On July 12, 2019 The Urban Shaman's Aimee Shaw spent some time with Lori Shayew, Founder of The Gifts of Autism and seasoned autism specialist.
This interview was a little different than previous TUS interviews, as video imaging wasn't available and both Aimee and Lori share an equal passion for humans on the autism spectrum. Aimee shares that long after the record button was turned off she and Lori continued in relevant discussion about the wonders of autism and their deeply profound experiences connecting with people on the spectrum. But we tried to keep it around an hour, and unlike our other practitioner interviews, we're not transcribing any of this interview, and are offering the entire interview in a video/audio format.
One of the interesting things Lori shared was that she believes she is "like a bridge" between people on the spectrum and their caretakers and the larger community. Readers of The Urban Shaman likely know that shamans are considered to be bridges as well- between the Spirit realm and the material realm. Another thing Aimee and Lori discussed is the possibility of people with autistic experiences also being shamanic.
Consider Martin Prechtel's recounting of a young man in the Mayan village he lived in:
Though he was well known to all his people, most of the village considered him to be a nicamic, or simpleton. Some of us, especially the shamans, considered this strange man to be a "child of the wind." The wind was a god to us, the Lord of the Dry Season. Having grown enamored of Machayal's mother while in the forest, the wind had magically impregnated her. When it came time for Machayal to be born, his mother was caught out in the wilds again and gave birth to him under the very trees in the jungle he'd grow to love as an adult. This made him half-human, half-divine. Without village midwives or helpers, his mother has thrown the umbilical cord and afterbirth into the river which, as anybody in the village could tell you, made a child into a restless wanderer, never content to stay in one place.
Machayal did indeed appear to act very clumsy among humans, with no desire for the endless complexities of village life. But in the wilds he excelled, spending most of his days and nights there, vanishing out of the sight of humans just like his father, the wind. About every three weeks, Machayal would return to visit his old mother, but the monkeys and rivers would quickly call him back to the forest-covered volcanoes that form the high, breathtaking walls of Lake Atitlan.
What he did out there, nobody really knew. He had no food, no machete, and no water, and yet time after time he'd return fat and healthy after weeks of absence, loaded down with live animals and flowers.
No animal ever ran from Machayal. He'd simply walk up, touch them, then pick them up and put them in his little bag or carry them in his arms like a little kid with a big puppy, walking fifteen to thirty miles to our village. Then he'd walk into somebody's house and give these wild creatures to the occupants and go back to the bushes. That's how he was.
Once he delivered a pair of spider monkeys to my house. Once he brought an anteater, and another time he left me a pair of supposedly extinct horned guans. I knew people who got giant lizards, kinkajous, trogons, or coatimundis. Some of the creatures he brought were very rare, and some were dangerous to most humans. But all the animals were shy, and nobody knew why they went along with Machayal's plan. There was something divine about it.
(Secrets of The Talking Jaguar, 1998)
Prechtel makes distinction between the shamans, as a social order that's highly regulated within the Tzutujil culture and Machayal, whom he refers to as "nicamic", or a socially odd and simple, but deeply connected being. He equates this connection to divinity. But there does seem to be traits attributed to Machayal that lend themselves to autism or some similar type of developmental disability, as per psychiatric diagnostic criteria. Prechtel goes on to share an incident when Machayal brings him two newly born jaguar kits, and tells him they are "two of yours" and "you're the same kind." So it seems that as out of sorts as Machayal seemed to be, he was a soul whisperer of some kind. In many shamanic cultures Machayal would be groomed from early childhood to become a village shaman. But perhaps within the Tzutujil culture his aloofness and wild nature made him unsuited for the role of shamanism.
We'd like to invite you into the exclusive conversation with Lori Shayew as she discusses the spiritual gifts that many individuals with autism possess and their valuable contributions to our communities.
You can find Lori through the links below and we're also offering various links to things discussed in this interview:
On January 25, 2019 Aimee Shaw of The Urban Shaman sat down with Robbie Warren, Medicine Woman and Shaman.
AS: Hello. I have Robbie Warren with me here today and I'm very excited to actually interface with her in person and get some more information about her practice. So Robbie, I believe you call yourself a “medicine woman”- is that right?
RW: You know I use the term medicine woman. I use the word shaman. So yes. There are so many different terms out there and we have to be really clear about the work that we do, and so the work that I do falls into several different categories.
AS: So what exactly do you do- can you talk a little bit about your practice?
