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Anne Snyder

When Democracy Shines

March 10, 2022

A dispatch from Lviv, Ukraine

On March 2, 2022, barely six days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Anne made contact with Joe Lindsley, a traveller, writer, and old friend who once upon a time had generously tried to help her land a job in Prague, at Radio Free Europe. Now, many years and adventures in media later, Joe lives in Ukraine as the founder of the Lviv Lab, which describes itself as “a platform for renegade storytellers to share authentic stories in innovative ways with these foundational ideas: We must respect, rather than steal, attention—and we must be afraid of being fake more so than being wrong.”

Spared from direct attack thus far, the historic western city of Lviv has become an important transit point for men headed to the front lines, as well as a resting place for over two hundred thousand women and children seeking to cross into other European countries.

Here is that conversation, made brief by Russian interference with the wires and breathless by the surrounding drama.

Anne Snyder: Joe, so relieved to see you alive and well. How did you end up in Lviv?

Joe Lindsley: I’d been to Ukraine a few times since 2018. I thought Lviv was a very energetic, creative city. Then in March 2020 I flew from Stockholm to speak on media at a conference at the Ukrainian Catholic University. One of the great things about the Revolution of Dignity was how it awakened this flourishing of democracy at every level in this country. Part of what’s so sad right now is how it is precisely that which is Putin’s main target. But in any case, some innovative Lviv journalists I had met created this public forum where they bring together rival politicians and those affected by their decisions to solve one pressing problem at a time.

AS: Fascinating. The journalists are the conveners?

JL: Yes. In the newsroom they have a studio. The journalists moderate. It’s a little bit of the town hall, but it’s regulated. You have to be invited to speak. And they’re very strict. They can only look at one problem at a time, so there are no attacks or anything. It forces people to come together and find solutions, and it’s all livestreamed. And then the journalists hold everyone to account. “Okay, you said you were going to do this during the meeting.” And the next week they ask, “What have you done?” And they keep having meetings on that same topic until the problem is resolved to some satisfaction in the city.

AS: That’s an incredible role for media to play. It’s such an act of initiating in service of the classic democratic project.

JL: Yeah, it makes democracy work in Lviv. Those are the stories the world doesn’t know about Ukraine. It’s this incredible civil society, not in our Western sense of NGOs created to catch all the problems created by an erosion of more traditional mediating institutions, but of people naturally coming together. The media here is funded by entrepreneurs and creatives in the city. They make some money from advertising, but really the governance structure is basically a salon gathering, and then they support this independent media.

I was inspired by their example, and so I approached them to see how we might talk and work together. Then the borders closed for the pandemic, and I had a suspicion that it would be better to be here and freer in Ukraine than anywhere else. So I said to myself, “I’m going to stay here for a while.” It’s a place of free speech that has a real culture. It has a real soul.

But I didn’t necessarily have a plan; I just didn’t want to leave. And then, especially last November, when the warnings became very serious about impending Russian aggression, I again decided I had to stay. I said, “Okay, I’ve been trained for this, I have the connections to do this, and this is where I want to be right now.”

I’ve heard so much about Ukrainian civil society, and I’ve seen it, but ever since the war began, I’ve seen a drastic change. When Ukrainian people post about the war, they call the Russian invaders the orcs, like from Tolkien. And I have this sense that this is the Shire. There is hardly any crime; it’s peaceful. They don’t even have bad words in the Ukrainian language. They have to use English or Russian or Polish to swear. So you’re watching this very serene, nice people face a dire threat. But I’ve seen the magic of civil society, truly a magic unleashed since Friday, February 25. It’s really astounding how people are collaborating across all different industries to help each other, to survive and to win.

AS: You founded something called the Lviv Lab. Can you tell us what it is?

JL: When the pandemic started, a few master’s students, undergrad students, and I got together and created the Lviv Lab for the Activation of Democracy. At first we were reporting on what was happening in the pandemic. Then it turned into a way to make media better, to change the funding mechanism and get away from attention-stealing media and move toward value-giving media. Our goal was to test here in Lviv a way where you could get people to pay for media so that they are the customer and get real value to boot.

That was our plan before we got hit by the war. But now the Lviv Lab has shifted to a Telegram channel, Ukrainian Freedom News. And I have a growing volunteer team here of probably twenty-five or thirty people who listen to Ukrainian Telegram and find out the reality of what’s happening with the war. And we translate that into English.

Lviv, Ukraine
Lviv, Urkaine

AS: Can you give an example or two of the collaboration you’ve seen in the last week? Who or what is sustaining your hope right now?

JL: There’s an effort mobilizing to get goods from Europe and from America here into Ukraine. And everyone who’s got a van or a bus is volunteering and quickly connecting with each other in chat groups and saying, “Hey, I need someone who can drive tomorrow to do this,” or “I’ve got an old grandma in Odesa we need to evacuate.” This is the work of everyone right now in this country. There are a few cafés and such open, but really everyone is focused on how to survive this, how to win. How to help each other and not leave anyone behind. That’s what we’re seeing in every single conversation we have.

AS: Yes. And no doubt saying to one another, “Whatever I have, whatever skill, whatever asset, how can we create?” In some ways, this font of extraordinary creativity is all just happening at once.

JL: Well, yeah. For example, we started with a Telegram group with just two or three people, and days later we set up a studio and are now building it out after having found some people—friends of friends—I’d never met, and there’s a coordinated team that’s popped up, helping connect people logistically to whatever information they need. I see that happening everywhere here. Everyone, every single person here, is doing that right now.

AS: Could you reflect on your sense of national unity in Ukraine—patriotism in the best possible way—versus your own experience as an American?

JL: Most successful Americans I know feel disconnected and isolated from family and friends, because they’re too busy, everything’s too far away. That’s not a problem Ukrainians have. Every holiday here is at least three days. The rituals that bring you together are still strong. At Christmastime you sit around the table and you eat the ritual food and sing the same songs over and over. And every song is very long and repeats the same phrases. On Christmas Day it’s normal to go to four in the morning. You go to three or four different houses and sing these same songs and eat the same food. There’s very little time for conversation in those moments, so there are no arguments. At first as an American I said, “Okay, how long are we going to keep doing this?”

Now that we’re in a war, I look back on those days of Christmas as something that is meant to give you energy and inspiration for the whole year. You have these connection points throughout the year that bring you together in a ritual of just being together with each other, and being happy.

In America, we don’t have these rituals that bring us back to these very human things that we need. Even in Western Europe, you’ve lost a lot of that. I think in Ukraine that might be the secret source of the demeanor of the people.

AS: Yes. It has been instructive to watch the comparative photos of Vladimir Putin and President Zelensky go viral. One is an isolated man snuffing out so much precious life with cold fury and distanced command, and the other is in the whole mishmash of it all, around tables with bread and wine and dirty noses and human togetherness. More than even the contrast, I think part of the virality of these photos is our own longing to have that kind of deep, thick cultural ritual together.

JL: Well, even the fact that there’s laughter here, even amid the most dire situation. Kharkiv has been devastated. Civilians have been the chief targets. I was just in that city weeks ago—one of the most entrepreneurial, creative cities, a start-up city. Everyone I met there was hustling and proud of it. And they never complained. They said, “Here’s our goal, here’s what we’re going to do.” In Lviv they complained a little bit, in an endearing way, but Kharkiv, no. Now that city’s been crushed. And even then, I text my Kharkiv friends, “How it’s going?” and there’s been such loss, but they can still laugh and joke about it in a way.

I have friends who are still trying to run their IT companies from bunkers, packed in with their families with furniture barricaded against the door. They don’t give up. There have been some videos emerging of Russian soldiers being interrogated. And some of them don’t seem to know what their motivation is. They’re sent from some poor town in the middle of Russia to just kill people, and these are twenty-year-old guys. They’ve seen the beauty of their peers’ lives here.

Lviv, Ukraine
Lviv, Urkaine

AS: Can you reflect a little bit on the relationship between your own Catholic faith and journalism, as well as your wartime thoughts on democracy and truth in the midst of war?

JL: Lviv is a majority–Greek Catholic city. It’s the biggest Greek Catholic city in the world, which means it’s in between East and West. It’s in union with Rome but Eastern in calendar, style, and ritual. And I’ve enjoyed that. It’s very meditative.

Even as you walk the streets of Lviv, almost like you hear in Istanbul, they broadcast the liturgy onto the streets. It’s part of the soul of this place. With the Eastern style of liturgy, mysticism is infused into everything in life. And as a journalist, I want to always understand that there’s mystery. That we can’t just explain everything.

For example, when I went to Kharkiv three weeks ago, knowing something was coming, I took a team of reporters and we all had a rule. We couldn’t ask people, “Hey, what do you think of the threat from Russia?” Because then we’re going to assume that was the first thing on their mind. Maybe it wasn’t. I wanted to step back and listen to the world, listen to them, with a sense of awe and mystery about the thing we’re trying to cover. We journalists need to have more of a sense of awe and reverence about what we’re talking about, the lives of people.

AS: Amen. Keep up the good work, Joe. You really have inspired me, so thank you.

JL: Thanks so much.

This interview was originally published in Comment Magazine on March 10, 2022.

Hope After Apocalypse

January 4, 2022

In 2005, immigrants with spinal cord injuries living in Houston were notified by the hospital district of Harris County that they would stop receiving their catheters, diapers, and wheelchairs because they were uninsured, and, being undocumented, ineligible now for public healthcare. The irony cut deep: Houston is home to the largest medical center in the world, home also to the hidden class of these who have broken their backs to help build much of its infrastructure.

But survival has a strange way of birthing solidarity, and soon the injured were organizing. They sold flowers in streets, raffled off televisions in churches, organized car washes and sold food to gather resources and buy medical supplies that they would then distribute and share amongst themselves. Little by little, they found themselves populating a coordinated human linkage map that could locate wheelchairs and catheters on demand and also be agile to run to every suffering crack lost to mainstream visibility in the onslaught of mass disaster.


Manuel Guardardo, Board Member and Engineer (Steve Jeter)  


When Hurricane Harvey devastated the region in 2017, Living Hope found itself serving these crevices in a way no large agency was or could. Hundreds of handicapped people were caught in flooding and ruined homes, their isolation and inability to flee compounded by undocumented status and fear of contacting the official rescue channels. Living Hope’s volunteers stretched and sought out those who were slipping through the cracks, staunching the existential immediacies and embarking on long-term recovery work. Volunteers scrounged up cash grants for those whose houses had been ruined. They troubleshooted when case managers disappeared, finding new ones, setting up better support systems. They found and matched partner organizations to coordinate rescues and distribute medical supplies. They provided legal counsel when ICE had been contacted.

Triaging a crisis that was consuming Houston’s public powers, Living Hope began distributing catheters, diapers, wheelchairs and medical supplies to anyone who would show up – including veterans and other U.S. citizens unable to find aid through official channels. Volunteers gained confidence and verbal fluency in exposing the public policy barriers to meaningful recovery, including a lack of affordable and safe housing, a lack of shelters equipped for persons in wheelchairs, fear of ICE enforcement that discouraged those in need from seeking refuge in a shelter, language barriers for those seeking food, archaic processes for receiving recovery aid and a preference for homeowners over renters.

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This fluency has more recently matured into credibility, a credibility that is finding its way into the halls of public policy in one of the most watched cities of the American future. Living Hope has persuaded the Houston Commission on Disabilities to establish a committee for immigrants and refugees with disabilities. It is campaigning to make Houston’s MetroLife service wheelchair-accessible, as well as advocating for more bilingual bus dispatchers. The mayor’s advisory council welcomed Living Hope to the “Welcoming Houston” initiative, which seeks to identify concrete local policies to make the city more friendly to immigrants and refugees. Living Hope has even made inroads in persuading local police to be more circumspect in collaborating with immigration officials.

But at the core of Living Hope’s power is a simple if rare covenant, a true community that embodies precisely the kind of intersectional safety net our collective future of natural disasters will require in the decades ahead. The kind of community that they’ve come to experience as essential. The kind that holds the potential to convict our peculiarly American crisis of solidarity and birth a different and more beautiful way.

