May was Mental Health Awareness Month. It was also Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Additionally, folks have also celebrated May Day, Star Wars Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Mother’s Day. Aside from Star Wars Day, when I feel compelled to respond to every meme and greeting of “May the Fourth be with you” with “May the Horse be with you”, each of these events and highlighted issues feel complex to me in how we honor and/or celebrate them. I’m aware of conflicting emotions around how I might identify, or not, with the issue and my struggle to be intentional in how I engage.
As a therapist, of course I want to bring awareness to mental health issues. I want to challenge the stigma that is so often associated with needing mental health support. I want to humanize rather than pathologize those with mental health diagnoses. I want to highlight the discrepancies in levels of care and the obstacles to treatment for those in marginalized groups. Most of all, I want folks to understand that there is hope and a way out of the darkness of the depression, isolation, and shame that they might be experiencing.
But mental health isn’t only about medical diagnoses. It’s about recognizing our own limitations and the expectations that we set ourselves, while also knowing that the ability to attend to self-care is a privilege many do not have. It’s about acknowledging that we are not superhuman and that the 40-hour work week was never designed for us to do it on our own, and that the system is skewed by patriarchal values to leave many women with the larger burden of care while chasing after the myth of a work-life balance. Mental health awareness is in understanding that the American Dream is built on the backs of those who disproportionately do not have access to mental health care and are often also those who need it the most.
As an Asian woman in the United States, and as a newly sworn in citizen, this is the first time that I am celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month as an Asian American. That terminology feels both familiar and alien to me. Am I American now? I have an American passport so legally and technically I am, and I have lived in the United States for over a decade now, but I am also aware that I do not share the experiences of many Asian Americans, their struggles, their identities, or their history. I’m conscious of not co-opting the experience of Asian Americans with my British Chinese way of being in the world, which is an entirely different heritage. This nuanced awareness and intention of not engaging in cultural appropriation also showed up in my lack of desire to celebrate May Day and Cinco de Mayo. For me, the history and heritage of these celebrations are sacred and not a vehicle for commercialization.
All of these dates are celebrated and commemorated in different ways within the cultural communities that honor them and yet so often become co-opted by mainstream culture into a commercial venture without acknowledgment of the meaning behind the celebration. How many people know the heritage and meaning behind Cinco de Mayo? How many of us have participated in celebrations with drinking and festivities without thought to what we are celebrating? Or joined in with May Day celebrations without awareness of the cultural differences this day represents? Are we reveling in the start of the summer season or are we revolting against the tyranny of capitalism? Are we celebrating Mother Earth from a Pagan tradition or honoring those who fought valiantly against unjust labor laws?
I happened to be in Europe on May 1st this year and was reminded that May Day is a public holiday, akin to Labor Day in the States. I had forgotten the significance of May Day and it was a great reminder of how easy it is to become centered within one’s culture/environment/nation perspective to the exclusion of a more global view. I’m thankful for the privilege of experiencing different perspectives.
I was moved to tears when a friend sent me a text on Mother’s Day. Knowing that this day is always accompanied by grief for me, she wanted me to know that in her mind, the definition of a mother is an important female figure in the origin and early history of something who shapes and changes the lives of those in her care, and for that reason she wanted to wish me a Happy Mother’s Day on behalf of all those I have cared for as a human educator and therapist, and guardian of my non-human children. This shift in perspective feels so precious to me and allows me to hold both grief and gratitude simultaneously.
So, as we transition into a new season, I’m attending to this process of (re)evaluation. What and who do I identify with and/or want to be aligned with? How do my values and beliefs show up in my actions? How might a shift in perspective help me to understand another’s experience? What actions can I take to challenge the status quo to help dismantle systems of oppression? What am I moving towards and who am I journeying with? And, how can I take care of myself while doing all that? I invite you to join me in this quest to increase awareness, alignment, and alliance to what matters most to you.
In the Room Where It Happens
I never want to be in the room where it happens.
These tragedies that keep replaying.
Again, and again.
I never want to hear the screams of terror, grief, and anger in the aftermath
of these atrocities that keep repeating.
Again, and again.
I never want to feel the anguish and fear of the first responders who rush to the scene,
nor of the teachers acting as human shields,
nor of the parents whose precious children
are in the room where it happens.
No one wants to be in the room where it happens.
But we all are.
–V. Lac, May 2022
We all see the trends, over, and over again. In the aftermath of mass shootings, there follows a media frenzy calling for gun control, policies and change versus thoughts and prayers, which is predictably met with arguments in defense of the Second Amendment. We, The People, ruled by the Constitution, are stuck in a seemingly never-ending loop of trauma, grief, and debate. It is time for change.
The HERD Institute® stands in solidarity with those who are fighting for change to protect innocent lives. This is not some idealistic, humanitarian philosophy or vision. Our HERD community members are often the ones who help pick up the pieces in the aftermath of these events. The layers of trauma and grief we see as mental health practitioners, educators, and coaches are evident in every session we facilitate and hold space for. The tsunami of trauma brought on by gun violence impacts us all. While HERD members can offer crisis management, emergency care, and support groups through community programs, the focus needs to be on prevention rather than response. The impact on survivors of these events, for those in the room where it happened, and their support network, often results in post-traumatic stress that lasts for years. While school shootings, like Uvalde, may appear on the news cycle temporarily, the impact on the community will be permanent.
Children were murdered. Children.
What will you do to help prevent this from happening again? Want some resources and more information? Here is a list to get you started. Consider your options. Most importantly, please take action in some way. Thoughts and prayers are great but not enough. We need to all be in the room for this change to happen.
3 Article: Other countries had mass shootings
In solidarity and in grief,
It is with a heavy heart that we share the news that one of our beloved HERD members lost her battle with cancer last month. Kris Miner was a HERD EFL graduate and was working towards completing her EFP Certification when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of blood cancer. In life, Kris embodied love, grace, compassion, and courage. Building community and fostering connections was her passion. She was a leading voice in the Restorative Justice circles and was an active member of our HERD community. The world has lost a beautiful soul whose healing presence was felt by many and I am holding her family and our community with love as we grieve together.
When I think of the humans and animals I have known and loved who have passed, I am acutely aware of how deeply I want to hold onto those connections. I’d give anything to be able to sniff the head our beloved dog, Alfie, just one more time. To breathe in his scent and feel the softness of his fur in my face. I think of my grandma, the paper-thin skin of her hand in mine, and yearn to know how she feels about where my life has taken me. And I think of Kris, whose connections to the Wase Wapka community inspired me from the moment we met to work in collaboration with indigenous peoples to decolonize the work that we do in those communities. I want to feel her presence and continue to share our journeys as we did when she was alive. The idea of communicating with the dead deeply appeals to me. To know with certainty that there is life beyond this Earthly existence, find proof of it, and stay connected to those in the beyond brings solace and joy in tandem with an ever-present saudade. And I know that this certainty may not be possible.
I was watching the new Netflix show, Life After Death with Tyler Henry recently. It’s based on Tyler’s ability to communicate with those who have passed on. It’s beautiful and poignant. Tyler leans into the work that he does with grace and compassion, and I found the show fascinating and comforting. But it also got me thinking about what I believe in, what evidence I seek for those beliefs, and how I know if I can trust that evidence. It’s a deep dive into some rabbit holes!
Faith is to believe in something without objective evidence. Whether we are talking about religious or spiritual faith, holistic practices that science is yet to fathom, or the healing potential of horses, we all subscribe to a philosophical framework that is influenced by the culture and context of our experiences. My ancestors prayed to their ancestors for centuries until a couple of generations ago when the missionaries came, and then they were taught to pray to a different God. I wonder what that means and what may have been lost. I wonder what led them to subscribe to a wholly different set of beliefs. I see how my family have simultaneously upheld some traditional Chinese superstitions and beliefs in tandem with Christian doctrines. Do we simply pick and choose what fits in the moment? Hedge our bets with both? What prompts us to dive in the deep end and embrace a new creed and culture? Does that happen overnight or is it a process of incremental loss of our original foundations? Did those changes come about willingly or were they coerced? How does this connect to our sense of integrity? And in the context of the work that we do in the equine facilitated industry, what are the parallels of this process? See what I mean by rabbit holes?
