For the last several months my priority has been Secretary Haaland’s Not Invisible Act Commission, designed to address the epidemic of Missing Murdered and Trafficked Indigenous People (MMTIP). I am honored to be part of the facilitation team and have given the effort everything I’ve got… perhaps a bit too much. After facilitating public hearings around the country where victims, survivors and family member told horrific stories of loss, abuse and pain, I began to carry their grief with me. The accumulation of traumatic stories, broken people, anger, desperation and despair became unbearable. I was numb, depressed, and hopeless. I felt broken myself.
And so, as the conscientious White woman that I am, I sought help from a psychiatrist who has been there for me in times of need for many years. I was suffering from trauma, he said, not as a victim, but as a witness to the trauma of others. Having treated veterans and victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and human trafficking, he said: “Retelling the traumatic story will not lead to healing. To heal, to live with the trauma in a healthy way, that requires something else, something beyond words.” I saw many witnesses at the hearings testify in tears and struggle through their stories. Clearly the retelling can re-traumatize. But many take that risk in order to educate and advocate for solutions and system reforms to address the epidemic. And many of them have non-verbal resources – ceremonies, songs, prayers, dances, drums, medicinal herbs, healers — within their cultural traditions to help them heal.
I had stopped for gas, and she was walking past on the other side of the street. It was only 10:00 in the morning, but already hot. She wore skimpy shorts and a skimpy top and had what looked like a big beach towel draped around her shoulders. My first thought was that she was on her way to a pool somewhere for a morning swim, but the neighborhood was semi-industrial and urban. Would there be a pool within walking distance, I mused? And her gait was a little off for a young woman on her way for morning exercise. Each step was slightly tentative. Maybe it was the flip flops she was wearing, I thought. Or she could be a little hung over, and I imagined a night of partying. Her expression was serious, preoccupied as if she were imagining herself somewhere else. The gas nozzle clicked off and I turned my attention to finishing the transaction and getting back on the road.
I was on my way to facilitate one of seven public hearings for the Not Invisible Act Commission, this one in Albuquerque, just down the road from Santa Fe. For three days the commissioners and staff heard from those who wanted to share their stories, highlight injustices and gaps in services, plead their cases, and make suggestions for how the system could work better to address the epidemic of murdered, missing and human trafficked Indigenous people (MMHTIP). There were boxes of Kleenex on every table. The walls were lined with home made placards and posters. Family members and survivors wore red to symbolize the blood shed in this slaughter. The testimony was unbelievably powerful, heart- and gut-wrenching, and often shocking. These witnesses were courageous. They told very personal and painful stories in order to bring attention to the wrongs happening every day in Indian country. Most of the stories reflect the hopelessness and helplessness victims and family members experience when a loved one is lost or murdered.
Sometimes an invitation comes along that you can’t refuse. About a year ago I was asked to join a team of facilitators, writers and administrative staff to support the newly formed commission to address the crisis of missing, murdered and trafficked Indigenous people (MMTIP). Very grateful for the chance to be part of the effort, I accepted and for the past year have been working to help bring the Not Invisible Act Commission into being. I am careful not to talk publicly about my current cases. The work is often delicate and it is crucial to maintain confidentiality for the participants. But, last Tuesday Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, co-chair of the commission with Attorney General Merrick Garland, issued a press release reporting on the first in-person meeting of the commission in Washington DC. And so I take that as permission to share with you what has been consuming most of my professional life in the past several months. At the end of this post are the link to the press release which will give you an overview of the commission, and a glorious photo of some of the commissioners and staff with Secretary Haaland and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco.
Most federal commissions are small (10-20) and include experts in the field from government, academia and related organizations. They typically meet in DC and then hold public hearings around the country, taking testimony that will enrich and round out their understanding of the issues. This commission is unique in its size (45 members) and its makeup. A significant number of the commissioners are family members and survivors of this epidemic of abuse sweeping much of Indian country. They are working side-by-side with a broad range of representatives from law enforcement, data management agencies, non-profits serving these victims and families, and many others who have knowledge and insights that can inform the commission’s recommendations.
The presence of these family members and survivors has been critical in keeping the commission focused on what really matters. Their stories and life experience remind us all of the very real impact of this epidemic and the desperate need for attention. There is no way that their fellow commissioners who are professionals from the Departments of Justice and Interior, the FBI, BIA, CDC, Homeland Security, and state and local law enforcement agencies around the country can forget why they are there and the urgency of their work. It is not easy for family members and survivors to educate, to relive their horrific experiences, to grieve again for a lost one. I admire their courage and commitment to this effort. They are choosing to work with the federal government, hoping that this time it will be worth it and that the results will be good for Indian Country. I am honored to be working with commissioners and staff, and I know that for all of us this is much more than just a job.
You know how some movies have out takes at the end? The hero misses the punch and jams his hand into a bowl of fruit. The kissing scene is interrupted by a giant moth who wants in on the action. Or, lines are flubbed again, and again, until everyone dissolves in laughter. I love those scenes. They show us a glimpse of reality, what it is really like to make a movie. And they show us that these are just human beings doing a job, however imperfectly. That got me thinking about my profession – mediation and facilitation – and out takes that I could show at the end of the movie titled, “Lucy Saves the Day,” or “Mediators: Warriors for Peace” or … well, you get the idea. So, I’ll spare you the movie, and just give you the out takes, moments from my decades of practice that make me smile.
“Hmmm…where is that place?” – I was facilitating a meeting for the Forest Service in northern New Mexico. About a dozen very rural, somewhat eccentric community members were standing in front of a wall- sized map of their local national forest. The Forest Service staff were there hoping to find out how and where local people used the forest. I was proud of this interactive tool, primitive by today’s standards but in the 1980s quite a novelty. I asked people to come forward, take a marker and indicate on the map the spots where they fished, cut wood, hiked, hunted, etc. There were different colored markers for different kinds of uses. The maps were covered with clear plastic, so they could erase and re-draw if they needed to. No one wanted to break the ice, or make the first mark. I was worried my great innovation was a flop. I saw an aging hippie woman, spilling out of her bib overalls and with a head of wild gray hair, staring at the map for a long time, the marker dangling in her hand. I encouraged her. “Do you want to put something up there, some forest use?” I asked innocently. “Well,” she said dreamily, “I’m just trying to remember…a long time ago… where it was that I laid that man at….” I suggested we could call that “recreational use” and she marked the spot.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I had a birthday recently, a reminder (as if I needed it) that the ranks of those younger than me are growing, and the numbers ahead of me are dwindling. And perusing the paper on that special day, I read that composting human bodies is now legal in Washington state, the ultimate in recycling. It made me think about life and how to make the most of every stage, every year, even the end. I am not ready for composting, nor do I think I will ever be ready to join the teeming activity of a compost heap if it looks anything like mine.
All this makes me think about my responsibility to those aspiring facilitators and mediators, who are behind me in line, wanting a career like mine. I am still working as a facilitator and mediator because I can still do it and I love it, but in so doing I am taking work away from some younger aspiring mediator. We hear about a crisis in some universities where long-lived professors refuse to give up teaching, and lower level associates, ready to move upward, are stuck waiting in line for the opening that never comes. I do not want to be that old fogey unwilling to step aside, but I want to practice at least a little as long as I can. Here is my solution: I mentor. (more…)