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“He was a poor man in a criminal justice system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.” – Anthony Ray Hinton

For nearly thirty years, Anthony Ray Hinton was in solitary confinement on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Largely because he was Black and poor, the justice system failed him. Despite the fact that there was convincing evidence that should have exonerated him, he was convicted by an all-white jury, and then had multiple appeals rejected by a systemically racist justice system intent on covering up past errors. With no money to hire good lawyers or skilled experts (i.e. the ballistics “expert” his lawyer hired was blind in one eye and didn’t know how to use the necessary equipment), he stayed in jail anticipating his execution.

I listened to Anthony Ray Hinton’s remarkable book, The Sun Does Shine, last week on my long road trip to the west coast. It’s remarkable for a few reasons: 1. it’s hard to fathom spending month after month stuck in a tiny jail cell while, on nearly a monthly basis, listening to your fellow inmates being executed just down the hall; 2. Hinton managed to move through his bitterness and hopelessness (he didn’t speak to anyone other than his visitors for the first three years) and became a source of comfort, hope, humour and support for others on death row; and 3. Hinton’s loyal friend Lester visited him every Friday for the whole time he was incarcerated (usually bringing Hinton’s mom with him).

After finishing the book, I switched to podcasts for the second half of the drive. For many hours, I listened to The Dream, an investigative series that dives deep into some of the ways that the American dream has been sold to people. Season one examines pyramid schemes and MLM (multi-level marketing) businesses; season two looks at the wellness industry; and season three focuses on life coaching. All three of these industries are built on the beliefs that wealth, health, happiness and success are available to anyone who works hard, believes in themself, and thinks positively.

The content of my two listening experiences was vastly different, but I couldn’t help but notice a disturbing thread that tied them together. In very different ways, they both reveal the dark underbelly of a culture shaped by capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. They both say something about the delusions required to keep those systems alive and the ways they are upheld by those who most benefit from them.

In the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, there were few delusions that the system would serve his best interests because of his skin colour and socio-economic status. Though he hung onto a persistent hope that the truth would prevail, as a poor Black man in the south, he grew up knowing the system was rigged against him. In his youth, he and Lester would hide in the ditch on their walk home from school because they had no reason to believe passing motorists would treat them well.

Many of the people featured in The Dream (especially those who’d signed up to sell products or services on behalf of MLM businesses) were also poor, but most of them were white and had been raised to believe that the world was fair and would treat them well if they did the right things. They wanted so badly to believe this, in fact, that, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that most people who sign up for MLMs lose money, many of them tried company after company, thinking the next one would finally bring them financial security. Unlike Hinton, they had just enough privilege in the system to believe that the system would protect them. “Think and Grow Rich” is one of the most popular books among those working in direct sales.

What’s especially striking about the many stories covered in The Dream, about people who buy into MLMs, are devotees of the wellness industry or seek out life coaching (and some fit into all three categories) is the amount of messaging they’ve received from all of those industries that if they are failing, the responsibility rests solely on themselves. The system (or the business model or industry) is never to blame. “You must not be believing in yourself,” they’re told. Or “you just have to try harder.” Or “you need to improve your tactics, your self-talk, your relationship skills, your financial literacy, your thoughts, your food consumption, your business strategy, your perseverance, etc., etc.” So many people are led to believe this, in fact, that few people challenge or file complaints against MLMs or the wellness industry because they internalise the blame instead of recognizing the predatory nature of the system they’ve bought into. 

Capitalism and individualism are close bed-fellows. Capitalism strives to convince us that we are self-reliant, because self-reliant people spend money on goods and services that they might otherwise turn to the community for. Plus self-reliant people take personal responsibility for their lack of success and internalise the shame of their failure instead of building alliances that might disrupt the power that corporations have over them. Self-reliant people keep believing that the next thing will be the golden ticket to a more secure life.