My penchant for questioning everything is both a blessing and a curse. I was that child that asked questions incessantly. I was never content with any authoritarian “It just is” response. Things are never “just the way they are” and questioning why things are the way they are is essential to progress. In our industry, how we work with horses is based on what we were taught, situated within our belief systems and cultures. It’s important for us to question what we believe about the way our equine partners communicate and what we think they need to thrive. It’s essential to honor our horses’ experiences in a way that isn’t based on an acceptance of “it’s just the way it is”, because what if that “way” is based on assumptions and generalizations that are now out of date, or on belief systems that are not aligned with our own?
Inevitably, once we start questioning, it will lead to more questions. This endless curiosity requires a degree of stamina for not knowing, sitting with the discomfort of that, and a willingness to dig deep. The results may be unimagined revelations or frustrating dead-ends, or more often, segues into more avenues of inquiry. If you’re so inclined, come join us at The HERD. I’d love to know what rabbit holes you end up following.
It was nearly 14 years ago that Alfie came into our lives. This small, ginger, fluff ball with big soulful eyes and the most delicious puppy smell captured our hearts from the moment we met him. It was because of Alfie’s curiosity that I stepped onto the path towards animal assisted therapy and services. The way he engaged with my therapy clients when they walked through the door of my home office got me questioning if it was possible to invite him into sessions. We ended up going through multiple therapy dog certifications so that he could join me in sessions, and thus altering my career. We visited nursing homes and schools to offer canine assisted services. When we moved to the States, Alfie came with me to the eating disorder clinic and helped me facilitate individual, family, and group sessions. He thrived on physical contact and was ever hopeful for treats. He would lean against clients to help them feel more grounded and paw at them when they drifted away. Throughout his life, Alfie challenged me to stay present and grounded, and opened my heart towards a more compassionate view of what it means to be in relationship with animals.
Alfie passed away peacefully in our arms a few weeks ago and the grief that I feel is profound. An abundance of joy and gratitude for the memories we hold and a depth of pain and longing simultaneously. I was lucky to be surrounded by friends, colleagues, and students who truly understand this particular type of grief, as they embraced me with their empathy and love. With his passing, I have become more aware of everything else that is shifting around me to adjust for his absence. I’m gaining clarity on the transitions in my life that were already in motion that I have been resisting. Change is hard and necessary. Looking back at the impact that Alfie has had in our lives, I can honestly say that when we first brought home this little bundle of fluff, I had no idea how he would change the trajectory of our lives, that we would end up living on a farm, or that I would be doing the work that I do now. Change creates possibilities.
The HERD Institute will be 6 years old this year. I am so thankful for the incredible team of horses and humans who have supported our growth over the years and feel so proud of what we have created. We have endured many transitions, with each season offering its own challenges, but like my grief, I have felt joy, gratitude, pain, and anxiety in equal measure throughout it all. I know that I will continue to experience all the highs and lows of leading an organization. Like my grief, I am thankful to be surrounded by folks who share my passion in creating the type of diverse and inclusive community that I yearn for, whose own desires for sharing skills and knowledge allow them to step in with courage and compassion in how they lift up those they teach and mentor as they help to spread the work of The HERD.
As Spring emerges, I’m excited to announce that we are going to be shaking things up at The HERD Institute. As an educator and mentor, there is nothing more heart-warming for me than to witness the personal and professional growth of our students and graduates. Many of you will have experienced the magic of learning that Sarah Morehouse brings to our certification programs. Sarah not only leads our trainings, mentoring and supervising students, and helping to create the welcoming culture of The HERD programs, she has also been instrumental in the growth of The HERD behind the scenes with her attention to detail in creating policies and procedures. I am so proud to announce her upcoming promotion within our organization to her new role as Senior Instructor & Operations Executive.
We are also thrilled to be welcoming two new team members, Katie Wheeler and Bonita VanTull. Katie is stepping in as our new Finance & Membership Manager, and Bonita is our new Administrative Manager. Watch out for our social media introductions to these two amazing women!
Finally, Crista Broesler, who has been my Executive Assistant since last summer, is moving on to new pastures to focus on her graphic design work. Crista made a huge impact behind the scenes at The HERD in setting up our CRM platform, designing social media graphics, and coordinating our student intake process. While we will miss her daily contributions, Crista will still be on hand to help us with our design needs. She has also generously offered all HERD students and graduates a 15% discount for design work through her business Sweat & Tears Studio. Simply mention The HERD when you contact her.
New places, new faces, and new opportunities for growth. As we move from one season to another, and step into a new way of working, I’m also holding onto the biggest lesson that Alfie taught me – when faced with uncertainty, always stay hopeful and lean in for support.
The world owes Josh Wardle, creator of the daily word game Wordle, an enormous debt of gratitude. First, let’s just pause and acknowledge that he created this game for his partner who loves word puzzles. Through this act, he provided her with a daily gift of mystery and fun, and a small reminder of his love. As someone’s whose love language is through acts of service, I’m swooning!
For those of you who haven’t surrendered to the Wordle experience, it’s a simple game of guessing a 5-letter word. A new word is given each day. You start with any 5-letter word and you have 6 attempts at reaching the word of the day. With each attempt, letters that are correct and in the right space are coded in green; letters that are in the word, but not in the correct space, are coded in yellow, and letters that aren’t in the word are coded in grey. Through a process of elimination and deduction, the aim of the game is to guess the word with as few attempts as possible.
Those of you who have been seduced by this addictive game might resonate with how this has become a daily ritual for me. I’m fascinated by the process of how this game has spread, why it’s become the global phenomenon that it has, and what this says about those of us who have embraced it as part of our daily existence.
This ongoing global pandemic that is entering its third year of disruption has created huge voids for so many of us. Families are still unable to gather in many parts of the world and travel restrictions are still in place for many countries. In Hong Kong, my elderly parents have been under isolation protocols since November 2019 when the virus first made its appearance. Right now, travel restrictions require all passengers from incoming flights to quarantine for 21 days in a hotel. No exceptions. This means that I would need to take a minimum of a month away from the farm in order to visit them – which just isn’t possible. I know that I’m not alone. Friends in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Africa are all experiencing similar challenges.
For me, Wordle has captivated the world during this time of disconnect and isolation. Seemingly overnight, my daily routine includes hearing from friends and family about their Wordle experience of the day. The adoption of a social contract that values another’s experience (so as not to spoil the game for someone who hasn’t played yet that day) that is built into the game itself via how results are shared without revealing the answer speaks to our ability to prioritize others in a communal way that has felt so lacking during the pandemic. And in the connections with other players, it has sparked a sense of shared joy, triumph, and celebration. The daily words themselves have prompted conversations about cultural differences (usage, spelling, context). Conversations about the strategies employed as part of the game have illuminated the neurodiversity of thought processes and an understanding that there are so many ways to arrive at one destination. It is through this process that I think Wordle is providing us hope: That we can agree that our intention is the same and that we can achieve our goal in different ways and honor the other’s experience. There is no right or wrong. There is no one way. Instead, we can embrace and marvel at our collective creativity, ingenuity, determination, and enthusiasm, while supporting and commiserating each other in moments of misguided attempts, bad luck, and missed opportunities.
There’s also something about beginning the day with a new word, reminding me to be clear about my intentions for the day. New day, new word. Plus, it’s a blank slate every day, allowing for equal opportunities. Perhaps my attachment to Wordle reveals my optimistic nature and desire for diversity, equity, inclusion, and a sense of belonging more than anything else? As always, I’m curious about how we can translate this learning into our everyday lives. All I know is that I am grateful to Josh Wardle for his gift of love and connection to the world.
It’s hurricane season again in Florida. This means that we are dealing with daily thunderstorms, tropical storm surges, and localized flooding. It also means that I spend the season on high alert for sudden shifts in weather, constantly worrying about the state of my horses’ feet as they stand in rain-soaked pastures, with a daily re-evaluation of whether it’s safe to let them graze or keep them on high ground in the open barn. This decision involves balancing the risk of them either abscessing from the wet ground or getting sand colic from being turned out in the sand arena where they spend the day nibbling at weeds around the edges. Sometimes, it feels like a never-ending cycle of soaking and wrapping feet and midnight colic poop watch. Occasionally, I wonder why I choose to live this farm life.