RW: Yes, I'm happy to! I think first and foremost I sit with people one-on-one in shamanic sessions (as I call them) or healing sessions, and within those sessions there's a lot of different things that could unfold. Mostly I open myself up and I listen to Spirit. I allow Spirit to move through me, becoming that hollow bone, and I really just connect with my client’s Spirit guides. They're the ones who really call the shots on what we do and sometimes it's just conversation- it's a new perspective for people. In other times it can go as deep a soul retrieval work or ancestral healing work, physical healing, physical removal of emotions or cords, and then pretty much anything that they tell me to do- with my client’s permission of course.
AS: Yeah that makes a lot of sense to me. So I'm curious about your path, how you really got on the path and who your initial mentors were, and how that influenced your practice.
RW: Well I kind of got on the path by accident. I think that may happen for a lot of us. My opening-up to this path really started on September 11th 2001- at 9/11. And then it was a slow journey from there. But that event really shook me to my core and opened me up to a place of curiosity- to start exploring, and I actually ended up in New York City about three weeks after 9/11. I was already scheduled to be up there on a trip and they had just started letting planes get anywhere near there, and I flew actually into New Jersey. We were rerouted but I spent extra time in New York and I went down to Ground Zero. I never really had a big spiritual experience even though I was raised in some traditional religious teachings, but I went down to Ground Zero and everything opened up for me, everything changed for me and when I came home from that experience, which was quite profound, I think that's probably the first time I actually had an experience of moving into the different dimensions and into the different realms. In a nutshell- I was able to get past the barricades because I felt compelled to walk into the center where they were doing all the clearing and the cleaning, and the debris. I felt so compelled to go in. I just walked past the barricades; I walked past the police; I walked past the hazmat suits, the National Guard, and no one saw me. I got as close as I could. There was a friend who was with me and she followed me into this place, and when we got there she just looked at me and she said, “now what?”, and I said “I think I have to pray.” I never really prayed out loud in my life other than the little prayers we’re taught as children- you know, Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep and the food blessing and things like that.
As soon as I started praying everything went silent. I could no longer hear the machinery- everything that was happening around me. And then as soon as I finished the prayer, which really was praying for everyone who had been in the towers, everyone who had been affected by it, everyone in our country, everyone in the other countries, even everyone in the planes and including the people who took over the planes- and that the prayer just started coming out and I couldn't really stop it, but as soon as I was complete with that prayer it was just like suddenly everything snapped. I could hear sound again and then someone saw me. I was standing so close to all of the action that was going on. I don't know how they didn't see me, but I think that was my first experience of maybe moving into a different dimension to do Spirit work, to do this work, and then suddenly when it was complete there I was and they kind of chased me out of there.
But I came home from that, down to North Carolina, to Charlotte, and I had a lot of feelings of heaviness. I never really understood what it meant, what energy work was or any of that, and someone suggested to me that I was carrying energy that wasn't mine- something that I had picked up being down there. So she had suggested that I have a purification ceremony, which I had never heard of, and she explained what a sweat lodge was- a Native American sweat lodge. So I found a place that was doing sweat lodges and it was a four-hour drive from where I live and I called them. The most amazing man answered the phone and he told me that he would hold a lodge, a private lodge for me so that I could do that work. I didn't know what it meant but when I got there and I saw what this lodge was, and when it was time to go in and I got down on my hands and knees and I'm a little- I get a little nervous in a crowded elevator- so the thought of getting down on my and knees and crawling into the small little space that was very dark, not knowing what it was about, it was quite intimidating. But as soon as I put my head into the lodge, into that dark space, and I could feel the heat that was already in the space I just I felt like I was home. It made so much sense to me. I think that was about a three-hour sweat lodge and I didn't want to leave. Finally the medicine man who was leading the lodge, he said ‘you really have to get out- you must go, you must go.’ It was after that he told me of another medicine man who was coming to this Center where I was in Tennessee, and this man's name was Joseph Rael- Beautiful Painted Arrows. And as soon as he told me his name I knew I had to be there. So I went back two months later and that's where I met Joseph, and so Joseph and the people at this Center in Tennessee were the first ones who really opened-up the space for me to just step in and see what all of this is. I've had other teachers since then, but Joseph Raal and the people at the Center for Peace in Tennessee were those door-openers for me, who really held the space for me to step in. They're very patient with me, with all of my questions, and I still go up to Tennessee now, almost 20 years later. That's my spiritual home. So a lot of teachers since then, but the Center for Peace and Joseph Rael are my first introduction.
