An anthropologist, former director of Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and owner of Alchemie Academy, Jenean Perelstein shares her stories and challenges of trying to help others. From researching the spread of HIV in India to supporting kids in the juvenile court system, Jenean has faced a variety of challenges, including how to process it all.
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For a complete transcript of this episode, read on below:
ANNOUNCER: This is Do Good, Be Good, the show about helpful people and the challenges they face in trying to do good. You host is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom, a career do-gooder who also loves craft beer and a good hard tackle in rugby. Sharon speaks to everyday people about why they do good and what it means to be good.
SHARON: Today’s episode was brought to you by VolunteerPro. VolunteerPro provides online volunteer management training, coaching, and community to volunteer leaders at all levels. Learn more at volpro.net.
I’m Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom, welcome back to Do Good, Be Good. This is our eighth episode. Last week I took a week off. I was out of town and in all day trainings most of the week. Thank you to our regular listeners who inquired as to what was going on. They actually missed having a new episode. I am glad you missed us, and by us I mean me. I am back and I have just one more episode for you next week to wrap up season one. I am going to take a break for the holidays and then be back in January for Season Two.
For new listeners, on this show we talk about helpful people from a wide range of backgrounds and we hear all different kinds of stories about the challenges people face when they try to do good.
On today’s episode I speak to Jenean Perelstein. I know Jenean through her work as a coach and consultant with her own company, Alchemie Academy, here in Flagstaff, Arizona. Before starting her company, Jenean served as the Executive Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters. She has also been trained as an anthropologist. As we started our conversation, Jenean explained to me that in Anthropology they use the terms Emic and Edic to refer to the insider and outsider perspectives. Both perspectives are valuable and they both are problematic.
JENEAN: When you are on the inside, one of the hardest things to see is your own behavior. It is like the fact that we can see our noses on our face all the time but our brains filter it out for us and sometimes we need someone else to say, “Hey you’ve got a nose there. Can you see it?” And that’s the value of the edic perspective is bringing somebody in who is going to show you things about your culture that you have stopped seeing. But you see it happening all the time in people’s families and their relationships… you know somebody comes to you with relationship problems and it is so easy to see, right? But they can’t see it for themselves because they are too close to it. I would say as an example, here is something out of Anthropology that informs everything that I do. I always want to know, what are the two perspectives and how can they inform each other? How do they create blind spots for people? How do we overcome that?
SHARON: I asked Jenean about the challenges she faces as a very empathetic person.
JENEAN: You know I think I was shamed for it early on growing up. I was too emotional. I was too sensitive. I think society can tell us, it can give us messages that we are not good enough if we are too sensitive. When in fact I think it is our sensitivity that can give us tremendous strengths in some areas.
SHARON: During that AmeriCorps position I had, I would do some conflict mediation with AmeriCorps members who were going through difficult situations. And, yea, I remember … and I don’t know that I am as empathetic as you describe on a regular basis, but I felt the need to really use that skill in the mediation. I would really practice it and try to be as empathetic as I could be, which … Yea, it’s difficult to know, how do you hold space for someone’s emotions and allow them to feel what they need to feel without absorbing all that yourself. I definitely had one where they person’s emotions were very raw. We probably spent two hours together and she was just telling me everything going on. By the time I left that, I went home and I made a bubble bath and a margarita.
JENEAN: That’s right, absolutely. You absolutely have to ground yourself for that. In the coaching work that I do I take on a lot of emotion during the day and I find that if I am not really thoughtful about what I do with that emotion personally I can be overcome; go home with headaches, really moody. Sometimes I have to realize this isn’t me, wait a minute, let me ground myself and get back to my own emotions, because they are quite different often.
SHARON: So how do you ground yourself?
JENEAN: I meditate a lot. I rely on meditation in a big way. I visualize true grounding, kind of like roots coming down from my feet into the ground. That helps me tremendously. Sometimes, just calming and doing some deep breathing exercises will center my mind enough to get to that center place where my essential self is; where the disconnect between those two are. If you are the kind of person as I tend to be, sometimes those boundaries get mixed and you don’t know. Is this me with this energy or this emotion? Or am I just picking it up from someone else and taking it on as my own? It can really drag you down after a while. I think it is important for volunteers and people who look to do the deeply emotional, difficult work to know their strengths and to know where their strengths end with that.
