Looking Back at the Grassroots Leadership College

From 2003 to 2012 I ran a small nonprofit in Madison, Wisconsin called the Grassroots Leadership College. Our work was based in the idea that everyone is a learner, everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a leader. Starting with that idea in mind we created a coach/leader/ project based leadership education program for adults.

Over the nine years that the GLC operated we provided training to more than 500 people through our core program, workshops, and our Spanish language series. Those program participants led more than 120 different community organizing projects in the Madison area. Many of those efforts continue today.

The GLC was an amazing experience, not only for the projects that our participants led, but because of who our participants were and the community that they created by coming together to learn from each other. Madison has historically been a very liberal community. However, like many liberal towns, it has always been very much divided by race and class as well as other differences. Through very intentional work the Grassroots Leadership College was able to break down those barriers, even if only just for a moment, and bring people together. Our class groups would typically include homeless individuals, former felons, retirees, university faculty and staff, students, and professionals. The groups would often have an age range of thirty or more years. We simply created a space in which all voices were heard and honored for the knowledge and experience that they carried.

One of the people who had a great impact on me was a woman in our first class group. I’d only just begun as the director a few weeks before receiving her application. In that application she acknowledge that she had schizophrenia. I wasn’t sure of what to do, but our vision statement “everyone a learner, everyone a teacher, everyone a leader” played through my mind. Did we really mean everyone? I took the issue to my executive committee and we agreed that I would meet with her to learn more and determine whether she’d be a good fit for the program. Mona and I met at the Yahara House, a clubhouse for individuals seeking support with mental health issues. We discussed the program and her health. She explained to me her illness and told me about the others in the room that I couldn’t see, but she could. It was a wonderful conversation. She was a gifted teacher. My decision was easy and she joined the program, helping break down the fear of mental illnesses for many of our participants that semester.

After nine years of successful teaching coupled with financial struggles, it became clear that the Grassroots Leadership College wasn’t economically sustainable regardless of the good we did or the love we had for the program and we had to close the doors.

Now, it’s almost nine years later and so much has changed politically, socially, and economically both locally and on the grander scale. Still, I see good energy out there to do great things and some really good organizing going on. I think about the GLC and believe that what we did almost a decade ago could serve those doing the good work today. I don’t think that it’s up to us who led it then to rebuild it, but I wonder about how we might share the stories? What tools might be of value? How can we or should we hand on what we learned? We are in a different time with new leaders rising from the grassroots, but many of the needs remain the same and it seems there is little need to start over completely when there are models to build from. Still, one must also honor the new leaders and allow them their space to grow. It’s a delicate balance and one that I am trying to figure out.

Ikigai

There is a Japanese concept known as Ikigai or “reason for being” that I was recently introduced to by a dear friend who is providing me guidance as I think through where I might go in my next adventure. It is a bringing together of that which you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid to do.

Find your Ikigai.

I’ve been delving into this idea, seeking my Ikigai for some weeks now. I remain confused by exactly what is the difference between what the world needs and what I might be paid for. I don’t know if this is a result of having spent too many years in low wage sectors of the work force or being overly influenced by the realities of a capitalist society. But, in either case, or maybe some combination of both, I tend to believe that anything the world needs is something that one might be paid for. I suppose the question then becomes if one could be paid enough to live on, but as I said, I’ve worked a long time in low wage sectors of the workforce. My pay expectations have risen a great deal since I first began, but monetary riches aren’t really on my radar at all. These days I believe in a living wage, good benefits, and a welcoming work place. When I first began all I sought was a welcoming work place, the other two were just added plusses.

Writing my lists of loves and things that I’m good at brought back many memories. So many were filled with songs and stories, art and laughter. They were memories of caring times, whether those caring times showed themselves in miles of hiking for peace or to protect the water or raise funds for raptor rehabilitation or rocking babies or teaching adults or standing on the strike line. They were creative times filled with ideas showing themselves in a myriad of different ways. Some were sung out. Some acted. Others written in poetry or prose or simply spoken in stories.

This is what I have learned or maybe was just reminded of. I thrive on the creative, both that of others and my own. It simply feeds me. I value the opportunity to care, but care alone can drain me. The two together help me maintain a balance. As I seek my path forward I seek the creative and the caring.

I wish you all the best as you move forward and hope that we might all find our Ikigai

Restart

I wonder what it is about January that makes it such a challenge? There seems to be something maybe in the air or in my being or maybe just in the cold that makes my body reject the entire month. This year it seems the entire country is having to scrape its way out of 2020 to make an attempt to start again and we’ve not quite made it there yet.