AS: Wow- that's quite a profound story!
RW: Yeah- it's still kind of knocked me for a loop and I think about it. You know, everything had to just fall into place for that to happen.
AS: I’m interested- and I'm going to get just a little bit political for a minute. I try to avoid that, but as a practicing shaman myself I know the political pressure that we often face from indigenous people and people who do have very definite lineage and tradition. It's hard for some of them to make room for white Americans and not coming from a lineage. So we often get accused of cultural appropriation and all these kinds of things. I'm sure that you've had these experiences and know exactly what I'm talking about. So I'm curious- because your initial experience being on the path was with, I'm assuming they were Native Americans (RW: Yeah, yeah)- and it sounds like they really were giving their blessing to you, as you know they do (RW: Yeah). I mean they really do want to share their medicine with us, so do you encounter that [prejudice] in your practice or in the greater culture and how does that fit in your practice?
RW: It's a great question and it really is something that I feel strongly that we all have to be so conscious of. Joseph is Native American. He is Ute and his parents are Ute and from Picuris Pueblo and so he's Tiwa. He grew up in the Pueblo and he was sent off to residential school. He went through- and he’s in his 80s now- and he went through all of those trials that so many Native Americans went through. Joseph, I believe from his teachings and from what he has said, he holds a deep belief that the more people that understand these teachings, and the deep connection to the earth and to each other, and that we are children of the earth- all of us are children of the earth- and his deep belief that the more of us that know this and understand this, the sooner we're going to bring peace. So he did not believe in withholding, or does not believe in withholding. Now there are some very specific tribal ceremonies that he would not share outside with the greater community, but the broader teachings and the deep teachings he does share. But very specific ceremonies he does hold those sacred to those who carry his bloodline in his community. And he had visions for other ceremonies that are in the Native American framework, but they were his visions and his vision to carry forward. So I feel very blessed that my teacher is Native American and that he's open to teaching somebody who looks like me. And Joseph teaches or taught- he's retired now- but he taught all around the planet and he had such a deep, deep belief in peace, and that was the driving force. He's a mystic. If you read any of his books you can go off into another world just from reading his words- it can take you into another realm.
But you know it's a good question and it did come up for me a few years ago. I had a group of Native Americans who were questioning me and really pushing quite hard at me. I understand where that's coming from- I get it now. In the moment it was hard and it was painful. It was emotionally difficult because I was so caught by surprise from it because of how giving my teachers were. So I had to do some really, really deep soul-searching and I put everything on a shelf for months, and I prayed and I held my own ceremonies, and I offered tobacco and I just kept praying, and really digging deep because of those words ‘cultural appropriation’ and how deeply, deeply Native Americans have been injured and hurt and for generations in this country. I have such a deep respect for that and everything that I do is about holding up in a sacred way all of this. So it was very hard for me to reconcile this, and after a lot of soul-searching and talking to my elders, who are Native Americans and some who are not, but talking to my elders and my teachers I was finally able to come to the place where I realized that I have to stand in my own beliefs. And my belief and my path to God, my path to Creator, cannot be dictated by someone else.
I have to be able to stand with all respect that I can to all of those, and to recognize all of the pain, all of the hurt that has been created here. So it is very hard- it is very hard. For me, holding this work up and holding these teachings up in a sacred way is a way of honoring and I know that some people may still see this as cultural appropriation, but I'm on a spiritual path. I don't pretend to be of a culture that I'm not of. I do just as much work with my Viking ancestors as I do with my Native American ancestors, and I do have Native American ancestors even though I don't look like it. But I didn't learn from my native ancestors. They made a choice several generations back to not follow this path, so I learned from another Native American. It's a lot to reconcile. It's just so much and I feel like I'm still learning and I'm still paying attention. I just went last night to Duke University to listen to an amazing Native American woman speak about all of this. I wanted to be front and center to get her perspective and listen to her and understand where she's coming from. She's a Canadian Anishinaabe, and I have so much respect for what she's teaching and for what all of our teachers are giving to us. So I don't know if that answered your question?
AS: It really actually did and it brought home this idea that for those of us who come from broken lineages, our path is very windy, and the aspect that's hard is that people who have these strong shamanic lineages, it's a very clear path [for them] and they're not dealing- we live in a very self-deterministic society as well, so it’s not like we have the support system telling us ‘yes, this is what you are’ and so it doesn't happen like that for us. And so that’s the kind of criticism we get from people who don't understand, because they come from very strong, straight-lines. Our path is very winding and we can have many mentors and many teachers. I think you really expressed that.