When I was director at Big Brothers Big Sisters I did a lot of research on exactly what happens, what will alleviate pressure from kids who have a propensity towards delinquency. The biggest correlation that I found that will keep kids away from trouble is feeling connected to their community. That is always something that I have in mind. I think that’s so fascinating. If we can just give kids a feeling like they are part of something bigger, that they have ownership over their place. That will keep them out of trouble more than anything else. We had a mentorship with kids that had been part of the juvenile detention system. There are a lot of kids out there that don’t have examples, appropriate adult examples, of doing it well. Of using your control in a way that benefits, not just you and your family, but the community around you. When you see that, it is sometimes really striking. It is something we tend to take for granted as something we’ve always had. But for some kids out there, they’ve never had appropriate examples of adults in their life wielding their control well. So, providing that for kids who haven’t had that is pretty miraculous. But they need that, they desperately need that, or else they will try to push against that control to see where the boundaries are. Boy, once kids are part of a system, a judicial system, it is difficult to reverse that. Really challenging to see kids that have so much opportunity and so much potential in front of them, but instead of them looking at that they are looking at exerting control over their environment, because that’s not what they’re feeling. So they do something stupid like shoplift or steal a car, or just something dumb that seems like their only option at that moment. Or drugs even, that’s a big thing. When that seems like all you have, because opportunity and possibility just isn’t even in your vocabulary, you don’t even have examples of that in your life; you are likely to go the route of where the examples are. And if those examples are with drugs or alcohol, stealing, all kinds of ways that kids will push boundaries because they need to feel control. They feel part of something. And there’s that identity piece, they want to feel part of a community. Well, if their community is doing those things, that’s what they’re going to be doing. It is part of their belief system.
SHARON: I am doing a training on volunteer management tomorrow. I am going to be talking a lot about the importance of a sense of belonging to why people volunteer. But it’s really interesting to think of that opposite to, that a lot of people we are going out to serve are doing what they are doing, anti-social behaviors, not pro-social, because they are also seeking that sense of belonging.
JENEAN: Absolutely. They absolutely are. You really need to look at the level of belief, instead of just their behaviors. What are their beliefs? Where do they get their sense of identity from? And how can you replace that instead of just taking something away from them that is so valuable? I mean a sense of identity is so valuable to all of us. You started out by talking about our identity as volunteers. Where that comes from and how that gets shaped. I think it comes very much from a need to belong.
SHARON: Going through your coaching program I know how hard it is to change if you have a limiting belief, or something you know is not benefitting you, but you are still trying to replace it with something else and trying to change that sense of self. It is very hard work.
JENEAN: It is very hard work. And if you are not aware of the ways that you limit yourself, because of how hard wired they are, deep into of your habits and your beliefs you can sabotage your beliefs from here to eternity. In all of this that we are talking about, whether it is getting in trouble with the law, or just not reaching your potential, if you are focused on your results and behaviors, you are missing the biggest piece, and that’s the level of your beliefs and your identity and your values, really deep habitual stuff that informs where you go.
SHARON/AD BREAK: When I first started working as a Volunteer Coordinator I was thrown into it with no training and no experience. Learning on the job was painful and I made a lot of mistakes along the way… VolunteerPro would have helped me so much. Their site provides volunteer management training and coaching. If you were voluntold into volunteer management, this site is for you. VolunteerPro is offering our listeners $100 off an annual membership. This is a limited time offer. Go to volpro.net and use the promo code PROPOWER. That’s volpro.net, promo code PROPOWER. Now back to our show as Jenean describes the work she did in India as a graduate student in anthropology.
JENEAN: I had an amazing experience doing program evaluation for a nongovernmental organization in India. Trained as a medical anthropologist specifically, I was looking at the larger body of research that encompasses illness studies. They were doing HIV prevention in vulnerable populations in Bangalore. When I went there they were throwing their hands up in frustration saying, we are handing out hundreds of thousands of condoms in these vulnerable populations and we are still seeing HIV incidence rise and we can’t figure out what is going on. One of the first things that I learned that was really fascinating was going to the marketplaces and interviewing sex workers. It didn’t take long before we recognized that something was really a problem. When I sat down with one young woman with my translator and she says to me, “ugh, we don’t understand how they expect us to swallow one of those nasty things every time we have sex”. I was just, “what?” Sure enough, they believed, they truly held the belief that that is how they would protect themselves from HIV and they weren’t willing to do it. You know, obviously, which is a good thing I think.
SHARON: They would have lots of other medical issues.
