I’ve done a most drastic thing. Call it a risk. Call it foolish. Call it brave. I’ve called it all those things and more. Basically it’s part of a transition I’ve been going through for a while.
For 35 years I’ve called myself a Leadership and Organizational Development Consultant. That’s one hell of a mouthful. My most favorite part of that work has been the leadership side. Supporting, challenging, training, coaching and counseling leaders have been the juiciest parts of my work by far. And it’s paid the bills to boot.
For 25 years – in tandem with my consulting - I’ve been an activist for ending childhood sexual abuse.
A few years ago my daughter and others in her generation (and younger) started telling me I needed to offer my writing workshop for survivors online. I had ten years under my belt running them “in-person,” co-leading them with the wise and wonderful Jackie Humphreys. Doing them online – only audio, not video – sounded like a ridiculous idea.
Every support group I’ve led, every counseling session I’ve offered, every training I’ve performed, my eyes work overtime. They’re my second set of hands – holding the speakers heart while they talk, cry, laugh, roar or whisper.
And my eyes are two well tuned detectives – watching every move they can – cheeks flushing, feet getting crossed or tucked under a chair or lap, leaning in or away from the others present, smiles, frowns or a minuscule grimace. All the cues that, in a given moment, something is happening to the group or the one I’m watching. All that information is lost, not available in an online audio gathering. And the reverse, all the messages I can send back – my smile, widening my eyes, opening my right palm in their direction, tilting my torso forward or back, pointing my chin up to the ceiling with my eyes closed listening as they read me their writing. So many ways I’ve let people I’m working with know I welcome, respect, and am moved by what they are sharing. All this would have to be given up going online. Some would call it my tool box – me – I just think it’s me; me in the flesh.
But all these younger savvy gals are telling me, “It’ll work. You’ll see. People will love it.” But all I would have is the format I’ve designed, my voice and the words/creations of others like Mary Oliver’s The Journey and Rumi’s The Guest House; creations that might be igniters for creating – for finding ones own voice.
What I’m doing this year has the ring of a transition I made back in 1986. After helping to build and lead three grass-roots women’s centers in the NYC area, 15 years of feminist community organizing, I got restless, I had a yearning to work with more people, more social change issues. When a proposal to do women’s leadership development in all three centers didn’t get funded I decided it was time for me to move on. I didn’t really have any job prospects. Was it a foolish or brave risk? Ultimately it was the exact right thing to do. It got me building a consulting practice that has lasted over three decades.
Fast-forward to 2008 and a partial transition. I let go of, for the most part, consulting organizations when I started performing my one-woman show. It takes up a lot of real estate in your brain to be thinking about whole organizations – Boards, Staff, Programs, internal conflicts and external threats. I used to hold about five organizations at one time; lots of grey matter acreage. So, to give my heart and brain more room to build Time To Tell I left the organizations for others to dance with.
There was one more morphing to come. Dropping the Boards and only coaching leaders wouldn’t sustain my bank account so I started doing leadership trainings for the State of Massachusetts as a member of Casey Hall Training Associates. I’ve been working this state contract for the last 10 years. It’s been my bread & butter.
And then all these younger women started nudging and nagging about online writing. Easy for them to say, I’m an Internet immigrant, for cryin’ out loud. I did some whining about it to my colleague, Rachel Grant. She has a thriving practice out of San Francisco - serving survivors online. And she’s a computer wizard. She hears me out and says, “Why don’t you call into my online support group for survivors and give them an introduction to your workshop.” WHAT?!? I say, What? She said she’ll take care of the tech side – I can just do my “thing.”
So, in the fall of 2018 I called into Rachel’s group, got them to agree to my guidelines, read some inspirations, and coaxed them out of the nest and onto the page. And it worked. It blew me away – the depth of connection by voice - no physical presence, no eye contact.
But I wasn’t totally convinced. I needed to do a longer run, five sessions, same length as an in person workshop. I called it a pilot. Brought together some women who’d been in my workshops – played around with the time we had together. Watching to see if I could abide this “audible only” space. Of course it wouldn’t have happened if my assistant Cat White, an Internet/Computer goddess, weren’t right there with me.
