Stories from our Trainer Leadership Initiative Participants

Participants from our Trainer Leadership Initiative shared their stories of their experience and journey.

The communities served in the Santa Clarita Valley One Step a la Vez are, by-and-large, immigrants from Mexico and Central America; the last thing its site director, Ricky Miranda, thought he’d be doing there is creating a safe space for supporters of newly elected President Donald Trump. But at One Step A La Vez, all voices are heard, especially when they are holding Council.

Ricky Miranda_One Step A la vez director taking part in a Beyond us and them program

Q. How did you come to work in council?
A. I’m the site director at One Step a la Vez and we had an opportunity to get some council training a couple of years ago through Social Justice Council Project. I got to be a part of a 6-month training program. It was awesome because our youth went with us. All of us, we were overwhelmed with joy. We got to be in a new space and learn a new practice.Q. How old are the kids at the center?
A. They are mostly 13 to 17, but a few are pushing 19 so there is a big range. It’s an interesting group of boys and girls with ideas and opinions. The Center allows you have the possibility to hang with your clique, but when you’re in Council, all of that is gone — you’re part of a huge group. Outside, they constantly have male/female issues with crushes and boyfriends and girlfriends, but with Council it all goes away.

Q. What is Council like for you? 
A. It’s so many things, the emotions really stand out for me. Council creates this open space to get to know each other and relate to each other, and even love each other.  A while back, I had the students in a Council session and a few of them had a huge disagreement. It really scared and shook up some people, especially the people who hadn’t done it before. We had to skip Council for a few weeks because people were so afraid of what happened.  Then we had a restorative justice circle. It was really still Council but it was reformatted around the conflict and to bring restorative justice to the group. It was special, that experience. The same kids that were about to fight each other, were now talking about how to be better people and make their relationships better with their parents. One week they wanted to kill each other, and two weeks later they were open to hearing advice from each other. They were open to hearing what they might be doing wrong in a critical, but positive way. The experience was so special. It was like a gift that things went from being something that was really scary to something that was really positive for everyone.

Q. How have you found yourself using Council in your personal life?
A. Whenever friends or family are going through something, I end up using a Council format with them, or I end up thinking as if I’m in Council. I don’t necessarily try to explain Council before, though. But really it is because of my experience with Council that I have become a better listener. That makes almost anything that happens with family or friends turn into an impromptu Council. I do it subliminally. In my family I am the person who has to be the glue, when there is a problem between a few family members, to get them to listen to each other. Also, I live in an artist community, The Wave, a working arts space in Ventura. It’s a cool concept of affordable housing for artists and I hope to start a Council circle there to help alleviate problems in the arts community and build community, since that is what the point is. We have all these creative differences, and people keep to themselves. I want to open that window too. 

Q. After the election, emotions are both fragile and fierce, have you brought in Council with a different approach during this time?
A. We have students who come to the Center and interact with the Center who are happy Trump was elected President. Council has served as a way to not yell at each other and hate each other. They are forced to listen to each other and listen to how both sides feel about the new administration. The Trump supporters are hugely outnumbered, and Council gives them a platform to be heard and that is really interesting.  We are using Council to open up the circle for our Trump supporters to be heard. That was unexpected. The people who are normally talking about why they like Donald Trump are normally ignored and completely unheard.

Q. Did it bring harmony between Trump supporters and non-supporters?
A. It didn’t do that, but it definitely allowed everyone to speak their mind without being laughed at or completely ignored. It made their points valid, even though you might disagree with them. It is interesting to hear their reasoning, why they think it was good for Donald Trump to close the border. It also allowed us to explore self-hate.  People were also given the right to share and think about the “what if”… to think about what it might have been like if she had won and to think about why we’re so upset with Trump. The coolest thing that happened from this Council is that the people who were disregarded as jerks or bullies were given their minute to shine with their ideas. It allowed them to justify why they were pro-Trump. Some students have their voices lost unless it’s at Council.

​Q. What are your personal goals with Council this year?
A. My goal is to hear what the youth have to say and to understand what they feel. 

