Cultural Appreciation

A few months ago I facilitated a six-day Tribal Wetlands Workshop on zoom. Participants were tribal leaders, staff and members who were involved in protecting and maintaining tribal wetlands. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) organized the workshop and a colleague and I were under contract to plan and facilitate the event. We worked with a planning team of both EPA and Native American representatives to make sure that the workshop met a variety of goals:  teach methods and strategies for managing wetlands, provide opportunities for tribes to collaborate and learn from each other, and highlight the cultural, spiritual, social and economic values of wetlands for tribal communities. The workshop was packed with great presentations on a wide range of topics and there was time for questions and discussion among the 40-50 participants as well. All in all it was a success, but as is often the case, what I remember most vividly is a moment of facilitation crisis. This is how it unfolded.

Keweenaw Bay Indian Community wetland, Michigan

Almost all gatherings with tribal participants that I facilitate – in person or on zoom — begin with a prayer from a tribal elder. I learned long ago that this brings calm and a sense of community to whatever discussion follows. It also seems to balance the power in the room. The non-Indian professionals who might be perceived as the more powerful ones at the table are humbled by a prayer in a language they don’t understand, invoking powers that clearly overshadow those on earth. I enjoy those moments and appreciate the tribal elder’s message that points us in the direction of a productive, respectful day.

In person meetings may include a feather
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I facilitated my first in person meeting recently. After all these months of zoom it was exciting and a little challenging to get dressed, especially the lower half. It was a beautiful warm day and I knew I would be home mid-afternoon so I picked a blouse and jacket, slacks and low heeled shoes. The meeting went well, and I headed home in a good mood.  It was not to last.

I found my regular route home blocked by a police barricade. My plea to let me go home was met with a shake of the head and a wave of the hand to go back. I tried a different approach via the interstate. Blocked as well. My plea on deaf ears. I called my husband and asked him to get on his phone and see if there was any news. I was too busy making u-turns and running into more road blocks.

“Someone kidnapped a woman and drove the wrong way on the Interstate and caused a big accident. The guy escaped and they’re looking for him.” The spot on the Interstate was a mile from our house.

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The Russians Are Coming

I am a child of the 1950s, the “cold war” era. It was a schizophrenic time, characterized by tuna casseroles, new kitchen appliances and happy suburban families on the one hand, and on the other hand, bomb shelters, duck and cover drills in elementary school, and lurid propaganda about the threats of attack from the Soviet Union.

First issue of Atomic War, Nov 1952

 It’s no wonder, then, that around 7 years old I took this schizophrenia and created a recurring nightmare for myself:  I am outside and I look up. I see tiny black specks in the air, and I hear the sound of war planes – the same sight and sound from the newsreels on our first television. They are coming closer. I see their bay doors open. Bombs are dropping out, plummeting toward my city, my neighborhood, my house. I run inside. “Mommy, mommy, the Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” I cry in a panic. She turns from the kitchen sink, smiles and says brightly, “Well, then, I better devil some eggs.” I try to explain they are not coming to visit, they are dropping bombs – I saw them! — but by now she has the refrigerator door open and is reaching for the egg carton. I give up… and wake up, in a sweat.

Clearly I realized that I had been born into a very large, very scary world. On television, in magazines, and at the movies, I saw soldiers in fox holes, shooting guns, smoking cigarettes; planes taking off from aircraft carriers; rockets exploding and bombs dropping out of planes; and the ruin left behind, crying children, dirt-caked faces streaked with tears. I heard ominous voices reporting the evils of communism. These threats seemed both very far away and very close. At school we had always had two drills — for fire and earthquakes — and now we had a third, called an air raid drill. We all knew it was for when the Russians dropped bombs, and some of us had little faith that lying face down in the hall with our heads under the long row of water fountains was going to save us. We girls were allowed an extra protection. We could cover the backs of our bare legs with our coats.

