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Michelle Kinder: Socially Conscious Leadership from the Inside Out

Nuggets From Michelle Kinder's Call

Last Saturday, kindness activist and longtime educator Andy Smallman and I had the privilege of hosting a remarkable Awakin Call with Michelle Kinder.

Dallas-based therapist, community leader and speaker Michelle Kinder examines and teaches conscious leadership “from the inside out.” For many years, she led the Momentous Institute, a 99-year-old nonprofit that has been building and repairing social-emotional health through education and mental health programs. Momentous Institute serves vulnerable children through therapy services, curriculum and teacher training focused on students’ social-emotional health, a school program for young learners, and more. Under her lead, the Institute was named one of Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Workplaces for Women and one of the 50 Best Workplaces in Texas. Kinder notes that children cannot be emotionally healthy unless their families and community are also healthy. Seeking to address the inequities themselves, she now works with traditional leaders to help them embrace “socially conscious leadership from the inside out."

Below are some of the nuggets from the call.

Her focus on “clearing the vessel” of her inner world to amplify and elevate “a wisdom or a heart of service that isn’t mine”: “One thing that I've been working on a lot over this last year is this concept of clearing the vessel and letting something flow through me instead of relying on what I know or my grit and capacity to achieve. … I can be a more resonant voice in the world if my personal work focuses on clearing my vessel, clearing all the things that clutter my inner world – as opposed to just learning book-smart stuff. It's teaching me that there's a way to care for myself in a way that allows a wisdom or a heart of service to come through that isn't mine, but I'm positioned to amplify and elevate it.”

Shifting the paradigm of “self-care” to self-regulation and presence – “who we are matters more than what we know”: “When I first decided that I needed to shift into this mentality of "clearing the vessel" it forced me to look at how I was conceptualizing self-care. I had been doing so in a traditional way: when you are feeling depleted, what will you do for yourself? Over the years (it's been such a path and I have way more to travel ahead of me), it has been moving from that space developmentally of feeling invincible and not needing to do anything to take care of myself, to being aware that I need to do it when I'm depleted (and getting pretty good at that), to recognizing there might be a whole different way to flip that narrative on its head and instead think about 'what do I need to do every day to start every day completely filled up, so that whatever comes at me, I'm resilient, I'm grounded, I'm able to show up with a regulated nervous system so that that positively impacts the people around me, I'm able to listen to that still voice that you totally miss when you're caught by the frenzy?'” “Who we are matters more than what we know. I learned that in my work at Momentous Institute, where we focused on social-emotional health and we dealt with a lot of trauma. I came to know deeply that if you can regulate your own nervous system, the people around you are deeply impacted by that in a way that is far more profound that any information you could ever share.”

Furthering social-emotional health – Step 1: “Settle your glitter”: If parents/teachers/adults can't regulate their own nervous system, it's hard to create that container for children to step into their most grounded self. “We use the metaphor of ‘settle your glitter.’ We use glitter balls with water and glitter for kids as young as 3 because we know we needed to explain some very complicated concepts to little brains, and so we would shake the glitter ball up and we would ask them what they see – and they would say ‘it's crazy in there; I can't see through it.’ And we would tell them that the glitter ball is a model of their brain. When they're having a really big feeling or really emotional, or something’s very hard for them, that their amygdala is in charge, they're having an amygdala hijack and their glitter is everywhere. And that they have to learn and practice strategies to settle their glitter so they can see clearly and make good decisions and get back into their prefrontal cortex.”

Step 2: Pay attention to what you pay attention to, because what you pay attention to expands; plus learning to look at children through generous eyes: “When kids have overwhelming behaviors, the narrative begins that there's something in them that's problematic. Teachers, parents and child themselves begin to buy into it. That grows as they continue along in their educations until it feels almost irrefutable by the time a kid is in 1st or 2d grade even. What you pay attention to expands, so if you have the idea that a child is problematic, then you're going to get more problematic behavior from that child. But if you see the neuro-biologic basis of this and you understand how trauma affects that, you can look at that same child with much more generous eyes and also feel less impotent yourself so that you don't get triggered and you can follow the strategies that we know can work to calm the amygdala and help a child get back into their prefrontal cortex before start trying to logic or punish them out of their destructive behavior.

