talks about and what Dr. Hardy talks about is what is the impact of not mattering. What does it mean when your voice isn't centered. What does it mean when you don't feel seen when even when you attempt to tell your stories.
What does it mean to be marginalized by people in positions of power? I think in my life there a lot of ways classism works. I have a PhD in sociology. Not many working class folks have their PhD in sociology.

There have been ways in academia in which working class women and certainly myself has experienced, that people want our stories of that working class environment, but don't encourage us to write our own stories. And so often, I continually say to folks that have been incarcerated, "Write your own stories. Don't let anyone else write your story. Write your own story."

I think this is something that I'm really thinking about in terms of experiences I've had in my life. What would my story look like on a written piece of paper. And if I'm the only one that reads it that is ok. And what I mean by that is that I would be writing it for me. And this is something that Dr. Hardy talked about. That when you speak your truth, when you speak your story, my telling of the story is not dependent on how you hear it.

And so when I read that passage, that was an aha moment for me because the speaking and the telling--"My goodness what will you think of me? How will you hear this? How will it land on you?" But if I can be good with me, then the telling and its impact on you doesn't bounce back to me. I'm not in control of how you hear me. That is impossible to set up. I'm just going to tell it to tell it. I'm going to tell it for the healing properties in the telling of the story.

I think witnessing and participating and having the privilege to sit in circle with men and women and survivors who come into the prison and talk about horrific moments in their lives has given me the courage to think about new ways to speak my truth. So it has been a tremendous gift. And I continue to think about it and wonder about the healing properties of just speaking your story.

Alyssa: No, that completely answers it. That was beautiful--the healing properties of speaking your truth. It is interesting because I know you referenced academia and it made me think about being a student. One of the things I personally struggled with was I think sometimes we are taught not to challenge authority and to acquiesce and not necessarily speak our truth. That was really interesting to me. I wonder have you in the classroom setting when you are teaching, has that desire to try to cultivate the healing property of telling your truth is it manifested in your teaching? Have you encouraged your students to do that? And if so, how?

Karen: Yeah. How to speak to my experience in academia which is kind of sad right now in the sense that you have students at least from the United States at least in Massachusetts which has been my experience, that students coming into a college classroom are ready for a certain kind of interaction in the classroom. They are not ready for the kind of interaction that they are about to have with me.

So I have to spend most of the semester having people articulate their uncomfortableness with dialoguing back and forth. Because we have standardized testing, so people will come into my class and we asked to put together these elaborate syllabi and really students just flip through them. What is the test? What is the book? When is this over?

And so, the content of the material I have to teach can be really difficult. But what is more difficult is to ask students to really drop into the experience of being in a room, which I consider a sacred space, of exchanging ideas. And the exchange of ideas can lead to transformation and dare I say it even in the classroom, healing.

And I think for students this is a stunningly new concept. So sometimes I will say it doesn't matter if you are freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. I might say, "What do you think?" And I have had many students who their body get their back up against the wall and say, "Who are you to ask me that?" And I have to remind them that we are in a classroom. Remember I said your grade is not dependent on whether we agree or not. That taking exams is business and we will deal with business. And it is serious. I was a student too. But actually, it can be quite fun in this room. We can exchange idea. Ideas can be exciting.

And if I didn't ask a follow up question, I have students say, "I feel like you are beating me up." And of course, we are going to deconstruct that one. Ok, I respect the feeling, now let's talk about where that came from. Often what we tease out through this long process--"because you don't agree with me, it feels very unsettling. That I don't like it." So it takes almost an entire semester to have people really get into it and then you hear students say, "I wish the class wasn't over."

So for me, the content is actually the easy part. But trying to have people look at their educational or socialization experience in the United States is really important because students don't find the exchange of ideas with the person who is the teacher, they are worried, "Will hold this against me? How will I get a good grade?" So it takes a lot of work no my part to have people drop in. I often ask, "Can you do it? Can you drop in to this experience this semester together?"

I also believe that the classroom isn't just an experience in those four walls. Some of the things I try to do in my class is bring people outside of the classroom. Combine practice and theory. I think if you engage in practice and theory, you become a more powerful person, a more insightful person about your own life, about the profession you are going into. And so often, practice and theory are not combined. I really try hard to combine both. So a lot of students come to campus thinking I want to be a doer. I want to be a police officer. I want to be a nurse. I want to be a lawyer.