Solidarity in the Scars

19-year-old Guillermo De La Rosa was just helping a friend remove an engine from a pick-up truck when life as he knew it ended. Removing the transmission, he was surprised to find that the truck had nothing holding its tires, and it began rolling off the ramp. As he turned around to try to quickly get out of the way, an iron rod sticking out of the truck struck him on the neck, piercing his spinal cord. Doctors told him he would never be able to move anything beneath his shoulders again.

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Guillermo De La Rosa, Communications Coordinator (Steve Jeter)


Francisco Cedillo was playing pool in 1999 when a waitress alerted him to the fact that some guys at another pool table had gone out to mess with his car in the parking lot. He went out to see what was going on, when he came upon them stealing the car stereo. They argued for some minutes before the owner of the bar came out and scared away the interlopers. Thinking they’d completely run off, Francisco turned to speak to his pool buddy. Suddenly he felt a blow at his back. It was an iron cross typically used to remove car tires, hitting him on the vertebral column. His companion left him lying there for two hours until 2 AM, until a woman leaving the bar saw him and called an ambulance. The next day he was told he would never walk again. His fiancé broke off their engagement within weeks.


Francisco Cedillo, Interim Co-Director



Maria was in a car accident with her boyfriend, their wedding a month away. She broke two of her vertebrates while her boyfriend died en route to the hospital.

These are just a few of the fractures that lie beneath what is known as Living Hope.

“When you have an accident,” says Guillermo, “the first thing you think about is wanting to die. Living Hope has helped many people continue living.”

WATCH / Members of Living Hope share their reflections on life anew

Guillermo is now the organization’s communications lead, responding to disaster calls, reaching out to constituents. Francisco helps to locate the legal, cultural and linguistic barriers that block those in need from receiving services. Maria is now mother to a precocious four-year-old and Living Hope’s data navigator – she locates food banks, rent assistance, free medical care and anything else that can help fill the security gaps.

“After an accident we are born again,” says Guillermo. “It is as if we are children again. The new life may be more difficult, but we can live it well and we can be useful to humanity.”

A support community turned 501(c)3 organization, Living Hope is almost entirely run by those who themselves have been disabled by injury or disease. It is a supply delivery service that has become a civic pioneer, an advocacy power and, perhaps most crucially, a family.

Saving that Which is Saving You

“Sometimes you are at home in pain, depressed, and you come here and forget everything,” says Guillermo. “Everything changes when I arrive at the office and work with my colleagues.”

Each one of the staff members endures physical pain, sometimes excruciating. We’re gathered in the supply garage on Westview Drive for a simple lunch of Subway sandwiches and Coca Cola, and winces regularly shadow otherwise peaceful faces.

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“In the first moment,” Guillermo says before taking a bite, “the first years I was always depressed, not wanting to go out. I did not see the sun, nobody saw me. I was ashamed.”

Over time Guillermo began to realize that the isolation was killing him. He started to meet others with similar injuries who appeared happy, who possessed a kind of joy he didn’t know was possible. Gradually he joined their number, melting and maturing as his companions’ countenances and purposeful work displaced his despair. “It is a job to accept disability,” he says now. “It is difficult, but you have to accept it in order to get ahead.”

The organization empowers each person’s sense of agency, immediately granting a sense of belonging while also providing roles for each person’s gifts and capacities. There is no room for pity here; rather than settling as a set of temporary stilts for survival, Living Hope conceives of itself as a vehicle for permanent change.

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“Living Hope should always be at the table with FEMA when disaster strikes,” says Jade Flores, who works with West Street Recovery and helps organize immigrant families to fight deportations. She’s partnered with Living Hope on multiple occasions, and believes this community of disabled immigrants has an unrivaled perspective into the cross-section of barriers that make it impossible to find assistance when floods, freezes, and pandemics overwhelm a region. There is something about Living Hope’s intimate familiarity with physical handicap and civic condemnation, she says, that breath oxygen into tired debates and command attention.

But it’s not always easy to be a border stalker, to embody hotly contested “issues” as persons, as a community. Living Hope straddles two populations whose respective marginalization has grown louder and more disturbingly unresolved in recent years. Volunteers are affected by the immigrant debates but don’t fit neatly inside of them. They are invited to speak at national conferences focused on disability rights, but they can also get pulled over while driving their custom wheelchair van and risk deportation.


Francisco (Pancho) Argüelles, former Executive Director (2012 to 2021)


“This is a group of people belonging to communities who have been under attack throughout history,” says Pancho Argüelles, the outgoing executive director. “We have a horrible history in this society of dehumanizing and marginalizing people with disabilities. And then there is the plight of immigrants more recently – particularly Latinos and Mexicans – who have experienced greater targeting by policies that criminalize them and create these everyday conditions of fear, stress, marginalization and oppression, all of which translate into actual suffering and pain for members of the Living Hope community.”

Alane Celeste-Villalvir is pursuing her PhD in Management, Policy and Community Health at the University of Texas. She volunteered with Living Hope for some years while doing some participatory research with them, and now serves as a trustee. “The more you learn about Living Hope and the journey of some of its members,” she says, “the more appalled you are with our healthcare system.”

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They have limited access to regular health insurance as undocumented persons. They have limited access to preventative care. “And even if you as a volunteer did have the resources,” says Alane, “you couldn’t get into the market and buy yourself insurance, which disproportionately puts you at risk for anything and everything. Our policy barriers set these human beings up on a life course that is headed toward more disability, more morbidity, more illness and premature death. No one comes into the country for this set of odds.”

Raise all this with Pancho, and rage at the layered callousness of injustice consumes his eyes. And then they soften again, the dialectic between anger and solidarity reproducing one more cycle.

“But from this constantly extreme experience,” he says slowly, deliberately, “life has found a way to create power, to create access to services.”

Accompaniment in Practice

At the core of Living Hope is a philosophy that has deep roots in Catholic social thought but really emanates its power in practice: acompañamiento – accompaniment. Pope Francis has popularized the term. These men and women live it.

“Accompaniment can never be about parachuting in to save ‘the other,’” wrote Pancho in a prescient essay back in 2019. “It is not about discovering an issue, problem, or community, and then colonizing, jumping to propose solutions that reduce the people to a problem without asking for their own definition of the problem or their ideas for solutions. It is rather always about sharing power, risks, and resources so that together we can heal, grow and thrive.”

It is very rare to see this kind of sensitive humility embodied in contexts of urgency today, let alone the skills needed to put the virtue into practice. It sounds more obvious than it is.

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“Accompaniment,” Pancho continues, “particularly with communities that have experienced the trauma of oppression and marginalization, is a process that starts by acknowledging the full humanity and dignity of the people we want to accompany. Recognizing (a.k.a. reorganizing our cognition) that there are systems of power, ideas, policies, beliefs, and attitudes that dehumanize some and privilege others is needed if we want to be able to join in the efforts of a community to transform its complex history and context.”

Accompaniment, in other words, demands the creation of the conditions for a dialogue to be sustained among equals. It’s about displacing oneself and one’s privilege to go meet people where they are. It’s a long obedience in the same direction, foregoing the gratification of quick-fix solutions to instead dive into the messy intentionality that effective solidarity requires.

And messy it can be. Pancho served Living Hope as its Executive Director for nine years, and for most of that time was the only person on staff not in a wheelchair. His relationship with Living Hope’s core team has been a long and ongoing journey of mutual rehumanization, healing and transformation.

4 Raymundo PORTRAIT LRRaymundo Mendoza, Board Member and part of the supplies and medical equipment team

“My privilege is an epistemological obstacle,” he reflects with no small degree of mourning. “I walk into the office. They roll into it in their wheelchairs. I have a college education and can speak English; none of them do. I’ll go meet at a labor union with some of our leaders to talk about an alliance, and forget to ask if they have accessible bathrooms and a ramp to get in the building. I go to a webinar or a conference having asked my compañeros to be my colleagues, only to forget to demand that the venue hire interpreters or get the materials translated. In all these instances, members of my group show up, and they find they have no opportunity to participate. I find I am constantly trying to do this work for inclusion and transformation, only to reproduce exclusion.”

His definition of today’s moral bogeyman, “privilege,” is simple. “Tell me what you can forget about, and that speaks of your privilege.” He’s not hung up on it in an unproductively guilty way, but the experience of walking alongside his compañeros at Living Hope has forced him to become aware.

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Alejandro Rodriguez, Board Member and driver for donation collections

Some years ago, Pancho was scheduled to have a phone call with one of Living Hope’s staff members. The member was ten minutes late to the call and Pancho became frustrated, feeling like the member wasn’t taking their collaboration seriously. Finally he arrived on the call and said “I’m sorry I’m late. I fell from my chair. I’m alone in my house, so I had to crawl to the front of my house, open the door, and see if somebody walks by so that they can help me back in my chair.”

Pancho still chokes up here. “That was a profoundly kind of humbling moment, no?” he says. “Like, he fell from his chair, but he actually threw me off my horse. I just kind of sat in there for a moment, feeling thankful for his dignity, his perseverance, his commitment, and how he was casual about it, like, ‘Yeah. It’s okay. Let’s talk. Let’s have the conversation.’ And we had the conversation while he was on the floor and I was sitting in my chair.”

Here Pancho gets theological. “The mystery all the time is that we can get off our horse like St. Paul, but the horse is there every day and we get back on it every day. It truly takes a collective building of a community where we can mirror one another with love and also with truth. A person has to be soft. We can be hard and also loving as we strive to set limits on all the way our privilege is getting in the way and sneaking us back onto that high horse.”

He pauses again.

“Like all love stories,” he says at last, “I didn’t find them. I was found.”

The Beginnings of Disaster Justice

Living Hope testifies to what can be born after devastation. It is a collective of born-again leaders who, out of necessity, have drawn a map and stocked a toolkit for how to sustain hope and dignity when events beyond human control erase one’s prospects and all that came before. The drama is rarely a single arc. Death to self and to the past are not one-and-done deals. Each day in its acute precarity offers a new invitation. Each brush with the threat of deportation while serving others, each dread of a new infection caused by expired catheters and an inability to receive proper healthcare a chance to renew one’s faith that God will yet deliver and provide.

And La Esperanza Viva lives up to its name; joy is their daily bread. This community sings songs, shares sandwiches and respond to all who knock, taking pains to get to know each story and the most subtle of pain points.

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But can daily consistency and tailored genius catalyze a wave of systemic change? There is so much at stake. Disasters come with a huge bang, the shock of their largesse forcing urgent questions that yield solutions more akin to bandaids than the beginnings of wise structural reforms. Can a community-based organization of Living Hope’s tenderness penetrate the global fight around how to protect against climate change? Is it possible for staccato and legato to play in the same measure without shoving the necessary role of the other out?

We may have no choice but to test them and find out. As the world weathers another variant of Covid-19 and we all slowly realize the long if dramatic nature of our civilizational remaking, one key at the core of all that is being revealed is that those creating the terms of our shared future must be those most severely affected by all that is wrong in the present. Living Hope is well-poised to lead the way.

This story was originally published in January of 2022 at Bittersweet Monthly, in collaboration with Steve Jeter.



Building our Commons

January 25, 2021

Embracing the call of solidarity and repair.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For the full experience, and to hear the heart behind the words, we encourage you to listen to the podcast episode here, from The Whole Person Revolution.

Anne Snyder: Greetings and welcome back. It’s January 2021, and we’re beginning a new season of The Whole Person Revolution, a podcast of Breaking Ground. I’m your host, Anne Snyder, and, where the first eight episodes last year took us to some of the more prescient community shepherds working in the crevices of a bruised and snapped-open landscape, THIS season, in the context of a new if wildly alert year, we’re going to build on the wisdom and witness of those heroes to ask: How might we imagine and actually each play a role in building a more woven, widely shared commons, a commons committed to solidarity and humbly receptive to repair, one that keeps human dignity front and center and sees all of life as gift? How could each of us – and each of the societal sectors that touch our lives, shift, perhaps softly, perhaps more dramatically, to sow this better normal?

To get us out of the gate this second season are two illuminated souls who have been laboring among some of the poorest of the poor in the United States. Fr. Jack Wall and Joe Boland come to us from Catholic Extension, a movement of the church that daily, intentionally walks in solidarity with those in our poorest regions to build up vibrant and transformative communities of faith. Every time I speak with Fr. Jack and Joe, I walk away with eyes alight. You’re in for a treat.

Fr. Jack, Joe, Thanks for joining me today.