Q. Do you feel inspired and encouraged by these kids and their future potential?
 One of the most beautiful parts of it is that they really get to express what they are going through emotionally. The coolest thing is when they experience Council with each other, and somehow it builds camaraderie through these experiences. We have youth who, outside of the Center, aren’t friends. They don’t speak to each other, and some aren’t even friendly. But when they are in Council, they talk freely about their issues so they see each other for who they are. They see they have the same issues. Even if outside of the Center they might not ever talk about it, when they are here that there is this sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that comes through that Council experience. ​


Friends of Center for Council who meet Jolene Escobar may recognize the surname. Her husband is Sam Escobar, an inmate at Salinas Valley State Prison and a powerful voice of compassion and self-awareness within the Center for Council’s Inmate Council Program. While Council first came into the Escobar family through Sam, Jolene and her two children have embraced the practice, not just when they visit with their father and husband in prison,
but also when they return home, carrying on with their lives — without him. During this long stretch of time apart, Council is the force that unites Jolene, Sam and their children.

Q. How did you come to be a practitioner of Council?
A. My husband is Sam Escobar and he is serving at Salinas prison. He actually got into the Council program there and was undercover about it at with us at first. He didn’t tell the family until he was about a year and half in.

Q. That must have been really hard for him since Council brings up so much.
A. He was changing! His behavior and whole mind frame had totally changed from the Sam we knew. So we asked him what was going on and then he told us.

Q. Why do you think he was protective of sharing something so positive in his life at first?
A. Sam came from a very different lifestyle. When you are in that kind of life, you don’t talk about things, you don’t show empathy, you don’t show any form of caring or thoughtfulness toward your family. So that’s what we noticed the most about him, that he suddenly really cared. We saw this especially in person when we’d visit. He was a totally changed person. He was caring and worried about me. It wasn’t about him anymore. He was very concerned all of a sudden and that is what I couldn’t help but notice because he used to be a very scary and angry person. It was a very scary thing to approach him. You never knew what his mood would be. I couldn’t just talk about anything with him then. His involvement in the program changed all of that. We are no longer scared of him. We don’t have to guess his moods. He’s not a time bomb. By being a part of this program, at first I didn’t even know who he was. He wasn’t the same Sam I knew. He was now very, very caring. He wanted to know about me. He wanted to know what he could do to be a better husband.

Q. How did you then decide to make Council a part of your life beyond how it is for Sam?
A. I love positive people. I have my own business, where I am involved in a lot of positivity with women. I noticed when I found out about Council and I saw that same positivity in people who were involved. They were wanting to know about me and they asked me thoughtful questions. I really liked how it made me feel. I didn’t really get what it could do for us until I got involved myself. That was when I could really see that Sam is a wonderful person. There are a lot of husbands and wives in pain and dealing with similar things.  Sam knows that support is there, that there’s a positive light out here for him while he’s still inside. Council works for our family. It helps us to be a part of something and it unites us, while he’s in and I’m out. It’s been great for our marriage. Even though we aren’t living together, he is motivated, and I want to be that help to him. Being a part of Council, this is my support to him. 

Q. How does he feel about your personal experiences with Council outside of with him?
A. He has been on lockdown for a few weeks, but he knew I went to the training. We write to each other a lot. I write him 2 to 3 letters a day sometimes. He was able to call yesterday and he was very excited about it. He asks me right away, “How was the training? How was Jared?”  He wants to know what I think and how I feel.

Q. Do you use Council at home?
A.  We started to do Council with our family and the kids when we go for a visit. Each time we do it, he’s excited and wants to know what he can do better next time. He wants to learn. When we come home after a visit, it’s hard. It’s very emotional for the kids. It’s hard for my 14-year-old son. He’s a teenager. His birthday just passed in September, and we had a surprise party for him, but he was more emotional than I thought he would be. So we sort of sat quietly, and then he opened up and said, “I wish was Dad was here.” Asking what is wrong is so big to us, and him opening up and saying that was huge. Doing that little Council for that reason helps him speak about his feelings. And believe me, he doesn’t want to talk about this because he is still a teenager.  But we do it.  I was able to ask “how do you feel?” and “what do you wish would happen?”  So, it’s been wonderful for the kids to have. They know the importance of it. 

