One of the cheapest forms of therapy that I have encountered is public speaking or just speaking up. *Gasp* — “you’re crazy,” you must be thinking. Isn’t public speaking feared more than death? Well yes, it’s close enough… Most people are terrified of it (including myself), which indicates the potency and brilliance of public speaking.
Consider this. Quite possibly, you have been silenced by social expectations, tribal or familial expectations, and/or by your own fear. Yes, the very things that help us sprout are the very things that can shut the lid on our expression: school, family, the larger social context, or a peer group. Although I really don’t think these sets of people are necessarily out to get anyone and shut them down…it’s just that without skillful awareness, all they do is either consciously repeat what happened to them in their youth (because they are now following accepted societal norms and thus everything they do is OK) or are completely unconscious of themselves and are running on auto-pilot, squashing out other opinions and/or perspectives.
Alas, there are many things that silence us — both internally and externally. It is a force to be reckoned with, my friends — and a topic to be explored.
Recovering from Silencing
Lately, I have developed a growing awareness of ways I have been ‘silenced.’ I was raised mostly in a small town in Mississippi where young women were allowed to speak only in certain contexts and within certain rules. And, let me tell ya — I learned how to play the game. However, my sense of self and my ‘inner independence’ respectively diminished as I aged and became a woman. No one ever taught me to speak from a place of compassionate ‘inner independence’. I was only taught to follow the rules and not to step out of line (for this would jeopardize the thin veil that held everything together). By not jeopardizing this ‘thin veil’ that held the community together though, I dishonored myself. The key to adulthood is to honor the self while honoring the community as well, understanding how to hold these two in a dynamic balance (all indigenous communities know this).
The best examples of silencing that I experienced in Mississippi happen to be as a result of things that happened to my mother. My mother and I had just moved from New Orleans to Louisville, MS because she had just remarried (I was 11 at the time). We moved closer to family (cousins, grandmother…great aunts even…) and with that — back into the distinctive tribal pulls of ‘family.’ With that, there are both negative and positive pulls, but I won’t go there for now.
My mother had been teaching Creative Arts classes in elementary to high school age settings for all of my life. She had taught at a Montessori school in DC and a highly-regarded Episcopal school in New Orleans. She was trained in Orff and had studied voice and piano in college — the arts were here life.
In my youth, I attended all of her classes…and luckily I reaped the benefits of her lessons on the creative process (which has aided me all my life, I now realize). And, as I got older, I saw what brilliance she brought out in her students. This is especially true for the struggling artists in her class that did not seem to meld with the standard, required teachings of the rest of the school curriculum. Everyone enjoyed her classes; I mean, she had to be one of the most popular teachers in each school we went to. Really — it was crazy to watch.
When we moved to Mississippi, things changed. The first example is that mom began teaching a creative class at a local church. She set up her normal routine — she brought instruments…we clapped…played our little hearts out…sang…danced around the room…and such and such… However, one day the preacher at that church found out we were singing this ghastly song — Simple Gifts. Yeah, the Shaker song adopted by the Quaker community as well. You know ’tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free…tis a gift to come to where we are to be…’ For some reason, that was unGodly and she was told to stop singing that song. Being new to the town and wanting to protect her family, she did so — she stopped singing Simple Gifts.
The next example I have was the biggest blow to my mother…actually, to our family. In about 1990, my mother had been attending Mississippi State University (MSU) to get her Masters in Fine Arts. While in school, she decided to write a curriculum for the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). I remember her storming away at that little Apple IIc writing this curriculum (you know, black screen and green cursor!). It completely absorbed her as this piece of literature was going to reflect all the gems she had been polishing all those years teaching young people. This curriculum was going to capture the essence of her work and inspiration thus far.
The NEA suggested that she stage it at a local high school. So, she was able to negotiate with a high school in Mississippi near the local university, MSU. After her curriculum was finished, teachers were supposed to be selected to learn the methodology…however, somehow my mother was encouraged to teach instead. So, she did and she was so excited to bring her skills and talents to the area she was born…and where her ancestry was. In no time…the magic happened again — the kids *loved* her! They wrote her letters…asked for guidance…peeled back layers of learned social distancing and began to express themselves like never before!