Step 3: make room for play and joy – what’s your “cat hair?”: “There was actually a research study where they took mice who are apparently very playful creatures, and they put them in a habitat. They had researchers track them for 5-minute increments several times per day over the course of 4 days, and what they were tracking was ‘how many times do these mice initiate play?’ The average amount of time in a 5-minute period was 50, so they were basically playing like crazy. On the 4th day what the researchers did was insert into the habitat a cat hair, not a cat, not a bunch of cat hair, just a cat hair, and in that moment, the play ceased – completely ceased. Just the threat, the possibility of a threat, paralyzed play. And then at the end of that 24 hours they released the cat hair and even once the possibility of the threat was removed, the mice did not re-engage in play and then eventually they barely started playing a little bit more. But by the end of the study, which was just a 10-day study, but by the end of the 10th day, they still weren't back to the pre-cat hair levels – the 50 times initiated in 5 minutes. We use that as just the metaphor of how even the perception of a possible threat can paralyze our ability play and enjoy life. … [W]e posed the question of ‘what is your cat hair?’ That's a really good thing for us to think about –what is the thing from our past or our present or our future worries that we're giving outsize power to and allowing it to suck the joy out of our lives? That's something I think about a lot. And there's always something, but using that frame allows me to think about taking that power back and re-juicing my life with play and joy.”

About socially conscious leadership: “So many adults are in the business world and just in our adulting life, we're pretty shut off from our internal reality and our internal world. That may be less the case with your listeners. But socially conscious leadership from the inside out concept is that if you're driven to make difference in the world and lead in a socially conscious way where you're not just caring about lining your pockets but you're caring about the impact on all your stakeholders, the biggest way to amplify your impact is to do your own internal work – it's that ‘clear the vessel’ work; raising your awareness of your impact on other people, being so consistent with the tone you set – so that people feel very safe around you.” It’s parallel to the work with kids: first, settle your glitter; second, notice what you notice, because what you pay attention to expands (and recognize confirmation bias in what we notice); and third, make room for joy and play. “I would like to see all these people invested in social change filling their spirits with joy and play, so that they can shift from already very powerful work – maybe they're a 100-watt and they have the capacity to be a 1000-watt bulb. That's what the inside out work does; it takes you into a totally different stratosphere in terms of impact that can feel effortless – because you're not relying on that finite source of power, that we're trained to rely on. You're plugging into an infinite source of power, that isn't personal, that isn't about you, but it's accessible to all of us.”

What to say to people in power/with privilege – clearing the vessel and getting out of the way to elevate new voices: “There's so much for people of privilege to access and act upon right now, in terms of raising our awareness and our consciousness about structural inequity and all the ways that our system has been baked into benefiting a certain group of people at the expense of another group, or other groups. Becoming a student of that – reading, watching the great documentaries that are coming out – there’s so much more that we can access if we choose to. As you start learning from the voices of those who have been impacted by our system that privileges certain people, you can't help but then want to learn more and want to pay attention to how you participate in that, and want to begin thinking about all of these issues in a way that doesn't put yourself at the center of it, because people of privilege have always been at the center of everything. So it's really hard work to notice that, to accept it, to not personalize it, and then to get out of the way and let the playing field even out a little bit differently so that new voices are elevated and amplified and have the support to lead us where we can go – that up to this point we couldn't go because power was held so tightly by a few.”

On philanthropy and "bestowing" – dismantling disparity is “not ours to lead” – giving impacted communities not only voice, but also vote and veto, and genuine space for them to step in: “Most of the people who are in that space have been playing by the rules of what it means to be a good person and they think they've done that, and they have – there's no desire to minimize that. It's just that, as our eyes open to some of the systemic issues around that and some of the structural inequities that have created an ‘us’ and ‘them’ and a sort of blindness to the laws and policies and practices that have created the disparity, and then on the other hand, showing up with generosity and a desire to make a difference with the problem. But the two things can't be separated. We have to walk on both tracks – we have to walk on the track of showing up for people impacted by disparity while dismantling the disparity.

“And that actually is not ours to lead – we made the mess and need to fix it, but we also have to not put ourselves in the position of solving problems for communities if we're not impacted by the problems. Our solution will always be a little bit tone deaf. So I'm excited by programs that are recognizing and looking for ways to not just elevate voice, because I think that's just taking it one step, but really transform who is shaping the solutions and who not only – I have a friend that talks about not only giving communities voice, but also giving them vote and veto. So it's not just 'hey we want to hear from you, but then the second you say something we don't like, you're problematic,' or 'this is just too hard, we need to move forward with the project.' Or whatever it is. … This is stuff that in no way do I think that I get, but I'm working to get it and I'm working to learn from the people who are positioned to really lead us through some norms around philanthropy that may have overstayed their welcome – like a group bestowing on another group, with the best intentions but it's still problematic.”