I often look back at my memories on Facebook and I’ve learned from this practice that somewhere right around Christmas or shortly after is often time for a seizure. January is time for a nice head cold that’s bad enough to put me in bed for a few days. It’s also a time for dreams and nightmares. A few years ago I also threw in the excitement of appendicitis. Last year I spent New Year’s at the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit at the Mayo Clinic hoping for seizures and asking for cold medicine.

This year I’m laying in bed waiting for my COVID test results and hoping it’s just another head cold and pondering the meanings of my most recent nightmares. I don’t normally have a lot of bad dreams, but I’ve had three in the past week. I suspect it’s both the powers of January and the changes in my life once again.

I’d thought I’d found the perfect job a few months back, but it became clear pretty quickly that the organization wasn’t ready for staff yet and that there were some people in leadership holding views that I believe to be quite harmful especially when mentoring children. I love mentoring, but not at the cost of any child. So, I had to leave. I was extremely lucky to land on my feet. Some friends of mine run The Memory Project and offered me a role which allowed me to leave the group that I was with.

So, after two intense dreams that might be called nightmares, the first of which I found myself I found myself at a circus with a tiger and a panther sniffing at my feet as I sat on a bench unable to move and the second of which I found myself again unable to move in my bed with an intruder coming in and about to rape me, I made the decision to quit my last job and start my new one.

The circus dream was an interesting one. The ringmaster was there and he told me that I didn’t have to fear the tiger and the panther. He told me that they were mine, wouldn’t hurt me, and that I had the power to move if I chose. It was interesting doing a bit of research later to find that the panther and tiger tend to be symbols of feminine power, creativity, strength, and positive change.

The rape dream was another recognition of my own choices and power. As the perpetrator attempted to attack me, my inner being assured me that this wasn’t real, told me that I had the power to move. It took great strength, as if I were breaking handcuffs holding my wrists, but I moved my arms and I awoke and was safe again.

Sometimes dreams tell us a lot. I decided I had the strength to take the leap into a new world. For the next six months or so, I’ll be sorting student art work, seeking out some freelance writing, working on a book, and deciding what I want to do next as my role with the Memory Project is just short term.

Still, my dreams aren’t gone. There’s still something figuring itself out. In last night’s dream, an intruder had again broken into the house. This time a friend told me she found my dog Buddy locked in the bathroom with a loaded handgun and an open window. She was worried that the intruder was still on the premises. The house filled with neighbors, most of whom I didn’t know as I tried to call the police. Buddy wasn’t hurt. I lost track of him for a few moments and was worried he might be, but then I saw him playing happily in the growing crowd.

I woke puzzled, but realized that in my current rental it would be impossible to lock poor Buddy in the bathroom with a loaded handgun since one of my bathroom doors is actually a shower curtain. Ah, the wonders of rental living. But, it does help me recognize the impossibility of the dream and go with Buddy’s joyous innocence approach instead.

With that, I will lay here and rest a bit more, build up my energy and get ready to leap into the next new adventure with faith that the tiger and panther and Buddy will all celebrate with me this new chapter in life with joy, fun, love, creativity, and all else it offers. Take good care and stay well my friends!

Starting the New Year

For the last few years I’ve posted my New Year’s resolutions here. This year I am a bit late, but that’s okay. 2021 seems to be getting a slow start separating itself from 2020, I can do the same. We humans have a strange time to start a new year these days anyway. It’s not the solstice or the equinox. It’s not the beginning of a new season. It’s just a day it seems to me. Anyway, moving into the goals for the upcoming. First, we start with my resolutions from last year.

  1. Getting my seizures to stop
  2. Getting to my goal weight
  3. Reading at least 12 books
  4. Cutting my screen time

Well, I got my VNS and my seizures have been been roughly cut in half and those I have seem to be less intense. So, I’d say I did pretty good with that one. On getting to my goal weight, honestly, I haven’t really worked on it. I feel pretty good about not gaining any weight and actually losing a couple of pounds during COVID. I think it’s a goal that I can let go of. I think I’m on book 15 or 16 now. A few of those were ones I read before, but they were good enough to read again. So, success on that goal. I can’t say the number of hours by which I’ve cut my screen time, but I feel certain that I have cut it. I took Facebook off my phone. I go out hiking and to dog parks more often. I’ve made a regular practice of daily guitar and piano practice, time for household tasks, and reading time all of which take me away from the screen. I’m guessing that I’m probably dropping 1-3 hours a day. I’d say I did pretty well in 2020 toward reaching my goals.

I think 2021 will be for continuing some these goals and adding in a few new ones.

  1. Becoming seizure free
  2. Reading at least 12 books
  3. Continuing to keep my screen time in check
  4. Writing a children’s book
  5. Finding my Ikigai (Japanese concept meaning reason for being)
  6. Getting back to being intentional about exercise 3-5 times a week

This should keep me going and keep me flowing. Wishing you all well in this year to come. Take good care.

