A Silly Word for a Serious Problem
Kristen Caven’s speech to awardees on Oakland’s Zorgos Day, October 15th.
On his first day of sixth grade, my son was pushed, kicked, threatened, and chased. Being the shortest kid and wearing glasses is the classic recipe for being a target — even if you’re not also the racial minority. On the last day of sixth grade, a kid he didn’t know crossed the street, but not to say hi. He said “I don’t like white people,” and slapped my son in the face. Over the next few years he was stalked, peeped, threatened a lot more, solicited for sex, and robbed. I saw families leave our public school in droves…the ones who could. But of course they found bullying and conflict wherever they went.
Middle school can be rough territory. It’s a time when kids come from different neighborhoods into a new mix of different cultures, attitudes and realities. It’s a time when they have a lot of anxiety about growing up and fitting in. And it’s a time when they want to be more independent, so it’s much more difficult for parents to be involved… and adults to supervise.
But I pushed my way in. I was like, dang it this is my school! I don’t want this to happen at my school! I don’t want stuff like this to happen to my kid, OR any other kid! I found other parents to work with, and we did all we could to support a positive climate in the school and the community.
And there was LOT of that! There was a bike club, there was a computer lab, there were great teachers. There were spelling bees and band concerts and volcano projects and castles. My son had friends, and he felt pride and connection to his school, in spite of the mean kids. When offered the choice, he didn’t want to change schools either.
Meanwhile. In my day job as an editor, writer, and graphic designer, one of my best clients and collaborators was shopping a book around. A very special client, and a very special book.
My mom, Dr. Louise Hart, wrote The Winning Family while I was a junior in college. It was one of the first books to address this new concept of “self-esteem,” and suggest maybe we could build it in children to prevent the pitfalls of mental illness. She enjoyed a long career as a champion of children and an educator of parents and caregivers, speaking all over the world at schools, hospitals, military bases, and conferences. Her book — which I illustrated when I was a senior in college here in Oakland — was published in seven languages, helping parents create new conversations in Japan, Australia, Russia, and elsewhere.
Years later, when all this new research on brain science started coming out, it proved everything she and her colleagues had been teaching for years — that raising a child is like building a cathedral. It takes time, patience, hard work, and a grand vision. Her work helped spread understanding of resilience, and shape the field of positive psychology. I helped her write another lovely recovery book, On the Wings of Self-Esteem, about which Jack Canfield said “if everyone read this book and did the recommended exercises, half of all the pain and suffering we currently experience would disappear.”
She tried to retire a few times, but when her grandson was in middle school, she still felt she could help with all the pain and suffering. She approached the country’s largest recovery publisher, Hazelden, about publishing new editions of Wings and The Winning Family.
They said “We really really love The Winning Family, but we really need a book on bullying because it’s trending. Can you rewrite it as an anti-bullying book?”
Naturally, she came to me since here I was, in the middle of motherhood and a parent volunteer on the “front lines” in an inner city middle school. Ugh. War should NOT be metaphor for school! And the word “bully-proof” sounds too much like bullet-proof, and bullets don’t belong anywhere near kids! Still, they saw positive parenting as a “silver bullet.” After some marketing research, they came up with a great title and image, framing the solution as a superpower.
Okay there you go. I could relate to that. I’m a critical thinker and loved putting together all this research on bullying and new concepts in psychology — and there was some really great new thinking coming out at the time — but I’m also an artist and creative writer with a secret life as a costumed cartoon character. So I totally felt like I got away with something inventing the power of Zorgos.
Zorgos is like a suitcase for the qualities and strategies that are are the opposite of bullying dynamics. These are strengths that you all identified tonight, real tools, real powers. Tonight’s honorees all embody qualities like these in their work. You might see these qualities highlighted in the program.
Anyway, it took us nine months to write the book, and we put Oakland in it, and our amazing life here. Our coop preschool’s parenting team that lasted way through high school. Great, clear rules from our elementary school. Stories from our middle school. Because, as much as kids struggle here, this city is FULL of incredible, smart, caring, resourced problem solvers. Oakland is ahead of the curve with bad problems and good ideas alike, that seem to show up here first before they affect the rest of the country. Think about it!
Environmental conservation began right here — those bird islands outside were the first wildlife sanctuary in the US. The Black Panthers, Martin Luther King Day, Black Lives Matter were all born here, in our schools. Kung Fu, Women architects and beat poets. Mai Tais! But also budget cuts, state receivership and charter school explosions. The list of innovators, disruptors, and game changers is long here.