(insert noise of a record scratch here)
It didn’t take long for the town to constrict around all this fun-loving expression, though. Yes, soon there was talk of ‘devil-worship’ and my mother ‘being possessed by demons.’ Sure — that would be my mom — the creativity teacher. Much like the witch burnings of the 15th to the 18th centuries in Europe, my mom was being demonized. Yes, SHE was the one teaching children how to believe in themselves, express themselves, and understand their world through shifting perspectives…SHE was the one who was obviously worshiping the devil. It was mainly the parents in Starkville and then the preachers of the town that were bellowing out these toxins at my mother.
To make a long story short, she quit her job…she tucked her curriculum on a far shelf in the back room of our house… The public apology that the parents, preachers, teachers, and principal offered her came too late…she had already been burned. Unfortunately, this is yet another example of how the South tends to sabotage itself. The South takes a potential strength and holds it back because of its own insecurities and wounds. Hey — it’s no new thing — people do that all the time and eventually go through lots of therapy for it. But, how does a region heal!? I suppose by each one of us going through the process of healing in each of our own, unique ways.
In 2010…I look back… I realize that it wasn’t just my mother that was burned…I was too. I think it was at that time that I learned to keep silent. And, it’s taken me many years to salvage my expression, my voice…essentially a big part of who I am from this wreckage.
I think many people go through this kind of silencing. And, the wounds go deep. Much of it is unacknowledged and completely overlooked. Therefore, we just keep marching along and making the same mistakes — potentially continuing to silence other people, and more importantly our youth (however, good luck! — the generations coming up are on fire!).
Speaking up and Speaking out
Back to public speaking, then… Shall we…?
Over the past 5-6 years, public speaking has been a really great way for me to voice myself. The best examples I can give are all about going to public hearings and offering my voice and listening to other people.
It all started in San Francisco. I worked in a low-income neighborhood in the city called the Tenderloin. I worked with low-income families at a few housing developments (one of them in many urban planning text books because it was a new, multi-use building). In the Tenderloin, I worked in the most ironic places on the planet. The Tenderloin is flanked by the governing City Hall and flashy, touristy Union Square. However, it was embroiled in problems and impoverishment — prostitution, recovering addicts, addicts, immigrant families (Yemeni, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, Filipino, Algerian, you name it!), children, the highest count of convicted child molesters in the city, and let’s top all this off with starving artists. To me, it was a ‘containment zone’ — a place where the city put things that it didn’t want to deal with.
I worked in this neighborhood for 5 years. It didn’t take me long before I was outraged — mainly for the children — and I began to speak my mind. Thus began my ‘cheap therapy’ process of going to public hearings.
My first public speaking debut was to speak out about the lack of safety of the children in the Tenderloin. Next, I spoke out against the crappy food these children were given for Summer lunches (and found out that these were the same meals they were given during the school year!). While the USDA and local city were counting their beans with laborious budgets, these children were given the crappiest food I had ever seen (probably clouding their thought and giving them all kinds of behavioral problems — talk about the cycle of poverty, subsidized by even the local government!). Of course, the city could prance around and feel proud that it was feeding thousands of kids per week during the Summer…little did they know that most of the kids felt nauseous after eating the food…and that, after a while most of it only made it to the garbage can. Factor that into your budget!
The last time I spoke publicly, I was in Mississippi. I was visiting my mom and a friend of ours started telling me about how Kemper County was on the table for getting a lignite plant. Basically, you take a certain amount of the top layer of soil and extract lignite (a lesser form of coal) from the soil. Sounds simple, eh? That’s what they would like you to think while waving dollars in front of your face. Kemper County fought it off roughly 20 years ago…but Southern Company was hungry for more. Kemper County, with little record of civic engagement, a low density population, and a struggling economy — seemed like the perfect place to pounce on, I’m sure. I went to this hearing and listened to the different sides of the argument. 20 years had gone by since they fought Southern Company off and now people had weakened a bit and weren’t resisting that much. I talked to a guy at a gas station after this meeting and he hopelessly said, “well, if they don’t get us now, they’ll get us later.”
So, why speak out?
I’ll tell you.
To salvage our dignity from the wreckage. If we do not speak, you do not affirm your worth and dignity as a human being and as a part of our divine world.
By staying silent, we affirm that we have nothing to say…that our voices are invalid… By not speaking, we also silently support what is going on. By not saying anything, we basically are silently saying, “I agree with what you are doing or what is happening, so please continue to do so.”
