Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Meeting Chris Kinman -- by Lynn Hoffman

This is Lynn's story about connecting with me. She felt it was important that I post this -- so here it is! I have included a few pictures of some friends whom I have worked with through the years.

Lynn Hoffman

Back in 1993, while living in Massachusetts, Chris phoned me out of the blue and asked me to come out to do a workshop in British Columbia. While I was there, Chris brought me into contact with the powerful traditions of the First Nations people, particularly the art and culture of the Haida from Haida Gwai, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. Chris was working with First Nations youth and families, and had been fascinated by the ancient ritual of the potlatch, where the idea is to give rather than to get. It was not surprising to me when he told me that he wanted to work from the idea of bounty rather than the idea of lacks and disabilities.

Another feature of Chris’ world was a strong communal presence. This was exemplified during a break in my workshop, which was being held in Vancouver, when a person in the audience ushered me mysteriously into a room filled with green light. There, in the midst of ficus trees and bamboo, was an astonishing object. It was a greenish bronze canoe, half the size of the room, and in it a variety of totemic animals were struggling with each other: the raven with the bear, the wolf with the eagle, the crow with the dog, while half-human creatures like the Dogfish Woman, or the Bear Mother, paddled, watched over by the sombre Village Chief with his temple-shaped hat. I learned that this was the achievement of a sculptor called Bill Reid, who was himself descended from First Nations people. In this work, titled “The Spirit of the Haida Gwai,” Reid represented himself as the Ancient Conscript, paddling along with the rest.

Chris also took me to the university bookstore, and introduced me to two French writers, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1986), who favorably compared the horizontality of the “rhizome” (think crab grass) to the hierarchical pattern of the tree, hierarchy being a pattern that was common to Western helping institutions. Another beloved writer was Gaston Bachelard (1994), who came up with the concept of “reverberation” as an alternative to causality. This idea pushed me back to Bateson's idea of the “Grammar of the Creatura,” where transmission of meaning goes along the paths of metaphor rather than through chains of logical thought. At this time I also bought a book by Jacques Godbout called “The World of the Gift,” (1998). I remember telling Kinman that he should make “The Language of Gift” a main descriptor for his work.

Alistair Moes -- I worked with Alistair in various capacities for about 14 years. Alistair is known as the Angerman; check him out at (by the way, I like this picture of him much better than the one on his website). Alistair is a dear, dear friend.

(Just a reminder -- these comments under the pictures are made by Chris, the text of this particular posting is by Lynn)

Chris then showed me examples of a “Local Wisdom” series he had put together based on sayings from the families he was working with. I perused booklets which Chris had printed himself: Local Wisdom of the Mothers, or Local Wisdom of First Nation’s Youth. He would transcribe what people said to him and put it into a kind of chapbook. Sometimes he would intersperse their comments with passages he wrote, or quotes from writers he admired. I felt it gave the people he worked with a special dignity in being quoted like that.

Another innovation Kinman (2001) had come up with was what he called a Collaborative Action Plan. This document was an alternative to the usual problem oriented intake record, widely used by services in that area. What was special was that it was organized around the “language of gifts” referred to above. The first page asked, “What are the gifts and potentials this person can give to the community?” The second asked, “What are the gifts and potentials the community can give to the person?” The third page read, “What are the roadblocks to these gifts and potentials?” This was the gist of it, although it varied over time. Kinman told me that just the use of this document altered his relationships with the people he worked with in a very helpful way.

In his wish to acquaint me with his environment, Kinman drove me to an old time resort hotel in the Canadian Rockies। It was only one night, but it must have cost a pretty penny - well worth it, if the idea was to impress me. I asked about the work he was doing with young people and their families, and he told me touching stories about his efforts to see the world as they did. One memorable thing he shared was about a teen-age girl who said to him, “Therapists try to get into your head; counsellors help you bear your burdens.” Or, as he put it, “What the mountain cannot bear, the river takes away.” I liked the idea that therapy might be like the river. We closed our time together with a trip to the Anthropological Museum, the repository of so much First Nations culture and its splendor. Then I bought a book on the work of Bill Reid, and said goodbye.

The Fairy Godfathers

But it was not goodbye. The following year, Kinman asked me to come out again. He had organized a meeting that represented the “systems” he was working with: the parents of kids he was seeing, a group of his trainees, and a few of his colleagues. At the time I was much influenced by Tom Andersen's ideas about the reflecting process, and thought we could use such a format for our meeting. What I did was to ask Kinman to sit and listen while I interviewed each “pod” in the circle about their experience with Kinman's very different way of working. The parents said that he was not like the usual social service worker because he made them feel like helpers and partners. The students were pleased, because the tools he gave them made connecting with clients so easy. His colleagues had similar things to say. During all this, Kinman occasionally tried to break in, but I stopped him. When all had their say, I turned to him and asked how what he had heard affected him. He was full of emotion by this time, and turned to the notes he had taken, offering each person's idea as if it were a line in an extended poem. It was an intensely moving experience for all of us.