And I always say, "Well, that is fine. But if you do all the doing without the thinking, you could hurt a lot of people. And if you just do the thinking, I'm not sure we need another book to tell us how many homeless people are in this country. But maybe you should do a little bit more doing. Now that can take many forms from like appealing the process, changing policy. But if you can combine the two--the doing and the thinking--which I try to do in my own life, you become more responsible in whatever you choose to do.

Alyssa: One of the things that I...I'm glad you mentioned both the cultivating the sense of speaking one’s truth even in an academic setting and also bridging theory and practice. Speaking of that one of the things I was really inspired to learn about you is that you have done this sleep out in order try to bridge theory and practice. And also have kids move from head to heart, drop from head to heart, because again that is not something that is conventional, but is certainly sorely needed. So I was wondering if you could speak a little about the sleep out experience.

Karen: Yeah, I first want to preface by saying that this is very wide. I thought mindfully go from going from inequality to maybe feeling and dropping into heart, just a little bit more. So if that happens, I've been successful as a teacher. How do you feel and also think about things? Usually in academia it is about how do you think. And I'm like, "No, how do you feel?" I also know that this feeling state is also not seen as academic.

I feel it as quite appropriate to have students to think about how they feel about significant social problems, whether it's an issue in the justice system. And thinking about the Sleepout I want to make it clear that we were not in anyway, nor do I think my students suggest in any way that they were homeless for a night because that'd be insulting to the homeless people. I think 24 hour sleepout was to engage in the dialogue all night long, running through a series of exercises in which we talk about not too far from this campus that people are homeless and by the way it's really cold out and it was really cold out when we ran the exercise. So, not only are you talking about what must have it been like to have to sustain yourself in the cold. But you are actually in the cold right now. A student might say, hey can we go into the building? Actually , not, this is our classroom right now. We might throughout the night, watch some films, write in the journal. It gets tense at times because people get tired.

And we talk about what's coming up for you and some point people have their sleeping bag and I know that the exercise has made its point. I remember one time somebody left a big gallon of hot chocolate with donuts. When my students saw that they were quite excited by it. They began to appreciate when you don't have very much. Like all of a sudden, there's some food there and somebody just happened to decide that they were gonna be... provide some food because they felt bad or they wanted to charity or whatever. And that got my students, we got a conversation about the difference between charity and justice. The charity, the food was there, somebody happened to decide to do it, but what if somebody didn't decide to do it. There is a difference between everybody being at the table and having enough food and they're so full, and then they see you in the window and say "Hey you can have the rest of our scraps". Versus, everybody at the table and has their needs met. And so those are conversations that take a different quality. When you're actually feeling cold or feeling tired and you're going through a number of exercises that all connect to these larger issues of inequality and stigma. Devaluation, dehumanization.

And the other thing, I often take my students to prison. I don't do tours. I find tours to be dehumanizing. But we do is we sit and we have conversation with some of the incarcerated men and women. It's always an interesting car ride down. Where I have criminal justice majors, for the most part, who will be saying things like, they shouldn't get programs... it wouldn't be safe. And all kinds of stereotypes mimicking back a retributive system. And yet then we sit in a circle. And a conversation happens. And there's this humanizing impact, again, that occurs. And on the way home, it happens every time. There are students that will say, you know there really should be more programming. I'm like, wow! That just took two hours. Because there is something about just being in a classroom or even through film but actually sitting in a space and having a conversation. And holding you to account, so there might be things students say in the classroom. And then I ask them to repeat it in the circle to the men who are incarcerated and all of a sudden, it's like "well I'm not sure if I meant it". I'm like no, go ahead. Let's have a conversation about it. Let's be real. Let's put it on the table. Let's dialogue. I've found it to be effective moving beyond the walls of a classroom which I think is also a sacred space.