RW: Well, you know it is and I do my best with my students to- you know, we're losing the old ways of learning these practices and I did learn by showing up to ceremony, by showing up and standing next to the medicine people and asking questions. I never had someone who had a bond with me as a teacher. Joseph- he's so giving, but he didn't make those personal bonds. So it is hard, and like you're saying, it does end up being a windy path in a lot of ways. And so I am doing my best to create a little more straight-line lineage from Joseph to me to those who come behind me and being very, very specific about it, sharing Joseph's teachings. Because one of the things that we do in this lineage is always, always honor our teacher, always honoring where that came from and where we were given- I don't know if ‘permission’ is the right word- where we were given the gift to carry this forward is so important. There are many who are stepping up, so I do teach. I teach in two ways- I teach through my apprentices who learn from me the the old ways. They show up, they help me, they carry my firewood. We do all of this in the old way and they are the closest to me, so they get the deepest teaching. And then my elders shared with me that we're living the old ways, but that we need to bridge from the old way to this new way- which everybody wants this instant gratification.
So I do teach, but I teach a year-long course and it's very intense, and even at that I have people who will say to me, 'well if I take your course will I be a shaman?' My answer is always, ‘that's between you and God. That's between you and Spirit and your Creator. I cannot tell you who you are, what you are, but I can share with you my experiences and what's been taught to me. And I can give you good foundational teaching so that you're safe, so that the people you hold ceremony for are safe, so that you know how to do this work. What you call yourself and what you claim for yourself really is your personal decision.' A lot of people in the culture, especially in our Western culture, they don’t understand that. We work so much on labels and all of this, so it's hard to stand in that middle ground. I still honor all the old ways. I see a lot of things and there are a lot of groups for shamanism on Facebook and I'll see a lot of things that come up and blow my hair back and make me go, “whoa! What are we doing?!” And then I see so many other of our elders stepping up to share and to teach and just speak up into these groups, which is beautiful. But for somebody who doesn't know, who doesn't have a teacher, it's hard to discern where the “whoa, wait a minute” is and where the really deep teachings are- really hard these days.
AS: It's very hard and it doesn't help when we do have prominent people in the shamanic community who have extreme views and kind of do perpetuate that same political pressure, that there can't be wisdom because there's no lineage for us. I really respect and appreciate what you're saying about how a lot of us are here to bridge that gap between brokenness and- I'm wondering, as you were going along on your path, at what point did you realize you have become the elder essentially, in that your next stage of work is to actually mentor and create that strong reconnection?
RW: I don't know if I would call myself an elder because that to me, my elders, I hold them in such high regard. So I am honored when there are others who are younger than I am refer to me as elder, and I'm still finding how to be in that space, so I have to be really honest about that. You know in our teaching and our lineage ‘elder’ is not about your age, it's not a number, it is about your wisdom and your experiences. In that I do see that I hold more wisdom and experience, if you could say that, then say someone who's just starting out. So I can appreciate that, but then I look at my elders and I think (whooo) those are such big shoes to fill. I just don't know that I'm ready. But I was recently sitting in circle and I had three different occasions from three different people in the circle referred to me as the elder in the circle and I kind of looked around and I went ‘okay, you know’, and then I immediately called my grandmother- and not my blood grandmother, but my teacher grandmother- and I said ‘okay, I had three people call me elder. Does that make it official?’ And like any good elder would, she said ‘it depends on who called you.’ I had to laugh. In my lineage, in my community, which is really beautiful and so connected- I'm very lucky that I have a community- but our elders are tough, as they should be. When my elders say, when they speak to me and say this is needed, this gap needs to be filled, and they look at me with that look that comes through 86, 87 years of living, my answer is always ‘yes’, and then I have to figure out how to do it. So, that’s kind of where I sit.
AS: So you mentioned community and I really want to talk to you about that because I think a lot of people are really struggling with that, with connection, with community. I'm curious how you built community locally?