Mom and I felt we had a contribution to make, but after the book came out we struggled to bring this conversation to Oakland. We were invited to speak through the tunnel and in the North Bay, (God bless all our neighbors up there), but it was hard to find audiences in Oakland. Parent education is not a thing here like it is elsewhere. This is a city of difference, of immigrants, of refugees, of minorities , of pioneers and visionaries — no one’s story here has not been shaped by bullying in some form or another. Parents are under so much stress and have so many barriers to connection—speaking different languages, holding different values, and representing different cultures with different, entrenched, and often conflicting parenting styles. The potlucks here are the best in the world, but deep conversation is very difficult… and expensive because you need food and facilitators…and impossible when budgets keep blowing up.
In 2015, when Hazelden discontinued all of their bullying programs, Mom and I cried for a minute, but quickly had an idea. We asked Hazelden to donate the rest of their stock to Oakland. We held a fundraiser to pay for the shipping — thank you to all our donors in this room, you know who you are—and found a wonderful nonprofit that creates parent conversations, Oakland Parents Together, to receive 3000 books (3 tons, 125 cases), and sponsor our giveaway. Over the next two years, we wrote a discussion guide and passed out books hand over fist to thousands of Oakland parents, through dozens of different organizations eager to share them with readers. Oakland Natives Gives back invited us to their back to school rally, where we spread the word (what’s the word? Zorgos!) and opened 24 cases for parents who were standing in line for free shoes and backpacks.
Oh, and by the way, a lot of publishers discontinued their bullying materials. They said, “bullying isn’t trending anymore.” Apparently, President Obama solved that problem before he left office?
On the bright side, the Oval Office takeover has given us a crystal clear picture of what bullying is about! Bullying is a specific kind of conflict that targets, demeans, and controls to serve itself. The bullying dynamic is an energy between being hurt and being mean. Spread all over the news, we can see all the players for who the are: the bully-victim who seeks the center of attention; resentful bully-followers who gravitate around a strong leader; the targets are, and who the allies are. The tools of bullying are the tools of mind control: blame, shame, confusion, and doublespeak. The guiding principle is fear.
Fear is real, we all have it — and how we deal with it is the key. When we have the knowledge that expanding positive emotion expands safety, expands opportunity, and expands happiness, then we must make the choice to pursue that path instead.
Our intention in sharing this gift was to provide a way for parents to see how their lives have been shaped by bullying dynamics, and to learn this other path. Because cultural change does not happen alone.
Because cultural change does not happen alone.
For example, one teacher may decide not to yell at her students…but they get yelled at at home and in other classes — so that’s all they respond to. One parent may decide she wants to limit her child’s exposure to violence…but his friends play T and M-rated video games, and teachers play PG and R rated movies at school. One parent may decide he’s not going to spank his his kids anymore… but his friends disapprove because that’s a dad’s job! Our hope with this city-wide reading group was to help parents get on the same page, to share a common language of strength and compassion-building, and to understand the facts about how bullying dynamics are normalized and perpetuated in families and society, so deeply to our detriment.
As we wrap up this project — and give mom another crack at retirement — we have no idea if it worked, or if it will work. We did not want to gather data and compete for grants with other worthy non-profits. We did it in our free time and just barely got it right, unable to accomplish even half of our cool ideas. But we did manage to get stacks of this book into a few middle schools, into preschools, into recovery centers and churches. Some police squads have a bunch, a football team has some, foster parents, community centers. People don’t have time to read, much less meet, so the best we can hope for is that this book gets cracked open to a page now and then — every page has a good idea on it — and that people find some strength in it.
Because we are going to need strength, with what happens next in the world. And we are going to need a certain kind of strength. We are going to need outside-the-box thinking for what’s happening next.
I know. This silly word, “Zorgos” seems incongruent with the seriousness of bullying. But it’s intentional, because it is named for the opposite. Zorgos interrupts bullying. Playfulness transforms, resilience defeats, and joy and purpose transcend bullying dynamics. Zorgos is a paradigm shift. Don’t you see, Zorgos is a way to say bully-free without giving any energy to the b-word! It is a way to see experience from the inside out, rather than behavior from the outside in.
And my sixth grade son? He is now a college junior himself. At the end of his first week in middle school, he was getting great exercise being chased around, but was really getting tired of this boring bully threatening to steal his backpack every day at lunch. So he’s got his back to a fence, the mob is coming, and what does he do? He shouts to the crowd, why are you following him? Why don’t you follow me instead? I’m a nice person! Let’s chase him, he’s a jerk! And they were off, thundering around like boys burning off energy like kids need to do. Two weeks later, the bully switches schools.
And me, well, I felt grateful for getting such a good parenting education—when you edit, when you write, you learn. My son knew how to find his own strength when he needed it, and he used his words. I was so proud of him, and I wished, at that moment, we could bottle that power and sell it.
Or better yet, give it away for free.