Fr. Jack Wall: We’re delighted to be with you, Anne. It’s a very special honor to be with you and all that you’re trying to do in terms of weaving our country together.

Joe Boland: Happy to be here. Thank you for having us.

Anne Snyder: My pleasure. Could you each take a moment to describe the work of Catholic Extension? To give our listeners a sense of who you all are and what you do? What wakes you up in the morning?

Fr. Jack Wall: Well, maybe I could start by just saying that we are a movement of the church. You described many movements going on that build up the culture and build up the human family, and we’re a faith movement. And our purpose is quite simple but very profound, and that is to—as you described it—build up vibrant and transformative Catholic faith communities. Faith communities that are among the poor and in the poorest regions of the United States. And it’s out of a conviction that faith communities are one of the most beautiful things that our country has, that our world has, and it’s clearly the work of God from the very beginning when he says, “Form me a people. Form me a people.” And so what we do is try to continue that great mandate to build up vibrant and transformative Catholic faith communities, but in the poorest places and among the poorest people in the United States.

Joe Boland: And I think our core conviction then is that church becomes an important staging ground where unbelievable transformation can happen. It’s where a lot of community building happens. It’s where peace-building can happen. It’s where mercy-making can happen. So every church community that we support in these poor regions throughout the United States really does become a hub of so much life and hope. Every single one of them. We’ve been around for 115 years, and we’ve helped build and repair 12,500 churches throughout the United States and even a few abroad. And as I like to tell people, that’s more churches than there are Dunkin’ Donuts stores. So it’s a profound impact that we have, but also just a great reach. And as we’ll I’m sure talk about, the people in the communities we work with are such a blessing to all of us.

How might we imagine and actually each play a role in building a more woven, widely shared commons, a commons committed to solidarity and humbly receptive to repair, one that keeps human dignity front and center and sees all of life as gift? How could each of us – and each of the societal sectors that touch our lives, shift, perhaps softly, perhaps more dramatically, to sow this better normal?

Anne Snyder: What’s your personal story in this work? Your annunciation moment that catapulted you into Catholic Extension?

Fr. Jack Wall: I was a priest of the archdiocese of Chicago. All my work up until coming to the Extension has been in the archdiocese of Chicago, and I was in the unique opportunity to be a pastor of a church for twenty-four years. I served at Old St. Patrick’s, which is a center city church in the heart of Chicago. But when I came there, there were only four members of the church. I had the great privilege to work with wonderful people and create this vibrant and transformative Catholic faith community. And as I was doing a succession, I was asked to consider maybe taking that vision to a larger reality, which would be a national effort. Catholic Extension is about working in the United States as well as where the American flag flies across our world to build up these faith communities. I was asked to do that fourteen years ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Anne Snyder: How about you, Joe?

Joe Boland: My fundamental identity is, I’m a father. I have three elementary-school-aged children right now. My wife is a teacher. I have been working in the nonprofit sector my entire career and most of that with the Catholic church. I met Jack Wall many years ago at a restaurant appropriately named Jack’s, and we hit it off. And as he stepped into Catholic Extension as president, he knew I was working over at Catholic Charities in Chicago. I was doing a lot of work with the immigrant community. I’ve been doing work with mostly Latino immigrants my whole life and career and have enjoyed that so much. And as he was looking at this organization that would touch so much of the country—and in fact 45 percent of the population it touches at Catholic Extension is the Hispanic community—he came to me, and we had a conversation about [my] coming in and joining this new venture at Catholic Extension. Well, really a hundred-year-old venture. But to do something new and build upon this tremendous legacy that exists here. So I’ve been with Jack now at Catholic Extension for twelve and a half years. And it is, as I said before, such a life-giving experience.

Anne Snyder: I have been thinking the last few years, and perhaps especially this last year where disease has rocked the world and for most of us, if not all of us, forced social distance and a lot of physical isolation. And in that, I think there was an awakening for many people, myself included, to how interdependent we are and notions of what it is to be part of the human family. What it is to be interconnected globally, and then of course within a bounded nation. Partly because some of us have had more time to think in solitude, but also because certain things were revealed in terms of on whose backs so much of our society is functioning. And in all of that I felt like the word “solidarity” was used with much wider fluency than you normally hear it.

And I’ve always felt that solidarity is one of those concepts that is among the most beautiful things to emerge out of Catholic social thought. But when words become widely used, they can also lose their richness — and also their reality. So I’m wondering if, given that in many ways you all embody solidarity by mission, if you could define it a bit. What does it actually require in real time? What does it actually look like?

Joe Boland: It’s a word that’s built into our own mission statement, so it’s a word that we have to give a lot of thought to. But the way we understand it in our Catholic tradition is that it’s a virtue, which means it’s something that is a habituation toward the good. And when we talk about it in the church context, solidarity is about working for justice. It is about peacemaking. But it’s really based on this idea that we’re all made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore we’re all children of God. We’re all sons and daughters of God. And I think where solidarity begins to come alive, where we experience a coming alive in our work, is that it’s premised on this idea of an encounter. That we meet someone, that we know someone. Maybe we don’t necessarily have something in common with them on the surface. But nonetheless, there’s a way for us to dialogue with them. To know them, to carry their joys and sorrows and glories in our own heart. And when we do that, I believe that we really affirm people’s dignity. And that is truly the essence of the mission of Catholic Extension, to work in solidarity with people.

I think where solidarity begins to come alive, where we experience a coming alive in our work, is that it’s premised on this idea of an encounter. That we meet someone, that we know someone. Maybe we don’t necessarily have something in common with them on the surface. But nonetheless, there’s a way for us to dialogue with them. To know them, to carry their joys and sorrows and glories in our own heart. And when we do that, I believe that we really affirm people’s dignity.

Joe Boland: It is so beautiful when we’ve accomplished that. And oftentimes it happens in very small ways. For instance, just this past summer: We work with a small, African American, Catholic community in rural Mississippi. We have been in partnership with them for many, many years. Beautiful community. So vibrant, so wonderful, so transformative. And they did a wonderful oral history of their community, because many of the elders have lived through this Jim Crow era in Mississippi and had a story to tell. We published a lot of those stories in one of our most recent magazines and did a little digital showcase on it, and I got a nice letter. I brought this letter. It’s from the sister that organized that oral history. And I thought she really summed up what solidarity means. She says, “We live in a time when the loud and the powerful try to make us less open to one another’s gifts.” And I think that’s the essence of solidarity—that we be open to one another’s gifts.

Anne Snyder: Wow.

Joe Boland: “Thank God,” she said, “for Extension and others like you who are willing to find the goodness in each of us and empower the gifts of those who might otherwise feel discounted and forgotten.” That was a small act of solidarity, and we’re hoping to multiply those acts of solidarity constantly.

Anne Snyder: Yeah. That’s beautifully said. Father Jack?

Fr. Jack Wall: I think the other thing too, just in terms of all of us, the consciousness of solidarity is important. When you think about what we’re grounded in, it’s this mystery of God loving all of us into life. Each one of us is a gift of God. We come from the divine reality. We’re immersed in that divine reality. We’re called in terms of our destiny to become one with the mystery of God’s life-giving love forever. And it’s our deepest truth that we are one with God. And if we’re one with God, then we’re one with God’s mission. And that is to bring the world into life. In all of creation, the creative God who’s calling us to be co-creative in the world. So this mission of solidarity is a deeply spiritual awareness that I think drives Catholic Extension. We’re just so aware of the presence and the mystery of God in every community that we enter into. We’re not bringing anything into it. We’re opening our hearts to the mystery of God’s love that’s going on and being revealed in God’s blessing in the communities that we serve.

So essentially it’s a consciousness that turns into a concern. And I think that that’s what Joe was trying to describe. If you are aware that this is your deepest truth, that we’re not monads, we’re not in a solipsistic kind of world, but we’re people that belong to each other. We have a social identity. We literally belong to each other because we belong to God. And I think the beauty of Catholic Extension is it’s a very concrete expression of that mystery of God’s love at work for us and its particularities in the United States, in our American community. But we’re so conscious of that and we’re trying to bring, in a very concrete way, people together from different places, different ideologies and all that, and say, “Forget about all this. This is the deepest truth. The mystery is our oneness. The challenge is building community.” And that’s where the mess occurs. But the mystery is in the mess.

We live in a time when the loud and the powerful try to make us less open to one another’s gifts.

Anne Snyder: Reflecting on your many years committed to this consciousness that becomes concern, as you put it, how would you describe the usual obstacles for attaining true solidarity? What are the things that keep us closed?

Joe Boland: Certainly a lot has been said about the fracturing of our society and the fact that we exist within our own bubbles and don’t move outside of those. And certainly that’s true. I think another thing though, is the failure to see the God-given goodness that exists in everybody in the midst of that. How did you frame it, Jack? The mystery of the mess that is where life happens. And I think where I’ve seen that most powerfully is where people shed those preconceptions about the other. They shed the jump toward a conclusion of judgment, of demonization of the other. One of the things we do at Extension besides build churches, as I referenced before, is also just support ministries in places where they couldn’t happen otherwise because of financial reasons. And one of the places that takes place is in prisons and this whole idea of restorative justice.

So here you have a group of people in prisons that have obviously, many of them, done very serious things and committed crimes. And yet, as I have gone in with prison chaplains and met with them as they do this work of restorative justice, what amazes me about their work is in spite of what that human being’s history might be, they refuse to overlook the God-given goodness and the dignity of those people. There’s one priest I know in Arkansas that we support. Wonderful gentleman. On his days off, he’ll drive a hundred miles to go to the supermax prison so he can work with the inmates on death row. Just because he believes in the potential of these folks. And some of the most powerful things that I’ve seen in terms of conversion of the human heart, transformation of a person, has been often behind those closed walls in the prison where this work of human restoration is happening. And to me it’s a great example, again, of solidarity expressed, the fruits of it, and also overcoming the normal obstacles that I think prevent solidarity from happening—which is just the jump to judgment and preconceived notions about who this person is and what their worth is.

Fr. Jack Wall: Another dimension is that sometimes we put words together that really don’t belong together. And one of them for me is “gated communities.” Joe was talking about prisons, which are also gated places, but I think it’s in all of us. There’s an innate fear of the other. I think that Pope Francis’s call toward encounter is so critical. This is not to toss blame on anybody. It’s part of the human condition. But I think what he’s calling us to, and what I think Catholic Extension is trying to be an instrument of is this effort of breaking out into this fabulous mission that each one of us has in our hearts. And that is to embody this mystery of God’s all inclusive, all-embracing love. And we all have to do it in our own clumsy human fashion, but we’re not ourselves. So often I think [about] when we think about our identities, and I think really now in America we’re trying to figure out our identity as a people. And it can’t be a fractured identity. It’s built on a dream, a vision of life. And to have that sense that each one of us is called vocationally to embody the mystery of becoming God’s blessing to one another and receiving that blessing.

And I think Catholic Extension is just trying to, in a very beautiful way, in a very intentional way, say we belong to each other. And that faith communities are powerful witnesses of the larger mystery of becoming a human family. And you don’t become a human family without a bit of risk. The first time you hold a baby in your arms, you’re taking a risk. It’s changing you. All of the sudden I’m becoming a mother, becoming a father. I’m going to be giving myself. But the power of being able to do that . . . the pope’s other great message. The world’s about a revolution of tenderness. How to tenderly love and care for one another and receive that love and care. But it’s risky. And we have gated communities because people are fearful of the other being a source of danger to them. And it’s a legitimate fear because that’s part of the human condition. But the other side of it is it’s also an invitation to break out of this and really discover the beauty of being in this world of mutual blessing.

Some of the most powerful things that I’ve seen in terms of conversion of the human heart, transformation of a person, has been often behind those closed walls in the prison where this work of human restoration is happening.

Anne Snyder: Speaking of risk, this is being recorded one week and one day after the US Capitol was sieged, by a crowd that became a mob of protesters. And of course the whole country continues to reel about this in up-ways, sideways, backward, forward as we head into an inauguration and hopefully a peaceful, or what has historically been a peaceful, transfer of power. And insofar as among other things this latest event is kind of a very physical and visceral manifestation of just a deeply, deeply divided era in the US specifically. I think there are a lot of people, whether you’re talking about conscious communities of Christian faith insofar as Christian symbols were visible last week in this sort of violence, as well as just as Americans within families, within old groups of friends that are now fractured. There are a lot of people very earnestly and urgently asking what is it to love one’s neighbor and how to love their enemies too. So as we talk about solidarity and the messiness of actually building community, could you maybe tease out some of the moral underpinnings here and complexities and criteria for keeping peace and seeking peace?