RW: It's a really good question and it is one that I'm asked often. I think the only answer I have, because there was no plan, I did not set out to create community, I didn't even originally know that I was setting out to be in community, but once I stepped into this community in Tennessee, where there was land and there were ceremonies that were going on on a regular basis and I was invited to lodges, to medicine dances, to teaching circles. I realized what community was and how strong it is and I think I just longed for that. It's what I really desired and so in my desire to be in community I just began to create it. And like I say, it wasn't a plan and I'm still a part of the community in Tennessee, but I'm also now where I live in North Carolina. I have a beautiful, strong community here in the same ways, emulating those that came before me. We have sweat lodges and we have medicine dances here and I'm blessed to live at a retreat center that holds all of my teachings in high regard and so I can do this here and I don't even own this place. So I'm just lucky to live here and I can hold that space for others to come, and then as I have been asked to go to other countries and teach and to bring these ceremonies, specifically the medicine dance, the fire dance, then these communities are being created there. And I'm not even there but maybe a few weeks or even a month out of the year, but I'm so connected and truly social media does help us connect in. About nine or ten years ago I created a little group on Facebook called Otter Dance. I think I had 10 or 12 of my friends in it and now this group on Facebook, along with my business page, we're reaching over 4,000 people around the world who are like-minded. There are people who say to me, ‘you're a leader of such an amazing community’, and I say ‘no! no! I am part of an amazing community full of healers, and teachers, and speakers, and amazing, amazing people.’ I am just kind of like the hub in the middle of it, but I don't feel like a leader of it at all, and I'm so grateful to be a part of this. I think it's all just because it's what I desired in my life.
AS: So I hear you saying it just sort of organically manifested itself from you and having medicine and being in your soul purpose really?
The second half of the interview with Robbie can be viewed below:
When I first watched The Work I was profoundly moved. Without giving any spoilers (The Urban Shaman reviewed The Work, if you're not familiar with it), I'll just say that there's one scene in particular that is noteworthy and offers the viewer a path of action. I accepted that invitation and in December 2017 sent a letter and Christmas card to California inmate #T-54048.
That inmate has a name: Dante Granville. And a story.
Dante is an African American male who has been in prison since November 2000, sentenced for his first offense as an adult. He was a young 21 years old at the time of his incarceration. The natural inclination is to want to understand what got Dante in this situation. But I will let him paint the picture he wants to paint. But before I do that I just want to encourage you to lean in hard. Let go of stereotypes, let go of fear, and just lean in. A small detail I want to point out before we jump in: The Work was filmed in 2010 at the "new Folsom prison" in California (the original Folsom being of Johnny Cash fame). Dante has since been moved to Corcoran. It's not a prison I am unfamiliar with. It's where the infamous inmate Charles Manson was transferred to in 1989 , and where I personally visited a beloved soul brother. I won't soon forget taking the 'prison bus' from the reception area to the visiting area and passing by many nude men showering outside in the 'yard' as we passed by. Believe me- it wasn't titillating. It just felt inhumane. The entire experience of visiting an inmate there was quite traumatic really. Pat-downs, specific rules about clothing, watchful eyes and ultrasonic ears. I couldn't relax and be 'me' in any way. And the inmate I was visiting was 'level II'- I can't even imagine the barriers to visiting someone with a heavier sentence. So here enters Dante:
AS: You mentioned The Work was filmed a number of years ago and you’ve since been moved to another California prison. So you’ve had some changes in circumstance and also lots of time to process your experience of The Work. How have things changed for you in that time, and what do you attribute to your experience with The Work?
DG: Yes, a lot has changed for me in my life since the recording of The Work. The main thing is that new laws have passed since then and I will now be eligible for parole in a few years from now. I will now be able to be free again one day, as well as be the father to my son that he needs and deserves. The documentary, The Work, was filmed during one of our "Four Day" sessions in the "Mens Support Group/ InsideCircle.org" at new Folsom prison in the year 2010. Back then my circumstances were completely different and I was in a very bad place in my life. And what I attribute to the group, during that four day experience, is the extra strength that I needed at that time to keep me from giving up all hope and allowing myself to head down a path of self destruction, and that is something that I hold onto to this very day.
"So a lot has changed for me since then, and those days of me wanting to force the gunner in the tower to pull that trigger are behind me."
AS: The Work demonstrates a lot of shamanic undertones. It is a program that seems to tap into building a strong sense of community, accountability to that community, and builds a safe and accepting place to go deep into some dark places. Was this experience self-contained, or did some of the principles and things you discovered spill out into your relationships and experiences outside of the container of the program?
