Jolene’s story: a family healed through council

Jolene’s husband, Sam, had been in prison for over a decade when he began participating in Beyond Us & Them’s (formerly Center for Council’s)  Inmate Council Program. It was through him that she discovered the practice of Council, a space where she could talk about what was really going on in her life. For Jolene, Council filled a much-needed void and reconciled the inability to share her story and connect with people around her. Center for Council has impacted Jolene’s entire family in profound ways.

Beyond Us & Them sat down with Jolene to learn more about her story.  Jolene explained that she and Sam were married and then divorced while he was in jail. Their son and daughter rarely talked to their father and Jolene wasn’t able to speak with her family about what was happening with Sam.

After they had separated, Jolene began to notice a change within Sam; he was kinder, more empathetic with her when they spoke and during visiting hours. Jolene was hesitant at first, wondering if the change she was witnessing would last. After a while she asked Sam what had caused this shift within him. It was through him that she learned about Beyond Us & Them.

Tell us about your first council circle…

Jolene: The first time I experienced a Council circle was at a Center for Council (now Beyond Us & Them) event at the LA River Center. I had never been a part of a Council circle, I didn’t know anyone, and was really nervous that day. When we got there, we sat in Council circles a number of times. I had never been able to tell Sam’s story because of judgment from others. I feel like I live a double life sometimes because there is so much that people don’t know about me and about my husband. It’s not that I’m ashamed, it’s just because I have so much fear of being judged. But when I went to the Council event and participated in the circle, I was able to talk about all these things. That was really the first time that I saw how the program worked. I instantly fell in love with the fact that people were so open about their lives. And it was really neat to experience what Sam was doing in prison—what he was helping to facilitate with other inmates—and to have that bond with him and be practicing the same thing outside prison.  

That day, we did three or four circles with all different people, and I got to see a couple of different Council techniques and how things were done. It was so exciting to see how much people related to me, and how much we all had in common. I have never been able to talk about Sam, even with my own family. I can never tell them that I’m excited for him, because they aren’t excited for him. To be put in an atmosphere where I felt so comfortable sharing my story and talking about him without being judged, it just made me realize that I wanted to be a part of this practice.

What was the catalyst for you to become even more involved?

Jolene: It was definitely that first event. I didn’t realize all that Center for Council had to offer for those of us who weren’t in jail. I thought initially that they just had the Inmate Council Program. When I learned that I could continue learning and participating in Council through the Trainer Leadership Initiative, I decided ‘I want to do this.’ I wanted to be a support for Sam, too. I thought if I can do this on the outside and he can do it on the inside, we would have a much better, stronger relationship.

Once you started learning more about Council through the Trainer Leadership Initiative, did you bring it home and start doing Council with your kids?

Jolene: Yeah! Sam wanted to do it with our kids too. When I went to the LA River event I noticed that there were a lot of teachers participating in the Council circles. I realized when they were saying that they do it at school, and that kids could be involved in this! That really planted the seed for me to bring it home and practice with my own kids. We went to visit Sam at a family visit overnight and that’s when we first did a Council circle with the kids.

That was just… wow. I was really nervous for the kids because they weren’t really sure what we were doing. The prompts got light and then they got heavy and then they got really heavy! My son, who is 15 now—and he’s been doing it for a year or so now—I  think had a hard time because he had really suppressed a lot of feelings about his dad being gone. It was really emotional for all of us. But now, my daughter, who’s nine, is always asking to do Council. Recently she wanted to do Council in Halloween costumes, which I thought was great.

Do you think it’s changed your kids’ relationships with one another or with their friends?

Jolene: Between the kids, I feel like they have this huge appreciation for each other, when we do Council together. When we do it, they are definitely bonded. They still fight like brother and sister [laughs]. For our son, he’s bonded so much with his father, knowing that his dad is involved in Council. He has really taken to it in terms of being more communicative and open with us. When his dad calls, he’ll say “I need to talk to dad in private.” Which never happened before we started doing Council, he was never like that before. It’s been really amazing to see that door open up for him. It’s benefited all of us in general, because for years we all suppressed so much of that anger and frustration of Sam being gone and why this had happened to us. Council has changed our lives.
I always remind Sam that we wouldn’t be where we are without Council. It’s changed him, it’s brought us back together. It’s like we have a new life. Who gets that?

Related: Sam’s story: A family in council

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Beyond Us and Them team

Beyond Us and Them team

Beyond Us and Them is the leading solution-focused organization providing dynamic and scalable practices to combat the loneliness epidemic and foster social connection.

It creates programs and delivers training for law enforcement officers, healthcare providers, educators, policymakers, and community-based organizations, among other populations and individuals, to cultivate wellness, relationality, compassion, and resilience.