It all started with a simple question - “Do you want to go for a ride?” My Uncle Joe had bought home a new Plymouth Road Runner, one of the last true muscle cars. I don’t recall the model – probably a 1969 or 70, but I knew, even as a ten year-old, that this car could go fast – really fast. Of course I wanted a ride.
We headed out of town before hitting a long straight stretch of country backroad where Uncle Joe asked his second, easier to answer question – “Do you want to see what it will do?” It was an absurd question - of course I wanted to see what it would do.
In a matter of seconds the speedometer slipped past 100 miles per hour. I leaned forward against the dash, no seat belt, as the center lines on the highway blurred into one continuous streak of yellow. As Uncle Joe gripped the steering wheel he glanced over at me and we both laughed a laugh of exhilaration mingled with a dash of pure terror. As we slowed down to the speed limit, he cautioned me, “Don’t tell your mama. She will kill me.”
There have been other scattered moments where I experienced that same cocktail of emotions. The time I rode my bicycle across a frozen pond. That canoe run over a low head dam. The canoe flipped and my best friend disappeared into the churning hydraulic. After what seemed like hours, he surfaced downstream. Then there was that moment at the National Conservation Leadership Institute (NCLI) in October.
In NCLI, a cohort of 36 fellows explore a new way of defining and exercising leadership. It is a journey that tests their assumptions about their relationship with those in positions of authority. At the core, the program creates a problem-solving framework of how the fellows can make better observations, become more comfortable considering multiple interpretations of those observations, and then experiment with how to intervene in a way that leverages all available resources. The hope is that the intervention works to move “the system” from its current reality toward a future, aspirational state.
Those lessons are “taught” through experiential learning. It is cycle of having a concrete experience followed by a period of reflective observation. The participants then engage in abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. It sounds very sterile and academic. However, sitting in the middle of that swirl, being swept up in a whirlpool of abstraction, can be very unsettling.
Five days into this year’s NCLI experience, that swirl tightened into a narrow vortex from which I heard my uncle’s whisper, “Do you want to go for a ride?
In previous days the cohort had flirted with the topic of gender, but each time it was tamped down. The topic was too hot – too raw – much too dangerous for Day One, Two or even Day Three discussion. Now, on Day Five the topic was once again broached when a concrete, real life incident was brought into the room. While it would be easy to characterize the conversation as simply emotional (and it certainly was emotionally filled), facts were laid out in a measured fashion. Opinions were offered and debated.
Then one of the female fellows stood.
Silently, she commanded the cohort’s attention. She opened her journal and read a personal account of sexual harassment from her workplace. As her words settled over the group, she slowly turned the page. My perception of time slowed to a glacial pace as she tore a page from the journal and wadded it into a tight ball. The ball arched into the center of the room as she challenged the group. “I read one story, but that one,” pointing to paper ball in the middle of the room, “that story will remain anonymous and unread unless it is joined by others.”
It was like that moment when I saw the speedometer eclipsing 100 mph and the dotted lines blurred into a solid line that showed no movement. It was impossible for me to discern whether we were speeding out of control or standing completely still.
Over the next minutes, one after another, paper balls sailed into the mix. After what seemed like hours someone suggested that the stories be read. The stories were gathered and there was an attempt to smooth the folds and wrinkles. But no amount of pressing could remove creases of the stories written on those pages.
Several men and a few women offered to read the stories:
“The guys in my work unit took bets on who could have sex with the new girl first.”
“At a post commission meeting social, a commissioner made multiple sexual advances even after I asked him to stop. My HR person told me to keep it to myself.”
“A male colleague often calls me ‘The big-boobed chick on the 2nd floor.’”
“My supervisor describes the weekend as rutting season.”
“I was date raped when I was 16.”
“My job was threatened if I reveal the sexual nature of our office ‘banter.’”
“I was told that I needed a good f… to straighten me out.”
“I was sexually assaulted by multiple men at a wedding. The more who groped me, the more joined in – like a pack of wild animals tearing me apart.”
“I was groped by a colleague and when I reported it, was laughed at and told ‘Boys will be boys.’”
“Our work group’s truck first aid kit contains condoms.”
A later single-spaced compilation of those stories filled four pages. Four pages of repeated humiliation, and sometimes terror, some of which was doled out by those in our own ranks. Four pages from 15 women.
A female fellow offered that while many of the stories seemed relatively minor, the cumulative effects are compounded with each one of those comments or incidents. And that for those women who had suffered severe trauma, each comment reinforces a sense of fear, apprehension and a loss of trust. She described it as, “Death by a thousand cuts.”
Earlier discussions had been about the safe subjects of the conservation field: maintaining a sense of relevancy with the changing demographics of our country; exploration of alternative funding models; and reaching out to our nontraditional constituents. Now we were wrestling with the question of how we can possibly reach those outside when we have mistreated so many from our own tribe.
The discussion no longer seemed dangerous in an exhilarating way. It seemed dangerous in a way that could threaten the careers of someone willing to take up the challenge of bringing gender equity and safety to our organizations back home. After all, not one of the fellows had been sent to this expensive program to take on such a gnarly topic. This was guaranteed to generate heat that could extend across the conservation community. Again, I recalled my uncle’s words, “Don’t tell your Mama.”
During a mindfulness exercise, one of the fellows read the poem, The Invitation. One stanza reads:
“It doesn't interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.”
That line, “I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back” became the challenge of the cohort. Can we stand in this dangerous place, the center of the fire, without shrinking back when the heat becomes overwhelming? Can we move beyond the heat of the classroom and truly step into the fire back home?
Recent national events have shown the danger of entering this place. “It is too divisive,” some will say. “We have made great strides,” others will argue. “We have policies in place. You should focus your efforts on real conservation challenges,” still others will offer. All those voices offer the same assessment – it is too hot there in the center of the fire – you should shrink back.
I would offer to those supervisors, managers, division chiefs, directors and commissioners who have those thoughts that this is exactly where we should be working. The conservation community can take the lead in this national discussion. And not just take the lead in the discussion – take the lead in finding our way out of our current reality and into that aspiration space of equality and respect. How can we embrace Leopold’s Land Ethic without truly caring about those closest to us?
What does that aspirational state look like? A place to start would be one where there are no more stories to toss into the room.