It’s odd to be 10 years old and so little in the back of a police car. I remember sinking into the plastic seat breathing heavily, sweating from the struggle to get me in the car in the first place. I remember not caring that the bumps on the road hit my head against the window too hard, because in those moments- every piece of me hurt from inside out. I was never alone in the car, I was always accompanied by a towering trash bag- although in hindsight it was rather small considering it’s all I owned.
Once again, I was on my way to the detention center driving past all the houses as my imagination filled them to the brim not with stories of moms who packed your lunches, or epic birthday parties, but small things- like sitting around watching movies together and someone asking how your day was. I wondered most about what a sense of belonging must have felt like; to this day I still struggle with being able to viscerally feel that. Sometimes I was numb on those rides and other times wise enough to realize my rage was just profound sadness.
I was where I was because my mother quit. Her struggle with manic depression and addiction led her to snap and so she picked me up from school one day and dropped me on the doorsteps of an underfunded closing child protection agency with an overworked social worker too tired to deal with me. The next day I was in the American Foster Care system. The cars of police and toyotas of social workers became the place where I cultivated the survival mechanism of intentionally and consistently being okay with starting over.
This child protection system in America is a broken one that very often harms the children it looks to protect, re-traumatizing us with varying levels of abuse that easily happens behind the ever revolving closed doors. In 8 years, I was in over 15 placements, detention centers, runaway shelters and the streets at times because the reality is, it was safer then what the system chose to give me.
The average for foster youth is 13 homes even today and now my country is putting children in detention on purpose.
For the hundreds of times I asked “Why is this happening?” Every single adult blamed the ‘system’ without ever looking at me, and walked away. But what is this system anyway?
This was especially shocking because I could see clearly just how connected all the challenges I was facing were to one another.
My schools weren’t safe spaces either and they shoved learning down my throat. My poverty meant I only had access to unhealthy food which landed me in a hospital I wouldn’t have been able to afford after I was 18. The doctor there didn’t ask about why I was always sick. They weren’t curious if it was from the stress or food. He just gave me pills. I spend a ton of time wondering what would happen if we focused all of our energy into transforming just one of these challenges- and seeing the effect it will have on the others.
There is no such thing as no impact.
My story pushed me to choose radical responsibility, which was so hard because it meant I had to let go of blaming the system too. I chose to be radically responsible for the change I wanted to see in my life and for my communities, because if I waited for the “system” to help I would kill myself or be on drugs like the other kids who haven’t been able to move beyond the pain.
So on a systems level I began to think about the areas of my own life where I could start to be a part of that change with radical responsibility as my foundation, always.
I began to work on:
My relationship with myself
Cultivating spaces between people we can touch
Moving groups to fuel community and small systems
And finally, engaging society to work on itself.
I had to work through the experiences in my life that were so hard on me, they soaked into the fabrics of who I was in the present; This also negatively affected others around me making the chances of building a family impossible even in a new future.
It became clear I had to deal with all the shit no matter who put it there. If I couldn't transform that pain …….then ideas, solutions, important conversations or opportunities for change would end with me and my lack of self-awareness. I especially needed to do this if I wanted to lead change and fix some of these challenges within my lifetime. Now I practice noticing when I might be the problem and getting in the way. Do you ever do that? Where you realize you may be problem?
Once I became aware of how I affected others, I could trust myself to start bringing people together; I had a hard time finding a lot of change happening anywhere so, instead it seemed important to at least create the conditions for change. I found empty rooms, playgrounds, shady trees, big board rooms, universities and brought people together so they could talk about life without excuses and opinions in the room. I figured out how to help people honestly share with others across from them, and for those others to deeply listen. It is here that the practice of radical collaboration entered my life. It’s was a such a hard stretch for me to cultivate the habit of radical responsibility (that also kept me safe) to realize I not only needed others, I needed to trust others to create change. So again, I started over.
I learned about how collaboration has little to do with sitting in a circle, it’s what you do with the circle. What matters is what you do with the spaces in between the people. That is the system.
We are the system.
Here I practice the courage to invite people in as often as I can and ensuring that when they get there at least the conditions are different.
As I grew as a leader I began to struggle with and experiment with increasing complexity and adding way more people into solving problems, together. I chose to step into organizations who were small, but brave in experimenting with what redesigning what quality programming could mean for those alongside those we seek to serve, and also organizations smart enough to care about their internal culture and the people who work for them as much as external impact. They are deeply correlated.
