Janet Reno changed my life

Great inspiring blog this week from Christian McNeill, Advocate, former District Tribunal Judge now a Resilience  Facilitator.

In case you are too young to know who Janet Reno was, she was Bill Clinton’s attorney general and she died earlier this month. Although I was a practising lawyer for many years, she didn’t change my life through her inspirational lawyering – although I gather there was quite a bit of that. It was a decision she made in 1987, when she was a State Attorney in Florida, to initiate a task force to help a troubled community called Modello. They in turn brought in a psychologist called Dr Roger Mills. Mills was a proponent of a new positive psychology based on the fact that, irrespective of their past or their circumstances, every human being has resilience and wellbeing within; and once unleashed, people can begin to solve their own problems.

Modello, a community of 150 low income families, was about as bad an area as you can imagine. Drive by shootings, drug dealing,  burglaries, domestic abuse, addiction, alcoholism and truancy were all phenomenal. By day the neighbourhood was teeming with truanting children, many of whom slept in baths to avoid stray bullets. By night, the police, taxis and pizza delivery refused to enter. Hopelessness and overwhelm were everywhere. [A much fuller and very readable account can be found in the book, ‘Modello’, by Jack Pransky.]

By painstakingly getting to know residents and by building trust and rapport, Mills was able to demonstrate to people how they could use their thinking more effectively to change their experience of life and their circumstances. Without any denial of past or current trauma, he knew that people retained resilience. They just didn’t know how to access it. And he and his team could demonstrate how to access resilience and common sense

Interestingly, the greatest opposition to his approach came from some of the task force, whose view was that the whole answer lay in providing better facilities, housing and jobs for the residents. Yet at the outset, residents were unable or unwilling to take up the opportunities that were already available. While advertising for a team member at one stage, Roger interviewed over 50 applicants, all of whom had a fixed mind set that change could not occur after a certain age, or that there was no hope for other reasons.

Mills way of working required that the facilitators themselves could demonstrate the resilience and wisdom they were pointing to. It enabled participants to become mentors and teachers themselves as they experienced an elevated quality of life. Slowly at first and then more consistently people changed within themselves and began taking effective action about the very real problems around them.

Within 3 years the overall crime rate dropped by 70-80%, households selling drugs dropped from 65% to less than 20%, teen pregnancy rates went from 50%+ to 10%, child abuse and neglect decreased by 70% and parental unemployment fell from 85% to 35%.

Modello is not the only community where this approach has been introduced to great effect. Others are described in ‘Prevention from the Inside Out’, by Jack Pransky. But it is the first such project I heard about when I came across this field 6 years ago. Having worked as a lawyer in various challenging areas, I was astonished that I hadn’t heard of these outcomes. I became fascinated in learning more. In the process my own life was utterly changed – hence the title. Decades of low level stress and burnout fell away. I left law and apprenticed in this field, now known as Three Principles. Today I work with individuals and organisations who want to find more resilience and more effectiveness. Until 6 years ago I too believed that people could be so damaged by their past or their circumstances that they could not recover. I now know differently.

Of course its a stretch to say that Janet Reno was responsible for changing my life. Lots of inspired, dedicated people were involved in creating transformation in Modello and elsewhere. But her willingness to go beyond resignation and hopelessness ignited something powerful. And the ripples are still happening.