Q. How do you think you will work with Council eventually?
A. I feel like I’ve been called to other moms, and women who have someone incarcerated, to hear my story and Sam’s story and help them resonate with us. I see how getting people who have a connection to the prison system into Council circles is needed. There is still fear, judgement. I still have it, that fear, and I work on it. With Council, we can help understand each other.

Q. Do you have any goals around Council and this year you want to share?
A. To be better. To learn more about the history of Council and be able to help communities. The families need this. And I feel I can make this work even bigger. I have big thoughts where I could do this. We need teachers involved and school districts. But, really, I want to work with Sam and be together out here working in Council for families. When Sam comes home, I want us to be the face of Council, together.


Sofia Rose Smith spent years working in the non-profit world before she experienced a Council circle. What began, initially, as an interest in personal self-care during a period when she was feeling professionally depleted, quickly became an intersectional practice for her personal and professional life. She witnessed first-hand how she could bring her experiential wisdom to the communities she worked with as a life-saving tool. ​

Q. How did you find Council?
A. I always say Council found me. It just kind of showed up on my path. I was working at the Los Angeles LGBT Center many years ago, with queer and trans youth, mostly of color, some experiencing homelessness, and those in the evolution of their identities. I was a Program Coordinator, and a full-time caretaker, healer and therapist for these sweet, magical beings. I didn’t have a lot of institutional support.

Q. What happened?
A. I was doing a lot of care-taking without a lot of resources and spread thin. I was carrying a big heavy load.  Council came about through Jared Seide and a donor at the LGBT Center. Jared magically showed up and he spoke something into being that I was 100% “yes” about.  We vaguely talked about burnout. I was thinking about it a lot, first for myself as self-care, and also as collective care. We had a circle with our youth members. I’d been running weekly meetings for years. That Council was the most connected we’d ever been. I could cry and really hold myself at the same time. 

Q. So what did you do then?
A. I left the non-profit because of the institutional hurdles and started my own practice working mostly with queer women and women of color doing intuitive healing and Council, queer and feminist healing circles. I’ve integrated the heart of Council into everything I do, along with other practices — speaking and listening from the heart is so easy to share as a practice. All those principles, it’s been beautiful. I was married in Council by Elissa Zimmerman, the daughter of the man who wrote the The Way of Council. My partner and I spend every New Years in Council. It’s a ritual for us and our community.

Q. How are you working Council specifically into your social justice work?
A. In terms of social justice liberation work, I specifically work with marginalized groups. If there is anything that marginalized groups have in common, it is that we are not seen wholly as our Selves. We have a hard time taking that space, and feeling safe in it. Council makes that space and lets us hold it. The link with social justice and Council has always been very clear for me.

Q. What have you witnessed that you can share without compromising privacy?
A. It’s been a powerful practice to implement with communities on the margins. Council is a medicine. Being seen, heard, witnessed, and feeling a sense of safety, and then being able to share that openly –  it’s got an oral history/narrative storytelling quality of it.

Q. How has your Council practice changed in the last three months?
A. I’d say with a lot of communities I’ve sat with, there is this big exhale. A lot of people’s armor that goes up is now going down, it’s melting away. The Women’s Center for Creative Work that focuses on feminism and creative practices in centering women has been powerful. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in Council in that space.  And I’ve sat in Council in my home space, where I lead retreats specifically for activists, women of color and queer people. 

Q. What are your 2017 goals?
A. In this Trump-era America, I want to hold specific Council circles as an open space in my community for anyone, but specifically for women, women of color, trans… I’m really interested in the space between us, and in closing that space. We have so many differences and perspectives. We’re trying to create a world across our differences. I think my work is in part in that space between people — holding dialogue space for white people to speak to black people, for queer people to speak to straight people. That’s the hard work. I’ve been more focused on healing of the communities, but the hard stuff is that middle space.


There aren’t many instances in life where you want the line between personal and professional to blur. For Jasmine Burgos, it happened quite beautifully through the insertion of Council in her life. She began training two years ago in Center for Council’s Social Justice Council Project and she’s found ways to weave Council into her life at home, in the office, in the studio, and on the stage.