This is where I began to master the use of human-centered design. For those of you who don’t know about it, this is radically collaborative problem solving that needs diversity to thrive, and at DSIL we base it on a set of strong values in how we listen.
Finally, working with people became less terrifying for me. What I discovered is that when you invite people in, people come; people care and for the right reasons.
Committed board members and cross-sector funders, janitors, youth, deans of universities, homeless guys who I now call family, strangers who wanted to find some meaning outside of their JOBS, they all came. If I could maintain those conditions for change the outcomes were and are powerful, every time.
Here I practice guiding and moving people through the hard work of collaboration.
My frustration from the community/development sector started to eat me alive as it is many of you, and so did never allowing myself a break from violence (which meant a chance to heal) since I went from living in broken homes to working with the kids in them at 18 years old.
I started over again and made a huge leap to become an entrepreneur with some incredible people with my eyes on building more meaningful and maybe even faster social impact. Our social for-profit company works outside of traditional systems on purpose so that we can work with all sectors without rules that hold many of us in this room back.
Here, I practice making grounded decisions of who to work with and who not to work with anymore. I practice finding the intrapreneurs or moles as we call them inside of bureaucratic organisations to create the change in small but significant ways.
So these levels are the areas I take responsibility for to practice systems change. I feel that we begin with ourselves so I want to hold just a minute of time and ask you to reflect a bit about where you are at in those four circles. My plea is to ask you to get radically responsible for your place in the system. Just for a minute think about where you are struggling, as that is where we need to focus now.
(Seriously, take a minute.)
Don’t be hard on yourself. Growth is not linear. Some of us need to go back and work through the things that have shaped us whether you were in the foster care system or detention centers or not. Some of us are ready to step up and catalyze people beyond us. You might think that one circle would be more complex than another- but, it is not. They are all insanely complex and there is no mastery, only practice.
Start over when you need to.
This is the part of the speech where I was planning to tell you about these radical collaboration projects we are lucky enough to drive, I was going to share some battles wounds and fails from the field, impressive stats about our work at DSIL Global, so it might inspire you to actually use more collaborative processes like human-centred design. etc. But inspiration and stats didn’t seem like truth to me. I know it will be more important to invite you back into my story and finally be able to tell the system, what I needed you to hear as child. Especially since not much has changed where I am from.
Yes, wisdom comes even from children in detention centers.
1. Your refusal to collaborate is hurting me.
Not many of us are actually good at communication and that’s why we suck at collaboration. We don’t listen, we are already inserting our ideas and experiences and hi-jacking people’s stories before they even finish telling us them.
I can imagine that’s why it’s so hard for the world to share honestly right now. Maybe not listening is the link to why we are also not willing to commit to the long term relationships that will give us the permission we need to get through the challenges that WILL COME.
Change is on the other side of challenge, change is moving THROUGH that challenge. But, we are scared of that too and call it conflict.
For many of you when collaboration doesn’t go right, right away, you quit. Don’t quit, start over. Try again because everytime you quit or don’t even try, you become the adults that blamed the system without looking me in the eye before walking away.
2. Stop Being a Know-it-all
Fundraisers, investors, your view is narrow. Governments, Republicans AND Democrats, Grassroots revolutionists, development workers, so is yours. Communities, yours is too.
Mine. is. too.
The more of an expert you are in your field, the more narrow your solution will be, and the more you need a group of differently minded people to help you see the gaps in your best ideas. Those differently minded people will show you how to build those ideas so they do not fail.
If you care about change that’s beyond your own opinions, then you will start to play with the idea that it’s not about being an expert, or winning people over or getting “buy in”. Its about doing the hard work to get different views on the table and finding what emerges at the center. At that center is where we transform lives and not many of us, if any of us-have gotten there yet.
As someone who works on innovation everyday, what I know is that all meaningful innovation first comes from deepening understanding and widening perspectives first. If you are not listening to differently minded people, you are stopping change and again you become that adult that walks away from me.
3. Stop thinking you are better than others around you.
I am blown away by how arrogant we are. We actually believe that we have enough understanding about another person's (let alone a community’s) 1,000 of experiences that make up who they are and how they feel- that we could possibly solve a challenge for them, without them.