Alyssa: One thing that occurs to me as I was listening to you and it's related to the theme of this conversation. It’s material intervention versus the ones that's more interior or internal nature. You mentioned with the sleepout that people did have some appreciation for the material needs. People are cold. They realize the importance of shelter. People are hungry. People are appreciative of food. Some of the external things. But you've also touched upon the important things that people feel like they matter that they can be heard. Things are not contingent upon some sort of material offering. So, I was wondering if you can speak to that a little bit and if there's any tension between the two. The focus should be in what your experiences with that material intervention and the ones that are oriented more towards internal and the deeper healing.

Karen: Yes, thanks for the question. Once again obviously people know basic needs to be met like housing healthcare, food, so forth. I'll give you an example. We were just recently at a prison. We were sitting in a circle. It was the very first time we were doing this. We are gonna do it again with 9, 10. 11 prosecutors. They were willing to come sit with the men and the men were a little concerned about if this was gonna work. And I always say no exceptions, no excuses, and no exclusions. Everybody needs to get into a circle. It was a prosecutor, who was actually talking about well you know you have adequate food. We are trying, the criminal justice system in Massachusetts is trying to take care of the basic needs and all of that. Then there was this incarcerated guy who turned to him and said, I know you have a lot of knowledge and information, but what I really want to know if how much you really care. And that just created an enormous silence in the circle. It's very moving because that was just the most important thing in the circle. We can talk about and should be talked about the policy and so forth.

But the way you get to, maybe a little more than just policy, is how much do you care. And that pretty much opened up and allowed everybody to drop deeper, including the prosecutor. I think yes we need to talk about material needs, but how do you see the person that's in front of you, the group in front of you. How do you see the other? Are you responsible for otherizing other people. What does that do? What does that dehumanization do? But I've come to understand most of my personal life and doing this kind of work is that mattering matters. That look of concern that look of empathy sticks and so I've had many students who said, you know I hope I get a good grade but I really appreciated that you really cared about us. That simplest act. for some reason, in our culture of capitalism, is not so simple and that is to care.

Alyssa: Mattering matters. The thing is it's so simple and obviously there is so much more to that.

It can be interesting. I'm now returning to our earlier conversation. You mentioned that it can be very difficult within systems that are not oriented toward that, where caring isn't necessarily built into the system itself. You have to cultivate it on your own. One question I would like to ask especially with the work that you do. Do you have any personal practices to support your growth as well as the work that you do with circles and cultivating these spaces for caring?

Karen: Yeah, a couple of things. People often ask, "How do you sustain? How do you do this? How do you take care of yourself? Will you experience burnout?" And I don't feel connected energetically to any of that conversation. They just don't land on me at all. What does land on me is making sure that I am energetically connected to the energy of the clarity of why I do what I do.

When I feel just a slight disconnect, I know that I have to be more mindful from the practices that I do engage in to make sure the clarity and the meaning and the purpose stays energetically strong. So some of the things that I make sure I do. Number one if you are going to do this kind service inspired trauma work you need to do it in community. To do it in isolation, I suspect some people could do that. I would not be able to. So I make sure that there are people that I deeply trust who mentor me everyday to provide insight and wisdom. I know I can pick up the phone and say, "You know what, this is what is going on." And they can provide me with the nourishment I need to go back and do it again.

Also, for me meditative practice. For me meditation...yeah, I can sit on a cushion for a structured time. I can do that. But for me, a meditative practice means that anytime, anyplace, anywhere, I can drop into the space that I need to go to that can be quiet and peaceful. And that could mean there is just a delay going into prison because that happens all the time. And just taking a seat and just taking a breath and relaxing the body and the mind and being connected to the work that I do.

I also think...You know I do teach full time. And I do this other work. And people will often say, "Well, that is a lot." And yeah it is. But I will also say that for me, it is incredibly important to bring in different kinds of energy. So when I'm on a college campus in my classroom, I am 100% present in that room with my students. And I'm going to give 100% and we are going to interact. And that requires a different kind of energy than if I'm in a prison in a circle with survivors and incarcerated and so forth. Just a different kind of energy.

So those different kinds of energies help me get a break if that makes sense. And then I also, I know this sounds a little strange but...I box. I was in a car accident, so I haven't been boxing, but I will say that for me I get slack all the time if you are boxing, are you perpetuating violence or are you empowering women? And I get it. And I appreciate the question. And I'm still conflicted, but I will say that for me boxing actually, if you understand the science of boxing, that there is an energy and a flow. That you have to be mindful of your breath. That you have to be mindful of your body in relation to the other person. That you have to be deeply present. It is sort of like a dance. And for me that is a meditative practice. And that is my space. The ring is my space. There are no emails. There is no phone. It is my space for a number of hours that I can try to get better and better at this kind of flow of a dance that happens to be called boxing.