JENEAN: Exactly. Talk about disruption of their work! The gastrointestinal problems that would come up from that… But you know the NGO was really overlooking… they were looking at behavior change, “use a condom”, “use a condom”, but they weren’t looking at the beliefs that inform that. The first of which, that how to use a condom was important, but then there were other things like…
SHARON: Well I imagine that if they thought of a condom as something used to treat AIDS it was thrown in the medical column in their brain, which is “take a pill”.
JENEAN: Right, exactly. We are going to swallow it; we are going to take it. Yea. Then, all the while, at the time that I was there, they had a state aid government official that was overseeing HIV. And he said, I don’t know why you are here, we’ve only seen 10 cases of AIDS in the last ten years. And I am thinking, really, because I have seen about 20 this morning. What I later learned was that his salary was based on the number that he kept it down to, so of course it behooves him to lie about his results. He said, you need to be up in Calcutta, we don’t have an AIDs problem here. It’s too bad, because I think that a lot of India didn’t get the help that they desperately needed in this area of research, and care, because of government obstruction. That was fascinating and very sad. You know, I was talking to people who were dying every day and wanting to know how they could make it better. The NGO that I worked for would set up emergency counseling services in the hospitals because men would go with an STD thinking I am just going to get my shot of penicillin and be on my way. That is typically what they would do, but the hospital started testing them for HIV and then giving them a piece of paper saying that they were HIV positive, but not telling them what that meant. So our organization would set up a counselor right there in the hallway of the hospital with a little curtain and we would tell them what that meant, which was horrifying. You are basically telling them, this is a death sentence and don’t give this to anybody else. I remember one young man in tears and he turns to me and asks, “What do people do with this in your country?” and I said, “They die in my country too”. It was just a horrifying thing to bear witness to and recognizing that the problem is so big.
SHARON: And how did you process that?
JENEAN: Not well.
SHARON: It sounds like that was prior to when you gathered your coping strategies.
JENEAN: Ding, ding, ding, yes. And I had the double whammy, I made this mistake, and don’t anybody do this, I was in grad school and I got married. I planned my wedding and got married and went on my honeymoon with my husband in Asia and then he got me to Bangalore and then he left to come home. So I had this extra heightened emotion as a newlywed feeling abandoned by my husband, living there alone and there were some issues of being a working woman on my own living in Bangalore at the time. I was very emotional and had a difficult time dealing with it. When I came back to the states to manage my data set and write my thesis and all of that, I hadn’t yet processed that emotion. I ended up needing to take a semester to do just that. It was devastating for me. I met many people who were dying in front of my eyes. Including, I fell in love with this nine year old girl who had been rescued from the Red Light district in Mumbai. She had been kidnapped and sold into sex slavery, and then had been rescued, but she was dying of AIDs at that point. And she was the happiest little girl you will ever meet and that breaks my heart. I couldn’t reconcile that.
SHARON: I don’t know how you could.
JENEAN: Right, right. But I did come home and I realized, “Ahh, I am not meant to be a clinician with dying people”. Here’s what I am not meant to do. I have such admiration for people who have the ability to do that. It’s not in me and I feel blessed to recognize where my strengths are and where they are not. Wow, boy do I hold them in high esteem.
SHARON: I asked Jenean what she thought it meant to do good.
JENEAN: The thing that comes to my mind is the word compassion. When we talked before about empathy, the difference between empathy and compassion is action. If you have these feelings, you must act on them. Every day I want to pinch myself. I am blessed with a profession that truly allows me to act on my awareness of the importance of our feelings and help other people do the same. Help people stand in their strength, I think that there’s no better calling for me. You know, I think that the do good, the be good, all of that comes from taking ownership and recognizing where your goodness is and then action, taking action on that in a way where it creates a ripple effect. That is everything and if you don’t have that in your life, create it.
SHARON: Well, that’s a wrap. Thank you for listening to Do Good, Be Good and thanks to everyone who has subscribed to this podcast. Please subscribe in iTunes, Stitcher, Google Music or wherever you get your podcasts to get the next episode when it is released next Wednesday. After you subscribe, take a moment to rate this show. It will help other people find the show and it will completely make my day. Thank you! And thanks of course to Jenean for coming in and sharing her story. Also, if you have suggestions for next season, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will be spending the holiday season preparing to launch season two in January.
For show notes on this episode, visit dogoodbegoodshow.com. That is also where you can find the discount code for Volunteer Pro and more information about Do Good, Be Good.
Thanks as always to our host Sun Sounds of Arizona for the recording space. Music in this episode is Bathed in Fine Dust by Andy G. Cohen, Released under a Creative Commons Attribution International License and discovered in the Free Music Archive. Until next week, this is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom signing off.