It’s in those moments, when I’m knee deep in flood water, or sleeping in the classroom next to the barn to be closer to the horses during a bout of colic, that I am most aware of how working with horses has shifted my perspective of what it means to be a caretaker of the land and animals in my life. The small shifts in priority over the years as I’ve learned what farm life really means becomes a stark contrast to what I thought I was signing up for! The physical labor required to maintain a farm; the anxiety provoking sight of a horse in distress; the early mornings and late nights scrambling to make sure that all the animals are fed, watered, and predator proofed – all of it on top of the demands of running a small business – is a LOT! No wonder I’m exhausted all the time. But I also know that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Visiting us on site at The HERD Institute, particularly for students who are at the beginning stages of their equine facilitated journey, people see the idyllic life of small acreage living where my horses, dogs, cat, and chickens live in peaceful co-existence. There’s a sense of flow in sessions from classroom to pasture, and barn to arena, as we move from one session to the next. Magic happens in the connections made between horses and students and a sense of community and belonging is forged. We focus on the interconnectedness of being in this world and students leave feeling nourished, inspired, and passionate about their work and the journey ahead.
Then, real life strikes and the visions that they hold for what they want to birth into the world seem more distant. Connections made during training seem less tangible. For some, a sense of isolation might creep in that adds to the daunting task ahead. Added to all of this, the uncertainty of what is yet to come during these pandemic times has left many feeling unsure of their next steps.
So, I’m here to tell all of you who are feeling those struggles that you’re not alone. I hear you. I get it. This isn’t a “I’ve been there, and you’ll get through it too” thing, but more of an “I’m in it with you” feeling. For many of us, asking for help is part of the struggle, but what I’ve learned is that it’s a critical step. We all need support. That support doesn’t have to be in the form of practical “fix it” solutions but simply to know that we are not alone. Hearing that someone else is experiencing something similar allows us to sink into acknowledging that what we’re going through is hard, and that we don’t need to tough it out alone.
That’s why, we believe that continued mentoring, supervision, and peer support is so critical for our industry. It can be a lonely and overwhelming journey to manifest a vision, no matter how passionate you are. We need to know that we’re not alone in our struggles and it helps to have those who have walked the path before us to show their humanity too. It’s important to acknowledge that we have not chosen an easy path for ourselves and that what we are doing, creating, building, and nurturing is needed in this world full of uncertainty.
Contact us and let us know what you’re struggling with in your programs right now. Let’s see if we can support each other in community. In this herd, we all belong.
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I’ve often been called a dreamer, an idealist, and an optimist. The implications of these terms being that I’m being unrealistic and lacking in pragmatism. The privileges that I have been afforded in my life means that I possess the internal resources to hold an abundance of hope. Hope for a more equitable, sustainable, and inclusive world; hope for increased accessibility to services for those who need it most; and hope for those who are often dismissed or invisible, to become visible, loud, and proud.
Over the past couple of years, we have worked hard at The HERD Institute® to challenge the status quo of the equine facilitated industry by offering trainings, workshops, and conferences that center the needs of the marginalized populations that we serve, and by increasing awareness of the importance of cultural competency in the industry. Our virtual summits have focused on highlighting the incredible work that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and/or LGBTQIA folks are doing within the industry, while also encouraging conversations about how to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion within our communities. These summits gathered leaders across our industry together to engage in some vulnerable, poignant, and brave dialogues to model what it means to courageously step into the unknown. I believe that these collaborations are critical to our industry and represent the beginnings of real, systemic change.
Within The HERD Institute®, I am incredibly proud of our team’s efforts in diversifying our HERD community. Our student demographics have shifted from being only 9% of BIPOC and/or openly LGBTQIA folks to almost 25% in 18 months. This significant increase represents the undeniable impact of centering diversity, equity, and inclusion in our enrollment strategy, and is a step towards honoring our vision of making our trainings accessible to those who are historically under-served. By offering a safer and more inclusive space for folks who have traditionally not felt welcomed into this space, we can support practitioners to serve their communities from within their cultural contexts.
I’ve talked a lot in various webinars, conferences, and podcasts recently about the importance of organizations making “more than a statement” on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’m often asked about how to implement strategies that increase diversity and belonging. I am not an expert in these matters. All I know is that by following my heart rather than worrying about the bottom line, we are making progress a small step at a time. Part of our next steps is through releasing our own statement, what we’re calling our Commitment of Belonging, that declares proudly and loudly to all those with whom we come into contact, the values that we hold as an organization. This commitment is now part of our organizational DNA.
In the process of creating the summits, workshops, and drafting this Commitment of Belonging, I have found myself repeatedly returning to the lyrics of the song, A Million Dreams, from the movie The Greatest Showman.
They can say, they can say it all sounds crazy
They can say, they can say I’ve lost my mind
I don’t care, I don’t care, so call me crazy
We can live in a world that we design
‘Cause every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake
I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all its gonna take
Oh a million dreams for the world we’re gonna make
I am grateful for our team at The HERD and to all our community members who have stepped up to dream these dreams with me. This is just the beginning, and the next dream is already emerging, unfolding, and becoming more real, day by day. Watch this space!
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It’s been 15 months since the start of the global pandemic that stopped the whole world in its tracks. This week also marked the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. I feel the weight of what has been the toughest year ever of being a trainer, mentor, and supervisor to educators and mental health practitioners who have been on the front lines every day in support of others, many of whom are struggling with the same feelings of uncertainty, isolation, depression, and anxiety as their clients.
It’s been a long slog and It’s not over yet. While pandemic restrictions have eased in many parts of the USA, I am aware that around the world, restrictions and lockdowns are still very much a part of everyday life for many people. Travel restrictions are still in place and while the USA are doing well with getting people vaccinated, there are still many who do not trust the science behind the vaccine and/or are unable to take advantage of it due to pre-existing conditions. In Hong Kong, the vaccination rate is only 2% of the population despite an abundance of vaccines available. Meanwhile, in India, the virus is on a rampage across the country and they are desperate for vaccine supplies. These pandemic inequalities highlight the systemic inequalities that are so embedded in the fabric of our global society, and while it’s tempting (and easy) to turn a blind eye because many of us are not directly affected, it’s part of the ecosystem that supports the work that we do at The HERD Institute.
It was against this background that we held our first in-person equine facilitated psychotherapy certification practicum of 2021 last week. Students arrived from all over the USA to connect, explore, and practice our compassionate approach to working with humans and horses. Each student brought with them their individual life-space and cultural context. We dug deep and excavated intrapersonal and interpersonal processes that supported our way of being in the world. There were disagreements and ruptures that were held with dignity, respect, and compassion for the other’s worldview. Repairs were made possible through acknowledging and accepting differences of experiences and opinions. The horses showed up, as always, with their wisdom and authentic engagement that left us in awe and wonder. For me, I will never cease to be amazed at the energetic resonance and co-regulation that can happen when we allow ourselves to surrender to the here-and-now experience of connecting deeply with self and others, and the horses.
So, I’m coming out of this immersive experience with a sense of lightness that I haven’t felt in a long time. I’m beginning to feel the softening of my hard edges and I’m starting to see a glimmer of light. It’s always been there, I’m sure. I just haven’t been able to orient myself towards it until now. My experience as a global citizen tells me that there is always light in the dark; that things are never so black and white, right or wrong; and that healing often happens in the murky light of overcast grey skies. Now that I’ve turned towards the light, I long to feel the warmth spread through my body, and I’m more supported in my ability to reach for it.
I recognize this feeling. I call it hope. And for me, hope is the starting point for my creative endeavors. So, watch this space. The creative process is unleashing and who knows what will emerge!
Personally, 2021 is a special year. I’d been looking forward to celebrating many milestones with my nearest and dearest. Last month, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. My brother-in-law turned 50 a few weeks ago. Next week, it will officially be 10 years since we moved to the United States, and in June, my husband and I will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. So many milestones and so much to celebrate. What we hadn’t envisioned was how many of these celebrations would need to be curtailed or postponed. Mixed in with all of this, of course, is the anniversary of the global pandemic.
With all of this, I’m feeling a mixture of grief and gratitude – both in overwhelming proportions. I’m imagining that this is true for many of our HERD members too. These waves of grief and gratitude that exist simultaneously for all that we’ve lost collectively and all that we can still feel blessings from. And now, with the vaccination roll outs that are under way, the beginnings of a glimmer of hope for reconnecting where possible with those we’ve missed during this past year. My heart feels wide open and full and empty and forlorn. Both/And.
