Interview with an Experiential Educator: Kerry Justine Millen

KerryWhen I arrived in San Luis, Colorado to participate in the Move Mountains Project, one of the first people to welcome me wholeheartedly was Kerry Justine Millen. Her smile, charm, and openness create space for deep, heartfelt conversations.

I’d brought with me everything needed to make calabacitas, a dish consisting of squash, zucchini, corn, onions, garlic, salt and pepper. Kerry offered to chop my veggies as I roasted the corn on the grill outside, and when I came back inside to begin preparations, we talked in the kitchen until calling all in for a dinner cobbled together from odds, ends, leftovers, and laughter. Two days later, she sat beneath the tree in the front yard, and I approached to ask her for an interview. Kerry grinned, and I began with my first question.

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Lindsay: So, can you describe how you got involved with Move Mountains?

Kerry: So I worked with Miguel in Philadelphia. This year we worked together at a place that serves young people transitioning out of foster care in Philadelphia. It’s a resource center, so they come for everything—food, housing resources, help with employment, education. They take classes there.

So Miguel was a coach, which is the first job I had there, which means you hang out one-on-one with a whole caseload of kids, you mentor them, and you have a really important role in their life. It’s a difficult job because, a lot of times, those kids have experienced really serious trauma in their lives. Many of them are continuing to experience trauma every single day. Many of them are homeless. So when you develop close relationships with the young people, you really begin to manage crisis with them a lot of times.

I’ve been working there quite a few years, so when Miguel came, it was truly re-energizing. It was fresh air, for me. He came in and we immediately connected. I was feeling really run down at this point. I don’t really have a lot of allies there. There are a lot of nice people, but people who don’t fundamentally think the same way that I do, which is okay, but eventually, after working there for almost five years now, things will start to come up. The ways I think about the world and the ways that I see these young people struggling with these things are very different than other people there, so the ways that I interact with [the children] are very different.

People often think that I’m—well, I’m usually joking with them, silly, just like, “Man, you’re so amazing,” and like, “let’s hug, man,” touching them, just bringing them love and respect so we can get into these real conversations about the reasons why they got to the way they are. So a lot of people there always thought that was a product of my inexperience, that I’m naive, and that I don’t really understand the way that the world works, but the thing is that in my own life I’ve experienced very much, and I do understand that in the world, there’s much I have to learn, but I do know that kindness and respect and love kept me alive.

The purpose that I have there is as an experiential educator, so I do this program mostly for new members but I do it with everybody. I’m pretty tight with pretty much every kid there. I know everyone who walks in the door because I’ll just walk up to them, and I’ll be like, “What’s up man? What’s your name? What does your name mean?” and I’ll ask them some random question, and then they come to my class. I just do silly games with them and reflective exercises and just try to get them to connect with each other.

My dream is that I’m not talking at all, right? I’ll just do some things in the beginnings, I’ll set the safe space, and then they’ll just take it and they’ll have beautiful conversations about all sorts of things.

So. I was doing this, and I felt pretty alone there, and Miguel came. We immediately connected, and he started visiting me each day in the morning, just brining some fresh energy, and we’d just talk about many of the things that we believe and what we’re working for, and what our bigger dreams are, and we realized that many of them are connected. Then we started working with young people together, collaborating.

I watched him make huge breakthroughs with his kids, and we worked together to really help out a few people. I can remember one girl particularly who was just scared. She was just experiencing tons of fear, and she was living in a really difficult place to see a young person to be in. She came to us, and she really didn’t want to be there. A lot of the time, that’ll happen. The kids are often court-ordered to come. So they are sometimes transported there. She was transported there and did not want to be there at all. So we started working together in the art room.

That’s the other cool thing about this place. We try to make it a place where people want to come. So my room is just this haven of hula hoops, and bright colors, and look, come make a collage, and paint something, or just run around—you can bring your kids in here and they can play. Another one of our coworkers, she’s an art facilitator there, and she’s got this great room with markers and everything. It’s a great place to take kids who are having a hard time.