Five Months Later

It’s been five months now since I lay in the epilepsy monitoring unit at Mayo, practicing my guitar, reading, watching movies, crocheting, doing just about everything but having seizures. But, from that visit and my prior one the doctors had enough information and we agreed to surgery and the installation of my VNS. While my seizures aren’t totally gone yet, it’s been a huge help both significantly cutting the number and intensity of incidents and just giving me better energy and raising my mood.

I am thankful for that for many reasons. A big one is that today also marks the five month anniversary of another huge change in my life. It was five months ago today that Dad made his journey to the spirit world.

I’ve not lived at home for any length of time since 1990. For the six years prior to Dad’s passing I lived in a different state. I only saw him around holidays and maybe for a few days in summer, but until his dementia took over we talked every week, usually Sundays, on the phone. Over the past year with his dementia taking hold phone conversations weren’t an option any more. I saw him last Christmas. He still knew me then, but by Easter when I called, because COVID didn’t allow for a visit, he no longer understood the staff when they tried to explain to him how to use the phone. I would never hear him speak to me again, at least not in this world.

It is the strangest thing, neither sad nor happy, but simply beautiful I suppose. I have seen more of Dad in the past 5 months than I had in years. He visits almost every night in my dreams. I don’t remember what he’s said when I wake, but he’s always happy, always his smiling self, laughing and joking, and just enjoying being where is and still watching out for his baby girl. Each day it seems I have a moment where it hits me again that he’s really gone. I can’t call him. I really won’t see him. He won’t be there when I go visit family. It hits hard and knocks the wind out of me for a moment, but my dreams bring comfort. While he isn’t here, he isn’t gone.

Over time, I suspect, both the daytime hits to my heart and the nighttime dreams will fade and eventually go away. But, I really do believe that Dad will always be there. That he will always be watching out for his baby girl. I feel so lucky.

Here I am five months later in a new job that I like, living in a new place close enough to family and friends that even with COVID I’ve been able to get together with people for hiking and dog park visits. My seizures are getting a lot better. And, having just looked at the goals I wrote before moving, I can see I’m doing well is most all of the area that I want to. I am thankful.

A New Beginning

It’s been over a month since my last post. A lot has happened since then. I got laid off. My last day at the Center for Small Towns was yesterday. I found a new job. I’ll be moving back to Wisconsin in a few weeks to direct Kinship Mentoring of Columbia County. I’ve found a place to live. I’ve been doing all the pieces that it takes to move from one place to another. All of this on top of my VNS implant, dad’s death, and just living in the reality of the COVID pandemic made for a very intense summer.

It’s been a challenging three years here in Morris. There are good people here, definitely some that I’ll miss. I loved working with my students and the community partners. But, the Center for Small Towns had been getting less and less university support for years. I was too optimistic thinking that it could be anything but frustrating to work in that type of situation. It feels freeing to be done and like I really am starting off on a new adventure and new phase in life.

It feels important to me to treat this moment like I would a new year and to name the things that I want to hold myself to as I launch this next phase. I don’t know that this list is complete or how long any of these things goes for. But, these are the things I’m thinking about to do for myself in this next phase.

  1. Getting back on track with my healthier eating habits (cut out that sugar)
  2. Getting the phone and computer out of my bedroom
  3. Learning guitar
  4. Learning Anishabemowin
  5. Becoming seizure-free
  6. Cutting my social media time and increasing my fun stuff time
  7. Keep my new home in a comfortable order
  8. Becoming an active part of my new community

I’m sure there will be more to add and to change as time passes, but that’s the list for now that I want to focus on for now. It feels good to be starting again.

Wishing you all good adventures!

Growing Clarity

It’s been almost two weeks now since my VNS device was turned on and nearly a week since my first increase in voltage. There will be six more increases in voltage until I reach my full dose that will, hopefully, significantly decrease if not stop the seizures that have been a part of my life for so many years.

Already the little device seems to have become a natural part of my being. This is so much different than medication. Sometimes I can feel the little buzz in my throat. I think of it now as a frog in my throat and it reminds me of Kermit singing “Rainbow Connection” from the Muppet Movie, one of the first movies I ever went to see as a child. It brings me good memories and comfort.

Where almost every medication I’ve tried has brought me rashes, tremors, fogginess, and just a general feeling of malaise, I am slowly feeling the curtain lift with this treatment. Buddy and I are back to walking about 2 hours a day. My focus is returning at work. I’ve been feeling good enough about myself and my direction to get myself a few household gifts, things I’ve needed for quite some time but just never got around to purchasing. I’ve returned to actually reading, not just listening to audio books. A lot of little things, good little things. I feel the world turning in a good direction.