I’ve been working on the fringes of the wellness/self-help/personal development/coaching industry for many years now, and have always struggled with the tension between what is personal responsibility and what is systemic. Am I responsible for my own failure, or have I fallen victim to a system designed to make me fail? If I can’t “pull myself up by the bootstraps” or “think myself into riches”, is it because I’m not resourceful or positive enough, or because others have been given better boots than I have?

The self-help industry has been largely shaped by capitalism, so we get the same messaging that all of those MLMs are passing down to their sales people – if you don’t thrive, it’s YOUR fault. It’s even built into the name – help yourSELF. I have yet to find a section of the bookstore called “community support”, but the self-help shelves are always well-stocked. Nobody is responsible for our well-being except OURSELVES, we are told, both explicitly and implicitly. When you hear that message in so many ways, whether it’s about your financial success or your health, it’s hard to interrogate the system that’s preaching it at you because the system has managed to make itself largely invisible.

The other side of the tension, though, is that if we believe that we are entirely at the mercy of the systems, and we fail to see the role we play in upholding those systems or in keeping ourselves entangled in them, then we develop victim mentalities that disempower us. We get paralyzed by our helplessness and fail to make any meaningful contributions to the disruption and transformation of those systems. “Woe is me,” I tell myself while in my victim story. “I have been so hard done-by and all my power has been taken away from me.”

The best place to stand, in my opinion, is in a both/and position rather than an either/or one. We need both a clear sense of personal responsibility and a willingness to honestly examine the injustice and oppression baked into these human-built systems. We need to believe in our own power (and other people’s power), and we need to recognize the ways the systems have been designed to disempower us and keep us complacent. And then we need to organize with other empowered people so that meaningful change can happen and healthy systems can replace the toxic ones. 

That’s the place I want my work to land – where we are both self-empowered and collectively-empowered. When people ask me what I do for a living, the easiest answer is to say “I work in personal development”, because that’s a term that most people understand, but it feels more truthful to say “I serve the well-being of the collective by supporting the growth, healing and transformation of individuals and communities.” I want to disrupt the narrative around individualism and attachment to capitalism so that we can imagine something different for the future. 

How do I do that? Well, for starters, I don’t do it alone. Krista and I have, very intentionally, created a partnership and business model that centres collective work and de-centres “claw your own way to the top” capitalism. We regularly interrogate our business decisions to determine whether or not they are rooted in capitalist and/or patriarchal mindsets. Our teaching is almost always done in partnership within a circle where hierarchies are disrupted and there is a “leader in every chair”. In every course we’ve developed, whether it is about holding space or self-reflection, we invite people to examine the ways they’ve been socially conditioned by systems, and then to make empowered personal choices about how they wish to respond. In my upcoming book, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation, and holding space for oneself, I wrote about how I’d come to understand myself within the systems that shaped me, and how I practise tenderness as a deliberate disruption of the ways those systems have taught me to treat myself (and others).

I believe that we can learn to live with (and hold space for) the tension between what’s personal and what is systemic. I believe that we can challenge the delusions that keep us mired in systems that privilege only a select few. I believe that there is a path forward and we can learn to walk it together.

Anthony Ray Hinton had little power within the system, and yet he chose to use the little power that he did have to change the experience for other inmates and to advocate for meaningful change within his scope of influence. He started a book club while still on death row and introduced fellow inmates to revolutionary Black writers like James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. Since his release from prison, he’s written a memoir, spoken out against the death penalty, and worked as a community educator for the Equal Justice Initiative (the organization that helped secure his release). He refused to accept powerlessness as his final story.

“Despair was a choice,” said Hinton in his book. “Hatred was a choice. Anger was a choice. I still had choices, and that knowledge rocked me. I may not have had as many as Lester had, but I still had some choices. I could choose to give up or to hang on. Hope was a choice. Faith was a choice. And more than anything else, love was a choice. Compassion was a choice.

(Note: Anthony Ray Hinton’s story was turned into the movie Just Mercy.)

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