Fr. Jack Wall: One of the great things we do at Catholic Extension is to give an award every year. It’s called the Lumen Christi award. The light of Christ. And this past year we’re honoring a wonderful priest, Father Ron Foshage, in the little town of Jasper, Texas, that experienced one of the great horrors of the twentieth century. That was the terrorist murder of a black man by a few white men. And it just ripped apart the community—this very small community of people. This one man just had a different vision. And I think when you talk about what needs to be done, his vision was—how do we pull this back together? One of the mysteries of the divine is reconciliation. It’s healing. It’s forgiveness. It’s pushing people down to a deeper level. And for decades he’s been doing this. And with some very remarkable results from it. First of all, the healing in the community itself. But all of the sudden that message from this place got exploded across the country and actually ended up with kind of national-level law around hate crimes. So I think it’s a mystery of the courage and the fortitude and the perseverance to realize that it takes time. And who’s in it for the long haul?

I think one of the things we witness in our work is people who are really in it for the long haul and trying to create a different vision of what humanity means and breaking through the divisiveness. There’s always that temptation to exclude and all the other things. It’s a real challenge. But you need courageous people, people with a vision of solidarity, people who see the possibility of people converting their lives. That underneath it all the mystery of God’s at work in every one of us. And everybody gets upset about religion being twisted and convoluted and turning into cults that exclude, when you know that the heart of good religion is about a servant God who is trying to build up the whole human family and bring us to justice, peace, reconciliation, compassion, concern. By their fruits you will know them. And are those fruits happening and how can we continue to be creative about building those signs of that?

But you need courageous people, people with a vision of solidarity, people who see the possibility of people converting their lives.

Joe Boland: We work on the US-Mexico border very intensely. It’s actually one of the most densely Catholic areas of the country. It’s also one of the poorest. And so Catholic Extension for 115 years has been working with faith communities there. In fact, we helped organize Pope Francis’s binational Mass that he held on the US-Mexico border in February 2016. Very proud that we were part of that. And one thing that they always teach us is in these border communities where it’s so heavily militarized, there’s the constant presence reminding you that there’s that side and then there’s this side of it. And what so many of the people in those communities will say is, “That’s just an imaginary line. Over on that other side I’ve got friends. I’ve got cousins and family. I’ve got people who I know, people who I trust and I believe in. And they’re my community.” El Paso’s a good example of that because literally they think of themselves with Juarez as one city just with an international border running through them.

Joe Boland: So I think that’s a great mindset for all of us to have—that sometimes there is more than meets the eye. And though on the surface it looks like there’s unbelievable, impenetrable division, sometimes it’s just a figment of our imagination and the constructs that we create. Do we have it in us to see past those imaginary lines? By the way, when the Capitol riots were happening last week, I was in a snowy wood on vacation, and I was walking by myself. I did not see another human soul except for one moment I had to come upon a road to cross over. A man stopped me, and it was the only human interaction I had for four hours. He rolled down his window and said, “Man, are you okay?” He probably thought I was nuts walking out in the woods by myself. I probably looked pretty rough. But he was obviously availing himself to me, this guy walking along the road. And I thought to myself, “What a guy to roll down his window and offer help to this complete stranger who could have been anybody.”

Then I got back to my car and turned on the radio and heard everything that was happening at the Capitol. It was all the narrative that we’re all falling apart and we have nothing in common. And I think at that very moment when that was happening, where seemingly humanity was coming apart, I was the recipient of an unbelievable gesture of goodwill that I believe still exists as the fundamentals of this country, of the people who want to do good. Again, so I would take my cues from the communities we support who say remember, oftentimes those points of division are kind of figments of our imagination. We need to look beyond those to see the common humanity and beliefs that we share together.

Anne Snyder: That’s a powerful story. Thank you.

Tacking a little here, you all work, as you’ve said now, in some of the poorest parts of the US and yet you also strike me—even the way you describe quite a few of your communities that you work with—you strike me as just some of the most contagiously hopeful people. So I’m just curious if you can explain to our listeners that seeming paradox. At least paradox to American listeners.

Joe Boland: I think we get to see the human spirit, human creativity, at its best. And why do we see it in the poorest communities? Wouldn’t it be natural to think that they’re just miserable and that horrible things are going on in these communities? I think so often what we encounter are people who don’t have anything to take for granted. So what happens is they end up focusing on the essential. The essentials of their security, of the future of their families, their children. They take nothing for granted. And that’s very refreshing to meet people who have nothing else in life to keep them distracted. They’re very focused on that which is most essential. And then I think too in some of the poorest communities where they lack many resources and opportunities, what people like me might enjoy is seeing unbelievable ingenuity, creativity, innovation. Again, something very powerful happening in the human spirit. And that changes you. That makes you hopeful that the people who have the least are oftentimes showing you the sheer power of the human spirit, which we as people of faith would attribute obviously to the Holy Spirit. But there’s something powerful going on in us and in our humanity. So that’s how I would respond to that. I think they just give us a million reasons every year, the communities we work with, to remain hopeful.

You don’t become a human family without a bit of risk.

Fr. Jack Wall: And hope is at the heart, I think, of believing communities. This conviction that we experience over and over and over again that people see themselves as more than their circumstances. And we experience that in the concrete day by day of people in really dire poverty, in places in the United States that are almost Third World–ish in their realities. And it’s there. It’s a tremendous challenge. It’s a great difficultly. But you experience people of great aspiration. And I’ve just been blown away in a very personal way by the aspiration of good, good people who just happen to be poor. And to experience them taking that gift of their own life and doing all they can to build a life for themselves and for their families in very dire situations is just . . . it’s a profound experience. It serves a great encouragement, I think, for all of us to witness people in these situations Joe’s describing. And these are not places you go to for your vacation, but they’re part of the American experience. And it’s something I think we should be very proud of as Americans that within our country in some of the poorest communities are just wonderfully good people whose hearts are filled with hope. They’re bound to build a better world for themselves and for their children and for the larger community.

Anne Snyder: In the context of probably so many beautiful and probably layered, complex stories that you all get to witness, hear, and be in relationship with the people in those stories of transformation—individual and communal—how have you thought about the relationship between local and national?

Joe Boland: I think we’ve seen that some of the best things happening in the country or in the Catholic Church, which we work with, oftentimes happen as a very small movement—a very small expression that’s got the right inspiration and the right passion and turns into something enormous. And we’ve witnessed that in our work all over the place. Part of our job is to help to shine a light on it. But one example, just to take you back to the border for one more second, is—I can distinctly remember in 2014 getting a call from the bishop in the diocese of Brownsville, Texas, which is the very southern tip of south Texas. He was talking to us about a new surge of asylum seekers coming in and how there was no place to shelter them, so the Catholic Church was sheltering them. They needed some assistance and didn’t have any formal shelters. They would just open up a parish hall of a church that we were supporting and said, “We’re going to house the people in this church hall.”

And then they pulled a sister into doing that work. That sister was none other than the now very famous, known as the pope’s favorite nun, Sister Norma Pimentel. Many people know her as the Mother Teresa of the Rio Grande valley, and she’s done so much work to raise awareness of—not just what’s happening in her diocese, in her neck of the woods—but this global phenomenon of migration. And for us, it was such a privilege to be there at the beginning of that whole thing. It really did morph into this small movement of a local diocese and a local parish opening up their parish hall. And then soon every diocese across the border was doing it, and then there were subsequent migrant surges. It was a great expression of hospitality and solidarity with the poor and those who had no other place to go. So to me that’s a great example. And I think there are other examples I could give to you of that. Oftentimes it starts as a very small movement or thing and then grows into something very powerful and very special.

And for us as Catholic Extension, our hope and dream is that so many of these communities will transform not only their communities but [their] societies. They’ll transform hearts. They’ll transform our world. And that’s what we look to and want to have happen.

Fr. Jack Wall: And I think the other reality in terms of making that happen is why we’re involved in this movement called Catholic Extension. It’s not just in one place, but it’s literally thousands of places, thousands of these communities across the country. And we’re doing a simple thing. Just trying to build community. I keep on reaching back historically to Tocqueville when he talked about the United States. His big thing was the genius of the American experience was just doing this: creating these vibrant, transformative communities. And they’re intertwined and interconnected. And not only that, for us it’s also connecting affluent communities with the poorest communities. So I think this kind of movement across the world is . . . we hope it’s a sign. We think we’re an instrument of doing something that is both powerful in terms of building the faith communities and what those faith communities can be. As Pope Francis keeps on saying, we’re not self-referential. It’s about transforming the world. It’s transforming the communities and making a society that is better.

So we see ourselves as involved in something that’s not just in one place. I mean, we’re talking about thousands of places that are doing this. And I think you just trust. Those lights all of the sudden are experienced in broader and broader ways during very troubling times. My big faith story in this has always been the scriptural story of Philip and Nathanael talking to each other. One of them says, “I found the Messiah.” “You found what? The messiah? The future? The dream of God? You found it? Where?” And he says, “In Nazareth of Galilee.” And he throws back, “What good can ever come out of Nazareth?” And that’s what we live on. We’re going to these seemingly godforsaken places. And I think that’s what Pope Francis is saying. That the periphery might be the place where the biggest energy is going on, and if you can do this you’re really creating—I think—human solidarity by going to the edges, you know?

…the periphery might be the place where the biggest energy is going on…

Anne Snyder: Yes. Could you talk a bit about the relationship or the yin and yang between individual transformation and community transformation?

Joe Boland: Well, during this moment of pandemic, I guess the way to describe it is that it becomes contagious. What can happen in terms of transformation when one person becomes committed to something is that you can see it take root and really become contagious in a community. And we see that happen. By the way, I should mention that the main thrust of what we do at Catholic Extension is try to invest in the leadership in these communities. It’s giving them educational and training opportunities to deepen themselves so that they can serve their community. What we’re not trying to do is impose on them a certain way of thinking. We want to make sure that they can be leaders within the context of their own community. Which, as we mentioned before, it’s very diverse. We’re working everywhere from Alaska down to Puerto Rico. How leadership is expressed in a remote, native village of Alaska versus a small mission in the rural mountains of Puerto Rico is very different.

Joe Boland: But one of the people I always think about and think is an example of a person going viral in terms of how they’re able to move the community is migrant farm workers. Talk about a group of people who fall between the cracks. These beautiful, essential workers who are so critical to our own survival and comfort in this country who, thank God, this past year we’ve started to pay attention to. But Catholic Extension for many years has been working with migrant farm workers, and there’s a woman who’s an indigenous woman out in the Coachella Valley. Sadly right now the [COVID-19] infection rate’s about 40 percent to 50 percent, and most of them are migrant farm workers. And she just started rallying her community together. They speak a different language that most others in the immigrant community don’t recognize. And she said, “I need to pull this community together.” And so they’re living in this unincorporated trailer park, and she decided that she was going to advocate for street lights and then paved roads and a local park for all the children who are living there. And she was able to make that happen.

And lo and behold, other people start coming, and they say, “Yes, let’s build a community here.” And this is where they came to Catholic Extension. They said, “We need a church here. And if we had a church here and a firm presence, we’d be able to come together with greater regularity and really form deep bonds with the community.” We’re working on this project with them right now. But to me it’s a great example on a very micro level of someone who is deeply convicted—who has this experience that moves others into action—and it sort of rolls on from there. And I could speak a lot more about that, but I think that’s a great example of the contagiousness of leadership that we see in these communities.

Anne Snyder: I love that. A contagion of care.

Joe Boland: Very well put.

Anne Snyder: Father Jack, do you have anything to add?

