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Untapped Freedom

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Victor Frankl (concentration camp survivor), Man’s Search for Meaning

This past March I was in Los Angeles at a conference on mass incarceration. What drew me there was the innovative program called the Actor’s Gang Prison Project. Twelve years ago the actor Sabra Williams had recently relocated to Los Angeles and became aware of the host of problems present in the prisons of California. She teamed up with the actor/director Tim Robbins and they started the Actor’s Gang Prison Project in one California prison.

Now, a dozen years later they are in twelve prisons and are making a significant impact. The California recidivism rate is 50% (same as national average); one out of every two people return within three years. For graduates of their Prison Project the rate is 10.6%. More than that – their graduates have shown an 89% drop in disciplinary infractions while in prison.

Our classes help students develop emotional and social skills that aid in a positive return to society. For more than 24 weeks each year we teach a racially integrated group of students who form lasting bonds as they undertake personal transformation together. (Actor's Gang Prison Project)

Sabra says that in prison there are only two allowable emotions - anger and numbness. The Prison Project allows inmates (men and women) to become different characters, enter into different emotions, and then come out of them. They become conversant in a range of emotions and develop an ability to express them at various levels.

Sabra Williams told of a day when this gang member came up to her in class excited to tell her something. He said, Sabra! Yesterday on the prison yard, this guy was in my face, and normally I would have just punched his f***ing lights out, but I thought ‘Maybe this guy is sad underneath that anger, or maybe he is just scared.’

This is the impact of the arts, Sabra said. The emotional intelligence and self-regulation that this man showed is impressive. And it doesn’t happen by accident. For many people there was not a stable and safe home environment to learn these foundational life skills.

We have to have places where these skills can be learned.

It’s vital that we change school climates to stem the flow of the school to prison pipeline.

I was glad to find out that here in Bellingham we have someone serving as Director of Social and Emotional Learning (Trina Hall) and a committee intentionally planning on integrative curriculum. This is a growing need for our schools to address. (See my post last week)

These skills are also vital for police officers. Last summer I was on the teaching faculty at Holden Village with Richard Goerling. He is a lieutenant in just outside of Portland. I was shocked, though I shouldn't have been, by the statistics of suicide, substance abuse, etc that police officers experience. He developed the Mindful Badge Initiative in 2012 to introduce mindfulness to police officers. These are core skills for police officers who are under intense pressure and who need to make wise decisions in the moment. It's not a stretch to say that people's lives are at stake.

In the political realm it’s easy to see where the lack of emotional intelligence and self-regulation takes us. It moves us towards a culture of fear and violence (not unlike gangs).

It’s no doubt that many of our political leaders did not grow up learning and have still not learned social and emotional regulation.

And it's vital that we as citizens develop the ability to have conversation even and especially around contentious issues with which we have understandably strong emotions.

And what about our workplaces?

I have experienced and heard many stories of strife, outbursts, frustrations, irate customers, and problems going from bad to worse. Often this is because of a lack of emotional self-regulation.

Also there are situations like:

· Dealing with a slew of day-in-day-out demands

· Facing uncertainty (small and large)

· Problem solving a crisis situation

We can address these issues of self-regulation and emotional intelligence through creating safe and supportive opportunities to experience applied improvisation.

Applied Improvisation trains the brain and mind to engage with the tensions of a complex situation through the use of games and exercises that produce a temporary and low-stakes sense of uncertainty and disruption while at the same time producing a sense of fun and aliveness. Learning to manage emotions that emerge during the controlled sense of crisis that occurs when playing a game with others in a safe space is an ideal method for training ourselves to manage real-life situations of intensity and uncertainty without being derailed by the stress response. (source: Developing Emotional Intelligence)

Innovative companies and non-profits are discovering that applied improvisation can unlock greater potential in their staff, while at the same time staff feeling more engaged in their work.

Investing in the emotional intelligence and self-regulation of our workplaces, our communities, our schools is a gift that keeps on giving.

If you'd like to contact me to explore how an applied improv retreat could benefit your staff contact me here.

Actors Gang Prison Project - 4 minutes of inspiration

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