Lucy in Brownie uniform, 1953

And yet life went on in my quiet Seattle neighborhood, where we kids had adventures. We rode our bikes in the alley, built forts, created clubs with elaborate rules, organized parades in honor of whatever — like the end of school, or 4th of July, or our pets, or our bikes themselves, festooned with crepe paper, playing cards in the spokes, etc.   We walked to school, many blocks by ourselves, discussing the big questions like the ones posed by the saying “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” which we feared might be true. As we hopped over the cracks we mused, if you step on a crack will you really break your mother’s back, and just how would that work, and would she know that you did it, and would you get in trouble, and why wasn’t there an instruction about how to make her back well again?    

And now in 2022 here I am again. The Russians are coming. They are devastating Ukraine, and Putin is talking nuclear. I have some of the same disconnect and fear I had in the 1950s. That second grader who was worried that her coat wasn’t big enough to cover her bare legs still lives within me. The images are no longer in grainy black and white on a primitive TV screen; they are in color, on the nightly news, all day on the 24 hour channels, in the morning paper, in email blasts from those offering ways to help the refugees, or from those who just need to share their panic. Unlike the second grader me, I can understand the horrors of this situation and the potentially devastating aftermath. But also, the grown up me can find inspiration and a shred of hope in the protests happening within Russia and in the outpouring of support for the refugees.

I close with a report (below) that filled my heart. It is from Moldova, a tiny republic on the Ukraine border. Let’s hang onto these images of good people doing good things, and hope that we may be able to support these efforts in our own way. This is not a time to devil eggs.

From Graeme Innes, in Moldova:

I am unspeakably proud of Moldova and the Moldovan people today! An unimaginable crisis has brought out the very best of this people.

Moldovans have been bravely driving to the very edge of a war zone to collect those in need of help. Ordinary Moldovans and churches have been opening their doors en masse to our beloved Ukrainian neighbours. It is remarkable that, given the chaos, an extraordinarily well-organised system has been run in finding homes for families. In a matter of hours I have received several thousand messages over Viber and Facebook from those who are coordinating the support efforts.

Convoys of taxi drivers have been leading Ukrainian families to their places to stay. There have been donations of everything imaginable to help out those who could only bring a few belongings with them.

I have never been so honoured to live amongst the Moldovan people.

So many people around the world feel so helpless in the face of such an unfolding humanitarian disaster, well today, a little known country (that has barely been mentioned in the news reports) has stepped up. Moldova, you have done the world proud!

Bravo Moldova!

Bravo Moldoveni!

Ukraine refugee in Moldova. For her, my nightmare was true
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5 mg 2:30 am…

For the last 10 days I have been immersed in the medical world. Roberto had a total replacement of his right knee, and given the state of hospitals these days, they sent him home that same afternoon. From that moment he was mine. We went home with bags of supplies – six different pills, two of them opioids, two kinds of dressings, ace bandages, compression stockings, syringes, alcohol swabs, waterproof pads, two styles of ice packs, elastic straps with the strongest Velcro I have ever met, plastic containers of various sizes and shapes, including the one for disposal of used hypodermic needles – and sheaves of instructions for patient care and an equal number of warnings about what could go wrong.

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Always Was and Still Is….

Having been through the trials of 2021 with the rest of you I am in need of hope and comfort. In normal times, at the beginning of a new year I would visit a Pueblo feast day, where the sight of the dancers, the sound of the drums, the smell of the pinon fires and the taste of the red chili stew would give me all I yearned for. Covid has made that impossible, and much as I miss the experience, the Pueblo people are, of course, suffering most from the loss of this crucial cultural practice. I know they have ways of keeping the thread in tact and trust that in coming years we will be able to return to the feast days. As a way of virtually offering the experience, I am re-posting my entry from January 2017, another moment when hope and comfort were badly needed.


January 31, 2017, Always Was and Always Will Be

If you are lucky enough to be a New Mexican you will probably grasp this immediately. If you are from elsewhere and have never had the chance to spend a few hours at a Pueblo feast day, let me introduce you to something very special.

Pueblo culture and religion run deep. In New Mexico, each of the pueblos has certain days of the year they celebrate. It may be to honor a patron saint, a time of harvest, or something that we non-pueblos don’t need to know about. A feast day includes traditional dancing in the morning and afternoon with a break in the middle when the dancers and cultural leaders retreat to the kiva and observers retreat to someone’s house for one of the best meals you will ever have. I find myself reluctant to say more for fear that hordes from around the country will come flocking and ruin the experience.

