Clowning and Caring in Costa Rica

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I recently returned from a week in San Jose, Costa Rica with Patch Adams, M.D. and 45 other humanitarian clowns.  Patch Adams is well known from the Hollywood version of his life, starring Robin Williams.  The real Patch Adams is an activist for peace, justice and care for all people.  As he says on his website: “My life has been a dance with humanity.”  What an honor to be part of his ensemble of healing clowns!

I first met Patch through our mutual friend, Dr. Lois Holzman and my longtime mentor Dr. Fred Newman. Our paths crossed again during the last two Performing the World (PTW) conferences, when Patch led workshops and attended sessions.  Two years ago I followed him around at PTW and at the end of the conference he gifted me with rubber snot and said, “I don’t give many people ‘the snot,’ and it’s rare that I give it to women, because they tend not to wear it.”  I was honored.  Here I am wearing the snot waiting for Patch to begin his lecture at Costa Rica University surrounded by some of the students who came dressed as clowns.

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As a longtime community organizer, political and performance activist, it was enormously inspiring and gratifying to study and play with Patch and the other key organizers for the trip, Susan Parenti, the founder of the School for Designing a Society, Dario Solina and Mark Enslin.  I learned a great deal from each of them.  We spent two days clowning and caring in La Carpio, the slums of San Jose where mostly undocumented Nicaraguan immigrants live in dire poverty right next to the landfill garbage dump for all of San Jose.  The other days were spent clowning and caring in a nursing home, a school for disabled children, a women’s prison, a psychiatric hospital and at San Jose University, where Patch gave a lecture to medical students and others in a public forum.

In workshops with Patch and Susan we used the activity of writing “false statements” as a way to envision a better world.  What do we want, for ourselves and for our world, even if it is not yet true?  The first false statement that I wrote is “There is no poverty.” Later we wrote the intermediary steps towards making our false statements a reality.  I wrote the following as my intermediary step towards making “there is no poverty” a reality: Those of us with privilege must use and give it to build and create something new with what is.  I am more inspired than ever to do this through my work in New York building the All Stars Project , organizing in the poor community with Dr. Lenora Fulani and others.

This is La Carpio:

There aren’t a lot of words to express the experience of being in La Carpio with the community of caring and loving clowns, but I will attempt to give some flavor with a few words and some photographs. We began by parading through the neighborhood, clowning with the community – young and old. “Payasos!”

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One set of parents beckoned me into their home where they showed me their teenage daughter who was disabled in some way – it was hard to tell what she suffered from. They were clearly asking me to cheer/comfort her, which I did. I was very touched by their wisdom and by the development that has been created in this most poor community by local organizers and by yearly visits by Patch and his invading force of loving and caring clowns. It was very meaningful to be invited into their home.

We organized as many adults and children as possible to join us as we headed to the small (concrete) park for a show.

A little girl took my hand and wanted to walk with me (pictured below). She was delightful, so full of life; she was chatting up a storm with me!  I kept smiling, listening and saying, “Si!” I learned that language is never a barrier to love someone. She had no shoes on. Shoes are a very sought after commodity in La Carpio.  We take it for granted that people have shoes in our part of the world.  Also below is one of my favorite photos; I am sitting with a woman who is sorting through a bag of used shoes to see which can be recycled.  I was simply there to be with her.  Occasionally I’d nod as a way of agreeing that a pair of shoes looked worth keeping.  Clowns do not have to be funny, but they do need to be loving.

iIt was a hot, sunny day so at some point I pointed to the little girl’s feet and asked, “Caliente?” She nodded yes. I tried to carry her but she was too heavy. I asked one of the local male student clowns to help and I saw her later in the park – my sweet friend .I learned a lot about the simplicity of play and it’s healing power. We sat in the park waiting for performances to begin and I handed a small percussion “egg” to a little girl and when she shook it I danced in my seat, and when she stopped, I stopped. Her laugh was so wonderful! The simple joy of play!