Fr. Jack Wall: One of the things I was thinking of was that so many of the people that we are working with are in leadership positions, but forming leaders are Women Religious. They really are a remarkable experience in our country. It’s one of the great gifts I think that the Catholic community has given to the American experience. And I think any Catholic would think about the ways that Women Religious who are teachers and work among in the impoverished and what that has meant, et cetera. But one of the things that we experience is a sister that’s a missioner and going into these very, very impoverished places. And what they’re finding is a lot of people are just very isolated from one another and have very little self-confidence. They’re missing a lot of the tools that would bring people together. But they’ve been able to bring women whose husbands maybe are out working somewhere and they’re locked in a trailer somewhere and bringing them together. And all of the sudden you see this tremendous, as you describe, individual change or transformation occur. Very impoverished people, isolated people, primarily women themselves who all of a sudden discover their own power and their creativity and their own giftedness.

And then all of the sudden you find these people not going off individually, but forming community that then begins transforming all kinds of other things. Discovering new ways to work and different ways to be married, different ways to raise families, different ways to feed their children. So things that start out as individuals isolated all of the sudden discovering community together empower themselves and then also empowering each other.

Anne Snyder: That’s wonderfully said. Going back to this theme of these local micro manifestations of hope and how they trickle upward, I’ve been reading quite a bit of Pope Francis more recently in the context of reflecting on these times of crisis, and he wrote a wonderful little book that you all may have read that came out I think toward the end of last year just called Let Us Dream. And I was struck once again by this notion that when you go to the edge, as Jesus’s whole life actually, including his very birth, was. Not only in the sense of “therein is the Kingdom,” if you believe in the Sermon on the Mount, but therein also are some answers I think for how we understand even what happened last week at the Capitol. Or maybe not understand it, but how we understand . . . as things come to the so-called center, whether that be a capital city where I live or a lot of people in some of the worlds I’m in. To be an intellectual class is to be invited into a noble responsibility, but there can be a default mindset of, “How do we figure everything out from top down?” and the bevy of assumptions that go along with that.

And I think there’s something in the charism, particularly of Pope Francis’s emphases on encounter and personalism and accompaniment, that suggests that sometimes quite beyond our own expectation we find the compass for the powers that be, for the center. Because I do think you need top down as well as bottom up. But you find that north pole in these unexpected, hidden, off-the-beaten-path places. And my instincts are speaking more than my experiences right now, but I just was curious if any of that resonates, or if you could phrase it more articulately than I just did?

Joe Boland: I think absolutely. I think it’s clear from the Scriptures that the heart of the kingdom are the poor and the meek. And that’s where we discover the face of God. So if you’re on this quest to find God, as some people are, at least for me personally, and I believe this was the case for Pope Francis too and I think that’s why he talks about the periphery so much because I know that he’s had a personal experience of encountering the poor and understanding that he finds the face of God there so vividly manifested. And that to me has always been the case. I happen to be working in an organization that keeps the poor front and center and obviously keeps the reality of where God is present very vivid to me every day as we work with these folks. And to be in solidarity with them is a great privilege.

Again, going back to Scripture, Jesus places a child in our midst and says, “Unless you can become like this child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” I think in a special way in a lot of the work that we do, in a lot of the communities we are [in], they’re very young communities. Extremely young communities. There are kids everywhere. You walk into some of these trailer parks that we go into or some of these villages and you just see the face of youth everywhere. You encounter in those faces God’s face. And what Pope Francis has been writing about young people is they’re not only our future, but they’re also our present. And I think for us to be able to invest in that future potential, in many of these families, in many of these programs that benefit these young-adult leaders coming out of these communities, which is part of the scope of our work, is very powerful.

Joe Boland: So yeah, at the end of the day working with children, supporting children and families, supporting the poor, to me takes us right into the heart of the kingdom. It transforms us completely to have those kind of experiences and to work so deeply with these communities. That’s why Pope Francis keeps telling us, “Go back to the peripheries. Get out of the sacristies, go into the streets. And that’s where you’ll find the face of God.”

Fr. Jack Wall: Another kind of image that’s a metaphor shared by a poet and a theologian friend of mine describes Jesus as a border walker. And if you think about the larger vision of what the Christian story is, it’s about a new creation, a new way of being human. So we’re crossing a border. We’re going into a whole different consciousness [or] awareness of what it is. And part of that, to go back to your original thing, is solidarity. We’re building the future of the human family. And it’s all-inclusive. So you’ve got to go to those places where you’re on the edge. When you’re on the border of the future of humanity, you sense the spiritual bonding of people for meaning in their life, for purposefulness, and consider that we’re on this great beautiful journey to do God’s work in the world. And the way you’re going to sense the future is by going to the edges, to the borders, to the peripheries, that’s going to create a new way of being human that’s all-inclusive. We’re all in this thing together. And I think the church work is to be at the edge of that, to be the forefront of what the new humanity is going to look like. And I think it’s about justice, peace, reconciliation, creativity.

How do you create new ways of being together? How do you take advantage of the creative giftedness of everybody? And to trust the mystery that sometimes in the poorest places, there is genius. There’s brilliance. And you can’t leave anything on the table. That’s the other thing I love about the pope when he says we’re the “throwaway” society. Don’t throw away the potential genius and goodness and beauty and creativity that’s found in the refuse places of the world. And clearly there are places in the United States where we’re sitting on brilliant talent.

I have one more example. It was a community of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. This priest there of many years formed together a people, and the people wanted to know what they were going to do about their kids. They didn’t feel like they were getting an education, and to make a long story short, they ended up creating a school there. But in the first graduating classes of that school, they get one of these Native American kids who gets a scholarship to Stanford University in pre-med. That’s sitting in this community.

Anne Snyder: Wow.

Fr. Jack Wall: And what’s the potential that we are leaving on the table? I think that’s part of his genius, the pope’s spiritual genius, is saying, “If you go to the periphery, all you have to do is let people know they’re important.” We’re not doing anything for people. We’re just helping them come together and grow their own goodness and beauty and potential creativity for the world. We can’t let anybody by.

Anne Snyder: On that note, as we all find ourselves, certainly right now in the US, I think the whole country wherever you stand is shaken and worried. And I know a lot of people who are usually people of hope and steadfastness are having trouble sleeping, and there’s just a sense of foreboding in the air. So in that context, given that most of our listeners are in the States, how would you encourage the people right now in this moment of national fragility?

Joe Boland: I think the first order of business is make sure we don’t lose hope. To me, hope is that one theological virtue that really makes everything hang together. We know charity is the most important according to St. Paul, faith among those virtues. But hope to me is the one that really brings it all together. And as long as we have kernels of hope, I think there’s a way forward. When people have lost that sense of hope and have been dispirited, that’s when you really see things start to fall apart. So I would just encourage anybody to not lose hope, as easy as it is to lose it in times like these. We work with so many people who have just gone through epical crises. I mean, that’s part of the nature of our work. We’re not a disaster relief organization, but we oftentimes are in communities that are just going through unbelievable moments. I just think back on our experience with the Puerto Ricans. We’ve been working with Puerto Rico for 115 years, but after Hurricane Maria just rocked every corner of the island and the millions of people who live there, the first phone call that many of them made was to Catholic Extension asking for our solidarity.

As long as we have kernels of hope, I think there’s a way forward.

But the thing that was so beautiful to us is again, go back to that moment. They were without electricity for six months. Many of them didn’t have running water. Our government agencies couldn’t get bottles of water out to these communities. So the church realized it was incumbent upon them to do something. They were to be the bearers of light in a community that was literally sitting in darkness. And they did. The rallying cry that came out through all of Puerto Rico with a little Christian spin on it from our church communities was “Puerto Rico will rise.” And they said in the Christian community, “With God, Puerto Rico rises.” And it really became a rallying cry.

Anne Snyder: Wow.

Joe Boland: Quite frankly, we’re working with them now. They still haven’t fully recovered. But they haven’t lost hope either. So they’ve been doing that important work of finding a way forward, finding that one little thing that they can do every day that is to be a bearer of God’s light and joy. They’re doing it in very small ways and also very large scale and profound ways throughout the island. And again, when we talk about solidarity, they’re teaching us what we need to do in moments of just epical crisis. So I’m following the instruction of the Puerto Ricans. I have been since the beginning of this pandemic. [I’m noticing] what kind of attitude is going to be required for us to be able to move forward. And knowing that we’re in pretty choppy waters, but if we don’t lose hope we still have a chance.

Anne Snyder: Thank you.

Fr. Jack Wall: And I would echo what Joe is saying about hope. It’s the critical thing we need right now. I’m the oldest of the three of us talking here, and you reach back historically and think there’s been so many moments of crisis in our country. So often in the DC discussions of this past week, they’ve reached back to other moments of crisis. And when I first got ordained, I had somebody give me a little card with a quote from a British author and poet and playwright called Christopher Fry. And the words are so filled with hope. He says, “Thank God our time is now. When wrong comes up to greet us everywhere, never to leave us until humankind, the human family, the human soul takes the greatest stride of soul that we’ve ever taken.” And he says, “Affairs are now soul-sized.” I think that’s a powerful . . . Affairs now are soul-sized. “And the enterprise is exploration into God.” And I think with all of our conversation about solidarity and everything like that, where is the divine? Where is God?

If we’re to explore the mystery of God, where does God say he is? And he basically . . . Beautiful words of the Beatitudes. Go to the poor, go to the hungry, go to the naked, go to the suffering, the imprisoned, the lost. Going into those places builds this revolution of tenderness, connectedness, solidarity. And as Joe was saying earlier, the American story is bigger than what we’re going through. The idealism around it. And so much of that idealism and dreams were built around this saying that life is a gift of God, and what we’re called to do is become God’s blessing to others. So that’s what we’re about.

Anne Snyder: Thank you so much. Both of you genuinely have been, in the short time I’ve known you, one of God’s great blessings to me. So I just want to thank you for this conversation today. It takes actually in some ways wicked trust to become like a little child again and to have faith like a child but also have the humility and wonder of one. And I just think both of you in the way you see and the fragrance that brushes off on you from working with all these people in the US, I just want to thank you for sharing it with me today and sharing that with our listeners.

Joe Boland: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Feature Photo: At Holy Angels Parish in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Sister Daysis Evangelista Uriarte Benavidez played music in front of photos of parishioners taped to pews in a service streamed online. Although she was alone in the church, she says she was connected in spirit to the community she serves. Sister Benavidez is part of Catholic Extension’s U.S.-Latin American Sisters Exchange Program, which funds religious sisters from Latin American congregations to minister among Latino immigrant populations in Extension dioceses across the United States. The program is made possible in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

Reformed Rascals, and Some Lessons for the Rest of Us

July 24, 2020

This interview with Dave Durocher and Joseph Grenny was originally recorded as part of Season One of The Whole Person Revolution, a podcast I created in the fires of 2020 to learn from those whose life callings had already taken them to the crevices of our various crises, now exposed for all to see. The transcript was originally published on Breaking Ground.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For the full experience, and to hear the heart behind the words, we encourage you to listen to the podcast episode here.

Anne Snyder: Welcome back to The Whole Person Revolution, a podcast of Breaking Ground. I’m delighted to introduce you to Joseph Grenny and Dave Durocher, two men whose lives have been changed by their participation in a stunning community of what you might call reformed rascals. You see, The Other Side Academy is a life training school in Salt Lake City for people with long criminal or addiction histories. Students commit to a minimum of a two-year residence, many as an alternative to incarceration after prison sentences of five or more years, with some having been in and out of jail for 20. It’s entirely self-supporting, peer-to-peer and learn by doing – each day, each minute, really, an invitation to shift who you once thought you were and recalibrate your moral compass – one mistake, one success, one communal ritual and moment of accountability at a time.

Joseph is one of the founders of The Other Side Academy and a bestselling author and leading social scientist in his own right. Dave, well, I’ll let you hear Dave’s story in his own words. But first, let me just say it would be easy to admire The Other Side Academy on outcome grounds alone. Most rehab programs see only about 5 to 10 percent of their folks exit as drug-free, crime-free and employed. But at The Other Side Academy, 70 percent of those who graduate are drug-free, crime-free and employed. That’s impressive.

But what’s perhaps more instructive is that this community, a community made up of viscerally broken people, has not only figured out how to change human behavior (something the best psychologists and social scientists continue to puzzle around in their labs), but they’ve figured out how to cultivate a thick culture normed by integrity, transparency, and mutual accountability, norms that the best leaders in all kinds of sectors crave knowing how to cultivate. And as we all are wrestling right now with heightened questions of authority and trust, power and truth, justice and reform, this community of former felons has something to say. Joseph and Dave, it’s a true pleasure to speak with you both again today.

