I spent a very emotional couple of days in Albuquerque at the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy’s inaugural Symposium. In New Mexico the estimate is that 46% of the state’s residents are “functionally illiterate” meaning they lack the literacy necessary for coping with most jobs and many everyday situations. That’s an incredible number and a reason to gather those who support literacy in the state.
While you would expect the theme of the Symposium to be focused on literacy at the Symposium, and it was, theme also included a heavy dose of domestic violence and thinking about the whole human and kudos to Heather Heunermund for taking a different approach.
At the Symposium I had the absolutely honor of meeting Drea Kelly and John Dwayne Bunn who both shared their incredible stories and connected the dots of literacy and domestic violence with power. Drea is the former spouse to R. Kelly and he’s…..wait for it…..illiterate! Surprising right? Even more surprising to me was that 23% of Americans are illiterate.
John Dwayne Bunn’s story was crushing. At age 14 he was convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. He spent 17 years in prison before being paroled and eventually exonerated of his crime. Let that sink in – 17 years in prison for crime he didn’t commit. When he was 14 he was illiterate eventually learning to read and write so he could pen letters to his mother. His presentation was raw and he’s still suffering from the trauma of wrongful incarceration. Hearing his story hurt. A lot.
Tangent: In my talks I typically reference Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Basic survival being at the bottom is something most of us have achieved and moving up the hierarchy is hard enough for those of us with “normal” lives. Drea spoke to the logistical challenges of finding a way out of her situation of domestic violence and “cycle breaking” and “stigmas” were regular themes throughout the panel I moderated at the Symposium. Drea was found her way out with her children but other victims have a longer road to escaping and stability as they transition to shelters or kids between the foster homes or between family members’ homes.
Breaking the cycle of abuse isn’t easy and while the cycle persists we’re often stuck at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. Dreaming about finding or being your fully-expressed self takes a back seat to all other things when surviving trauma is the primary issue at hand.
And poverty sucks. I spent from age 5-12 in poverty and carried shame about that for a long time and I still work through old habits founded in scarcity. In his book Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance talks about poverty as more than a financial status and suggests it’s a self-perpetuating culture with established socials norms, role models and behaviors including carrying guilt for being successful and experiencing jealousy by your clan instead of pride. Few of these attributes are elevating and the role models far from positive in most cases. Breaking the cycle is way more than just through literacy or intelligence or desire. Poverty in its own way creates inertia towards continued poverty.
Tangent: There is reason to be optimistic. Dr. Martin Seligman thinks we’re entering a “second axial age” where human flourishing is possible. The first axial age was around 2500 years ago and led to much of the religious and philosophical traditions serving as the foundation for today’s world.
Dr. Seligman also suggests our future isn’t determined by our past and present and that we are forward thinking beings with control of our future. His work in the realm of “authentic happiness” suggests also that we find meaning when we are in service to others. John Dwayne Bunn’s past and present leading to service through his foundation focusing on literacy and John says so powerfully: “From my nightmare came my dream.”
And Drea pragmatically pointing out that domestic violence awareness shouldn’t be something we “celebrate” once a month and so her foundation focuses on support for victims 365 days a year. Her past abuse put her on a path forward in service to others. On stage Drea pointedly says “I’m cracked but not broken.” Agreed. The Japanese art of “kintsugi” uses cracked objects which are not something to discard but to be put back together to they create something more beautiful and complex than the original.
Well said, Drea. Well said, John.
Anthony Poponi is an energetic presenter, a jokester from birth, and self-admitted lover of downtowns as much as wild spaces. He specializes in putting joy in our workplaces and in our communities through workshops and keynotes that leave his audiences buzzing. Being a hard act to follow on stage is always his goal.