So, as we move forward one step at a time, I urge you to take care of yourselves and each other, now more than ever before. Because the burn out that I am witnessing in myself, our students, graduates, and community members tells me that so many of us have spent this past year attending to those who’ve needed us more. Compassion fatigue is setting in just as the world begins to open back up. I’m certainly learning to be clearer about my intentions with what I take on board, what boundaries I need to hold, and what support I need in order to stay upright. I am not ashamed to say that I am exhausted and weary and am intentionally taking more time to re-center, ground, and find support from those I have learned to lean on in these times.
From the deep, deep wells of my grief and gratitude, my heart is with you all as we continue to navigate what’s next. May you find grace, compassion, and joy until we meet again!
Our Diversifying The HERD Virtual Summit at the beginning of February was a groundbreaking event. This was the first ever summit that was led and hosted by people of color in the equine facilitated space and I’m so grateful to my co-host for the event, Elizabeth McCorvey and to all our speakers and panelists for helping to create such an open-hearted and inspiring space for dialogue. Proceeds from the summit raised a whopping $5500 for the Patricia Kelly Scholarship Fund through Share in The HERD™. This scholarship fund is named after our keynote speaker for the event, Patricia Kelly, of Ebony Horsewomen Inc. A pioneer in the field of equine facilitated work, Patricia has been a role model for many people of color in our industry.
On the day of the summit, I was giddy with a mixture of excitement and trepidation of what might unfold. We had an amazing turn out, and while the technological challenges of virtual gatherings didn’t escape us, we were able to maintain a steady stream of participants in all of our live sessions. It was incredible to see so many different approaches to equine facilitated and assisted work being represented by those in attendance. There were folks from EAGALA, Natural Lifemanship, EPI, and PATH International, as well as those who came from outside of our equine facilitated community from breed or discipline organizations, equine welfare and educational spaces, and the American Horse Council. It occurred to me as I looked at all the faces on the screen that morning, that coming together in community with all our different approaches is the essence of diversity, and I felt a sense of pride in how so many people showed up and stepped up to the challenge of addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our field.
Once the adrenalin rush of the event was over, and I’d surrendered myself to a brief moment of satisfaction with what we had collectively created, I was left with a sense of urgency. This feeling of urgency is not new to me when it comes to matters of social justice. It comes from a frustration of wanting to lift up the voices that need to be heard and knowing that so much more work needs to be done. This time though, I felt a slight shift with this urgency. I realized that just because the work was urgent, it didn’t mean that it could be done quickly. Instead, there was a sense of needing to allow for space to rest and digest what happened, and is continuing to happen, through the summit. For those who chose the extended access options, or those who couldn’t make it to the live event and are accessing the recordings in small bite size chunks, before jumping into the “next thing”, we need to give space for people to process and experience it all at their own pace. Because that’s how the issue is gaining momentum – not from those who are mired in the struggle, but from newly formed allies who are stepping up to do the work.
So, for those of you who have been asking “will there be more?” the answer is YES, absolutely. I’m working on the next offering as we speak. Meanwhile, I want to encourage everyone to take their time to immerse themselves into the experience of the first summit, continue to engage and connect with each other, support and strengthen the work that we are all doing to build a more inclusive world. And, if you didn’t get a chance to sign up for the summit, you can now purchase unlimited access of all the recordings. Simply click on the link below and enter into the experience.
Here’s what a few people have said about the summit:
And my favorite:
My heart is full of gratitude. Until next time, my friends!
Our Diversifying The HERD Virtual Summit is almost upon us! I can hardly believe how quickly that has come together. From talking to Elizabeth McCorvey one day about how often we were the only people of color presenting at industry conferences, to deciding that we would take the plunge to create this summit, and pulling together a line-up of presenters, I feel as if I’ve been swept along on a wave of enthusiasm and excitement for this event. What began as a one day live gathering soon extended to providing attendees the option to immerse further into the experience with pre-recorded presentations and conversations with industry leaders.
When Elizabeth and I first talked about creating this summit, our motivation came from a desire to highlight practitioners of color in the field who are doing some incredible work in their communities. Our hope is that by increasing representation, we can encourage a new generation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color to enter into the field. We also wanted to support people in the equine industry who want to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in their barns and programs to find creative strategies to move forward. Most importantly, we want to help challenge, change, and create organizations to be more welcoming of difference. Our hope is that by offering a space where people can come together to listen with curiosity about each other’s experiences, we can begin to dismantle systems of oppression and build a more diverse and equitable industry.
We are aware that for many people, talking about racism and systemic oppression is uncomfortable. We also know that we need to have these difficult conversations in order to find a way forward. Part of being an ally for diversity, equity, and inclusion is about taking a stand to say that we believe that this issue is important, and that we’ll fight alongside those who feel oppressed. That’s risky and vulnerable to put yourself in a position where you might stand out from others. For organizational leaders who are willing to take that risk, it may result in criticism from their members, staff, and/or potential customers. It’s about choosing courage and integrity over comfort and status quo. It’s about leading from the heart and not the bottom line and standing strong in the face of resistance.
For these reasons, we want to recognize the risks that our sponsors have taken to be visible allies in our quest for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). We are so grateful for the support and hope that your leadership will encourage those within your organizations to embrace the call to action to challenge, change, and create organizations with DEI in mind.
Thank you, to Kathy Alm and PATH International for embracing change. In addition to taking part in the Industry Leaders Panel Discussion and continuing a conversation with me about the challenges of navigating change as part of the summit, Kathy has spearheaded an organization wide effort to address DEI issues. From the Board of Trustees and Staff development, to creating a Diversity working group, she is modeling what it means to be an ally through her commitment to dismantling systemic racism in the industry.
We are excited that State Line Tack took the initiative through their Diversity Equestrian Project to highlight people of color in the equine industry, and for promoting our summit through their network. When corporations stand up to become visible allies through actions like these, it gives hope for those of us on the front lines of activism that things can change. With State Line Tack standing up and taking the lead, we are beginning to see other organizations within the equine industry embracing the message too. This, in turn, makes it safer for us to speak out and engage in these difficult conversations.
When I first launched The HERD Institute®, I was clear in my mission that our community would be one that fostered a spirit of abundance, acknowledging that there are many ways of working with horses in psychotherapy and learning settings, and that not “one-size-fits-all”. I have intentionally collaborated with other training providers over the years, and nurtured relationships around the world, knowing that our mutual support is essential for the industry. As a result, I am thrilled that Bettina Shultz and Natural Lifemanship have made a donation towards sponsoring the summit and have also generously provided some bonus materials for our attendees. These bonus recordings are from Natural Lifemanship’s Interconnected 2020 virtual summit and offer an embodied perspective of racism, implicit bias, and racialized trauma.
I’m also grateful to my friends, new and old, who have supported this project through their visible allyship. Elisabeth Crabtree of A Stable Connection, Dr. Anastasia Curwood and Sally Spickard from Strides for Equality Equestrians (SEE), and Dr. Louis Hoffman at University Professors Press, who have all put their weight behind this project in different ways. Your continued support means more than you know.
So, it is with giddy excitement and gratitude that I invite you to join us for the Diversifying The HERD Virtual Summit next Saturday, February 6, 2021. You can find out more and register here. In addition to the LIVE sessions, there are over 20 hours of pre-recorded presentations and conversations, as well as bonus materials for those who want to dig deeper. Join us to stand up, stand out, and stand strong for a more inclusive world.
Looking forward to seeing you there!
This year, in the lead up to the holiday season, I’ve been noticing two very different responses to the challenges that Covid-19 has brought. Many people are opting for a more low-key holiday period, foregoing large get togethers, Christmas parties, and holiday decorating. Others are going all out in a show of defiance that a global pandemic won’t ruin the holidays, doubling down on the festive spirit in an effort to make the season even more spectacular than ever. Certainly, in my neighborhood, I’ve noticed people’s decorations have been extra elaborate this year, and my social media newsfeed has been flooded with pictures of immaculately decorated trees and mountains of gifts, all beautifully wrapped under them. Personally, I’m opting for the low-key approach and I’m encouraging others to do the same.