Joseph Grenny: Likewise. Great to be with you.

Dave Durocher: Yep. Thank you.

Anne Snyder: So, Dave, you direct The Other Side Academy now, and you’ve won a variety of civic awards in Salt Lake City and beyond, but that wasn’t always the case. Could give us a little runway to appreciate where you are now?

Dave Durocher: Yeah. I’ve been very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to come to Salt Lake five years ago and help start The Other Side Academy with a really, really remarkable team. None of this would be possible without Joseph and Tim and the rest of the team. It’s together that we’ve been able to do this.

But prior to that, I was a drug addict for 27 years. Started my use when I was 12 years old, drinking, stealing alcohol from Dad. Of course that didn’t go well once he found out. And then not long after that, I started doing cocaine, and did it all the way through my high school years. There was a lot of chaos during those years as my folks and others tried to help me and point out the error in some of my decision making.

But I was a teenager; I wasn’t listening to anything. And somehow I managed to get through high school, even though I was doing coke the whole way. Here’s a teenager in the 80s doing cocaine, and it’s expensive. To support my habit, I did everything I possibly could. I stole everything that was bolted down and most that wasn’t, figured out a way to manipulate people just to get enough money to support my habit. And that went on for a few years, with a lot of counseling, a lot of therapists, a lot of that kind of help. And none of it worked for me because I thought I didn’t have a problem. “Of course I wasn’t a drug addict.”

Anyway, I graduated from high school, and from there, I went from cocaine to methamphetamine, which is where the wheel really fell off. When I started doing meth, it was a completely different high. For most people they probably don’t know what that’s like, but it got me off of cocaine. The high was longer, it was cheaper, it was a lot better. I never set out to be a drug dealer, but I needed to support my habit. I would just buy some and sell some, buy some more sell some more. One thing led to another and pretty soon I’m buying larger amounts and selling it. And before you know it, here I am dealing drugs. Which then morphed into dealing dealing guns and a whole criminal lifestyle.

As a result of that, I started getting arrested. I did my first prison term. My first prison term was two years. I got out, stayed out for 59 days, got in trouble again, did five years, got out, stayed out for 60 days. So at least I was staying out longer, by one day of course. Went back to prison again for six years, got out for four months, went back to prison for ten. So it was a two-year term, a five-year term, a six-year term, a ten-year term, with very little time out in between those terms. And of course as you could probably imagine, after that fourth prison term, the day I got out of prison, I was on my way back.

And four months later, I got arrested again. But this was a little bit different. I had told myself for many years that if the cops ever tried to arrest me again, if they ever red light me again, I’m not going to stop because I know I’m going back to prison for the rest of my life. I’m in the state of California, so they’ve had enough. They’ve got the three-strike law. I’ve already done four consecutive terms. So when they did red light me and there was a helicopter involved, I took them on a high speed chase. And as you can imagine, that did not end well.

I had complete wanton disregard for public safety. I went through roadblocks and as I got to one of the last intersections, I made the left hand turn and went through that roadblock. I just kind of hunkered down hoping the cops would kill me because I knew that if they caught me, that I was going back to prison forever. But they didn’t shoot. When I made the turn, the cops did the pit maneuver, spun me out of control up on an embankment, and then the car was inoperable and they commenced a rushing up on the car, pulled me out of that vehicle and they beat me senseless.

I remember getting pulled out of the vehicle and when the beating started, the last thing I remember hearing was, “Stop, stop. You’re going to kill him.” We’re in a parking lot of a shopping center, like a strip mall. So there were a lot of people that saw it come to an end, so the officers couldn’t continue to do it without being seen. And when I woke up in jail in the infirmary and I finally went to court about a week or two later, my first sentence was 29 years. That was very humbling. I’d already spent a large portion of my adult life going in and out of prison. Here I sit in jail and I’m on my way back for what looked like the rest of my life.

I fought my case for a long time in the county jail hoping to get it down to something manageable. Now, remember I did a two-year term, five-year term, six-year term, 10-year term. Had they come down to 15, I would have signed the deal and I wouldn’t be sitting here today. Thankfully they didn’t. The judge was very firm and resolute in his decision to say, “Dave, you’re getting this time no matter what.” And that time from 29 had come down to 22 and for well over a year, I fought my case in the county jail. 22 years was the time. Whether I take the deal, whether I go to trial, that’s what I’m looking at.

Rather than just give up, I wrote Delancey Street a letter. Delancey Street is a two-year residential re-education facility widely renowned as the gold standard in the country up until The Other Side Academy started five years ago. There were five facilities, and I wrote the one in Los Angeles. They came and they interviewed me, and they accepted me. But when I went to court and asked the judge if he’d allow me to go, he in no uncertain terms said, “Hell, no, you are not Delancey Street material. You are getting 22 years no matter how long you fight this.”

Of course I got back to my cell, dejected. I was like, “What am I going to do? I’m going back to prison forever.” As I called home, my mom and dad wouldn’t take my calls. My dad had had enough. I’d dragged him all over the state of California, dragged him through the mud just from prison to prison making empty promises that I never kept. They’d had enough. So, not only was I on my way back to prison forever, but I was losing my family.

Every once in a while, though, my mom would answer the phone and I could hear Dad in the background yelling at her to hang up. He was done. And every once in a while, she would come visit me in the county jail against his wishes. I was pitting them against each other with the way that I was living. I didn’t know it then, I didn’t recognize it then for what it was. Later on, obviously, I did. Somehow in spite of my best efforts to destroy that marriage, they’re still married today for 57 years. How is a mystery to me. But that’s another story altogether.

Eventually what I did is I wrote Delancey Street the letter, they accepted me, and the judge said no. And then I wrote the judge a four-page letter, front and back, and I asked him for the opportunity to go to Delancey Street. I said, “Your honor, what do you have to lose? I’ve already been to prison four times. You’re going to send me back for another lengthy prison sentence. Eventually I’m going to get out the same person that went in.” I begged him for the opportunity. I said, “You’ve got nothing to lose. The next time you see me is going to be because I come back to say thank you in your chambers, or you can lock me up if I get kicked out or I split in Delancey Street for the rest of my life.”

Your honor, what do you have to lose? I’ve already been to prison four times. You’re going to send me back for another lengthy prison sentence. Eventually I’m going to get out the same person that went in.

I had no idea what to expect. A month or two later when I went to court in that cage shackled in waist irons and ankle irons, he said, “Mr. Durocher, against my better judgment, I’m going to give you the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m going to send you to the Delancey Street, but you’re going to plead guilty today to all of your charges for 22 years.” I don’t know if you’ve ever felt vertigo where you get bad news or you get good news you’re like, what did I just hear?, and you kind of get that dizzy feeling. That’s how it felt when I got that news that I had been in jail for well over a year of fighting this case, I’m looking at going to prison for the rest of my life, and in a couple of hours I’m getting out to go to a program.

It was really just an odd feeling that’s hard to articulate in words. Not long after that, I was released to go to Delancey Street.  And not only did I stay the two years it was required by the courts, I ended up staying eight and a half years. The first two to get out from underneath that 22-year prison sentence, and the next six and a half years because I fell in love with the process. I started to feel good about who I was. I started to realize that I don’t have to live that lifestyle anymore, that there is another way. But around the 18-month mark is when I needed to decide whether or not I was going to stay in Delancey Street longer, or graduate in two years.

I opted to stay one more year. When I asked them to stay they said, “Absolutely, you can stay.” I was a positive role model there. I was doing what was asked. And then at the end of that third year, when I went to that asking again for my commitment, I said I’m willing to stay one more and they said, “Well, why one more, we thought you were in this for the long haul.” I said, “That’s four years by the time I’m done.” They asked me to stay two more and I committed to it. And then not long after that, Mimi Silbert, the president of Delancey Street, came down to LA for a visit and she asked me to stay five more years.

I didn’t know exactly what her intentions were. She just asked me what my plans were and if I’d be willing to stay. I thought about my life prior to Delancey Street, the way I had lived it, and how good I felt in that moment, and I agreed to do that and stayed another five years. So, it was a total of eight and a half years at Delancey Street before I finally left. And when I did, I had a great job in Southern California in the construction trade. I went up to the oil fields and made completely ridiculously stupid money up in the buck for a guy like me who’d been out of the workforce for a couple of decades, and started to put some money away and I started having an affair with my checkbook.

I realized that making money was fun, but saving lives was rewarding, and I moved to the people part. And then by a God shot or just a serendipitous chain of events, I met Joseph Grenny and Tim Stay. Joseph had been having these thoughts for a long time because he wrote the book, The Influencer, featuring Mimi Silbert, and wanted to start something like this in Utah. Joseph and Tim flew to LA, we had our meeting at dinner and we knew right then that it was the right nucleus of people, and not long after that we came to Salt Lake City and found the properties that we currently have and started The Other Side Academy.

I realized that making money was fun, but saving lives was rewarding, and I moved to the people part.

Anne Snyder: Thank you, Dave. Joseph, just picking up where Dave left off, could you tell us a bit about the context within which you met Dave? What was going on in your life and vision at that time such that you two crossed paths and then eventually created The Other Side Academy?

Joseph Grenny: Yeah, it is kind of remarkable that our paths ever crossed. You’ve heard his story. I was on the math team in high school. And so, the likelihood of our paths ever crossing was pretty low from the beginning. And yet here we are, brothers in arms.

As Dave mentioned, my track has been social science. I’d been studying human behavior, why people do what they do and how they change. In 2005, I wrote a book that was based on a worldwide study of really remarkable examples of behavior change. And when it came to criminal recidivism, all the paths led back to Delancey Street. I studied this model. We wrote about the model. I was enamored with it and it just didn’t leave me.

When a couple of our boys got involved in drugs and started in and out of jail, we started seeing how profoundly broken the system is. We started realizing that we’ve created – at a tremendous expense to the public purse – the perfect system for creating criminals. The likelihood of somebody committing second offenses and being reincarcerated goes up dramatically if you have a decent length jail stay. Our department of corrections couldn’t be more inappropriately named. And as I watched my sons getting caught up in this system, and these were people that had a decent support system and options available to them, we saw how many others were caught up in this eddy that they could never escape from. It was about that time that my wife and I said that this is horrible.

We started realizing that we’ve created – at a tremendous expense to the public purse – the perfect system for creating criminals. The likelihood of somebody committing second offenses and being reincarcerated goes up dramatically if you have a decent length jail stay. Our department of corrections couldn’t be more inappropriately named.

When we got to Delancey Street, it’s like we know there’s a cure to cancer sitting in this place, but nobody has found a way to replicate this. This ought to be available everywhere on the planet. And in spite of nudging, it turned out that Delancey Street didn’t have much of an appetite for creating more of these opportunities. And so we thought, all right, well, we got to try. Well, talk about an intimidating thing. I haven’t been to jail. I haven’t been to prison. I don’t know anything about this firsthand. I can talk about it from the outside, but what I know is that any community is no better than the quality of its leadership. And so our first job was to find somebody of tremendous integrity who was deeply experienced in living in and leading this kind of community.

What I know is that any community is no better than the quality of its leadership.

Well, how do you do that? This is a very specialized skillset. Well, we banged our head against the wall for months and finally I had this thought, well, what if somebody on their LinkedIn profile would mention that they had graduated from Delancey Street? So as a hail Mary, we did this search on LinkedIn and did a reverse search for it. It turned out there were 50 people that mentioned this. And that’s what eventually led us to Dave Durocher.

Anne Snyder: How fascinating.

Joseph Grenny: I’ll give you the short version of this story, but it was the most peculiar job interview of my entire life. We met at a restaurant in Los Angeles and as we sat down together I thought, do you do a criminal background check on somebody that you know is a criminal? We talked, and boy, I knew within 15 seconds that this is the man that is capable of creating a wonderful community of integrity that could transform lives. So to me it was serendipity, it was a godsend, it was fate, it was you call it what you want, but this was supposed to happen.

I knew within 15 seconds that this is the man that is capable of creating a wonderful community of integrity that could transform lives.