DG: Yes, many or all of the principles and things that we have discovered in the Men's Support Group, as well as during that Four Day Session, have spilled out into our daily lives on many levels in our relationships with one another [in prison], as well as with other people in life. It even effects us on a personal level in our day to day lives. The Men's Support Group seems to have picked up a few things from the shamans. I have known for years that it was an accumulation of different things that many different people, from different walks of life, have brought to it since the day it was created. I guess that is one of the reasons that it has become so popular and is attracting so many different people throughout the world. I emphasized the Men's Support Group a lot because the documentary The Work was based on the Men's Support Group. The Work is just the title of the documentary, but The Work was created solely by members of the Men's Support Group from the participants, producers, down to the camera men. The founder of the Men's Support Group, an inmate named Patrick Nolan, has since passed away. (For more information about the Inside Circle Foundation's Men's Support Group, visit their website at: http://insidecircle.org)
AS: You were still young when you participated in the filming of The Work. Had you had any previous experience similar to that? And if this was your first experience like that, have you had any additional experiences that are similar? (If you haven’t had experience similar, perhaps you can share how you think The Work changed you and what you might be like if you hadn’t had that experience).
DG: Yes, I was younger when I participated in that particular Four Day Session but it was not the first time nor the last time that I had participated in them. I had joined the the Men's Support Group back in 2004, when I was in my mid-twenties, and was a member up until I transferred out to another prison in 2015. During those years I had participated in several of these Four Day Sessions.
"I was very young, had no family, was stuck in foster care, and due to that I ended up becoming a product of my environment. I joined a gang because I had no family and so my peers, many who also came from broken homes, became my family. We were all one another had and it is still that way to this very day, even in prison where the majority of us ended up in life. "
AS: At one point in The Work your story and process comes into sharp focus. You seemed to feel abandoned and hopeless, and along with these feelings came suicidality. How were you able to dig out from that dark place and find hope and joy again?
DG: At that time in my life I was on the verge of giving up all hope and allowing myself to head down a path of self destruction which would have more than likely lead to me forcing the gunner in the tower to pull the trigger on me. During that process I was able to get the extra strength that I needed and that strength helped give me hope again. I still have that hope to this very day. I have hope that I will be a part of my son's life one day and that I will get out of prison one day.
AS: You’ve been an unfortunate subject of California's retributive criminal justice model, and as such are currently potentially serving a life sentence (with possibility of parole). Nearly all of our readers are not going to have any first-hand experience or even reference for what life is like for someone sentenced to life in prison. Do you have anything specific you’d like to offer to other people who might be struggling with hopelessness?
DG: I was arrested on 11-26-2000, when I was just 21 years old, on my first offense as an adult. I was convicted and sentenced with 40 years to life in prison, where I remain to this very day. What I have to offer other people who might struggle with hopelessness is a little advice and that is to find someone, or some sort of support group, like the one we have, where they can get the help that they need. There is someone, or something, out there for all of us- you just have to look.
"What led me to making the decisions that I made in life was me and my need for respect, recognition, and approval from my peers and the only way to get that from fellow gang members is by doing and participating in negativity. You don't get respect, recognition, and approval for doing positive things."
AS: You’ve seemed reluctant to talk about the offense you were charged with and found guilty of. Why are you reluctant to talk about these circumstances and have you been able to find inner peace with yourself and the circumstances that have determined your life path? What part has The Work played in that?
DG: I didn't know that I came off reluctant to talk about my committing offense that landed me in prison. Truthfully I don't even remember ever speaking of it or being asked about it at all. I have no problem speaking about it, but at the same time I wouldn't want to focus too much on it either. I was arrested, charged, and convicted of attempted murder for shooting another man during an ongoing confrontation between him and I. I was 21 years old at the time and it is an unfortunate situation that him and I both have to live with to this very day. We both played a role in what happened that day, as well as the events leading up to it, and I take full responsibility for my actions. I blame no one else. What the Men's Support Group did for me concerning my committing offense is help me, through a series of processes, be accountable and take responsibility for my actions. Because, at one point in time I was not able to see my own fault and could only point fingers, place blame, and hang on to my belief that it was self-defense and none of it was my fault. Also what the group helped me to do was let go of my anger that I had towards my victim, the system, as well as my family, friends, and everyone else who practically abandoned me or turned their backs on me since I have been in prison. I am not 100% at peace with what has become of my life, but I am a lot better off than I was before coming to the Men's Support Group.