Then there’s the rush…! I can’t really explain the rush I get after I speak. Sure, I have to go through the torture of my heart-rate going up…many people looking at me…the discomfort…and the nibbling fact that what I say will be lost in piles of papers. All of this is short-lived and once I ride the wave of my nervous system to the other side, it is smooth sailing AND I feel amazing after-wards. Most of the time I meet some amazing people in the process, too. I am always approached after a meeting and always connect with hearty people who just won’t give up on restoring dignity on this planet by participating in our collective, human healing by speaking up!
There is also the process of meditating on what I am going to say at a hearing the days before. This process allows me time to synthesize my mind and heart, solidifying my perspective before entering the room. Now, I don’t mean that I won’t hear anyone else because I have already established my perspective. I mean simply…that I have captured my voice, validated it, and offered it up to the whole.
Ha! Oddly enough, this process is embodied by the Quaker community (remember my mom being squashed for singing Simple Gifts?). Each person has the chance to stand up and offer their heart and mind to a discussion. They voice themselves and intently listen to others. This is their Sunday morning church — a regular meeting of speaking and listening! Now, if every small town in Mississippi did this instead of just sitting and listening to a preacher — that state would be a powerful force to reckon with!!! It would actually tap into its existing momentum of congregation through speaking and listening.
Ok, I could go on forever about this…
Get out there and speak. Treat it like a therapy session. Bring a friend with you and encourage someone else to participate with you. And, enjoy the process.
Also, don’t expect to get a surge of support and validation. Say your piece in spite of this… You’ll know that you’re on the right track by how you feel inside when you lay your head on your pillow at night.
The Council Process
Lastly, I’d like to talk a bit about En’owkin, a type of community meeting that holds polarities while dissolving opposite forces in community dialogue. I was taught this process by Okanagan elder, Jeanette Armstrong at a workshop in Marin County, CA. Basically, our group of about 30 people were placed in regions of the community medicine wheel:
the Mothers — nurturers, creative-force
the Fathers — action-oriented
the Elders — wisdom-keepers
the Youth — visionaries
Mothers sat opposite to Fathers and Elders sat opposite to Youth. In this configuration, we could see that place that each of us ‘tended’ leaned toward…the place that our voice largely came from. (Note that one does not need to be old to be an Elder or a woman to be a Mother…some personalities are different from the appearance). It was important for us to recognize where our voices and perspectives were coming from and to see where others were speaking from on a given topic. That way, we could honor the other and not get defensive or offended. For example, if a Father spoke about a topic, he would be focused on ‘getting it done’… I was sitting on the Mother side, so I could see that his concerns were different from mine…I was more interested in taking all factors into account before moving forward.
We also went through a process of dissolving the polarities by expressing how our opposite had wounded us. This process was important to hold before we could actually discuss a community issue or try to make decisions as a whole. What revealed itself during the process was very surprising. The Mother and the Father were badly wounded by each other and it took quite a bit of time to approach reparation for this wounding.
This was in 2006 when I participated in this training. I look back now and realize that our small circle was giving me a glimpse of our larger, American culture. There are more layers to the need for spaces for public speaking to take place; underneath our voices, there is a wound. This wound has largely to do with a wound between the Mother and the Father (or, the masculine and the feminine).
Another deep lesson I took from this training was how this community process happens in Jeanette’s Okanagan community. She told the story of how a young man had stolen something from someone in the community. To find reparation for this, the young man and the community was invited to a council process. The entire community sat there…deep into the night…until the community felt that trust had been restored. Hearing this moved me to tears… I looked back at my life — the many times I wasn’t available…watching TV…numbed out…how many people in my community that were also ‘checked out’ and unavailable. Of course, none of us mean to separate like this…we are just protecting ourselves…and possibly for good reason… However, if our elders and the adults in our society do not create containers/spaces for our children and our youth, we will simply repeat the same mistakes…because nobody cares or is too busy to care.
To be part of a community, we simply need to be present and open to the process.
It is hard for me to write this because I know how disengaged I am out here on the mountain. I am currently not part of a community process. However, I bring these tools with me and apply them to the best of my ability wherever I go. My ‘mobile’ way of applying the council process is by simply speaking my truth and listening to the truth of others. It is one of the most demanding and challenging practices of being a human being that I know of.
As Jeanette Armstrong says, “Let us begin with courage and without limitations, and we sill come up with surprising solutions.”