But actually that can’t happen. Because whatever happens in the outside world makes no difference on feast day. The dances are the dances, the same as they were 100 or 1,000 years ago. The hospitality and generosity are unchanged. The meals today may include jello and cupcakes with pink frosting, but the beans, the corn, the squash, the green chile and red chile stews, and the oven bread are all the same.

There have been periods in the past, where invaders forced pueblo people to move for protection to high mesa tops, or to hide in canyons far from home. And there have been “episodes” in more modern times where guests have acted badly, broken rules, taken photos or made recordings, and the pueblo has closed its ceremonies to outsiders for a few years. But no matter where they are or what the circumstances the pueblos continue to dance and pray for all living things.

Recently we went to two feast days – a King’s Day celebration at Isleta Pueblo south of Albuquerque on a Sunday, and the next day a deer dance at San Ildefonso Pueblo north of Santa Fe. We had friends at each pueblo so we were guaranteed full and happy stomachs. But we took away so much more. As we listened to the drumming and chanting and watched the dancers, from toddlers to great grandmas and grandpas, I was struck by the fact that this community had been honoring this day in this way for hundreds of years before I was standing there, and that they would be dancing the same dance to the same drumming hundreds of years from now.

Of course things change and probably a key to the survival of this culture is the ability to absorb the jello and pink frosting (and kale salad and broccoli buds, by the way) and continue on. The cultures have survived because of their ability to be flexible where it doesn’t matter and hold the line where it is important. The ritual is the same, the details different. Some costumes may have ribbons or sequins among the shells and feathers, and there may be Velcro hidden here and there.  But the fundamental core is there, unchanged and as persistent as the drumming. All generations are participating; some dancing, some cooking, some bringing food to distribute to the dancers and their families, some watching in lawn chairs.

I took great comfort as I stood and watched the dances. The clear blue sky framed the adobe-brown buildings of the pueblo. The sound of the drums and the voices of the singers, guided the soft shuffling of moccasins on the hard-packed dirt. The dancers, whether four years old or ninety four years old, had the same expressions — calm and focused, somehow in the past, the present and the future all at the same time. The smell of fires and simmering stews, and the feel of the winter air, briefly warm and then turning crisp as the sun dropped toward the horizon — all of this was as it had always been and always will be. I was grateful to be there on those two days, a guest in a culture that survives with grace and persistence, rising above whatever may be happening elsewhere, digging deep and continuing on.

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Flipping Out

At the exact moment that I decided to get a booster, so did everyone else in Santa Fe. Just as happened with the first and second vaccines, I hit the market at the peak and was shut out everywhere I tried. So, this time I opted to make an appointment in Las Vegas, NM, about an hour drive east. Roberto and I arrived at the pharmacy and I took my spot in line. Eventually a pleasant woman called me into a storage room that was doubling as a shot dispensary. I sat facing stacks of toilet paper, a variety of walkers, and cartons of medical supplies. She asked which arm, I said “left, please,” and rolled up my sleeve. As she squeezed my upper arm for the shot, I turned my head and looked away. I felt the alcohol swipe and prepared myself for the jab.

Almost immediately she let go of my arm. I whirled around. I had felt nothing, not a breaking of the skin, not the flow of the vaccine, nothing. I looked at my arm, no band aid, no prick mark from a needle.  “What? You didn’t do it?” I stammered.

She smiled. “It’s done. You’re good to go.”

“But I felt nothing, I mean nothing, and it was so fast, too fast…” 

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What Real Diversity Looks Like

Some of the most rewarding work I do is with my dear friends and colleagues Roberto Chene and Nadine Tafoya. Together we are a multicultural team ready to spring into action to rescue poor White organizations struggling with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. Imagine superheroes, at a moment’s notice, tackling the deepest historical trauma, the most entrenched implicit bias, cross-cultural miscommunication of epic proportions, all in a single workshop! A ridiculous image, but on a good day it can feel like that.