Q. How did you come to have Council in your life?
A. The company I work for, Contra Tiempo Urban Latin Dance Theater, applied to be part of the Social Justice Council Project. We went through a Council training two years ago, and then at the completion of it there was a retreat up in Ojai.  That was where I really felt the power of Council. 

Q. How do you explain what Council is to people?
A. For me, it is really about listening to an individual and their experience with an honest mind and an honest heart. From what I have seen in my use of Council, it brings people together in a much deeper way. 

Jasmine in the center of  a council circle at our trainer leadership initiative program
Jasmine a participant trainer leadership initiative_beyond us and them

Q. Can you share how you used Council recently?
A. We solved a problem that we didn’t even know was solvable. The director of a company we are working with is moving to another state.  And he was going to just dissolve his company, which would end a lot of positive experiences and would really upset a lot of people. It was going to be a big loss. We had a 3-hour discussion about whether we could take it on ourselves, so it could still exist. We decided that we didn’t have the capacity, which we knew would be a big letdown for new and old members. We didn’t know how to deal with that, with the emotions that would come to light when we would tell everyone. Anyway, after that 3-hour conference call, I realized that what we really needed was Council. We invited others in and opened this space where people felt super safe. People were so open and raw.  The level of support and comfort that happened during that time in Council, and after, has been really mind-blowing for me. It was very intense and also very productive. And when it came time to hear the news of the transition, we felt the real witnessing of everyone. And it turned out we had people right there who wanted to rise up and take over the admin, where we couldn’t. We had no idea this would come from that! So now we have a solution, a new avenue for the future of this company that we hadn’t even been looking for!  It was really intense and heavy. It was just mind-blowing that one Council changed everything for us.

Q. Prior to this beautiful example, how were you using Council?
A. I use it periodically. I direct a junior company with Contra Tiempo, as a kind of platform to generate different stories and voices to help generate new movement phases. It’s storytelling through your body. What Contra Tiempo likes to do is to put stories and voices that are typically being suppressed onto the stage, so they are not suppressed anymore. Immigrant workers, for example; that experience of crossing the border; coming into America and really showing what happens with that person. There are all these stories and journeys that no one knows, but many people can relate to. We’ve used Council to gather that information and translate it into a language of the body. I facilitate during those sessions. We use Council to come to a decision when a group can’t. I use Council to hear the voices and help students to problem solve, and then I also use it as a tool for us to build new work. 

Q. How have you used Council in your personal life?
A. I live in a house with five other people. A few years ago, we were going through a transition with two roommates who had been romantically involved but no longer were. Since it didn’t work out for them, it wasn’t working with all of us in the house. We were put in a situation where we had to choose between the two.  We were all friends and we were feeling the pressure to choose, to have loyalty. There were a lot of misunderstandings. We used a talking piece. We needed to stop talking over each other because we weren’t listening to each. I took the remote control and made that our talking piece, and I made everyone take deep breathes and center. We couldn’t hear each other without listening to each other, and I made that really clear then. I set rules saying, “You can’t speak without the remote control. We have to really listen to one another.”  We let everyone speak their piece. We came up with a plan. We didn’t want to lose anything. We didn’t want to choose one friend over one another. 

Q. So what happened?
A. It helped a lot that we spoke like that, and then it kind of worked itself out. They took that time to think about things, and that really helped us to not have to choose between the two of them. We were able to listen and work things out. That really helped me to realize I wanted to know more about Council because it was so personal and I felt there were ways I could be better as a facilitator. 

Q. What are you goals with council in 2017?
A. We have an opportunity to build a partnership with Community Coalition in South LA, and serve that area. I feel like I will have a lot of opportunity to use Council to address a lot of different issues down there. Especially working with racism – against one another and against different cultures. I see the opportunity to use Council as a platform to find common ground and to show that we are all human beings. 


Want to learn more about our training?

Find out about our council training and workshops here.

Find out about our work with non-profit organizations here.

Learn about all of our Beyond Us and Them programs here.

Help support our essential work by becoming a regular supporter – donate here.

For more information on this and other Beyond Us and Them programs, please contact us.

Share this article & help raise awareness of our work

Posted in
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.