Anne Snyder: Thank you. The Other Side Academy has now been around for five years. And we could talk forever about the sort of texture of the community as it has evolved as you two, and you in particular Dave, have led it. I’d be happy to hear a quick portrait of it here, but just if you could name and describe some of the key principles that are not just put up on posters actually on the walls of The Other Side Academy’s facilities, and not just a creed spoken aloud, but actually lived every day. These are principles that, yes, are perhaps very powerful in a context of men and women who’ve spent lives jumping maybe from jail to jail and to street and homeless and sort of disordered family backgrounds, et cetera. But when I first discovered them, I found them applicable to any healthy organization and certainly any sort of flourishing community. So what do you think are some of the most powerful principles that make The Other Side Academy the special place that it is?

Dave Durocher: I often say that we are a micro community getting people ready for the macro community. Really what we are here, we get up every day just like everybody else in the community: We put our pants on, we brush our teeth, we go to breakfast, we meet with the family, we go to work, we come home, we take care of our responsibilities. Just like the average person does on the streets, we do that every day. The difference here is the 200% accountability. You got to remember our students on average have been arrested 25 times. So when we get here, there are no exceptions. We are liars and cheaters and thieves and manipulators and self-centered self-seeking people that don’t care about anybody and in most times even ourselves because we don’t know how.

So we immediately on day one start calling you on your behaviors. Unlike what we do in the real world, on day one, it doesn’t matter what it is: If you wink at the girl, if you don’t push your chair in, if you didn’t put the toilet seat down, if you threw the paper across the room, it doesn’t matter what you do, we call you on those behaviors. We address them real time with no lag time. And oftentimes it’s very colorful and vernacular. It’s not like, “Oh Joseph, you shouldn’t do that. You know better than that. Stop that.” We might raise our voices a little bit because you’ve run it three or four times already, and be very colorful and vernacular as we address some of those behaviors.

We are liars and cheaters and thieves and manipulators and self-centered self-seeking people that don’t care about anybody and in most times even ourselves because we don’t know how.

And then of course you have the community that’s going to hold you accountable to those behaviors: good, bad or indifferent. Everybody is held to the same standard – from Joseph Grenny, our founder, Tim Stay, our CEO, to me the executive director or the person who got here today. Everybody is held to the same standard. If Joseph does something, if I do something and they see it, they can call us on our behaviors. And then we have what we refer to as games, which is not games as you would think about it in your head. They’re just groups of people in a room, 20 people deep as we’re addressing each other’s behaviors and everybody is calling each other on their behaviors every day, real time. You can’t get away with anything.

And that really is the magic sauce: the immediate feedback where everybody is accountable, 200% accountable. I’m 100% accountable for me and I’m 100% accountable for Joseph. If he does something wrong and I saw him do it and I don’t say something, then I’m in more trouble than he is because I’m allowing him to do something that’s detrimental to his life or could help kill himself. So across the board, everybody’s held to that same standard. It’s just like when you go to jail or you go to prison, you immediately fit into that culture. You kind of figure out real quick if there’s pressure on the yard, if there’s writing going on, what’s going on, you immediately sense it, you feel it. Here it’s the same way. But we’re very intentional about those things, calling out those behaviors. Very intentional. That’s really an understatement. We’re going to call the students on their behaviors every day that they’re here. That really is our magic sauce.

And that really is the magic sauce: the immediate feedback where everybody is accountable, 200% accountable. I’m 100% accountable for me and I’m 100% accountable for Joseph.

Joseph Grenny: What Dave’s describing that’s important to The Other Side Academy is critical to any social system, any family, any relationship, any company, any community in the world. What we know from 30 years of my research is that the health of any social system is a function of the lag time between when people see concerns and people talk about concerns, period. That’s it. End of story. In a personal relationship, if you have a significant other in your life, the longer it takes for you to be able to discuss those things that matter most, the more mischief happens, the more separation happens, the more games get played.

The health of any social system is a function of the lag time between when people see concerns and people talk about concerns, period. That’s it. End of story.

When you start to broaden that to not just a couple, but a family or even a work team, the problems become endless. All of the politics, all of the silly games that get played in organizations are about lag time. And so the central sickness in our society today is people’s inability to discuss those things, those concerns that they have within these systems. That’s what eventually results in violence, that’s what results in criminal behavior, that’s what results in these ethical scandals that we see. It’s long periods of silence. It’s long periods of collusion and enabling that allows those things to occur.

One of the things that Dave said that I don’t think people would properly understand if they hadn’t been to The Other Side Academy is when he says we call out your behavior. The ‘we’ is anybody in the house. Now, think about what a challenge that is because every organization has to decide which of two values it governs, truth or power. Our default bias, our genetic pre-programming is to be sensitive to power relationships. When we enter a room, we’re trying to look around to say, “Where’s the power in this room?” And we try to defer to that power. One of the ways you differ is by colluding. You support whatever they’re signing up for.

The death of George Floyd was not about a single officer doing something criminal. It was about three people watching it and saying nothing. So even that incident that we’re seeing in front of us today, we’re looking at the pandemic raging out of control, our inability to create norms of something simple like mask wearing is fundamentally about people’s inability to just speak up when they have moral reservations about what somebody else is doing. So where does this come from? It comes to us naturally. And the only way we’re going to be able to create healthy social systems in any areas of our lives is to learn to make conscious choices to create cultures of peer accountability. Not just authoritarian accountability, not just top down, but cultures where truth can speak to power, where anybody who has moral reservations, intellectual reservation, strategic reservations can express those because that’s how we get smart.

Every organization has to decide which of two values it governs, truth or power. …The death of George Floyd was not about a single officer doing something criminal. It was about three people watching it and saying nothing. …The only way we’re going to be able to create healthy social systems in any areas of our lives is to learn to make conscious choices to create cultures of peer accountability. Not just authoritarian accountability, not just top down, but cultures where truth can speak to power, where anybody who has moral reservations, intellectual reservation, strategic reservations can express those because that’s how we get smart.

The Other Side Academy is one of the most remarkable places, but I’ve seen it happen in hospitals, on factory floors, in engineering organizations and customer service centers. And when it happens, everything changes. Employee engagement increases, quality increases, customer retention increases. The Other Side Academy runs world-class businesses. Imagine how would you get a hundred criminals together and run an enterprise that is highly profitable and highly sought after by customers? The only way you can do that is with this culture of peer accountability. This is the central asset that makes any social system work.

Anne Snyder: Thank you for that. When you talk about peer accountability, though, there are different cultural norms in different kinds of sectors and organizations, to say nothing of people from different backgrounds. If you’re in a company which tends to have maybe more of a transactional, less covenantal logic in it, or we’re thinking about something like gender norms, what are the nuances for how peer accountability works itself out?

Joseph Grenny: We emphasize the colorful vernacular with The Other Side Academy just to kind of prepare people for the volume at which it might occur. But that’s not what’s essential about it. What’s essential is that it’s honest and direct. For our community, that’s what honest and direct looks like. If they have to spend too much time trying to calculate the proper verbiage to express something, they’ll get lost and take an off ramp. And so what we say is, just take the shortest distance between how you feel and what you need to say. And that will sort out all the rest later. In an organization, there might be more appropriate ways for you to express it, but directness can’t be compromised.

I spent 30 years writing a book called Crucial Conversations, and I feel bad that it took me 29 years to learn what it really was all about. I thought that it was about packaging and presentation and that if you organize what you wanted to express well enough, then you could reduce the likelihood others will be defensive, which I still think is true. But what I realize now is that a community that wants to be governed by truth and not power, one that wants to create a culture of 200% accountability, it’s more about frequency than it is competency. It’s more about the way to get people comfortable with having crucial conversations is just to have them regularly, not to worry about some specific protocols that everybody has to adopt in order to be able to package the material correctly.

And so at The Other Side Academy, this is what persuaded me. I watch people come in in week one absolutely horrified the same way every executive team I’ve ever worked with is when you start trying to get them to be emotionally honest with each other. These sophisticated executives are just as terrified as these hardcore criminals are when they’re finally asked to be honest about something that concerns them. And the way you overcome that is not just by teaching a bunch of techniques, it’s by just saying, just do it. Just do it over and over and over again. And then what happens is the emotional stakes get lower. Because what those who participate realize is that this isn’t a death sentence. That the fact that Dave is telling me that he really hates what I just did and that I just violated his trust in a significant way, which is conversations that Dave and I have had.

I’ve made significant mistakes in the last few years. But what I realize after we’ve done this ten or fifteen times is that our relationship isn’t over because he’s angry right now. The fact that he’s pulling me up, the fact that he’s correcting me is actually evidence of loyalty and love, not of disapproval and a decision to terminate a relationship. As soon as you’ve gone through that cycle a number of times, your ability to engage in those conversations increases enormously.

Dave Durocher: That’s a beautiful summation of what we do. And I think it’s also important, it’s bizarre to me today that in the “real world,” in corporate America outside of TOSA, we have to be so darn careful what we say and how we say it. We are so careful to not hurt people’s feelings. Let’s digress a minute. Our average student’s been arrested 25 times. They’re out there ripping and roaring and just creating chaos. When they get here, don’t you dare start talking about my feelings. You haven’t cared about anybody else’s feelings in some cases for a couple of decades. Sit down and hear the truth. Truth is love. If somebody would have said something when Harvey Weinstein was marching those little girls up those stairs to his room, how many lives would have been spared? Countless, countless lives would have been spared.

If somebody would have said something when Wells Fargo started opening up all those fictitious accounts, God knows how much money would have been saved. If somebody would have said something when Tom Brady regarding some of that area on those footballs, they might not have won that super bowl.

…When you see something, say something. And what we’re not going to do here is sugarcoat stuff. For years, as people were trying to help me through my addiction and my criminal behavior, oftentimes I’d get a counselor who would sit down. I’d be opining about how I feel or what I was going through. I didn’t feel connected. I could literally see them go, “Oh God.” When David says this, on page 73 of the manual I’m supposed to respond with. Because the connection wasn’t there. They didn’t know what the hell I was going through. How could they, they’d never been through it.

But when I got to Delancey Street and I was around people just like me who had been there and done that, come out the other side, when I would get a haircut, a verbal reprimand for what I was doing, it resonated. It was coming from somebody just like me who had been there and done that already and had already fixed that problem and spotted it immediately. When I got some of those haircuts, I could list a few of them that really impacted my life, I never did that again. Oftentimes here at TOSA, Joseph doesn’t need to get yelled at every time. It’s on an individual basis. It’s based on, what did you do? How egregious was the offense? How long have you been here? What is your pattern? How well do you take feedback?

Can we have just a conversation like this where it’s going to resonate and be impactful and you’re going to make the necessary changes? Or are you fighting it even though we reached our hand in your pocket, pulled the cookies out, you’re still saying they’re not yours. What do you mean they’re not yours? We just took them out of your pocket! We can level a little bit to try to get through to somebody. It’s across the board. Sometimes the conversations are just like this. Sometimes there are 10, it just depends on the situation. But ultimately it’s about the conversation. It’s about taking every single opportunity, no matter what has happened and turn it into a teaching moment.

Anne Snyder: That’s very well said. It’s probably counterintuitive for a lot of folks to hear this, but it’s a very active grace actually working out in every person’s life. And that doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games.

You all have written an essay for Breaking Ground about how maintaining this culture of 200% accountability might illuminate the debate happening very hotly right now in cities across the US around police reform and sort of reform of police behaviors in the wake of all we’ve seen in the last couple of months. First, Dave, I just thought it’s so interesting to ask you to reflect on this. How do you generally view police officers and the whole world of law enforcement?

Dave Durocher: I have a special place in my heart for law enforcement. You would think that the opposite would be true when you hear my history. But I’ve lived on both sides of it. I know what it was like to chase Dave Durocher down. I know what it was like to have the helicopters and multiple agencies after me, getting in high speed chases and fights with the police.

There was a time way back in the early 90s when I pulled up to a hotel. The hotel doors open up, the cops are waiting for me in full riot gear. I’m in a convertible, the top’s coming down. It didn’t quite make it all the way down, and the cops were on me, telling me “give us a reason” as a gun is literally in my mouth.

They pull me out of the car and they handcuff me. I’m on my knees. They’re searching the car and they find two loaded guns. One of them had cop killers in it. They pull the sleeve out. They take the bullets out, and they’re regular bullets with the tops chopped off. There’s a dart coming through the center and they’re Teflon-coated so when one hits a vest, it’s going to go through it. They took that very personally. They stood me up and with one hand swung me in one direction, with the other hand hit me in the face. I’ve never been knocked out in my life, and it rang my bell, and I went to my knees again. They took it very personally.