Miguel and I, you know, very new friends, went in with this girl, and we ended up having a really important moment in her life and in our lives where we established this trust—the ways she wanted to communicate and trust him and trust me. We made eye contact across the table, and I was like, “I just know that no matter what I do, I want to be working next to you, talking to people with you.” I just knew he was my brother at that moment.

So then, one of the mornings that he came up to me, he was telling me about his poetry, and I was showing him this record I was working on, and he was so supportive of the record I put out and every step of it, the art I was working on, learning how to cut to use the stamps that I used, and he read my book of poetry before it became the final thing.

During that, he was like, “Hey. Why don’t you come out to San Luis in July and perform in this festival?” I was blown away that I would be asked to perform in a festival. I asked him what the festival was, and I started to learn more about it, and I started to do more of my own research, and I’ve been very passionate about this land and the ancient wisdom, and the stories, and the tyrannies that have existed here, and I’ve been really passionate about learning about it for a very long time, and It’s so special to be invited to get to be a part of a community like this.

I don’t think most people get asked that question and invited in that way, so I was blown away by that invitation, and I immediately said yes, and started to really thing about what that meant, and then, as we became closer as friends—I learned that Miguel was sleeping and eating and breathing Move Mountains, and we were hanging out, so we were talking about it.

The more we talked, the more I realized that there were a lot of tools I could bring. A lot of things that I could offer that I didn’t even know that I’d be able to translate—I hadn’t even thought that far ahead of myself yet. . . .

So as we talked more and more, Miguel invited me to take a bigger part in the project, and I spent the last few months—it was my life, it was everything. Just experimenting with assessments and nerding out on the stuff I love—trying to build a structure—how are we going to document this program and show it to people later?—because I knew it was going to be successful.

So then I formed a curriculum, and I’ve done that, but I’ve always done it under other people’s leadership. So it was really amazing and empowering for Miguel to say, “Hey, make this thing.” It brought together everything I care about. There’s mediation in there, there’s dance, there’s collaborative poetry, and I just made it in a couple of days because everything was due to Shirley.

The idea popped up in conversation, which happened a lot. You know, Thursday night we’d go grab a beer after work. . . For me, it was a beautiful experience, and I brought it back to them thinking there would be a lot of revisions, but they just said, “Perfect. This is what we need.”

And what was really special for me is that Jake and Andre and Miguel, they adopted it. They started to read it and study it and share it with others. People are using the terms, “Raise Your Voice,” as an intrinsic part of the curriculum.

We saw it work with Santa Ana and the ways we saw people perform.

Lindsay: “Raise Your Voice,” what’s that?

Kerry: Raise Your Voice, that’s the curriculum.

Lindsay: Cool, that’s what it’s called. Raise Your Voice. That’s brilliant.

Kerry: It’s built around the idea of like, if you create a safe space for people, where people are willing to open up and trust each other, and then you give them opportunities to deepen their trust for themselves and for other people, and you put them in situations where they’re going to experience success and they’re going to figure out how they are going to experience success in their own way, and then you talk to them about it, and then you just keep being like, “See, that thing that you did? That was you, being resilient. Or that was you coping, or that was you showing your strength.”

Lindsay: Yeah.

Kerry: And we’d just kinda do mantras with them. Shirley and I took the girls up to the shrine and we had this conversation while the guys took the guys to another place on the shrine. We had all decided as a group, after seeing some really troubling things happening within the group dynamic with the guys and the girls, we decided to meet separately. We just adopted this thing called Lion Voice, and so it just became the thing.

If somebody was covering up their face or not saying things with confidence and power, we would just say, “Lion voice, raise your voice, raise your voice,” and it’s become the thing. In my life, too, when I need a pick me up, the guys were trying to push my leadership to a new level, and they were like, “Raise your voice, raise your voice,” and I said, “Right. Raise your voice.”

That’s a really long story of how I got involved, but the more I got involved, the more it became my heart, and the more it became just so important for me to be here.