Those are some of the things. And I also come to understand because of my working class roots, I always feel like you gotta work, you gotta work, you gotta work. So take the other person's overtime if they don't want it. Go work on that holiday if that person doesn't want it. But what I have come to understand over time, particularly doing this kind of restorative justice trauma work is that you actually have to take care of yourself. And I have come to understand that that is a political act.

There was an article I read by Fania Davis and Angela Davis called, "The Radical Work of Healing: On a New Kind of Civil Rights Activism." That really helped me drop into and think more deeply about what does it mean to make sure you take care of yourself. When I say take care of yourself, I'm saying, "Hey, I can actually take some time to go to the restroom. That the group is there. I may be two minutes late, but that is ok."

And so that it important to self-care, healing, and spirituality can all be a part of the physicality of going into a prison and facilitating or being a teacher in the room. That all these things need to come together for me to do and be the best person that I can and show up and really be present and open-hearted. I no longer see it as a luxury of something that I shouldn't do. That I should just pass through it. I really have evaluated that and the practice of self-care and how important it is.

Alyssa: Thank you so much for that. Personally, I thought it was very interesting about boxing as a personal practice and your description of boxing was very interesting. In some ways it could be a description of circle because you are talking about being mindful of one's own energy and body as well as the relationship.

I'm going to ask one more question before we turn it over to Q&A. Part of the question that I have is how do you sustain that connective energy from circle or from these settings where you have an intense experience where you are able to drop into your heart? How do you sustain that in our waking life and be able to bring that energy beyond the circle?

Karen: That is a good question. For me, I always try to say to myself, "Today, I'm going to get up and try to do whatever I'm going to do better than yesterday. And tomorrow, I'm going to try to do it better than the day before." And not let the big picture, which I think we should have a macro-analysis of the big picture of the criminal justice system and inequality and so forth, but I do come back to this quote by Rabbi Tarfon, "It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either." So for me, the meaning of that for me is you can roll up your sleeves and do your small part. You have the responsibility to do that at least in my interpretation, what is my responsibility. I feel my responsibility is deeply connected with that quote.

I'm going to do what I do. I'm going to do my best, and tomorrow I'm going to try to do it a little better. I'm always be mindful that practice of self-care. And that clarity of purpose to that quote for me helps and allows me to sustain and continue.

Alyssa: Wonderful, thank you so much, Karen. I think at this point we can transition to Q&A. I really appreciate that and I also appreciate the gratitude and acknowledgement you showed to all the invisible and visible work that takes place throughout these circle communities and restorative justice communities. So thank you very much for sharing your story.

Rish: I just want to say thank you so much for that conversation. I feel such a power in your words and I feel like that power is coming from living your truth. As I was following along, I did have certain questions. Let me start with this one. You talked early on about the power of writing your own story, not letting how it is heard affect you, to tell it for its healing properties. Such a powerful concept. When I think about that I also find on the other hand, I am personally reluctant to tell my story because safety is important. It requires a certain courage. And the validation of being heard is part of why we tell our story. Can you speak a little more to that and clarify how we move into that place of courage where you feel comfortable telling your own story. How do you get your community or your incarcerated prisoners to speak their truth or your classroom to speak their truth?

Karen: Thanks for the question. I think in the classroom or a prison environment really it's about...I know in academia, often my classrooms are not set up in a circle, but I approach it like a circle. There needs to be in those moments that we meet a commitment to each other to show up. That doesn't mean we need to speak a word. But we are showing our commitment by showing up. And over time, it builds trust and there is often a moment in the circle where someone will say something and then you ask how they felt in the saying of it.

And they will say, "That felt pretty good. It was actually a weight off my shoulders." And then all of a sudden it gives permission for someone to get real curious. "Maybe if I shared just a little bit, it could help me. It could be healing for me." And so, it has this momentum. I also think the amazing on-ness of the gathering. What I mean by that is like on a college campus when we are together for a semester.