AS: In the past California had a very staunch retribution model of incarceration. It seems to have moved into a rehabilitative model, which has opened up possibilities and potentialities for you. In what ways do you think you are contributing positively to both the prison community you’re living within, and the larger community outside the prison environment? Is contribution important to you? How do you think your story as highlighted in The Work might positively affect people?
DG: Yes, in the past California's prison system was used merely as a means of punishment and nothing more, but in recent years they have been forced by the California voters, Governor Jerry Brown, and many others to take a more rehabilitative approach to dealing with it's over crowded, and failing prison system. Many years ago an inmate by the name of Patrick Nolan, free staff Donald Morrison, and several others at Folsom Prison, had thought of and created the Men's Support Group as a way to help us prisoners to deal with and resolve the very important issues in our lives that may be holding us back in various ways, and/or contributing to us making the poor decisions that may have landed us in prison, and/or keeping us from remaining free once we are paroled. The Men's Support Group not only helps us individuals involved, but also those on the outside when we return back to society a lot better than we were when we came in. This group is also available to us, as well as anyone else who wants to be involved, once we are released and many of us continue to remain a part of the group and continue on our path of self betterment. I plan on working with at-risk teens and young adults when I get out in a few years, and plan to use all of the things I've learned in the Men's Support Group, and that helped me to become a better person, when dealing with those who could use it. That will be my way of giving back to society.
"My need for family, to belong, to be loved, respected, recognized, and approval from my peers are all contributing factors that led to me making almost all of the wrong decisions that I've made throughout my life, including the one that landed me in prison with a life sentence. I was able to take a good look at myself in the Men's Support Group and those are some of the things that I've come to find out about myself and that I have been successfully working on."
AS: The Work may have been an initiation of sorts, orienting you on a specific path of emotional healing and development. You’ve obviously transmuted a lot of stuff (turned “bad” into “good”) since then, and are still working on that. Where do you think you are in this process? What have you learned along the way?
DG: Yes, The Work was filmed during one of our Four Day Sessions and many involved were initiates and many others weren't and had already gone through the initiation process and were there to help and assist those who were initiates during their first Four Day Session. Yes, I have been able to turn a lot of the bad in my life around, and some of it into good, and I have come a very long way, since the day I first joined the group, but my journey is nowhere near complete. I still have a long way to go, because it is something that is considered continuous in the group. I am committed to that and determined to continue with it throughout the rest of my life. One of the main things that I've learned in the Men's Support Group is that everything pretty much always comes back to me, and that it is "I" who has to man up and make a change for the better if I truly want change in my life. Once I stopped looking elsewhere, and/or at everyone else, and began to look within myself, then positive changes began to happen for me and those positive changes are still happening for me to this very day.
"I have been separated from all of my family for many years now and at this moment all I want is to be with them and whenever I hear other people talk about being with their families I always feel it is a good thing despite all of the arguments and disagreements they are having. At least they are able to be together. Some people don't know what they got until it is gone."
AS: What is one thing you want readers to most understand or know about who Dante Granville is?
DG: That even though I have made my share of mistakes in life I still consider myself a good man, who has not only learned from my mistakes, but who now only wants to live a good, honest life as a free man.
I have a message or a little advice that I would like to give to those troubled or at risk teens and young adults as well as those who have loved ones in prison:
I just want to tell those who are headed down the wrong path in life to please cherish life, and everything that it has to offer, and that nothing is worth you jeopardizing it. Because it is true when they say that you don't know what you got until it is gone. For us in prison, especially those with life sentences, it is like being a ghost in a movie. No one can see us, touch us, or hear us and we feel all alone, and the only thing that we truly want is to feel alive again and to return back to the land of the living. Nothing compares to life and the freedom that comes with it. It is God's greatest gift. And the advise I would give to those who do have family and friends in prison would be for them to not give up on them, never leave them alone, and to love and support them as much as possible. Because unconditional love and a strong support system helps to keep us alive and from feeling like a ghost.
PS. For those interested or who would like someone to talk to please write me at the address below or contact me via email by adding yourself to my email contact list at:
Dante Granville T54048 CSATF C-6-116 PO Box 5246 Corcoran, CA 93212 U.S.A.
