One of the nation’s largest therapy conferences happens annually in Washington DC. This year, the first in person for two years, the theme was “Meeting the Moment.” At first sight, I thought, “Yes” that is a great theme. How are we meeting this moment recovering from the pandemic and racial strife and four years of dysfunctional leadership on so many levels?
When I viewed the four day program, I was stunned to discover only one session focused on the pandemic. It was called “Rethinking Anxiety in Light of the Pandemic” and that was it. Of course, there were sessions on Trauma and so perhaps the pandemic was folded into that, but ‘Meeting the Moment’ without even naming the Moment seems odd. Is there a different moment we are meeting? These are therapists. Have they been on holidays these last two years?
Fast forward two months and we are attending the ASC East Coast training conference for AmeriCorps, one of three repeated across the year. It’s title was “Shaping the Future.” Again, an apt theme given that every AmeriCorps program has had to maintain service when the world shut down. How do we build a future out of that experience?
Once again, there were seminars on climate change and sustainability and only 2-3 that mentioned Covid explicitly. I went to all of them and discovered that they were not addressing the impact in any direct or personal way. There was one exception and that was the seminar Project CHANGE ran based on our new book “Our Stories Rise Up”
When I proposed that AmeriCorps before the pandemic and AmeriCorps after the pandemic were two different beasts, the attendees embraced the chance to pour forth their struggles and grief, and allow their peers to validate their commitment against the odds. It felt like such a cathartic moment.
The world feels different. We have lived through a national catastrophe that has affected everyone. Even the leaders of AmeriCorps have advocated for increased resources to help with the recovery. But there was no room on the conference agenda to speak about it. Busyness is one way to bury the pain, I guess.
Fast forward to this week and another conference, this time on leadership education, by a prestigious research body. The four days were packed, interactive, fast paced, more an intensive training than a conference with 9 amazing facilitators. And amongst all the theories and approaches, not a word, not a session, not a formal invitation to share what the pandemic has done to leadership and leadership education. And these are leaders and those who teach future leaders.
I was reminded of the old British style “Carry On” comedies. This was “Carry On Leading,” as AmeriCorps was “Carry on Serving,” as the Washington DC Conference was “Carry on Therapizing.”
The more I think about it, the more alarming it is to me that we are not allowing ourselves to address the post pandemic world. We are not even willing to name it. These conferences were probably planned in 2020 and delayed two years, and so, they just rolled out what they had already prepared. The agenda was stale. But what a lost opportunity. Are they symptoms of our clinging to an illusion? Or is the fact that we are not hosting sessions on the trauma of the pandemic because we are still in the trauma of the pandemic? Denial is a classic delaying or diversion strategy.
The book “Our Stories Rise Up- Remembering as Resilience” is a simple and practical guide for people who want to talk about the elephant in the room and not be overwhelmed. Every educator and parent, every leader and therapist should have a copy.
In our work serving students in our local county, we see every day the continuing impact of the pandemic. Kids are coming back to school to be with their friends. They are not coming back to learn. 70% of our sample tell us that they are NOT excited about learning, in the least. The ones that thrived during the shutdown have learned to teach themselves and so the classroom style is too restrictive. If I can ace algebra in my pyjamas, why do I have to go back to this torture of 8 hours, 8 classes, 25 to a room, with exhausted and angry teachers?
The school system has made the same assumption that the conferences made, that their new story is “Carry On and Catch up.” Let’s act as if nothing has happened and then deal with the behavior that is driving teachers in droves to other careers. Something has happened and we can see it all around. Something has happened to us. To pretend the opposite is a classic case of denial. It is only going to make it worse.
And it hurts us. It shows a lack of self-respect for our own pain, or a lack of any empathy for those who are still bearing the brunt, who are mostly the poor and forgotten. What gives us the right to even presume they can get back to our normal when it was never normal for them in the first place?
Perhaps we therapists and non-profit directors and leadership experts rode the pandemic wave with our middle class surf board and did not drown. But the people we serve are still trying to dig themselves out.
Within 10 miles of the White House, One of our members serves food to over 900 local families every Thursday. Food insecurity has become a crisis like never before here in the Capitol area. Who knew, and who cares? The rise in abuse and domestic violence are things we are only starting to see. Some call it the tip of the iceberg. In 2020 and 2021, the country bought more guns than ever before. Think about what 40 million more guns mean for a minute, and think in how many states, any 18 year old can buy one. Experts who say we are in the middle of a mental health crisis are fast being treated like the boy who cried wolf. We shrug. We are fine. No need to worry. Until the next kid with one of those 40 million guns goes to school to make the world pay for our neglect. We will blame guns or we will blame mental health so long as we do not blame ourselves.
It is time to convene a critical conversation about these last two years. Let’s assess the losses and the wounds and identify who most needs healing, who cannot possibly carry on as before. We know in our school system, there were thousands of students falling behind before the pandemic. Asking them to catch up when they feel they are not even in the race anymore is nothing but cruel and inhuman punishment. Even our Constitution that the Judges say allows a kid to buy a gun, is against that.
Our Stories Rise Up– it is time to tell the stories of our pain and our hope. There cannot be any way forward without that.
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