“My belief is that those people [in impacted communities] step in when the space is genuinely open for them. The genuine openness for that is the work of the current power holders. It's a real flip from ‘how do we do this most efficiently in the frame of what we know?’ to ‘how do we do this in the way that solves for issues through the lens of the wisdom of the community impacted by the issue?’ That usually takes longer, because people are distrustful for very, very good reasons – you're often not the first person or group to knock and they've learned to mistrust because things have been promised or things have been bestowed and then unbestowed or what have you. So you have to have that long game mindset and the past lens and future lens with a wide, wide aperture. If you're just looking at it in that moment of time, I can almost promise you that you'll get frustrated and you'll be out of there because the narratives that get triggered on all sides shut it down. But if we have that wide, wide aperture of taking into account the past and how things got this way and that this is in some ways very intentional service of a small group of people harming a big group of people – if we don't acknowledge and hold that whole picture, it shows up how we show up in the present. The lens of how to look forward for me, having worked in the nonprofit world for 25+ years, is just an understanding that the way it's currently set up is designed to keep us in business. It's not designed to solve for the issues, and I genuinely believe there will never be a deep solving of the issues until we change whose voices are privileged.”

Are there particularly good models of communities or facilitators or space-holders that are helping communities do this transitional work? “A great example of this that I would love to see our philanthropic community just pour into and take that appropriate role of ‘you know your community, now show us how to help you’ rather than prescribing what should be done, is a relatively new nonprofit, For Oak Cliffs. The leaders of the organization grew up in the neighborhood – one of our toughest neighborhoods in Dallas – and then went and participated in Teach for America. … It's a perfect example of ‘we've got this group who knows the community, now let's stop telling them what to do and listen and fall in.’ I see that happening and I hope it just gets amplified and elevated times 1000. Another great example of transforming communities and neighborhoods in a really thoughtful way is Purpose-Built communities out of Atlanta. I just got through visiting with them this past month – they actually have one in Nebraska, in Omaha. They've got a lot of things figured out. There's an organization in Dallas called Bonton Farms that is doing super innovative work. And many many others but I think the frame is broken, and so it's great to look for these outliers and it's great to start challenging ourselves around frame.”

How do you think about scale and impact, since so much of this deep work of inside-out transformation is deeply personal and hard to scale? “I have such a mixed relationship with the idea of scalability. I've seen so many wonderful pieces of work sort of die at the altar of scalability. It has been problematic that that's become such an elevated piece of the lens for many people who are supporting from the philanthropic stance, that a lot of the deep work that can truly transform a community that then other communities can then spark from, ends up not even getting off the ground because it doesn't check a box around scalability. I think the things that we ought to be looking to scale are almost like in the public health mentality – how can we scale the ways people are thinking about these problems and then trust the specific groups and specific communities to let solutions bubble up that are organic to that community? – as opposed to try to dilute something so dramatically that then hopefully it works everywhere.”

A different model of emergence: Host: "It's a model of emergence really, this bubbling up. It's something …. I say a lot that when I was working in the White House in the 90s, in the Clinton White House, there was an Office of Public Liaison – this isn’t to highlight any particular Administration, but it was just the ways in which our government was organized – it was very much this idea that the public must be liaised with, just this kind of touch point. And then later in the 2000s it became the Office of Public Engagement. So it became that the public needs to be engaged [which is a bit deeper,] but again, it's this idea of these institutions doing the work and then the public just needing to be kind of brought in. And I keep thinking, part of the reason I named my nonprofit “Social Emergence” was the idea that it’s beyond engagement and beyond liaising. It's about really shifting the center out into the affected communities." Michelle: "I love that. That gave me chills."

Staying in touch with Michelle and an upcoming Socially Conscious Leadership Fellowship for Women: “I would love to encourage everyone to go to www.momentousinstitute.org and plug into what they're doing; it's such a wonderful place. I would be so honored if people would stay in touch with me via www.michellekinder.com. I love to speak and write and so if there are opportunities for me to do speaking or training with anyone or participate in some kind of writing project, I would be so delighted and the last thing I can think of is, in concert with Stagen Leadership Academy here in Dallas, which is a 20-year-old leadership academy that does intensive work with leaders, 52-week programs, they are allowing me to develop a social change leadership program for women that we're going to be launching in January. The application process is open right now and I would love for people to shoot me an email if they're interested; I can send them the information and application process. We're just looking for 20 amazing social change female leaders that can come together and learn from each other and with each other for a year's time. We're going to be raising the tuition costs, because we don't want that to be a reason people wouldn't apply, so helping spread the word about that would also be a help for me.”

Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!


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