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Gathering in Topeka, Kansas for the Educators’ Art of Facilitation Chapter IV


According to Alice Miller author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, an Enlightened Witness is “an understanding person who helps a victim of abuse recognize the injustice they suffered and gives vent to their feelings about what happened to them”.

Brene Brown author of Daring Greatly states, "empathy is feeling with or alongside someone, while sympathy is feeling sorry for."

In Topeka we unpacked and explored the message of the Enlightened Witnesses in our lives. People who are and were able to truly see us. As Brene Brown would say, people who are able to truly empathize with us. Who gave us our Golden Shadow Message. The Golden Shadow message is the message that offsets the negative messages we receive, as a result of abuse and/or trauma.

My Golden Shadow, the person who loved and nurtured me and made me feel safe and valued was my grandmother, Raquel.

I experienced childhood trauma in the form of domestic abuse. After a specially brutal beating my father gave my mother, she packed our clothes, shepherded my brother, sister and I into a taxi, and directed the driver to take us to the airport. My father was at work. She had decided to leave him and take us to her parents’ home in Sucre, Bolivia.

My grandmother, a wonderful cook, and my grandfather Medardo did their best to heal and nurture, my mother and us children. Together they provided us with stability, a respite from the storm, safety, order, and peace. Elements that are crucial for well being. Elements that I rarely experienced during my childhood in the world of my parents. My grandparents’ civility and shared mutual love radiated throughout their home and touched everyone who entered.

My grandmother Raquel made me feel safe, showered me with unconditional love and filled my soul with the following golden message, “you are valuable.” She didn’t try to fix me, she simply loved and nurtured me, simplicity on the other side of complexity.

A dear friend of mine, Peter Pollard, who worked as a child protection social worker for the state of Massachusetts for 14 years, shared with me that he came to realize that when a man or boy’s behavior made no sense to him, they were most likely making decisions about survival, based on safety calculations that he couldn’t even conceive of. But whenever he was able to be an Enlightened Witness and view their behaviors through the lens of what constitutes safety in their world, rather than his, he arrived at a richer understanding of their challenges and his efforts to meet their needs became more grounded in his reality. Contrary to conventional wisdom in the field, he found again and again, that when a male’s own trauma is validated, he’s in a safer place to acknowledge his own vulnerability, and to be accountable for any harm he may have caused to others or himself. He’s then better able to consider and learn about more healthy and hopeful coping responses ------ or in other words, to heal.

I can’t begin to express the importance of having an Enlightened Witness in ones life.

Audrey Jordan pictured with me above is an amazing woman, colleague and dear friend. She has been one of my Enlightened Witnesses and her light has brightened my journey. These are Audrey’s words, “enlightened people shine and that shine helps others become enlightened and see (and Emit) their shine/light.

Since attending our gathering in Topeka, Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz shared with me that she has done the Enlightened Witness exercise more than a dozen times with the school districts and communities she works with. The word that comes up most in the word cloud she uses is TEACHER.

What has been reinforced for me through many of the exercises that we experienced in Topeka is the fact that when we create safe spaces to get to know the full story about each other, to understand what healthy or unhealthy influences have led us to engage in damaging and hurtful ways of being, new coping strategies become more available.

True healing comes from listening to the spirit of the person, as well as the mind and body.

The fact that we all are in need of healing, each and everyone one of us, is now so much clearer to me.

All the sciences point us to the fact that all human beings have the same needs. What differs are the tools and strategies that they learned in order to meet those needs. One of the problems that exists is that we have created walls and barriers between us.

There is a widely-held premise that it is unproductive to have people talk about the painful things that happened to them in the past because memories of trauma are complex. Some believe that talking about traumas is not efficient; it takes time and patience.

I believe differently. I believe that even the most well-intentioned models become less effective when regular individuals, and communities do not take the time, nor bring the patience required to build trust and relationship.

People in general are not taught the value of investing time in listening to the needs and feelings of others because to do so means the level of responsibility goes way, way up.

Most people and the systems we’ve created do not want this much responsibility. They want to take a position in the distance, observe, judge and treat problems at the surface with temporary methods that fail to engage a healing process because that makes it less uncomfortable to feel the pain of others. And perhaps - as is often the case - to trigger one’s own painful trauma.

I now know that there is a path forward - a model for change…my final piece will be about how the work we experienced in Topeka is being carried forward.


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