Stop calling me a beneficiary of your knowledge, great ideas or resources. Invite people who are experiencing the challenges in, and make sure that they make up at least 50% of your tables because we have understanding your books and degrees will never be able to teach you.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not only outdated, but it's not true. Even when my body was being abused and even when I was hungry I was always building my self esteem, and thinking about the future. In my hardest moments is when I was most creative and expressive. I found my voice there because it wasn’t allowed anywhere else.
Let’s talk about that voice too. The fact is my voice and agency was never yours to take and it’s hard for me that I see ‘communities’ fighting to get something back that is theirs. Sometimes I feel it’s the new face of neocolonialism. What makes me even more sad is that some communities have forgotten their voices all together since we (the system) were arrogant and told them it’s not needed.
4. My life doesn’t fit in your tick box.
Stop minimizing what matters to me by hollow evaluations. Stop taking time away from my social workers to write reports no one reads, she could have spent 20 more minutes with me and that is everything to a child. The few programs and few well-trained youth workers who were in my life and were not so burdened by the system they could be present for me- they are not failures, but your evaluations said they were.
Besides the fact that your questions are often wrong, your need to prove yourself instantly is crazy and harms me.
You simply can’t measure healing or growth instantly because growth is not linear, remember? And that’s okay, that’s what is so beautiful and mysterious about life.
Your evaluations also don’t capture the moments that matter because many of the programs were also built from your lens alone and flawed by design. It’s a systems problem.
People sticking with me mattered, people still showing up after my anger got the best of me and I broke a window is what mattered. Not being kicked out of programs for bad behavior and being able to try again, mattered.
Those unmeasurable moments are why a broken system didn’t have an output of a broken adult. That’s what made me resilient.
5. Money doesn’t matter as much as you think.
Even that young, even at 10, I was struck with how the world could be so full of money or resources- they were all around me, I could see them everywhere I went, sometimes I could touch them for a little while - but yet I was not allowed to be a part of them.
Do you remember that towering trash bag next to me in the cop car? Whatever was in that trash bag isn’t what gave me what I needed to survive, it was the social worker who sat on the end of the hospital bed after two years of working with me and said, “don’t give up, Katy. I know you are here for a reason and I love you”.
The stipend for clothes you gave me meant nothing since I felt invisible anyway. I was given dozens of diaries to write in, but no one to talk about what I wrote about with. I was given teddy bears sometimes when I was put in a psych ward because you couldn’t find a home for me... as if hugging that bear would help?
The truth is the shallow material things I was given me made me feel worse. What’s worse, it helped the adults who were not changing the system feel better, so nothing changed. Resources are sometimes extremely important, but they are not only things outside of us. They are the elements inside of us, and between us, that have great power.
Expand what resources means and let’s build-up what matters. That's people, a sense of belonging and finally being able to build the world’s capacity to listen to each other.
6. Please, start experimenting!
Lately I have noticed that when I sit still, my body can’t actually become calm and still. There is a vibration there that sways me ever so slightly. I am not sure if that is from the trauma that lives in my bones now, but I honor it as important and I know it also fuels my work. But, it also is the piece that bring me daily back to the reality that there are kids right now going through that same sexual violence and waking up being called stupid everyday. My country is throwing us in these places on purpose. You know my general story, but I remember the details. It has to stop. Please, please, share risk with everyone else around you and start experimenting- that’s collaboration too.
Test your ideas quickly, work with people who are fueled by the same vision that lives outside of their egos and start over as many times as you need to. Meaningful solutions will come much faster this way, and we are wasting time.
7. Seriously…..Play More.
This work is hard and never over. Find time to laugh, and be silly so the work doesn’t drain you so much you have to leave. We need you. Being a kid is far away for me now, but sometimes I still feel like I am sitting in the cop car with that same sweat from the same struggle, feeling profoundly sad.
It is hard for me to see us still blaming the “system” because I know the space between you and I is the system. We can’t see it so it’s easy to blame, but even if it’s invisible like I was, it’s powerful like I hope my words are now.
That’s why I have so much HOPE for what’s next. In fact, I have built all of my work around ensuring I am around this HOPE. Daily I get to see all types of people come together standing in radical responsibility and moving into radical collaboration leaving power and pain at the door.
Another habit that I have had to create is being able to make things look easy. But, I think it’s important I don’t do that here. Writing this, and now speaking this is incredibly hard not because of the reality of my story, but because it’s not just my story. It’s the story of many.
From the bottom of OUR hearts, thank you for beginning the practice of listening today.
CEO, DSIL Global
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