An Hispano and a native New Mexican, Roberto is a consultant and trainer specializing in helping non-profits, agencies, and others who are struggling to create and sustain intercultural workplaces. He is a genius at delivering difficult messages about systemic racism, internalized oppression, and all the other loaded themes at the core of so much conflict and angst today. Nadine is a member of the Mescalero Apache Tribe in southern New Mexico and lives at Santa Clara Pueblo, her husband’s pueblo north of Santa Fe. She is a health consultant working with federal and state agencies, universities, and local groups to improve behavioral health service delivery to Native communities.  This means constant attention to the dynamics between the powerful and those in need. She walks this tightrope with skill, diplomacy and fearless honesty.  

Grandpa Roberto

 I am so proud to partner with these two superheroes to consult and offer workshops on building successful intercultural workplaces. I can offer a White perspective, often an uncomfortable place for me to be. Each of us brings history to the team – personal and cultural – and each of us must be honest with ourselves and others about these histories and how they impact us. Nadine, Roberto and I have worked together for decades and have helped each other build skills and gain insights that make us able – even eager — to do this work that might seem like torture for many. For us, our mutual appreciation and respect, as well as the deep affection we hold for each other, carries us through.

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Look at the Horizon

I was confiding in my 14 year-old grandson recently about my fear of snakes. He lives far away and we were on zoom. I told him that during the summer and early fall snakes are slithering through the tall grass, lounging on warm rocks, and generally waiting to terrify me. This means that my usual refreshing, invigorating walks become terrifying treks. With my eyes riveted on the ground in front of me, I told him, I miss the gorgeous views, mountains in the distance, a sky full of huge cloud pillows, the bright yellow chamisa bushes ahead, the ravens wheeling above me. There were alternative routes, I explained, on dusty dirt roads, but this was my favorite one and I hated to give it up, but those snakes…

Chamisa and Apache Plume, on my walk this morning…

He agreed this was a sad state of affairs, which was pretty generous for a young teen in the throes of adolescence. And he had some advice: “Just go on the walk, the one you like, through the grass, with the views and the ravens and everything, but don’t look down. Keep your eyes on the horizon and just keep walking. If you’re not looking for them all the time, you won’t think about them, and you can enjoy yourself.”

I pointed out that I imagined I would worry about stepping on one, and that if I did I would surely have a heart attack and die and the snake would bite me for good measure and…. but he had returned to his digital device.

…in the arroyo near our house…

It’s an interesting and tempting recipe for living, and maybe one I should cook up now and then. Those things that haunt me, scare me, anger or sadden me, those things I have zero control over – why not just look elsewhere? Why not find a more pleasing, nourishing view? If I take my eyes off the path, littered with domestic chaos and global crisis, if I breathe deep and look out at the horizon, maybe all that distress won’t be there.

… a Datura, or Moonflower…

Of course I know better, and so does my grandson. We both know the snake may actually be basking across the sunny path, and that I may even step on it and stumble. We both know that the sadness and suffering are still there in the world, and that I may open the morning paper and be confronted with another horror, maybe this time it’s people clinging to a jetliner in Afghanistan. But he knows a balance is what his grandma needs. He knows she will still worry about the snake, but if she can choose, even for a few steps, to take in a different view, she will be happier and healthier.

He’s a smart boy.

…and I crossed paths with this migrating Tarantula, of whom I have no fear. I was enjoying the horizon — and the sandy arroyo floor. You can do both!!

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Just Tell the Truth

“Just tell us the truth.” He was a 16-year-old high school student, and he was talking to the National Park Service. The Park Service had invited 30 students from different parts of the country to reflect via zoom on the Manhattan Project. What did this generation know about the Manhattan Project? Was it relevant to their lives today? What information did they need about this project that changed the world?  

Birth of the Nuclear Age

The agency was seeking guidance on how to tell the story of the Manhattan Project at the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park, located in three separate locations:  Los Alamos, NM, Hanford, WA, and Oak Ridge, TN. These three sites were critical in the development of the first atomic bomb and the birth of the nuclear age. Each played a role in research, processing materials and building the weapons.

at the entrance to Los Alamos, New Mexico

Secrecy had shrouded the project in order to keep enemies in the dark and be able to deliver the ultimate weapon without warning. The secrecy continued after the war to some extent; the true impacts of the research, development, testing and detonation of the bomb were slow to come to light. Many feel those impacts are still not understood and respected. My job as facilitator was to help those voices be heard through a series of zoom sessions with Park Service leadership. One of those sessions focused on the next generation, since they are the ones who will carry this significant moment in history into the future.

