My Inner Child and I Go to the Rockwood Leadership Institute

by Ali Muldrow

Editors’ Note: Ali Muldrow is co-director of GSAFE and recently ran for Madison School Board. Come to the July 12th CORE Circle to hear Ali and Dennis Johnson share and facilitate  from their experiences at Rockwood Leadership Institute and the Art of Transformational Consulting.

It’s rare for me to start from the beginning. Maybe it just mostly feels impossible, so much has happened, and yet here I am on the elevator on my way to the 7th floor. The doors open, I step out, and the room is empty and white. In front of me there is a full length mirror. In this mirror I am reflected not as I am but instead it is me as a child.

I do not like thinking of myself as a little kid. I do not like my memories, they are not the stories I tell people. My memories are the unspoken and unforgettable truth of why I have spent my life fighting for young people’s rights to an education. I will always be the kid I can’t save and still that kid grows up to be me and who am I? Well I am the kind of person who starts therapy by explaining to my therapist that I would prefer that we leave my childhood out of this. I know this is a red flag, and I know that I am not actually capable of avoiding the things that have happened to me. Still I protect myself by refusing to relive my childhood and I refuse to take you there with me, until now of course.

You might be thinking what does any of this have to do with the Rockwood Leadership Training Institute? Please let me explain.

I arrived in Sonoma, California on a mission. I was going to outrun and outlive exhaustion. I left behind me the bitter winter of my home in Madison, Wisconsin, my 4 year old child, my 8 year old child, my partner, and a work load that was crushing me alive. Or so I thought stepping off the plane, thinking that I just need a place to refocus and energize my spirit, and because these days you are never too far for email and facetime. Looking back I now realize that my instinct was to limit my availability to the Rockwood process, and to being open to valuing what was being offered, rather than just meeting my need for respite.

Arriving at “Hippy Hogwarts” the air was heavy with spring, there was a breeze and a pool so blue it was almost electric. My cabin was yellow with a white door and I felt lucky to be somewhere sunny. There was fresh fruit and peanut butter and jelly muffins offered with ice water to nourish us travelers as we arrived. This food, and cabin, and the earth come alive that surrounded it all felt like a profound kindness.  As we ate, people gathered at the entrance of what would become our practice space, stage, and classroom. The ding of a soft and humming bell summoned us, a group of 35 freedom fighters from all over the world, to sit in circle for the first time together. It was obvious as we took our first collective breath in that initial moment of meditation that there was no shortage of war stories in the room.

Helen Kim was our trainer, inspiration and guide although none of us knew it yet. She started with a few simple instructions and then as the sun set we spoke of beauty, pleasure and love. It had been a long day for most of us but no amount of jetlag could compete with this conversation. Our collective focus was shifted. Helen had led us to a river of happy memories and the first question we asked one another in pairs was, “what brings you joy?” As we orbited the room in a variety of configurations, I watched these strangers tell the stories of their lives’ most sacred moments and I fell in love with each of them right there and then.  Tears filled my eyes as I considered a conversation I’d had with a fellow activist back home, when he told he felt he had to reduce suffering in the world and I asked if he thought that meant he also had to spread joy. He admitted to me that he had never thought about it like that.

Helen’s fist went up into the air and the room fell quiet. The glow of the room felt warm and almost giggly as people settled into the circle in a way that felt cozy and seemed to transform us all into teenagers at camp. Helen explained that she would be our only instructor for the next 4 days as her co-facilitator had fallen ill. My heart went out to her as I studied our schedule—we would be training almost 10 hours each day!  A set of wind chimes made a soft musical vibration that let the room know dinner was ready. Anyone who has ever been to a retreat knows the food can be how we find out its going to be a week of hell. However at the Rockwood Leadership Institute the food was art. Eating that dinner that first night surrounded by radical conversation, my taste buds danced for joy, it was as if we were eating at a 5 star restaurant. I realized eating each meal and snack at Rockwood that the food made a huge difference. For 5 days I felt loved and taken care of every time I ate.

However it was not the food alone that got me on that elevator to face my 7 year old self. On the 3rd day it was clear that we were home and then our fearless leader did something I will never forget. She stood alone in front of us all and told us her story. We were all in tears by the time she stopped speaking and I knew the only way to honor what she had just given was to dive deep and deal with the kid I once was.

At the age of 7 years old I was given a label that would deny me my intelligence until I graduated in 2005. I was called learning disabled by my teachers and sometimes stupid or lazy. School was hard and humiliating for me and for the most part I felt doomed to never be smart or successful. This was intensified by the racism, sexism and anti LGBTQ+ culture I felt everyday but could not name, and by the constant fighting of my parents as they faced poverty with 3 small children of whom I was the oldest.  Sure, I thought I had survived all that insecurity and pain, but the truth was I had just learned to live with it by pretending it didn’t matter. Now I was face to face with this kid and I couldn’t tell her anything but you end up ok just wait for it.

I can’t lie—after taking it there I was heartbroken but later that day we broke into groups and I ended up in the group that focused on spirituality. It hit as we each took turns praying or reading or connecting with a greater love in whatever way made sense to us that I had lost faith. I have felt for a long time that I was born to change education to stand up for every young person’s right to go to school and be recognized for their brilliance, but lately I had started to doubt that I was enough. As we prayed the 7 year old me whispered from someplace deep inside me “if it turns out like this, it’s all worth it.” It hit that I was exactly where I was supposed to be and that I would have to trust and be grateful for this opportunity to fight for students and heal the kid me who just desperately wanted someone to think she was smart.

Coming home from Rockwood I began to meditate daily and eat like I was madly in love with myself. I started giving myself credit again and made more and more room for joy in my life. I started playing music in the mornings and dancing with my daughters before school and the more room I made to feel great the better my work became. I started to clearly see the next strategic phases of my work and started to write more. To say Rockwood changed my life is a cliché and it’s the truth. #ChurchOfHelen. I didn’t fix everything or even heal. It’s more like I finally was honest about how my trauma connects to my work, and I stopped being so afraid of understanding my own hurt. There is still so much growing to do. The gratitude that has lived in me since coming back from Rockwood has become fuel, and in this pursuit to change the world, energy is sacred.