This “most wonderful time of the year” is one of the most stressful periods of the year under normal circumstances. Often, as a therapist, I’ve witnessed clients struggling to pretend that all is well in an effort to maintain the illusion that the holidays is a magical time. The reality is that for most people, the rush to fulfil the commercial expectations of the holiday season with the gift buying and wrapping, holiday card mailing, seasonal decorations, and producing baked goods for exchange are added pressures in an already hectic schedule. Not to mention the stresses and strains of family dynamics in general, swallowing down feelings in a bid to keep the holidays peaceful. This year, when we add the explosive cocktail of a global pandemic, I’m witnessing an unprecedented level of stress and anxiety about the holidays. So, I’m encouraging a low-key approach as a way of self-care.
Now, is the time for you to take a breath. This trip around the sun in 2020 has been a memorable one for sure. Celebrate your resilience. Recognize your growth. Grieve your losses. Acknowledge your sacrifices. Let go of what no longer serves you. In doing so, perhaps you can ease into a well-earned restful time this year, find joy in connection, and peace and love within.
Wishing you all a season of love and hope for a joyous New Year!
I love this time of year of pumpkin spice lattes, autumnal leaves, cozy blankets, and wood burning fires. Of course, living in Florida, we only get the pumpkin spice, but I do love seeing pictures on my social media feed of everything else and daydreaming about snuggling up in front of the fireplace in my pjs and wooly socks. It’s a time for me to slow down as we approach the end of the year, consider the dawn of a new season, and offer gratitude to those who have walked with me on this trip around the sun. Clearly, 2020 has been a rollercoaster of a year, and the past couple of weeks have been no exception.
As I write this, we are being impacted by the outer edges of yet another tropical storm. My pastures, paddocks, and classroom are currently flooded, and my property now could be considered to have a lakeside view. Covid-19 cases are spiking to an all-time high of over 100,000 cases a day in the US. Uncertainty continues to loom in terms of unemployment, and the political leadership of my adopted country is as yet to be officially decided. Regardless of your political views, I think it’s fair to say that the 2020 US Presidential election resulted in us collectively holding our breath on a global scale. And while some people are beginning to exhale, many are still fighting to be heard on both sides of the political divide.
So, I’m not entirely sure what pulled us to take the plunge to add another member to our family in amongst all this chaos, but we did last weekend. Enter Grace. A one year old cattle dog, bluetick coonhound, Weimaraner mix with boundless energy and no basic puppy training in place. She is sweet, intelligent, and endlessly forgiving. In the space of 3 weeks, Grace had been owner surrendered to a shelter, moved to a foster home for a week, and then adopted to her forever home with us. True to her name, she handled these transitions with grace, humility, and gratitude. She has adapted to her new surroundings with ease, seemingly open hearted to these strangers in her life, curious and playful with her adopted fur siblings, and is already proving to be a loyal companion. Her willingness to trust others is in stark contrast to the skepticism and hostility that I have witnessed (and been guilty of) in the polarized world that we exist in. In watching Grace adjust to her new environment, I realized that what I was witnessing is vital to any hopes for our collective healing.
As the leaves begin to fall, we can learn to let go of what no longer serves us. As we transition from one political season to another, we need to dig deep for grace and humility. As Grace steps into her new relationships, she can heal from her past and embrace her future. As she gazes up at me with her tiger eyes, full of innocent wonder, I become aware of how I had lost sight of my willingness to take the risk to trust others. I become aware of the need for humility, to acknowledge that we are all inextricably connected, and that all relationships need effort from both sides.
There is nothing more heartwarming than the gratitude emanating from a rescue dog’s eyes. When I look at Gracie, I can feel my heart joining hers in gratitude for all those who have helped me on my journey, to survive and thrive. This Thanksgiving season, I am especially grateful to the efforts that friends have made to remain connected through this time of social distancing and isolation. I’m grateful for friends who model grace and humility while holding opposing views. I’m grateful for neighbors who become friends and friends who have become family. I’m grateful that despite the curveball of Covid-19 and everything else 2020 is throwing at us, we are learning to become more resilient in the face of constant change. Most of all, I’m grateful for all the members of our HERD community who are on this journey with me. May this season of Thanksgiving bring you all moments of grace and gratitude.
Yes, you read that right. I’m talking about my chickens.
I’ve had a backyard flock of chickens now for the last four years. Learning to raise chickens has been an eye-opening process full of joy and heartbreak. Those of you who have been to The HERD Institute® headquarters will know how much HERD Program Manager, Sarah Morehouse, and I love our “chick chicks”. In the beginning, I chose to start my flock with 6 beautiful feathered friends named Zelda, Griffin, Buffy, Ophelia, Daphne, and Buckbeak. These girls would free range our farm in Ohio during the day. They hid in the bushes, climbed the manure pile, nested in the stalls, and joined in with client sessions and teaching workshops. They brought hilarity in moments that needed levity and insight during profound moments of learning. They demonstrated the indisputable fact of their sentient nature through their unique personalities.
Over the years, we’ve lost our girls to sickness and predators and of the original six, only Zelda and Griffin remain. We’ve added to the flock over the years and now have a couple of 2 year-olds (Henrietta and Martha) and a couple of younger ones at 19 weeks (Libby and Bessie). We also fostered a couple of adult chickens (Blanche and Dorothy) for a couple of months this summer before rehoming them. Each time we begin to integrate the flock with new arrivals, I am fascinated by how they build relationships with each other.
Much like horses, dogs, and other animals, chickens have been perceived as having distinct social structures based on the dominance theory of “pecking order”, where individuals within a group have a social standing that is reserved for the one who exhibits the most dominant behavior. While this dominance theory has been challenged in relation to horses and dogs, it is still regarded as fact for chickens. What I’ve observed in my own flock is that this theory only holds true if we equate dominance with aggression and power. This comes to light most often when new birds are being introduced to the flock. My established flock of four (Zelda, Griffin, Martha, and Henrietta) are a fairly egalitarian group. Zelda is the matriarch that the others turn to when there is a threat. Griffin is the most likely to guard resources and chase others away from food. Martha pushes boundaries by regularly escaping the chicken run but has no sense of personal space, and will regularly bump into, or jump on, the others when she gets excited. Henrietta is the broodiest and will claim her space at the nesting box and push others out of her way if needed. To focus on dominance only in terms of power and status would miss the nuanced interactions that form the fabric of the social structure within the flock.
When we fostered Blanche and Dorothy, I quickly recognized that they were not going to mix well with the rest of the flock. Blanche was physically much bigger and stronger than all the others and introduced herself by way of stretching her neck upwards and puffing herself up to her fullest extent. She charged at the others, randomly striking and pecking at them as she went. She flapped her wings and landed on top of Martha, who valiantly fought back and wrestled free. Dorothy then followed Blanche on her rampage by pinning Henrietta to the ground. I stepped in and separated them.
Traditional backyard chicken owners would say to introduce new birds to the flock over a period of time, extending the time of contact with each session until they are comfortable with each other and have established their pecking order. It’s a given that there will be some scuffles before things work themselves out. I had used this method of introduction with Henrietta and Martha the year before, and while there were a few minor pecks and a bit of jostling, there was never any targeted bullying like I was seeing with Blanche and Dorothy. After a couple more attempts at integrating them which led to similar results, I decided to keep them separated for the duration of their stay while I looked to rehome them. Thankfully, my neighbors decided that they wanted to start keeping chickens and I was able to rehome them with ease. They now have free range access to forage under shrubs and bushes and follow my neighbors to their patio for treats. There are no other chickens, so their bullying tactics have disappeared.
I could have let nature take its course and allowed the flock to “self-regulate” and find its own equilibrium, ignoring the stress signals that the girls were demonstrating, believing that they’d get over it. I could have subscribed to the idea that a pecking order was necessary and the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest would balance things out. I could have told myself that they’re only chickens and maybe I was anthropormophizing the whole thing and it’s really not as bad as it seems.
What I knew for sure was this: for the entire time that Blanche and Dorothy were in residence with us, overall egg production went down by 50%. As soon as I rehomed them, egg production went back to normal. The girls were also more willing to engage with me and much less anxious about going into the chicken run during the day.
