The Planting of Seeds, Background:
The Boothby Institute is named for Al and Alice Boothby. It is difficult to say how my life might have turned out without their influence. Albert C. Boothby was an extremely quiet man. He taught history in a small independent school, nestled in the rolling hills of central New York State. During the late 50’s and early sixties, he realized that education was the most important issue in the process of leveling the segregated playing field of public education in the United States.
There were two school systems really, one white and one black. One which provided opportunities at an unprecedented rate and another that fostered a recurring cycle of mediocrity and challenge. During the summers of the early sixties, Al began teaching in all Negro (black or African American were not used until the early nineteen seventies) colleges. He taught in a number of them and was then introduced to Wilhelmina Crosson, the Headmistress of Palmer Memorial Institute, an all African-American independent school by Watts Hill, Jr., Commissioner of Education and another of Al Boothby’s history students. North Carolina lead the way in the integration of public schools in large measure because of Governor Terry Sanford and Watts Hill, Jr..
In my senior year of high school, 1964, Mr. Boothby made it possible for me to spend six weeks at Palmer Memorial Institute as an exchange student. I learned that students there were starving for answers and creativity. When they discovered that I was an advanced math student, my time became about what I knew and how they could know. I traveled with the basketball team to all Negro high schools throughout the state. We watched from a clothing store across the street as Woolworth’s was desegregated. Mr. Boothby had warned us extensively not to participate in demonstrations, for it might get in the way of plans for the school.
When I returned to New York, we wrote a grant to the Ford Foundation that became the Palmer Summer Program, a year later, one of the pilots for Upward Bound. The fact that that program was based on creating inspired environments, where ownership and responsibility were a given, was directly the result of the Boothby’s work at Palmer. It was clear that the capacity for learning was present in every youngster; the question was opportunity and choice. At the outset of planning for Upward Bound, some of the Federal researchers who visited wanted to create it as a remedial program. Mr. Boothby and the faculty, among many voices, helped to create the idea of creating inspired environments where students knew they were valued and cared for in every regard.
There were plenty of rough moments. The first day of our faculty meetings, a fire broke out in Recreation Hall. Eight miles away, the fire department arrived in forty-five minutes. Windows were shot out of dormitories and Alice Boothby taught all of us about courage. Mrs. B. was studying to attain a Masters Degree in Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and drove there three or four days a week. It was not uncommon for her to be followed by cars that got close, gestured and shouted, but never touched her car until one day when she was run off the road by two cars. An impromptu faculty meeting was called because this incident escalated the tension affecting all of our students and those of us who drove. While the Klu Klux Klan was suspected, we could not know for sure and no one was about to investigate. The courthouse in Greensboro had two drinking fountains at that time; it was highly unlikely that anyone would consider this incident significant.
It was clear that Mrs. Boothby was shaken by this more serious incident and she vowed not to stop making her trips. I made some comment about “hating bigots” and Al Boothby wheeled around to me and said, “That would make you the problem. Until we can come to love the person and hate the action, this will never end.” In that instant, he taught me that loving-kindness had to be the foundation of any solution. Al and Alice Boothby were and are my first and most powerful mentors.
The purpose of The Boothby Institute is to create and provide resources for individual and institutional excellence by providing participants the opportunity to experience ownership and responsibility in a climate of empathy and loving-kindness.
Understanding Damage, Violence, Producing Results, and the Power Within. The Ground of Being of Our Work.
The kind of violence that was unleashed in New York, Washington and in a field in Pennsylvania is no different than any other violence. Those who feel honored to do damage to others do not value themselves. Acting as if there were a difference in this situation is to miss the point entirely. The school shootings in Colorado and Georgia (and the hundreds of copycat threats throughout the United States), brought the issue of violence in our schools and our society to the forefront of our national conversations.
Unfortunately, what was being said and not said left the majority of people feeling as if there was nothing they can do about the situation. It also left those charged with the responsibility for the safety of our children, while they are in school, choosing from solution alternatives that do not reach the heart of the matter. The only solutions to any of these circumstances require action from each of us.
With these gross manifestations of violence in the United States, the feeling of powerlessness is increased. It is based on trying to make it appear that there are different kinds of violence, some good and some not. The pilots who hijacked the planes that became the instruments of violence felt God was on their side. As a society we have reached the critical turning point in our global history. Will we live with violence, justified or not, or will we choose another path? And what can we as individuals do about it?