I was already arrested. They already had me. That never should have happened. Once the high speed chase ended and they had me, the beating never should have happened.

The difference is, I take full responsibility. They did not come to church and pull me out of church for singing too loud in the church choir; they didn’t go to USC in Los Angeles and pull me out for getting straight As. I put myself in those positions to empower them to do what happened. That doesn’t excuse them for how it ended, but I put myself in those positions.

But I love law enforcement and over the past 15 years, particularly the last five, I have tried to foster a relationship with all of law enforcement throughout the Wasatch Valley. From Salt Lake City Police to the UTA Police to the Utah Highway Patrol, we’ve done presentations for them in their precincts to all of their officers. And now, often when the officer runs across somebody on the street that’s a frequent flyer, rather than arrest them and take them to jail, they’ll call me at two o’clock in the morning, put them on the phone or bring them to us so that we can interview them instead of taking them straight to jail. That’s how strong the relationships have become.

I have them come and eat with the students. Sometimes there are twenty or twenty-five officers sitting down having lunch or dinner with the students and I stop them mid meal. And I say, “Stop for a second and look around this room. Law enforcement, when was last time you sat down with this population and broke bread?” And you can see the tears coming down some of the officers’ faces and the students. And I ask the students the same question. When was the last time you sat down and broke bread with law enforcement? The answer from both parties is never, until now.

Law enforcement change is possible. We can change if given the opportunity and the right environment. And students, not all of law enforcement’s bad. Very, very, very few of them are bad. Most of them are remarkably good people. Look what’s going on right now. When you bring two opposing forces like that together, you have to be there to feel what’s going on. I’ve had countless students come to me afterwards and tell me how impactful that was for them.

I just did a presentation to the students the other day and I said, “There’s a big lesson in this. Eventually some of you are going to leave TOSA after two years or three years or four years, and you’re probably going to have some interaction with law enforcement at some point. You may get pulled over, you might be in the wrong place, something’s going to happen. But when you change your paradigm and how you see them, you’re going to respond differently to them, and it could save your life.”

You could have heard a pin drop in the room, and I can’t tell you how many came afterwards and said, “Man, you’re right. I never looked at it like that.” So, it’s changing the paradigm on how law enforcement views us, it’s changing how our students view law enforcement, because ultimately what we need to do right now is bridge the gap between the communities and law enforcement. We want to start that here at TOSA, and it just so happens we’ve been doing it for a few years.

When the riots happened in Salt Lake City four or five weeks ago after the whole George Floyd thing happened, I sat back and I was watching it. It was hard to not cry to watch what was happening in our city. They were burning good cars, they were rioting, they were destroying property, they were being violent. I called the mayor the next morning and said, “Erin, we need to take our streets back. I don’t mean violently or physically, but I want to bring our students downtown with trash bags and canvas the whole area. Let’s clean it up, so that if and when they do come back, they see that they don’t own the streets. We understand that protesting is very important. Some voices need to be heard. There are some things that need to change. Absolutely. But the violence needs to stop too. Cooler heads need to prevail.” She said, “Absolutely.” We brought the entire student body, including Joseph, down there. We picked up trash downtown for blocks until we had canvassed the whole area, and then we came home. It was our way of becoming part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

It’s changing the paradigm on how law enforcement views us, it’s changing how our students view law enforcement, because ultimately what we need to do right now is bridge the gap between the communities and law enforcement.

It just so happens that right next door to us is the Masonic Temple. It has a large parking lot, and two weeks later, that’s where the command center was set up. The Salt Lake City Police department, the UTA Police, Ogden Police, Sandy, West Valley, a number of different police departments were there. The National Guard, bomb squad, FBI, they were all there. Our property is adjacent to it, and the mayor called me on a Saturday night and said, “Would you be willing to go next door with your students and thank the men and women for their service?”

I couldn’t finish my meal quick enough. I came home, brought all the students into the dining room, and explained to the students what we were going to go do. And I said, if you don’t want to do that, for whatever your reasons are, you don’t have to. But here’s what we’re going to do, and if you want to join, let’s roll. 95% of the students went.

The cops were all in their vehicles because it was pouring rain, and word hadn’t gotten to all of the vehicles yet that we were coming. When we walked around our property over to their property, they came out with shields because they didn’t know whether we were friend or foe. By the time they finally calmed down and realized who we were, it was like the air left the room. We came together and spoke to law enforcement for about five minutes about who we are at The Other Side Academy, who we are as the students, who we are in the community, and why we appreciate everybody here. You could see officers and students crying in the rain. It was absolutely miraculous. That’s what we need to do. We need to bring community and law enforcement together. Not just here, but from coast to coast, we need to bring people together and have these conversations.

Anne Snyder: That’s gorgeous. It’s very moving—the paradox and the unity.

Dave Durocher: I’ve gotten a lot of calls from law enforcement that were there that day, thanking us.

Back in March, I was going to have all the chiefs of police here for lunch. This is right when COVID happened. We had lunch ready. And then I got the call that we were to shelter in place, and the meeting got canceled. One police chief out of the entire group ended up showing up. His name was Ken. He walked through the door, and I said, “Chief, sit down.” And we had lunch. We spent probably an hour or an hour and a half together.

He handed me this thing at the end of the meeting, and I was touched. It was hard to not get teared up. It’s a challenge coin that only the chief of police can give somebody. He wrote a small check of $250 to The Other Side Academy because he was so touched at what we were doing.

Then, yesterday, I’m sitting at my desk and I get a piece of mail. It’s a letter from the chief of police from the West Valley Police Department. Inside was a $500 check from him personally, and he said some very nice things. I shared that with the students this morning. No matter what you see on TV and no matter what you’re hearing, not everybody is bad. He did not have to do that. He was touched by what we’re doing, and he cares about you guys individually and collectively enough to write a $500 check to The Other Side Academy to say, “Continue your good work during this critical time.” How wonderful is that?

Anne Snyder: It’s amazing. That story reminds me of last week’s episode where I got to talk to these two wonderful police officers from San Antonio who really helped transform the culture of that particular metropolitan police department through some innovative ways in which they intervene in mental health crises. One theme that threaded throughout that conversation is, we all in our civic spheres inhabit roles, and following the norms of our role is important. However, there’s always an invitation to take off the uniform of your role and live into your common humanity. There’s an element of recognizing we’re actually all broken, and we all have ways to transform, and we all need others to do it. When you can see that happen through what are usually power dynamics between these different roles, it’s a really beautiful thing. I’m moved by what you shared, Dave.

Joseph Grenny: The change in relationship between our students and police is important, but I want to go back to this moment too where George Floyd is on the ground. An officer has a knee on his neck. The whole world is asking, how do we make sure things like this don’t happen again? There’s an important lesson from The Other Side Academy that informs that discussion. There’s so much that people want to look at around structural reform, around changing funding or disbanding entire police departments. Maybe those ought to be pursued, but if you’re going to solve problems, you’re going to have to invest certain people with power, and a police officer has enormous power in those moments.

There’s very little supervision other than peers in those moments. The only real solution is to create a peer culture of accountability. At The Other Side Academy, we have rival gang members sharing dorm rooms, and they’re sitting in games, as Dave described earlier, yelling and screaming at each other at times. Yet in five years of operation, we haven’t had a single instance of violence.

The only real solution is to create a peer culture of accountability.

We spend a lot of time talking about de-escalation strategies but the bottom line is this: If an officer knows when he is handling an issue with a citizen that he’s going to be held accountable by the peers that are standing right there, he won’t make a mistake. He won’t do it. He’ll get up off of that guy’s neck. That will happen. I don’t care how emotionally escalated the situation is. He knows in the back of his mind that there are two people watching him, and that will supersede any other kind of emotional response.

Dave described situations that obviously weren’t racist—just policemen that had the power to do what they wanted in that moment and knew there would probably be no accountability. So whatever other solutions might need to be on the table, starting to create police forces that aren’t about loyalty to a brother but are about truth rather than power must be part of the solution. Or we’re going to have a completely toothless security system that can’t accomplish what the public needs them to.

Dave Durocher: I reached out to the mayor a couple of weeks ago when all this came to a head and asked if she’d be willing to sit down and talk about 200% accountability. I shared with her that nothing’s going to change in the police department until there is peer-to-peer accountability. When an officer takes the dope off the white guy and doesn’t arrest him, but gives it to the Mexican guy and sets him up, or when they pull over the pretty blonde girl and she doesn’t get a ticket, yet they give a ticket to the black guy, or they’re driving and they see a black guy walking down the street and a comment’s made in the car, and nothing gets said between the partners, that’s where the problems are happening. You’re compromising. That’s why the George Floyds happen.

As Joseph said, until there’s peer-to-peer accountability—and I truly believe that if you can have a badge and you can carry a gun and you can risk your life every day, you can sit with your peers and listen to feedback—it’s not going to change.

Anne Snyder: What you’re saying here is actually very rare. You don’t hear this very often, and it’s important, especially in this conversation about police reform and accountability, but not only in that domain. One of the many things that’s so striking about The Other Side Academy is your attentiveness to and understanding of the power of norms, the cultural, invisible things that are part of the fabric of how you actually survive and thrive together. Behavioral norms, moral norms.

Right now, especially among young people, there’s a lot of talk of revolution. “We need to burn everything down, get rid of the way things have been, and just start from the ground up.” Especially in the context of race and our history, but it is inflecting every civic sphere. And yet The Other Side Academy demonstrates that dramatic transformation—revolutionary transformation—happens in these subtle webs of daily choices and the consistency of this peer-to-peer accountability.

In this essay you have written, you write, “Moral decline comes from the thousands of moments when people witness small compromises but say nothing,” which is what you were just describing. You talk about this specifically in reference to law enforcement’s culture of silence. Could you flesh out a little what’s missing in the urgency and heat of this broader national conversation around race and injustice and police reform right now? Is there a maturity or even an awareness of how cultural change happens and how cultural norms get established in a given collective? What’s that dance between dramatic transformation and how that happens in the particulars of the little details?

Joseph Grenny: It’s an unfortunate truth that change is most likely to happen when single instances of egregious problems occur. And the quality of the changes is the lowest when it’s made in those moments, with very little deliberation. We’re talking about some very consequential decisions now in the heat of the moment, and really there are multiple issues here. We have issues in the black community that have been long neglected that are the reasons we have so many people that attract the attention of police, and those must be addressed. And we also have this conspiracy of silence among the police when power we’ve given them gets abused, and that has to be addressed. But these aren’t decisions of the day. I really fear that if we make significant policy decisions, then the pendulum will swing to the other side, and we’re going to pay the price on that end.

Anne Snyder: Dave, do you have anything to add there?

Dave Durocher: Every time I make a decision when my feelings are hurt or I’m mad, I regret it. And when emotions are high right now, as he said, it’s the absolute worst time to make decisions. But it’s the best time to sit down at a table and express how you feel about it. Then, and only then, can you gather all that information, put it in a pool of . . .

Joseph Grenny: Shared meaning.

Dave Durocher: . . . and then discuss then the changes that need to be made. It’s so polarizing, we’re going from one end of the spectrum all the way to the other, and we’re going to pay the price dearly on the other side.

When emotions are high right now, it’s the absolute worst time to make decisions. But it’s the best time to sit down at a table and express how you feel about it.

Anne Snyder: I want to thank both of you. You have a lot to instruct the world at large, and particularly in this moment, with your sobriety, your testimony of human change, and your service outward.

I think there is always hope even in the heat of this current moment in the US. As I was thinking about what makes a community like The Other Side Academy so instructive and inspiring, and the risk you have taken to bet the life of this community on the choices of each individual member and the life of each individual on the collective norms of the community, a C.S. Lewis passage came to mind. It’s about this interdependence between individual agency and communal health:

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory, hereafter. It is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load or weight or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all only in a nightmare. All day long, we are in some degree helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

You all embody that constant mutual helping one another to one of those two destinations. I want to thank you for helping me think a little more deeply and intricately about what’s at stake right now, and also about how to leaven the commons with a real practical wisdom. So thank you.

Dave Durocher: Thank you.

Joseph Grenny: We love you, Anne. Thank you for this time.