This process got me thinking about racial and social justice work and what it means to be an activist and/or ally. It brought to light the difference between attending to the symptoms of systemic issues rather than actively dismantling the power structures that perpetuate them. Stepping in to break up a fight between the chickens would be an intervention that addressed the symptoms of the system. Removing Blanche and Dorothy and rehabilitating them in an environment where they didn’t need to exhibit those bullying behaviors dismantled the system. It’s worth noting that I took Blanche and Dorothy in because their previous owner was sick and could no longer care for them. They had been living in a relatively small coop with no space to free range and had to fight for resources with others. It’s not that they were inherently “bad chickens”, simply that they had learned that being bullies was the way to survive.
Clearly, dismantling systems of power is not so easy in human terms. But we can think about which bullies we might want to remove from power, and what resources we have, both individually and collectively, that can help us to do that. We can work to unpick the fabric that we have woven which supports the dominance, oppression, and supremacy over others and look for ways to empower, support, and celebrate them instead.
As I begin to integrate my youngest chickens, Libby and Bessie, into the flock, my hope is that there will be a smooth transition, a welcoming of the increased diversity that they bring to the flock. I trust that my matriarch, Zelda, will take them under her wing and help to build their confidence. Most of all, I hope that the newcomers will feel a sense of belonging and can feel at home.
Last week, I absent mindedly reached down to pick up a bag of mealworms from the ground. I hadn’t noticed that the bag was covered with fire ants. Within seconds, I dropped the bag as I felt the unmistakable piercing stings all over my hand. I brushed the ants off as quickly as I could and ran inside to run my hand under some cold water. The pain did not subside. Instead, I felt the fire spread up my arm, across my neck and shoulders, and down my back. Looking down, I noticed that my feet were red and swollen and after another minute, I was unable to stand. Clearly, I was having a severe allergic reaction and needed to go to the Emergency Room.
By the time I arrived at the ER, my feet were so swollen that I couldn’t put my shoes on and my whole body was covered in hives. Thankfully, I wasn’t anaphylactic and I could still breathe. I was expecting to be given some oral medication and/or an injection of antihistamines and sent home. Instead, the nurse hooked up me to an IV and told me that I’d be staying put for a couple of hours. Had I known that I would be administered high doses of Benadryl and Dexamethasone, I would’ve stayed home and used the stash from my equine first aid kit. I’m kidding. Kind of.
As I lay in the hospital bed, the adrenaline of the past twenty minutes began to subside. I felt a wave of exhaustion crash over me and I surrendered to the heaviness. For the next 48 hours, all I wanted to do was sleep. As I drifted in and out of my antihistamine induced haze, it occurred to me that my body’s systemic reaction was a parallel for what’s happening in the world.
I’ve never had sensitive skin. If anything, my skin has been pretty hard wearing given the extreme temperatures that I’ve worked in over the years. It’s weathered sun and snow with equal resilience despite my lack of care for sunscreen and moisturizers. Lately though, I’ve noticed that I’ve been getting more allergic reactions. In the last 6 months, I’ve noticed that each time I get an insect bite, my skin has responded more acutely with cellulitis, contact dermatitis, or rash/hives. It’s like my tolerance has decreased with each bite and my body is fighting back harder than before.
On an embodied level, my system has been subjected to constant attack in small doses. While these were troublesome, I’ve managed to live with them. I’ve learned how to fight back in small ways, to soothe the pain and search for healing. Occasionally, I’d have to bring in some additional help of antibiotics to fight infections. And while the threat of a deadly reaction was always in my awareness, I had managed to avoid any direct confrontations. And I wasn’t aware that my body had reached capacity to cope. This last attack resulted in, literally, a firing up of every fiber of my being in mass protest, screaming out for a reset to equilibrium.
Here, I feel the parallel with what’s happening in the world in full force. We have ignored the signs for too long. We’ve patched things up with duct tape and baling twine, and while those fixes can hold up for a while, they too will inevitably fail. 2020 has been a year of climatological, meteorological, biological, and geopolitical disasters. The wildfires of the US West Coast bookend the bush fires of Australia in January. Combined with tornados, hurricanes, derechos, flooding, and earthquakes around the globe, Mother Earth is screaming for change. The global pandemic of Covid-19 is now exacerbated by the onset of flu season. Over 1 million people have died around the world from the coronavirus. Add to that the return of the bubonic plague and the discovery of a brain eating amoeba in the water in Michigan, it feels like nature is launching its own biological warfare against the human race. Politically, there is ongoing civil unrest across the world. Pro-democracy riots in Hong Kong, protests for free speech in the Philippines, and in the US and Canada, the systemic uprising of Black communities against life threatening police brutality, saying enough is enough, hoping that this time they’ll be heard.
Humanity needs a reset. If only there was the equivalent of an IV to soothe the pain, reduce the threat, and offer some reprieve. But returning to equilibrium is not the goal. Like the protestor’s graffiti on the Hong Kong subway declared “We can’t return to normal, because the normal that we had was precisely the problem”. We need a new world. As Sonya Renee Taylor says, “We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature”. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy. What this is asking is for each and every one of us to take a stand in some way, however small that might be.
Here at The HERD Institute®, I am taking action to increase diversity and inclusion to our field. I am committed to increasing training access to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. We have a scholarship fund in place and we are also offering BIPOC folks discounts on tuition. We have revamped our Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy Certification to make training more affordable and accessible. I am collaborating with various organizations within the equine facilitated industry and in the equine industry in general at events to promote cultural competence and anti-racist education. I believe that every action counts. Because if an ant can trigger a full-bodied systemic response, imagine what we can do together.
So, what can you, personally, do as a way of contributing to a brave new world?
To My Black, Indigenous, and Friends of Color:
The world is appearing to wake up to calls for racial justice. I say “appearing”, because as many of you well know, some of it is simply a performative act to appease those in their audience who may take their business or patronage elsewhere otherwise. The optics du jour for many seems to be the pull to take a stand against injustices everywhere by proclaiming that systemic racism needs to end through an anti-racist statement. Some organizations have taken the step to actually act on these statements in some way, and kudos to them for attempting to do something, anything, to raise awareness for our calls for justice. It feels good to finally be acknowledged, doesn’t it?
Do not be fooled, my friends.
In the midst of a global pandemic, we are continuing to see Black folks being murdered by the police. Shot. In. The. Back. Seven. Times. Where is the justice in that? In the meantime, in the “All lives matter” camp, the tragic death of a 5-year-old is being touted as evidence that white lives are under attack. Yes, that was a horrific crime. And the killer was arrested and charged within hours, while those responsible for the murder of Breonna Taylor still walk free, months after her death. It is not the same.
In the meantime, those of us who are steeped in social activism, in leadership positions, and those who have always put themselves out there to speak up and speak out, have been inundated with requests to present on issues of racial justice and inequality within our communities and industries. Suddenly, the spotlight is on us to share our stories of discrimination and racialized trauma. On average, I’m receiving one request per day to speak at conferences, book clubs, interviews, and workshops. Podcasts, livestreams, and pre-recorded offerings are pouring forth from organizations within the equine facilitated world and the wider equine industry; from mental health organizations; from business networks – large corporations and small business associations. And this doesn’t even take into account the conversations that white friends are starting to instigate. It feels good to finally be acknowledged, doesn’t it?
Do not be fooled, my friends.
Firstly, 99% of these requests are for pro bono work. What does it say about an organization that will pay for training for other topics but not on issues of diversity and inclusion? The exploitation of Black, Indigenous, and people of color is perpetuated in the assumption that it’s acceptable for us to do this work for free. When an organization approaches me to speak, especially if it’s one that I’m unfamiliar with, I’m always curious about how they found me, and more importantly, why they chose me. Many requests come from friends who are leaders in their organizations, so of course, I’m on board with those. Some are through mutual connections and I’m mostly fine with those too. Some requests come from people I don’t know at all, and those are particularly worth investigating. Because I’ve noticed something else lately which feels important to share.