The most important misconception that must be done away with is the notion that there is nothing we can do. Every single person alive today is either part of the solution or part of the problem. We simply need to start telling the truth about it. Each person, regardless of their role or responsibility in every society has an opportunity to contribute. Some actions are more obvious than others and no one is without a choice to be made. Some of them are going to require drastic changes in attitude and/or behavior. Some are going to require shifts in our national and personal priorities. We will simply have to decide what kind of society we want to live in and what its values will be.
The Boothby Institute, Program Emphasis, Education: To end the myth that we do not know how to create inspired, soaring, nurturing, result producing educational environments. In Education, our interest is not simply in understanding the current morass in public education around the world, but to provide vehicles for its dramatic transformation. There is considerable evidence that we can now define inspired teaching. If we are able to define it, why do we find it so hard to re-create it at will? Would it be so difficult to create environments where young people achieved brilliantly and knew that their worth in the world was not connected to test scores? Why is it not possible to make every classroom a nurturing, result producing environment? Do we not care enough? Do we not see the connection to the results people produce in their adult lives? Are we not willing to fight polices or unions or spend the money in order to produce the result? Do we want kids who all know the same thing or ones who see themselves as responsible for their own education? Examples: Schools, YMCA’s, Job Corps, Corporations.
Before we begin to explore what each of us can do in order to eliminate the violence in our society, we must come to a basic agreement about the causes of that violence. Unfortunately, my research into the root causes of violence in our society was dramatically escalated thirty-six years ago when one of my children was raped at the age of eight. We needed a quart of milk and a can of Comet. This was a middle class suburb of Akron, Ohio on a bright sunny afternoon. The grocery store was across a large field, easy walking without crossing any streets. I could see no reason not to let her go.
A man in his late teens or early twenties stopped my daughter on the way back from the store to ask her to help him find a dog he claimed was lost. As it turned out, there was no dog. He covered her mouth, dragged her behind a hedge and raped her. Bloodied and scared to death, Joy made it home. The emergency room and the police added to the trauma, though staffs in both organizations were relatively well trained and generally sensitive; unusual for 1979. Joy survived physically and mentally. Years later she would tell me that when I would acknowledge her courage, the truth was she was putting on a good act. She is well, a great person, the State Adjutant/Chief Communicator for the Massachusetts VFW.
On that day I discovered that I could kill and would have, I am sure, if I had caught the man then or probably within a year. That makes me no different than any other killer. The behavior we fear the most is within us.
We took care of each other and not much else. Returning to Maine, our psychological home, we began to search for answers to where this kind of violence originates and what are its root causes. I read everything I could get my hands on and listened to anyone who made any sense at all. One day at noontime I had the television on and picked up about half an hour of the Donahue program (which, in 1979, was addressing important issues.). The guests were Dr. Nick Groth as well as a number of convicted violent sex-offenders, shown only behind an opaque screen in order to protect their identity. At the time Dr. Groth headed the sex-offender program in Connecticut housed at the maximum-security prison at Somers. Even in the few minutes I heard, I knew that there was real truth, no matter how harsh, coming through this conversation. Knowing that the program was recorded at another time and wanting to hear more, I called the prison and asked to speak to Dr. Groth. He was in and took the call. I explained who I was and that I truly wanted to know the real root causes of random violence in our society. I explained why it was important to me and that I wanted to see if I could do something that might be of use.
Nick told me the only way to really understand was to come and spend a day inside Somers. Having not a clue as to what I was getting into, I agreed. As I drove the roughly five hours from Phippsburg, Maine to Somers, Connecticut, my emotions were all over the place. I wanted to do this. Why did I want to do this? I was going to meet and talk with people just like the person who had raped my daughter less than a year ago. Was I crazy? Should I turn back? How would I react? Could I keep a civil tongue? Would any of this make any difference? When you enter a maximum-security prison, it is clear by what you are asked to do that this is serious business. Razor wire is everywhere. Once identified and checked in, you surrender your wallet (identification, credit cards and money are coins of the realm), your keys, your glasses (because the metal arms make a great weapon) and your belt. After you pass through the third or fourth steel gate or observation area, you know you are inside. At that point, feeling absolutely no more confident than on the drive down, I meet Nick for the first time. The first group of inmates we spoke with was on break in an open area. Engaging them in conversation, Nick asked how they got there, who was responsible for them being in prison. The stories varied and there was a long list of those responsible, mother, father, judge, cop, lawyer, a gang, teachers, bad breaks and finally the victim, “If only the bitch hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have killed her.” I was greatly relieved when Nick said it was time to move on. It crossed my mind that I would probably say something that might upset this group and I could be the next reason for violence.