And then I got here.

Lindsay: And how has it been since you got here?

Kerry: Oh, my goodness. So my first night here was beautiful. I sat and looked at the mountains for a while, and I was really overwhelmed with feelings of immense beauty around me and all of the different spirits that are here and all of it was just wrapping around me so much that I don’t think I really spoke on my first night here. I don’t think I spoke for a while, actually.

I went to bed, and I was woken up by a lightning strike that I swear was just right out in our yard. It was just white light, and everything was lit up, and I said, “This is real!”

All this time I was sitting at the computer, building these things, imagining what it’s going to be like. No. This is really real, and there’s lightning striking, and the entire house is shaking, I can feel the roots beneath our floor swelling and shaking, and our house is going to fall down, and it’s going to be fine because I’m here. My phone doesn’t work, and I’m not going anywhere for a while.

So we’re going to survive this storm. So I just curled up into a little ball. . . I’m thinking, “Alright, girl. Toughen up. You’re here. I know I’m in the mountains, and storms pop up, and they’re crazy, and they go away and you survive. But as it got closer and closer, and as our house shook and shook, and it was so cold and windy, I was like, whew. This is really scary.

But then, eventually I fell asleep, and I woke up the next morning, and I could tell that this was a very big storm just by the way that the land responded, and the ways that water had collected in our yard, and the feeling of just complete calm. Everything was just like, “Shhhhhhhhhhh.”

And I walked out here for the first time in the daylight, and I just fell to the ground. Truly, I just had to lay on the ground. I cannot explain the experience I’ve had here with the land.

And then it was time to go. It was time to start working, and I was nervous. So nervous.

I felt like I knew [the kids] already because I’d been speaking with Jake and Andre, and just hearing about these kids and all the ways that they had grown already. They were so passionate, they were out here by themselves for a little bit just doing it. So I felt like I knew the kids already.

But I was nervous. You get nervous, you know. Are they going to like me? Are they going to think I’m weird? Are they going to like my games? Are they going to think my games are stupid? All those doubts. Doubtful things. I was like, “Stop. Don’t’ speak to yourself that way. It’s gonna be great.”

And Andre was just like, “You’re going to be amazing. Here’s all the reasons you’re amazing, and here’s all the reasons they’re going to love you. They already love you.” And they had built me up already to these kids, and they did already love me. They were like, “Kerry!” They knew me. They knew this poem that Andre wrote about me that they continued to recite to me.

They were screaming it from the audience when I was performing yesterday.

So [after the storm] I went up to two girls, and I was like, “So, what about that storm last night? I was scared!”

And they said, “Us, too!”

And I didn’t expect that. I expected them to be like, “Oh yeah, that happens all the time.” But they said, “We’ve never seen a storm like that in our whole lives! That was crazy.”

I just said, “I curled up in a ball, and I cried,” and then it immediately made trust, and I trusted them, then. I was like, “Oh, cool. I can admit that I’m scared and you’re going to admit that you’re scared, too. And you’re not going to try to make me feel dumb.”

Lindsay: For being scared.

Kerry: Yeah. And it was just cool. We can talk about fear. Okay. That’s fine. And then, I was speaking with Shirley, and Shirley was saying it was the craziest storm she’d ever seen. She’d never seen anything like it here. So I felt that we survived a real thing.

I believe that it was the universe telling me that this is going to be really powerful, and we need to get ready, and I needed to, real quick, get my energies together and be there for those kids. I knew, at that time, there was going to be immense change and transition. There were going to be huge things that we were going to overcome in this community, and there were. . . .

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Kerry continued describing her experience, and we talked at length about life, the universe, and everything. Her energy, spunkiness, and generosity continually amazed me. In conversation, she was light like water, and I saw what a soothing, healing effect her presence must have had on the entire group. The coming together of teachers, minds, and hearts for the Move Mountains Project: San Luis, was the impetus of a wave of transformation for teens across the nation.

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