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Expanding the Tent

How big is your tent? Who and how many can fit under it?  And how does someone qualify to be one of those lucky ones?

My rural neighborhood outside Santa Fe, for instance, is small, maybe 20 houses. I say “maybe” because our tent size is a bit fluid.  We draw artificial boundaries based on tradition; one street over is too far, but another may be included that is no nearer. We include those who have moved away and we were so sorry to see them go that we still invite them to the annual Pie Bake, even if they are now in Florida. Who gets to be under our tent? Those with whom we share common ground – physically, but not always in other senses. And, those who are familiar, comfortable, reliable, although a newcomer may not have started out that way.

I’ve been thinking about “professional tents” lately. I have spent decades safely under the “mediation/facilitation tent.” This has given me the connections and status that enable me to make a living doing what I love. Those of us under the tent are on federal rosters of providers invited to bid on federal contracts. We speak at conferences, write articles, hobnob with leaders in the field, all of which increases our chances of landing the next job. It is a great club to be part of – for pleasure and profit.

But exactly what are the boundaries of the tent and do we need to do a little remodeling to expand our size?  

My eyes were opened recently thanks to a project with Johns Hopkins University (JHU). The project included a series of zoom meetings with seven communities around the country representing different demographics – Latinx, Native American and African American – to learn how these groups make decisions about whether or not to take a vaccine. I was part of a team of experienced facilitators – all securely under the tent — ready to do the job, but it was clear to us that dropping into these communities, with no connection and no credibility, was not the way to go. We worked with the client to identify and hire local community members to fill the role. The group of seven recruits included a pastor, a community health worker, a clinical psychologist, a professor, a city administrator, and others. None was a trained facilitator.

My role shifted to that of coach and back-up for these “non-facilitators,” who would be facilitating their community conversations. I held three zoom calls where the facilitators could get some help from us established facilitators. The joke was on us; they needed none of that. They shared stories from their meetings and exchanged tips about how to handle certain situations. Whatever I offered was outweighed by what I received in new insights and inspiration. Although none was a facilitator in the professional sense, they facilitated beautifully, each in their own way, bringing their own identity and experience to the role. The community members felt they were in good and caring hands and engaged honestly, openly and with a vulnerability that would not have happened with an outside facilitator.

Expanding the tent for new members

Would it be so hard to expand our tent and explicitly include these non-facilitators who nonetheless facilitated skillfully in our (often self-promoting) club ? It would be a win-win for the client who would get more robust and authentic engagement and a more useful product, for the participants who could relate to that person in the front of the room/screen, and for the profession which would at last begin to reflect the diversity of those we are working with.

So what are the barriers to expanding the tent to include these talented, unrecognized practitioners? Unlike lawyers, doctors and others there are no degrees or exams required to call yourself a mediator or facilitator. A few states have certification programs for mediators, but almost all of us under the tent are not carrying around a license to practice. So it is not that lack of certification that is keeping them out. I think it is more insidious. As with any club, or neighborhood, there is an expectation that those who join will fit in. This may mean having certain degrees and /or impressive experience in the field. It also may mean that the new member under the tent will relate easily to the existing members. There will be a familiarity, a comfort level; the new member will not pose a challenge, will not rock the boat, but will embrace the status quo whatever it might be.

This is not a sign of good health for the profession. It is increasingly clear to me that there is bias built into the system. Those from different backgrounds, who look or sound different, whose skills manifest differently, may not pass that comfort and familiarity test and may not be invited into the professional tent. They will not have access to the status and connections, and hence the jobs and contracts, that come with being under that tent. The diversity, the insights, the skills that those local facilitators brought to the JHU project are exactly what we need inside our professional tent. Of course, not everyone is lining up to get into the tent, but for those who are, we should throw open the flap and welcome them in.

Expanding our tents to embrace the other is the right thing to do for so many reasons –a stronger group, a sustainable future, and a more inclusive and just way of doing business.

There’s always a way to make room for more

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