Nick took me to an area in the prison where we met with a number of inmates, all of whom he had worked with for at least a year. They too had awful stories about their childhood. One man in particular told of being locked in a closet for ten days at a time. He explained that that was where he ate, slept, urinated and defecated and that it was easier to be in the closet than deal with the repeated beatings and sexual attacks by his father and his father’s friends when they were on a drunken rampage.
The Boothby Institute, Program Emphasis: To understand the root causes of violence and what to do about it. The kind of violence that happened at Virginia Tech is completely understandable. Why is it so difficult for us as a society to accept that violence comes from violence? What needs to happen so that people understand that each second is either a positive contribution to a person’s development or a detriment to it? Is it that we are afraid that we have some responsibility in the matter? Examples: Schools, Job Corps, Prisons
We spent hours in that same room, talking about violence, its causes, my anger, their crimes and their lives now. All of these inmates were lifers with no possibility of parole. This conversation was not being recorded. To a person, these men knew that they had been the cause of their own criminal lives. Were there mitigating factors of childhood abuse, violence and criminal neglect? Absolutely. They now knew that they had absorbed this violence and made their own. One man who had committed three combination rape/murders came to me at the end of the day, at a time when no one else was in earshot. This man told me that he was deeply sorry that my daughter had been raped. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that he meant it from the bottom of his heart. That was the beginning of two very powerful learnings. The vast majority of people who commit violent acts (over 95% of all convicted violent criminals) were themselves the victims of physical, sexual or verbal abuse. Terrorists invariably see themselves righting a wrong, either real or imagined, triggered by a climate of or direct experience with violence. What I learned in this unusual laboratory is that it is possible, given two critical factors, for even the most violent people to develop meaningful, productive, contributory lives, even within the confines of a maximum security prison. The fact that this is so speaks volumes in terms of what we can do.
The Boothby Institute, Program Emphasis: Incarcerated People. To end the idea that anything that is accomplished regarding those who have done damage to others within our society, can be done without the presence of dignity, grace and loving kindness. How is it that the richest nation in the world has the highest rate of incarceration of its citizens? Could it be that everything we think we understand about recovery and reclamation of lives is applied almost nowhere within the prison system in the United States? How is it we think we can punish people into wellness? Why is it that we continue to confuse who people are with their behavior? Examples: Prisons, Job Corps.
Nick Groth led me to vast amounts of information. The most important piece he gave me was about why he had been able to get through to these men at Somers. I assumed it was his training, degrees, and his scholarship. Nick assured me they were not it. The degrees were a factor and the critical factor from Nick’s point of view was getting these individuals to know that they are loved (i.e. cared about, valued) and that they are able to make choices. Nick had been successful in separating these men from their behavior powerfully enough for them to realize they were worth something. Why else would a group of men spend an extended day talking with the father of a child that was raped? It must have been like being with the fathers of their own victims. IF IT IS POSSIBLE IN THIS ENVIRONMENT, WITH THESE MEN, IT IS POSSIBLE AT EVERY MOMENT IN EVERY ENVIRONMENT WITH ANYONE. What is required is a conscious commitment on the part of all of us to be part of the solution. It is not complicated and it is going to require merciless discipline on everyone’s part.
People who are well, know that they are loved and are powerful enough to make good choices, don’t damage other people. All of the damage in our society comes from people who do not feel well about themselves. The young men who did the shooting in Colorado were part of a group everyone treated as outcasts, isolated from the rest of the student body. Well people don’t shoot their classmates. Well people don’t rape children or anyone else. Well people don’t beat their spouses. Well people don’t engage in road rage. Well people do not mock or verbally assault their peers. Well people don’t create puppet governments with tyrants as leaders and ignore or worse abuse the rest of the country’s population. Well people do not allow tens of thousands of people to die needlessly each week of hunger, starvation and persistent hunger. Well people don’t kill anyone. Well people don’t damage others. Period.
It is possible to create a world that works for EVERYONE!