I find the main thing is that when we meet the first day, I remind people that when this semester ends, this group of people can never be done again. We have the ability to be with each other in a particular way, that yes, we can learn intellectually, but we can also feel each other and understand at a very deep level. And when the semester is over, you can take another class with me or some of the other students in this room, but it won't be the same. So here is an opportunity for us all to decide if we want to take that step to move in the direction of speaking our truth. I think the same thing in the prison environment where often the stakes are much higher in taking that step to begin a story or connecting those dots through various exercises.

Rish: Yeah, that is beautiful. This idea that each opportunity being unique both in its healing capacity and its capacity to affect others. Yeah, that is perfect. Another question I had is community is messy. Your process is a community process. One of the things in terms of the healing is intentionality, intentionality of how you are showing up. In that context, one can manage one's own personal intentionality. How do you ensure that others show up with that same intentionality that is going to contribute to the process? Is it modeling the behavior? Is it drawing certain boundaries? I guess this goes back to the original question that we started out with which is the tools. At one level it is about tools. What do you do to create the structure around the group accountability? What part of that can we bring to our daily lives?

Karen: So, I'll start off with being in a classroom. People can take my class for all kinds of reasons--just because they need to graduate. They don't really want to, but there they are. But when we engage, it means that people need to be held accountable to the words that they are going to put forward to the circle or the classroom. So if I have a student who says, which I have had students say, that someone who is incarcerated shouldn't be able to watch tv or they shouldn't even get food. I have had students say that.

Ok, you can say that. And now as a teacher, I'm going to hold you accountable to what that means. Let's play that out. So often this leads to a contradiction within that student. And I, as a teacher, ask people to stay in that contradiction and feel that contradiction. Usually, when people feel that contradiction, they turn the channel, drop the class, call me an ass, do whatever you can to run away from that contradiction. But I'm going be with you in that contradiction and try to go through a process with you that is connecting and with compassion here and very heart-centered. So I'm not there be devalue, dehumanize, make fun of. I'm there as a benevolent witness to ask some curious questions about who are you and how did you get to the place where you would say this?

And to encourage everyone else in the classroom, the circle, or the prison, to also join me, an invitation to join me in some curious questioning.

Rish: Sounds like there is some real skill there. Like you said, I can see that someone like me at the helm sounding very argumentative. I think there is something there about dropping into the intentionality that probably makes it work. That is very beautiful.

Someone on the web said in response to our topic, Jyoti says, "In my opinion, humanity and all creation lives in an unhealthy way in this adult prison. We are not as happy as we can or should be. We are in survival mode. We can change ourselves collectively. We can recreate the earth and our living conditions, even if we cannot, we can do what we can."

Alyssa: Following up on that I was also thinking if I was in a position of maybe students or people who are expressing views that sound very uncaring. Can you elaborate more on how you practice the skill of non-judgment in the face of that and have compassion and empathy for those people. As you said, it is probably coming from a place where there is a lot of internal contradictions. Obviously, the person hasn't had an opportunity to confront and navigate all those contradictions. I personally would struggle with that. So I am curious how you maintain that sense of non-judgment and patience through all of that.


Karen: Well I would say that I have judgement but I also very aware of myself witnessing my judgment. And that I revere that I am the holder of that faith, whether it's a classroom or a prison and then I have a responsibility to show up for all my students. That responsibility to show up for all the people who are in my circle of preaching no matter where they are in their own process. That is my responsibility. My responsibility also as a facilitator is to ask curious questions that may lead the person who might be saying something that may be difficult or hate filled on their own journey to judge and to be more curious about how do they get there. How do they even felt to get there, right? And so, I'm not going to say I don't have judgment but I am going to say that I'm able to hold the space with care, compassion and love and at the same time I can also hold how I'm feeling also.