The activist in me wants to say yes to all of these requests because I feel a responsibility to represent people of color so that our voices can be heard, and to do my part to dismantle the systems of injustice, however small that effort might be. The public speaker in me knows that not everyone will want to hear what I have to say. The idealist in me hopes that by speaking anyway, that we can move towards a better world. But the biggest voice of all right now is the mental health practitioner who is watching this process unfold, not only for myself but for so many of us who are being called to do this work. And she is saying, don’t be fooled.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can do it all. How are you taking care of yourself in this process? How are you attending to the emotional and physical toll of being in the battleground, day in, day out? Because make no mistake, this work is HARD. The conversations we are having are painful and often frustrating. The repetition of explaining why agreeing that Black lives matter is the minimum people can do is bone-weary exhausting. It’s not possible to say yes to all of it without burning out. I know, because I’ve tried. We need to be able to take care of ourselves in all this. Have safe spaces to retreat to where we don’t have to have these conversations. Or have people who can help steady us when these conversations go awry. I’m so thankful to the people in my life who can do that with me. This is a marathon and not a race, so pace yourself. It’s okay to say no.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s you, personally, that they want to hear from. Flattering though it may be to feel that people think I might have something unique to offer, I am very conscious of the fact that many organizations simply do not have anyone from within to step in to represent people of color. This is troublesome on many levels and speaks to the lack of diversity, certainly within the equine industry, and the need to mentor and support those Black, Indigenous, and people of color who do attempt to enter this white space we exist in. In the meantime, the tokenism that this process represents literally makes me feel sick. Because for many of us who have worked so hard to prove that we are where we are not because of some positive discrimination policy, being placed in that position is a punch in the gut. This is why it can feel so disconcerting, even when the audience is receptive to what we are saying. And when this is the case, I have a choice: to ignore it or to challenge it. Both of which are also bone-weary exhausting. Ignoring it leaves me feeling that I have to swallow down my anger and frustration, and challenging it takes an enormous amount of energy and the potential for offending the host who has so graciously asked me to speak.
Don’t be fooled into feeling that if you don’t step up, then no one will, and you will be the reason this person/organization/gathering doesn’t hear the message they need to hear. I have felt enormous pressure from white colleagues to engage in events “because there’s nobody else” who fits the bill. This guilt tripping is not only the antithesis to anti-racist work, relying on generations of submissiveness without respect to boundaries or consent, but detrimental to the process of the organization acknowledging that they have created a white space.
Finally, don’t be fooled that just because you are being invited to speak means that the people you are addressing are on board. For me, this is the most dangerous aspect of agreeing to these requests. When the leaders of an organization are fully on board with your message, it would be so easy to assume that the rest of the audience are welcoming you with open arms too. This assumption will often lead you into the lion’s den. This is especially true if you are speaking at an event that is requiring mandatory attendance. The likelihood is that you will be speaking to a group with varying degrees of familiarity of anti-racist work and a wide range of opinions about the topic. In instances when I’m being interviewed rather than delivering a presentation, I have come to realize that the interviewer often either doesn’t have enough awareness of the issues themselves and are unaware of the offensiveness of the questions they ask, or that they are not fully on board with the idea of anti-racist policies. Oftentimes, it’s clear that the interviewer has the best of intentions and is open to being challenged. While that sounds great in theory, in actuality, I’m left once again with the responsibility of stepping into a place of vulnerability in order to challenge or educate, risking any relational rupture that might occur as a result.
As this process has unfolded for me, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of the following:
- It’s okay to say no and take time to breathe
- It’s not okay to feel pressured into this
- If it doesn’t feel safe, don’t go there
- Racial trauma is trauma and needs to be treated as such. If there is no relational foundation, being asked to describe experiences of racism is akin to asking a stranger about their experience of being raped. It’s okay to say no to that request.
- It’s okay to challenge
- It’s okay not to challenge in order to conserve emotional energy
- It’s okay to feel anger or frustration towards organizations who are appearing to do the right thing
- It’s okay to feel what you feel. Period.
The road is long, my friends. Anti-racist statements and policies do not equate to immediate action or cultural shifts. Don’t be fooled into thinking that there’s a quick fix. The double-edged sword of anti-racist work is sharp.
Yours in solidarity,
Dr. Veronica Lac
Thank you to each and every one of you who supported, attended, and presented at our HERD Virtual Summit this past weekend. Despite the technical glitches (of which there were many), the feedback we have received has focused on the high caliber presentations, breadth of topics offered, and discussions that came out of the live sessions. Witnessing in real time new connections being made during the live sessions in the chat boxes and, despite this being a virtual platform, feeling an embodied sense of community throughout the day moved me to tears. I truly hope that the technical difficulties you experienced didn’t distract from the learning that you took from the event.
One of the highlights on the day was our HERD Geek Together. Our speaker panel consisted of many of the leading names in our industry including Leif Hallberg, Shannon Knapp, Patricia Kelly, and Nina Ekholm Fry, as well as a number of HERD graduates and faculty members. Shout out to Jude Jennison, Dr. Terry Chase, Deb Schneider-Murphy, and Catherine Frend Gillihan who all contributed presentations and attended the Geek Together. Looking at my screen during that session filled me with a deep sense of gratitude to be in the presence of so many like-minded folks who, despite differences in modalities, shared the same wholeheartedness towards an openness to dialogue on shaping the future of this industry.
In the midst of the global pandemic and calls for racial justice, I am proud of our collective efforts right now in moving forward in small steps towards a more compassionate, understanding, and inclusive world. My closing remarks for the day in the video above captured my sense of hope for our future. I hope you’ll join me in continuing the conversations sparked by the summit so that we can keep building our resilience and move towards recovery and reconnection.
Dr. Veronica Lac
We are now only 2 days away from our HERD Virtual Summit launch! We have been working hard behind the scenes to prepare for the summit and I’m so thrilled that almost 600 people have registered so far to attend. I’m giddy with excitement at the potential for new learning and connections and feel so grateful to each of our speakers who have offered their time and energy into putting together a sensational line-up for the even
I’m sure that my nervous system is on over-drive right now partly because of the “coronacoaster” we’ve all been on over the past few months, where we’re experiencing the simultaneous yearning for connection and the desire to run away from the overwhelm that 2020 has created, and also partly because of the insane length of my pre-summit checklist in our efforts to ensure everything runs smoothly on the day. Excitement and anxiety mixed together, or as HERD students have often heard me refer to as Anxitement.
When we originally made the decision to postpone our in-person conference that was supposed to happen this weekend in Lexington, Kentucky, I felt so disappointed. Pivoting to offer the HERD Virtual Summit gave me something to look forward to instead. The advantage is that we have been able to incorporate a number of speakers who wouldn’t have been able to join us at the in-person conference, and our speaker line-up is even more fabulous than before. The majority of the sessions will be in a pre-recorded format, so you can take your time to watch them with flexibility. There are a number of live sessions that you can catch on the day, but they will also be recorded. The summit is FREE for 48 hours, after which you can upgrade to gain lifetime access to the materials. With all of that, and the fact that we’re squeezing it all into one day, it means that there won’t be as many opportunities to ask the speakers questions during their presentations like you would at an in-person event.
Fear not! We have a solution.
Throughout the summit, you can access our HERD Virtual Summit Facebook Event page where you’ll be able to continue the conversations from the presentations, network with one another, and pose questions to our speakers. Please be mindful that our presenters are located around the world in different time zones, so may not respond to your questions immediately! As always, we are here at The HERD headquarters if you need any assistance.
For now, I’m heading back to my checklist. I look forward to connecting with you all during the summit and to continuing conversations beyond.
Dr. Veronica Lac
This week, I have mostly been thinking about making the invisible, visible. I’ve been noticing the distinct differences in how my friends have responded to recent events. The past few months have changed the way we view the world around us in previously unimagined ways. Whether this has been through seeing the visible impact from the invisible threat of Covid-19 for those who have lost loved ones and livelihoods, or the realization of who we have taken for granted in terms of essential workers, or coming face-to-face with systemic racism, there has been a collective unveiling of how others experience the world. And I’ve noticed how we are still hard-wired to turn a blind eye.
As the country began to reopen, reported cases of the virus have been on the rise, and we are faced with yet another layer of uncertainty – is that a true reflection of what is happening? Was it because of Memorial Day celebrations or the protests? Are cases on the rise due to more testing? Are we still safe to reopen and reconnect with friends and family? Just because we’re allowed to do something, does it mean we should? Debates around whether masks are effective or not have become politicized and polarized. What has become more visible is the anger and frustration on both sides of these conversations and the lack of willingness, or difficulty in staying with the discomfort required, to listen to one another. We are more prone to confirmation bias than ever before.