I am once again beginning to move toward bigger questions. Walking through the small town where I live I’ve been seeing lots of Black Lives Matter signs. I have one in my own yard. There are very few Blacks who live in the community. I find myself wondering who the signs are for. Are they here in support of Black people facing discrimination and racism or are they here to make White folks feel good about themselves because they put up a sign? I don’t know. I keep puzzling and have found no easy answers, but it does seem to be a question worth pondering.

Mixed Feelings

What strange times. I continue to find myself flying about in this bizarre whirlwind of transition where I don’t quite know what to feel or how.

I spoke with a financial counselor this afternoon. I’ve worked most of my adult life in small nonprofits and childcare, so low paying jobs without a lot benefits beyond feeling that I’ve done some good in the world. That means I’m like most Americans haven’t built up a big nest egg and have a few bills to deal with, nothing major. I decided to talk with the counselor though after becoming a beneficiary of a small sum of money. I wanted to use it the best way possible. She was really helpful and we were able to figure out a good plan to address my debt and build my savings. I left the conversation feeling really good. Yet, it feels strange to feel really good about those kinds of conversations.

Mixed feelings came with my VNS implant too. It’s an amazing thing to be there in the doctor’s office getting this little device turned on, to feel that little tickle and feel my voice change, to know that it might really be the ticket to regaining my life and stopping my seizures. Yet, when it was done I couldn’t call my Dad to tell him how it went. All I could do was rely on the belief that he already knew, that he was there in the room with me, taking care of his little girl.

He keeps taking care of his little girl, helping me with my finances, making sure I’m safe and doing all that he can to help me be healthy again. It’s making me so happy, so thankful and at the same time I just want to see him smile, to give him a hug, to tell him I love him one more time. I guess that’s how it always is and that’s how it will be. I am so thankful though and amazed at that power, that power of love that keeps taking care of his baby Amy even after his body is gone.

A New Song

My mom loved to sing. She sang all the time. She was part of the church choir. She sang while she did housework. She sang in the car. She sang while she rocked the grandbabies. She even had a really annoying little ditty that she sang to wake up sleepy kids who were in danger of being late for school. I miss that voice. I’ve been thinking of that voice as I prepare to get my VNS to turned on in a few days.

I’ve sung since I was a baby. Mom and I sang together all the time. It was something we both loved and that brought us together. These last few days I’ve been listening to a lot of the old country songs we used to sing together. What an amazing era of music. I don’t sing as much as mom did, but I still sing quite a bit and find it to be one of my greatest healers

The VNS is implanted in my chest with wires that go up into my neck and wrap around my vagus nerve. It will send a small electrical wave every couple of minutes on a regular schedule and whenever my heart rate jumps or it’s manually set off. When that electrical impulse goes off it’s likely my voice will change, getting a bit scratchy or maybe causing a cough. I find myself wondering if I’ll be able to sing.

I was listening this morning to Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette singing together and thinking about mom. I was reminded mom never sang like any of these women. I don’t sing like any of these women. It doesn’t matter. There are times and places where hitting the right note is important, but the thing that really made my mom’s singing beautiful was the way that her heart showed through in every note whether her pitch was perfect or not. My voice will scratch. I might not be a good addition to a choir again, but I’ll still be singing along with the radio and with the little kids in my life and that’s what it’s all about.

Fears and Hopes

It’s been ten days now since I had my vagus nerve stimulator implanted. It will get turned on in just four more days. The healing has been smooth other than a little itchiness and redness from the surgical tape. The tape is now all gone, so hopefully the redness and itchiness will be gone soon too.

Such a small thing and such a huge thing at the same time. The device is only about the size of a half dollar. The surgery took less than two hours. The healing is going quickly and I keep hearing that there won’t be much scarring. I also keep seeing stories of how stimulating the vagus nerve does a boat load of amazing things. It lessens the severity of, stops, and prevents seizures. (That’s why I got it.) It also can apparently help with depression and anxiety, improve metabolism, lower heart rate and blood pressure, improve digestion, and just improve the body’s response to stress. It’s both really wonderful to hear all these things and frightening.

It’s been seven years since I was diagnosed with epilepsy. I suspect that it’s been closer to twenty years that I’ve been having seizures and all the stuff that goes with that– the stress, the depression, and growing anxiety and all of those pieces. So, I find myself both very much excited about the new adventure and all the possibilities and at the same time asking myself what happens if it works? Who will I be without these things to define me? And, of course, wondering about whether or not it will work or if all these great stories I’ve been hearing are only dreams for me.

I guess we’ll see. Some people say they see results quite quickly. For most it takes months. I’ll do my best to keep telling the story.