And guess what? We liked it. We all got somewhere. We wrote and got connected.
When it was over I had them evaluate what we’d done together; make some adjustments, add a little, take a little something out; polish the edges enough so that I felt ready to offer an honest to God full blown online writing workshop to a group of survivors.
Surprise, surprise, I offered and five signed up and we we’re off and running – catching up to ourselves and each other – writing and reading and giving each other the positive feedback that kept us going. We finished in mid June with another evaluation where they gave me some great ideas for keeping it all humming and relevant.
So – here’s the leap I took this summer, I decided to offer three online writing circles for survivors starting in September 2019. And to do that – to free up my time, energy and that ever-important cerebral space, I ended my leadership training state contract. When I told Casey she was a real peach, having followed and supported Time To Tell from the beginning. She said, “That’s terrific, Donna. Such important work…”
I emptied out two long drawers in my file cabinet holding folders labeled vision & mission making, strategic planning, conflict resolution and many more. Then I emptied all the shelves holding 3-ring binders and team building supplies. I’m clearing, cleansing, opening, widening; giving my heart the spaciousness she’s longing for to build these online circles and let myself reside there.
I’ve put out the call to everyone on my mailing list announcing the circles. Somewhere in my deliberation I changed them from workshops to circles. Wonder how you form a circle online? You’ll have to join to find out.
My two biggest worries about this leap 1) what if the circles don’t fill? And 2) how am I going to feel about closing my practice? Now THERE’S an interesting phrase – closing my practice. Cause, I gotta tell ya - a part of me gets off on being a leadership developer; little ole Donna Jean from Milwaukee, who almost flunked out of Washington High School in 1965, got herself all the way up to Leadership Developer.
When someone asks what my work is I’ve loved saying, “I do leadership development.” It’s full of healthy pride for all the years I’ve been doing it AND it’s laced with a sparkling thread of ego, for sure. I hate when ego takes over – anywhere. From me or anybody else – it’s where the daemons prowl. I know my ego and hopefully I’ve got her on a short enough leash so she won’t take over the job of decision-making, most of the time. I’m thinking of holding a little memorial service for my consultant identity. Find a pretty box, write down some reflections, burn it, put the ashes in the box and bury it somewhere far away.
The big risk in my leap is I went and dropped my state contract before I even had a full roster for these circles. But I’ve been saying for decades –“Trust the Universe” - and the Universe has delivered everything I’ve needed so I’m going to stick with that.
The thing that’s not a risk is the enormous benefit I’m going to get. More healing. The best raw writing I’ve done over the past 25 years – creating my play, my book, writing articles and blog posts - has been mined as a member of a weekly writers workshop. The steady, consistent, digging deeper for what I want to say, write, and share within a community of writers (most of them not survivors).
In the survivor workshops I’ve led since 2008 we each bravely open and look through a door, a window, a portal or maybe just a keyhole on the edge of our hearts – whatever size opening we feel ready and willing to explore; to enter and wrap our hands or arms around something we want to give expression to. That something may be juicy and bulging with expression or it might be hard and cold or mostly so prickly hot we need oven mitts to get a handle on it.
These openings, with their discoveries, are possible because we sit in community with each other – a survivor community able to give each other the enormous gift of listening. To be heard is a remarkably powerful experience for survivors. I can’t receive the gift of being believed if I am shrouded in self-doubt; that cloak of doubt with its lining of shame can really weigh a girl down. With a very simple format for writing and reading aloud what we’ve just written to a circle of survivors we get to toss our doubts and fears into a pile of rubble on the floor behind us and experience a strong solid sense of connection which is both affirming and empowering. It’s all so very healing for me and I sure hope the others as well. I get almost giddy imagining what I will find and express by writing in community with survivors six times a month. I’ll keep you posted.
If you’ve participated in a TTT writing circle before and want to register, click here.
For those new to this process who are interested - let’s set up a time to talk to see if this is the right fit for you. Click here to make a phone appointment with Donna.
Thanks for reading,