Robert Hartwell, a musical theater actor and Founder of The Broadway Collective, posted on social media recently about his experience of finding and purchasing his dream home. He wrote:
3 weeks ago I found this house online. I said “this is my house”. I called the seller and was told it was a cash only offer and that “I’m sure that takes you off the table”. Don’t you ever underestimate a hard working black man. I saw the house last week and when I walked in I knew I was home. The house was built in 1820 for the Russell family who owned the cotton mill in town. Slavery was still legal. When the agent asked me why I wanted such a large house I said it was “a generational move”. I know this house is bigger than me. I wish I could’ve told my ancestors when they were breaking their back in 1820 to build this house that 200 years later a free gay black man was going to own it and fill it with love and find a way to say their name even when 200 years later they still thought I would be “off the table”. We are building our own tables. I’ve never been prouder to be a black man. Come to my White House any time. I can’t wait to have you! Glory to God in the highest. I’m a homeowner.
He posted this with a photo of him standing in front of the house. Now, I want to ask you to be really honest about how you feel right now having read this. What is your response? What is your instinctive reply?
I ask this because I shared this post on Facebook without any comment of my own. Within minutes, this post received a high number of “likes” and “love” reactions, along with comments about what a lovely story this is and how wonderful it was for him. I agree, this is an enormous accomplishment and he deserves to feel incredibly proud of who he is and what he’s achieved. It’s a moving story and incredibly meaningful. What I’m about to say does not in any way take away from any of that.
As the comments and reactions gathered on my shared post, something uneasy stirred in me. Apparently, what was obvious to me was invisible to my friends. Because while I’m thrilled that Robert Hartwell was able to prove that realtor wrong, I was left wondering where the outrage was for the way that he was treated and for the overt bigotry and racism from the realtor? For me, this isn’t simply a “lovely story”, but is yet another hideous example of the racist attitudes that still persist; it’s an outrageous story, in that it causes me to feel outraged. The fact that he overcame all that is, indeed “lovely”, but the fact that he had to confront it at all disgusts me.
By focusing only on the “happy ever after” outcome, we are whitewashing this man’s experience. We are absolving the bigotry because things came good in the end.
If you are one of the many people right now committed to self-reflection and anti-racist work, I applaud you. Part of doing that work is to make the invisible, visible. Many of those who commented about this being a great story are also the ones who have been posting about anti-racist resources. Yes, educate yourself. Read the books. But most of all, do the work. That part requires you to be able to hear the other more clearly and remove the blinkers. It also requires you to look more closely at any situation where racism is present and placed neatly to one side because “things turned out okay in the end”. While it’s tempting to see only the positive and the silver lining, it’s equally important to acknowledge the harm that’s been done.
My disclaimer in all this? I don’t know Robert Hartwell personally. I don’t know if he shares any of my views. I don’t know how he feels about the realtor, nor how he responded to him. I am speaking only for myself. I also know that I also have confirmation bias and critics will say that if you look for what you expect, you’ll find it. I hope that one day I can look and not find this. Until then, I will keep making the invisible, visible.
Dr. Veronica Lac
A dear friend of mine and I had a conversation recently about what it means to be seen. Truly seen. Not the type of seeing that means that you notice another’s presence, but the type of seeing that is actively engaged and intentional. For me, this type of being seen comes with a feeling of spaciousness, an opening that I can step into. Perhaps it’s something to do with the prolonged social distancing measures of current times, but even as I write this, I can feel the yearning of stepping into open arms and being embraced with warmth and gladness of my arrival. It’s the difference between opening the door for someone to step inside and waiting with the door open and rushing to greet them with pleasure.
This is an important distinction in the complexities of the current racial discourse. Because agreeing with the phrase Black Lives Matter is simply the bare minimum. Cultivating a space where black lives are welcomed, respected, encouraged, beloved, and cherished is what is really needed. But in a world where we are still arguing over whether black lives matter, this feels like a steep mountain to climb.
For those of you who want to be allies for racial justice, I want to encourage you to build an awareness of how and when you can do more than the minimum. What might you change to be more welcoming to black, indigenous, and people of color? What do you respect, encourage, cherish, and love? How might you be more intentional in how you engage with folks who feel marginalized because of the color of their skin? How might you advocate and promote their work? What are you doing to support yourself in these difficult conversations with others in the majority so that you can truly advocate for inclusion? How does this translate from an individual intentional practice to an organizational or community wide commitment? Whether you are joining book clubs to discuss Robin J. DiAngelo’s White Fragility, or reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an antiracist, or joining social activist groups, or donating to Black Lives Matter, or supporting black businesses, let’s bring these conversations into our industry. And if you’re not doing any of those things, what’s stopping you?
Within the field of equine facilitated work, what are we doing as leaders of training organizations, equine facilitated learning programs, therapeutic centers, and private practices to increase access to our offerings to black communities? The HERD Institute is committed to bringing more diversity into our field. Our sister organization Share in The HERD, is working on funding more programs and training opportunities. But that’s just the bare minimum. How can we build a culture of inclusion so that when those we want to welcome into this space actually feel like they belong and not out of place? I know how it feels to be the only person of color in the room. I also know how excited I get when I see others who look like me. And I’m aware of how seldom that happens.
In our conversation, I was moved to tears when my friend said, “I promise not only to see you, but to look for you”. This commitment to look for those who may be under-represented in any space resonated with my desire to cultivate a more diverse and inclusive community. So, I am actively looking. For those of you who identify as black, indigenous, people of color, I am looking for you. For those of you who are stepping up as allies, please help me actively look for black, indigenous, people of color who are working, training, or studying in the field of equine facilitated work. I have created a Facebook group called Diversifying the Herd for us to hang out together and network in a safe space. Please get in touch with me at [email protected] . I am eagerly awaiting your arrival and will meet you with open arms.
Dr. Veronica Lac
My post last week spoke about the importance of recognizing our unconscious biases. I also want to recognize the intersectionality of privilege and oppression. While I may have experienced sexism and racism in my life, I am also privileged by being a cis-gender, heterosexual woman without physical or cognitive disabilities. I have lived an economically privileged life which has afforded me housing, healthcare, food, relative financial security and the means to access the highest levels of education. Some of these advantages I’ve worked hard for, but for the most part, I was born into them. Holding these privileges does not mean that I am actively oppressing others. What I do with this awareness is what’s important. Denying that I have them limits my ability to find empathy for those who are struggling. Using my voice from a place of privilege and creating opportunities for others to step up can help to empower those who are disenfranchised.
You may be wondering how any of that is relevant and why I’m even sharing this with you. Well, in my worldview, all organizations begin with the vision of its leaders who realize their visions from the context of their lived experiences and personal values. My experiences of not-belonging have meant that I have worked hard to cultivate a culture of inclusivity within the HERD Community.
Now, The HERD Virtual Summit is now only one month away. We are working hard behind the scenes to curate a diverse and inclusive list of speakers and presentations that speak to the summit theme of Resilience, Recovery, and Reconnection. Now, more than ever, we all need to find ways to build our resilience – physically against the threat of the continuing pandemic and emotionally for difficult conversations emerging from the ongoing protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Someone asked me the other day why the HERD Virtual Summit included speakers and leaders from other training models. They were confused as to why I would want to advertise my “competitors”. My answer to that is simple: We can all learn from each other and collaboration is more valuable than competition.
I want to promote a culture within our community for diversity and inclusion, operating from a spirit of abundance. This is written into our mission statement at The HERD Institute®. I want to live to these values. I also want to hold hope that it’s possible to champion others who are different to ourselves, to hold the belief that there isn’t just one way, and that within our field of equine facilitated work, we are all ultimately working towards the same thing: healing and growth individually and collectively in the communities and organizations that we belong to and serve. I want to promote dialogue and curiosity, shine a light on the more shadowy parts of our industry, moving away from dogma, ruptures, and denial, to a more robust, resilient, and relational space. Perhaps by starting small within one organization, within one summit, we can create a ripple effect into the life space that we all occupy outside of our industry. My hope is that by doing this, that those who have felt invisible can feel seen, and those who have felt marginalized can feel worthy of belonging. Because you do. You belong. Here, in the HERD, and in the world. I see you and you matter.
Dr. Veronica Lac