And skillfully ask others in the group because the group has an intelligence right, to also participate but it also asks questions that may lead someone to their own contradictions in which they themselves have to have to grapple with what they're saying. And then, wait a minute, that doesn't match up with what I just said before. And that allows me to take a step back and say OK, like you tell me. So it does take a lot of time and intention and paying a lot of attention to the nuance of the conversation right? Paying attention to the details. And definitely going through the process and the process can be massive, very massive. Right and then we come back the next week or the next two days on my campus and we do it again, right? We just don't switch to chapter two if the student tells me that childhood matters and then I ask that same kind of just as a major, well, this guy is doing you know life but he was also abused as a child so he hates himself for his childhood. And if he says no then I say, but wait a second you just told me childhood matters. So he is on his own journey now.I'm just there to ask the curious questions. And I appreciate that.

Rish: I was just going to say, Alyssa, I wanted to share some more reflections that have been coming in from the from the online channels. David Doanne says, 'Material interventions and dialogue are both important and together and much more effective than either alone.' This might be a little bit kind of you talking about action or doing or thinking. Deepak Chopra pointing out, 'Love without action is meaningless and action without love is irrelevant. Definitely a person of community can be healthy and thriving in material conditions of confinement hardship and deprivation while empowers people of so many poor places that have little materially but they have a relationship together as purpose, respect and pride and they're happier and more fulfilled than many affluent people. I give more in I give more in dialogue than material interventions to those who have sufficient materially and give more in material intervention than dialogue to those who are materially deprived.' Very interesting reflection. Kind of reminds me of the point you made earlier about how mattering matters in that you know there are places and people where there is deprivation at one level but if they're feeling whole and feeling part of a community and feeling like they matter that that hardship is somehow alleviated. Yeah any further thoughts on that. I would love to hear about the mattering matters.

Karen: I would just say that, you know, in United States, we are very dualistic. You're either this way or that way, right? And so, in my, some of my classes, you know you talk about survivors or people who have been affected by homicide or sexual assault and then you have the person who committed the harm and it's vary heartful thing to take in that I can actually hold compassion for all the folks involved, right? That if you give some compassion to the [perpetrator] then you wouldn't have any left over for the victim and I'm saying actually it's the opposite, the more you give the more you have. But that is a very non western, you know, way of thinking and so it takes a lot of work particularly on my college campus for criminal justice majors who are taught this is the law, this is the way it is and I'm saying it's more complicated than that. And that actually you can hold a number of realities at the same time. And the more you, the more compassion you give, the more compassion you'll have. And that's very different.

Rish: Beautiful. We have a question from a caller on the line. Please go ahead. Your line is open.

Caller: Hello! Hi Karen....

Karen: Hi

Caller: Hi, My name is Chris. I'm calling from Berkeley California.

Karen: How are you today?

Chris: I'm doing pretty well. Thanks for all your sharing so far. Very thought provoking for me and and heartening to hear that the level of care that pervades all of this deep reflection too. So some questions that have come up for me. I guess I'll start with one at the top of my mind right now it's about about healing and I'm coming off of my first playback theater experience last night. Have you ever heard of playback theater?

Karen: Uh...umm...no.

Chris: It's a little bit intentional show but may be I'll weave in. It's essentially like a form of in the most spontaneous theater where people share a story and then the theater troupe will act back that story, sort of giving giving dramatic life to it like a type of [...] out there, you know.

Karen: Yeah yeah.

Chris: And. It erodes, it's quite a dynamic process you know between the audience and and the troop. Nothing's pre-planned. So there arose in that experience that the theme of healing and and potential for healing and how it can spontaneously arise and I know you had mentioned healing spaces both in the classroom and in the prisons and wherever really. So my question is something around that if you could share about some healing moments either from teaching work or perhaps your from your own life that stands out to you from this conversation.

Karen: Yeah I mean there have been many moments and prison environment what I can say for example of where we have our group and there are men going through some of these experience that are very transformative. We also know that when they need the group there are walking back into a prison environment you know, their hearts and so forth. And I remember there was a member in our group who had, was able to sort of connect the dots, What was the cause of the cause of the cause that has been sitting in the chair for a long term sentence. And umm.... he talked about the power of healing and he talked about how he went out into the yard his watch had been stolen and he went out into the yard and he saw somebody who he thought was the friend wearing his watch. Now I know and everybody in the group knew when he is telling the story to us that six months ago that incident would have ended very badly. Saying, going up 'You stole my watch' and violence.