I don't want to paint a grim picture. Dante is hopeful that his first parole hearing is coming sooner than he originally expected and that he can start his life outside of the prison walls. California does seem to be making strides in this way. But the reality is, the system isn't set up to support success for convicted felons. The friend I told you about- he was a first-time felon as well- a minor offense that got him a two year sentence (after reduction). He paroled, but being a middle-aged man already and not having any family to support him, he struggled significantly to get on his feet after his release. He was literally released with one set of clothing and a ticket for a train ride back to the county where he committed the offense. Because of his incarceration he had lost everything. The rules of parole are strict- he couldn't reside outside of the county of his original offense, he couldn't associate with other felons, couldn't test positive for drugs or alcohol, couldn't have in his possession or be anywhere near firearms. And as a convicted felon his opportunity to find employment was significantly limited, and the federal government doesn't allow felons to be eligible for financial aid for college either. So it wasn't long before he was homeless, and within a year was already re-incarcerated for parole violation because in that kind of situation usually the only people you can find to help you are the very ones who contribute to the violations. He had multiple re-commitments because of relatively minor violations. And when they violate you they send you back to prison. We eventually lost contact with Jesse. I worry the same obstacles will snare Dante if he is released.
Having developed a steady stream of communication over the past year, I've learned a lot about Dante's situation. He doesn't have family to lean on. Dante has been earnestly waiting for his son to turn 18 (in June 2019), but being a father from prison is a nearly impossible task. Communications are heavily monitored and controlled, and lack of visitation creates a natural distance. Dante's mother lives in another state, and also cannot visit because of her own extensive criminal justice history. So if/when he is paroled he will be sent by one-way ticket back into the place where his original gang connections led him to make those decisions that landed him in prison, and with no encouraging family there to support him. Nevertheless, Dante's story is one of hope, of redemption, of rehabilitation. He has spent nearly 15 years participating in very intense multi-day therapeutic workshops, all intended to give him the inner strength and tools to be able to jump the hurdles he may face if he is released. And I know he wants nothing more than to be out of prison.
While prison life provides protections against the external systemic oppression he will face as a middle-aged, African American male who's a convicted felon, it's equally challenging and oppressive. The progression of privileges since Dante was first incarcerated have been exceptional. We've communicated mostly through JPay- an online email system. But all of those communications are monitored by the prison mailroom, and there have been several times Dante paid in digitized stamps to send an email to me that I never received. And it's not as simple as being able to forward or re-send. He doesn't have the capability to copy/paste. He also can't take photos or video with his tablet. He doesn't have full Internet access. Most people don't have landlines anymore, and rely on smart phones to communicate via various social media sites and apps- none of which Dante has access to. All of these barriers to communication make it difficult to establish or maintain relationships in our rapidly evolving, technologically-dependent culture.
But I share Dante's story not to discourage you. I share it because Dante offers an inside look at a massive systemic problem. Studies show that nearly 30% of prisoners are former foster youth, and a disproportionate number of foster youths are African American. We also know that there's disproportionate numbers of African American men in prison. So this is a systemic problem and our communities are failing. Our communities need to embrace the rehabilitative model and continue it with offering services during parole periods. They also need to build stronger mentoring programs for foster care youth. These are ways shamanic individuals can step-up to fill gaps or consider entry points into the lives of people who might benefit from deep shamanic work. Programs like those offered through the Inside Circle Foundation offer a template, a foundation for in-prison work. And collaborations build strong practice, so consider that as well. Together we are much stronger and innovative than when we stand alone. I want Dante's story to inspire you, to motivate you, and if it doesn't do that, to at least offer you a moment of gratitude. That in itself is healing medicine.
Do you know of any other rehabilitative programs operating in your local prisons? Share them in the community forums!
Have you had direct experience with an inmate? Share it with us! What insights have you gotten?
Prisons generally don't allow shamans to offer programs or services. Do you think they should? And if so, by what means would a shaman be "certified" or "official" in a way the system would honor?
There are always two sides to the coin. While "offenders" are always labeled as the "bad guys" and those they commit crimes against are labeled as "victims", in reality criminal activity creates many "victims" on both sides of the equation. Mamas lose their sons to the system, sisters their brothers, women their lovers, and babies their daddies. How can expanding your view of offenders and the net that is cast enlighten your practice?
While accepting responsibility for one's actions, including criminal and/or violent behaviors, is a necessary part of rehabilitation, often inmates have a common thread of systemic oppression and very difficult childhood circumstances. All of this lends to a certain lifestyle that promotes violence, self-preservation, and loyalty to criminal organizations (gangs). How important do you think preventative programs and work are to our communities?
Certain communities, such as those in Sierra Leone, model a grass-roots, community-based reconciliation model. How important is this type of model to contemporary cultures, and how might we build these models in our local communities?