During Patch’s lecture at the University he focused on reframing the idea of the clown.  Clowning is loving humanity, “it is a trick to get love close.”  Patch shared what I discovered is very true: “If you are fully dressed as a clown you can love the world, and the world will love you back.”  So much of medicine as practiced by most is a “vulgar

business.” For Patch and his followers “The unencumbered practice of care is an ecstatic experience.”  This was certainly my experience.  Patch chose to use his life to alleviate suffering. He takes clowns into war as “soldiers of love,” going to refugee camps and into the rubble of Haiti post-earthquake, as a few examples.

He reframed the clown as a “love revolutionary” and an “ambassador who is welcomed as a relative.”  I experienced all of this.  Importantly, Patch shared that this kind of clowning is not about funny.  To the extent to which we are funny in our clown costumes it is important to remember that, “Funny is a trick to get love close.”

Most importantly, I learned from Patch and from my personal experience clowning in Costa Rica that care is bi-directional.  We receive so much from the people we care for and clown with.  They open their hearts to us.  I sat with an elderly blind woman, Margarita, at the nursing home and held her hand.  She began to cry and told me endless stories in Spanish that I didn’t understand but I knew it was meaningful for both of us that I was there with her, listening and providing comfort and love. I felt so much energy and love going back and forth in how we held hands.  Later one of the Spanish-speaking clowns told me that Margarita was talking about her mother, who had died, and the visions she was having.

I asked Patch how I might incorporate all that I’ve learned into my work in New York.  He turned to me and said in the most emphatic and loving way, “Try being happy!”

I will end my post with these beautiful words; Patch recited this poem to me (he has memorized hours of poetry) over dinner one night: You Start Dying Slowly by Pablo Neruda:

You start dying slowly
if you do not travel,
if you do not read,
If you do not listen to the sounds of life,
If you do not appreciate yourself.
You start dying slowly
img_4924When you kill your self-esteem;
When you do not let others help you.
You start dying slowly
If you become a slave of your habits,
Walking everyday on the same paths…
If you do not change your routine,
If you do not wear different colours
Or you do not speak to those you don’t know.
You start dying slowly
If you avoid to feel passion
And their turbulent emotions;
Those which make your eyes glisten
And your heart beat fast.
You start dying slowly
If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice…

What is Smart?

 

Have you ever thought about what you mean when you say someone is smart?  As an executive search consultant clients usually ask me to find “A players” for their companies, in other words find the smart people.  Do you ever wonder what the expression “the smartest person in the room” means?  Why is being the smartest person in the room important?  What about the rest of us?

In my 20 years of experience recruiting talent I have found that many of the people we think of as “smart” (because they obtained a degree from an Ivy League school or because they are the CEO of a company) turn out to be like the rest of us … complex beings who are smart about some things and dumb about other things and everything in between.

In our educational system smartness is often defined as doing well at acquiring knowledge.  In the workplace it can mean that someone has done well at acquiring dollars.  Our culture teaches us that we should “reach our potential,” acquire a degree and then, when we enter the work force, we are expected to acquire an expertise in a particular field.  In the world of work the social aspect of human life is bifurcated into something called “emotional intelligence,” as though we can separate our emotions from our intelligence.  Creativity and relational activity – what and how we create with others, a critical component of learning, growth and development – is sadly not even part of the conversation (creativity seems to only be allowed into discussions about “innovation” or design).  Development doesn’t make it into most discussions about intelligence, learning and education.

Here’s a provocative and profound statement about education by Dr. Fred Newman, the Stanford-trained philosopher and co-founder of the All Stars Project:

The issue is to recognize that who we all are is not simply our potential, which is somehow thought of in popular language as ‘inside us.’  But who we are is some complex combination of who we are and what we are becoming.  We’re not static individuals.  We are continuously changing, and we are continuously growing… This is philosophical, and it’s also the understanding of some of the most frontline 20th, 21st century critical thinkers about how to understand human growth and development.  And that has not been brought to our schools.  It has not been brought into the popular culture.

I would add that it has not been brought into the workplace either (with some exceptions, of course). Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the most frontline 20th century thinkers.  He was a unique, eccentric and brilliant philosopher who took apart nearly every concept that underlies how psychology and education are done and examined some of our most basic assumptions like causality, essence, meaning, and the very nature of language and thought.  As my colleague, Dr. Lois Holzman pointed out in her recent class that I attended – Discovering Wittgenstein – “Psychologists and educators – not to mention, the rest of us – need to seriously examine, question and play with our assumptions and our language.”