But because he had some of those healing moments in that group and he internalized those healing moments in the group all he did was go up to that man and say "I want to let you know that I thought you were my friend and I know you stole my watch and I'm pretty angry about it. But you know what? You can keep the watch." And he walked away and then the next day that watch was on his pillow, right. So healing moments can transcend and stick in an environment and then have a ripple effect throughout in this case, a prison. But I also know it's well again on a college campus. I teach a lot of police officers who take my classes and you know a book can change a life, a book can be a healing moment. And I've had many, you know, officers say, you know, I really lived in this punitive eye for an eye but in going through this experience I realized that revenge or an eye for an eye doesn't necessarily lead to number one accountability or making me or potentially making me feel any better. So in the question about these spontaneous moments of healing and I'm not quite sure where it is going to go but I do know that it has a ripple effect. That person goes out and he talks to another police officer and another police officer, then across a person goes out into that yard and you know says hey this is really impactful or through his behavior he models a response rather than a reaction and that reaction often leads to violence. So I don't know if I answered your question but those are some of the examples but I have seen in terms of how healing has had this effect or moments of healing that has sort of taken on an energy that is quite a force.

Rish: Thank you. Thank you for that question. Did you have any follow ups on that Chris?

Chris: If there's time I do have one quick other one. And thanks for highlighting the sort of spontaneous arising and uncertainty of both healing moment and ripple effect. I really appreciate that. Following up on that I just wondered about this the phrase that sort of emerged within the research justice. Movement if you want to call that of, 'Hurt people hurt people and healed people heal people' and I wonder how that echoes for you and how that resonates with you from your experience.

Karen: Yeah, I think that me and you know, thinking about this deeply and reading and talking with incarcerated I really do believe that if you go through a process of understanding the traumas in your life or the structural inequalities in conditions that create harm, if you have an understanding of how that works and you are able to process it then I think it naturally moves towards healing, right.

So that if you can understand the hurts in your life and process them through that you have a different way to witness yourself in terms of the impact of those harms. Because if trauma is not processed through then often we know that people will act out by maybe hurting someone or hurts within and hurt them or themselves. So we hear that phrase quite often, 'Hurt people hurt people and healed people heal people', we also say healing heals. But what I do know is that it's incredibly important to process not just the personal hurts but the structural inequality that impact people's lives. And so that you have a better acknowledgment and a walk in a deeper understanding of how stuff impacted you.So that you can make sense of it and I think when you make meaning and sense of it I think that has a healing effect connected to it. So,I believe you know we use that phrase but I think it even more complicated than you know to do that right how people have their own way their own way to process and in circle we allow for however that process is going to unfold right. Some people will start talking the second day the group, some people it takes a whole year. People on their own journey and their own process and then you know I know myself is that my job as a facilitator is to hold that space with respect.

Rish: Thank you Chris and Karen for that wonderful dialogue there. Just one more comment from one of our listeners and then I have a final question for you Karen. Bradley was listening so he says, 'Thank you Karen, I would love to take your class. I think he speaks for all of us on that front. What you said mattering matters and we must both think and do. I will hold on to both of these, I will try to on my journey with smiles.'

And I think on that note maybe a question that's present for all of us you know when given the work that you're doing and the impact that you are making how can this community, we all of us as the larger Service Space community support your work in in any specific or broad way that you can see.

Karen: Thank you for the question. I could say the same back to you right like what do you think that we here in Massachusetts, I personally can do for you and that's I think that's the point that we are in mutual relations with one another, that we're not holding on to knowledge and information that we're sharing that information with each other. We're trying to be in community and not competitive right so you know. I think you guys continue to doing what you do and we continue to do what we do and try to support each other in our work. I think that what we can both do for each other.

Rish: Yeah! Great. What I'm hearing is you know keep asking the question and I guess this call of the start of that kind of mutual support and network so thank you again Karen some beautiful highlights from the call I think we've heard again and again what I would take away certainly is this idea of mattering matters and that how important it is for people to be heard to encourage and to inspire people to tell their own stories to tell their own truth and it's been really a delight to hear about the amazing work and the approach that you've been taking both in and out of the classroom. And so again thank you very much.

Thank you for listening to a recording of Awakin calls. To access archives visit us at www.awakin.org and to get more involved volunteer at www.servicespace.org.




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