Sounds like a smart idea to me!

If you’d like to read more on all of the above please refer to Holzman’s book “The Overweight Brain” which you can read online at http://loisholzman.org/books/latest-installment/

To Be (ourselves) or Not to Be (ourselves)?

self-portrait: to be or not to be..The Harvard Business Review recently ran an article called Do You Really Want to Be Yourself at Work? which raises some interesting philosophical questions like: What does it mean to “be yourself”? What would it look like to “be who you are becoming”? http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/06/do-you-really-want-to-be-yourself-at-work/

As a professional recruiter who is invested in human development and creating environments that support people to grow, I read this article with interest, especially when it talks about corporate cultures that are invested in developing employees.

For three years [the researchers] went around the world, asking hundreds of executives to describe the attributes of their ideal workplace. Topping the list was an environment where people could be themselves and where the company invested in developing them (and everyone they worked with) to be the very best they could be.

I would argue that creating an environment, a corporate culture, where people could be other than who they are would help people more than attempting to be “the very best they can be”.  That said, a corporate culture that is, “dedicated to developing every one of its people by weaving personal growth into day-to-day work” is on the right track.  Rather than weaving “personal growth” into the day-to-day work, companies might want to consider putting the focus on the totality of its employees growing.  How does that happen?  One way is by supporting everyone to be risk-takers – all of our mistakes and failures are opportunities for creativity and development:

In these companies employees didn’t spend any time hiding their inadequacies or preserving their reputations. Rather, everyone — from the CEO on down — was expected to make mistakes and learn from them and grow. In fact, both organizations had elaborate systems designed to promote individuals into roles a bit beyond their comfort zones to ensure that they would inevitably learn from failure. In this way people became masters not of any particular skill but of learning to adjust to new situations, which produced organizations that were remarkably resilient.

Yes and!  Learning to learn seems key.  The work that I do as a coach is about finding new performances that not only allow people to go beyond their comfort zones but to discover who we are becoming.  I was interviewing a young woman this week who constantly peppered her speech (as many young people do) with “like” and “you know”. I was coaching her to be more self-conscious of this to help her present in a more mature and professional manner.  I suggested that she use performance as a tool to do that.  She asked me, “You mean like my alter-ego?”.  As a good improviser I accepted her offer and appreciated that this is a way she could be other than who she is.

I took the survey embedded in the article to answer the question, Would you love to work in a place where you could truly be yourself?   Yes, I do “thrive in a deliberately developmental organization”!  One important way that an organization can become “deliberately developmental” is to allow people to be other than who they are – to perform in new ways, to play new roles and to perform our potential.

The non-profit All Stars Project Inc.  http://allstars.org is an example of an organization that is “deliberately developmental” – it is a model that for-profit cultures could learn from.

Let’s develop!

 

Why not give it a try?

Yesterday I spent the day in Harlem at the All Stars Talent Show Workshop.  I was part of a grouping of adult and youth leaders of the All Stars who worked with 300 young people, most of whom were new to the program and who will participate in the upcoming Harlem All Stars Talent Shows. See previous post blog post for more details about the program http://marianrich.posterous.com/innovation-in-action

We worked with a diverse group of inner city youth of all ages from some of the poorest neighborhoods in New York — singers, rappers and dancers; boys and girls from elementary school and young men and women from high school.  I was one of the directors helping the young people create theatre skits about the All Stars’ youth programs (see photo below of me and three youth leaders and fellow skit directors).

After arriving with their performance groups, the young people were asked to join groups of kids they didn’t know to create the skits.  Although the initial response of some of the young people was to ask, “Why do I have to do this?” and “Why can’t I stay with my group?”, the activity of creating with people they never worked with before turned out to be a creative and developmental experience for all involved.  See video clip below of one of the very fun and creative skits the youth created.

I was thinking about this activity and it’s application to business.  Companies, large and small, can use this approach to bring diverse groups of executives and non-executives together and have them create new experiences (as well as new products and services), a great way to promote innovation in the workplace. The use of theatre and improvisation can help businesses go beyond the possible and the familiar so that everyone involved can develop.

Why not give it a try?

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