Two years later, Kinman asked me to come back again to preside over a meeting that we were now calling “Honoring Community.” This time the gathering was more formal, and Chris introduced me to his new work partner, Peter Finck. Present were representatives of various social services: some foster parents, two members of a biker group who directed homes for troubled boys; a probation officer (the only one there who had a professional degree); some social work trainees; and a group of adults brought over from Vancouver Island by psychiatrist Robin Routledge - an old and good friend of mine - that was called The Mood Clinic. Chris gave an orienting talk, and introduced me, and I then sat with each subgroup and asked about their work. I was very touched by the different experiences that were presented, and the ideas offered, Because most of the people present would not have otherwise known about the worlds of the others, it became a fascinating conversation, both for those talking and those listening.

The day before, I had sat in on a weekly conference attended by a group of biker men who were not only in recovery themselves, but in charge of various youth homes. They all had vivid tattoos winding up their forearms. Not having been introduced, I felt like a foreign object, but I sat and listened with interest. Each man described the doings in his home during that particular week. A large dog under the circular table kept going from one set of feet to another, finally settling on mine. At this point, the leader of the group, still without introducing me, asked me for my opinions. I said that what had most impressed me about the speakers was their tenderness toward the charges in their care.

Then I ventured something outrageous: I said, “To me, you are just a bunch of Fairy Godfathers.” A moment of appalled silence, and then the group burst into a huge roar, looking hard at the leader, the one who had the most impressive tattoos, and who luckily was laughing too. This man and another member of that group came to our community meeting the next day and commented powerfully on their past experience of class prejudice from persons in social service agencies. But what most caught my eye was a small tag pasted on the shirt of the leader, saying “Fairy Godfather.”

The conference finished with all of us listening to the concerns of the Mood Clinic. This was an informal club which played an advocacy role between patients and medical doctors on issues to do with medication and treatment. Their stories enlisted both our sympathies and a feeling of hopefulness. The event as a whole had given me a depth knowlege of the helpers and workers who toiled, you might say, in the shadows of desperately troubled clients, but kept their optimism intact.

New Systems For Old

But that in no way prepared me for the next time I was asked to the Vancouver area. I had kept in touch with Kinman, and every once in a while he would email off to me another one of his writings. Once he used up a whole roll of my fax paper - yards of it came pouring out of the machine like an endless Chinese scroll. But soon there was a new addition to the wisdom series which featured the public health nurses of the Frasier River Valley. And I learned a new story.

Chris had told me that some nurses from the Frazer Valley Health Area had come to him for advice because they had become disenchanted with their problem-oriented assessment form. They had heard that he had been experimenting with an alternative that was based on gifts. Apparently, the Collaborative Action Plan was just what they were looking for. Kinman told me how these women had taken this format and were fitting it to their own practice. To my amazement, it seemed that their supervisors and the bureacracy were supporting them. Then Kinman said that the teaching program in public health nursing at the University of Victoria was also changing.

Sitting on my hill a continent away, I received these smoke signals, but I still had no idea of their profound implications. Without much warning, Kinman asked me to come out one more time. It seemed that they were going to have another Honoring Community meeting built around the achievement of the public health nurses. So I flew across again, and what I found really staggered my mind. As soon as I got there, Kinman introduced me to the frontline workers and they told me about their plans for the meeting that was to be held the next day. Here is an account of what happened.

First Kinman gave a slide show featuring commentary from the nurses themselves (he stayed up all night to finish it). Then I sat with a group of frontline nurses who told me how their work lives had been transformed. Then came key persons from the bureaucracy who were backing this adventure. Next came some teachers from the public health nursing program at Victoria University who were changing their curriculum. Lastly, I sat with Marjorie Warkentin, one of the nurses who had helped spearhead the change, together with a young mother who was recovering from a postpartum depression and had agreed to add her voice.

Vera Little -- Vera is an elder in the community of Ahousat, on Flores Island off the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Vera defines the very meaning of the word `hospitality`. She is also a dear friend -- like family. Go and visit with her at Vera's Guest House (Vera's own business). Sit down with Vera and listen to some of that true old-time country music -- life doesn't get much better.

This was the first time in my 40 years in the field that I had been present at a change at each level of a complex health system: front line workers, administration people, teachers, and clients. That last group had usually been excluded from such conferences, except as the Exhibit A in teaching events. I thought about all the families that had been used to demonstrate family therapy in front of huge audiences since the field began. But this young mother was not there as evidence of some clinician's ability, but to tell her own story. She and Warkentin described their experience with this “gift-oriented” approach to human difficulty, and told us what a difference it had made to both of them.

These systemic changes have lasted and I can now bear witness to the newness that shone forth so brightly in the Fraser Health Authority that day. Despite the reductive mantle of managed care, shifts like this one continue to inspire hope in those of us who believe that the language game we use makes all the difference. And there are many of us who continue to be watchers on that hill!

Lars Meyer -- I argue that Lars is not a human being at all.... he is an angel in disguise. Lars is a consultant for organizations and businesses regarding issues of strategic design (contact him at, he is a film-maker and a teacher at the Vancouver Film School. He also has become a treasured friend.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Chris,

What a wonderful piece! I love both the way Lynn talks about the beauty and impact of your work, and your work... I am so happy for you when I read words that resonate with so much deep appreciation and acknowledgement from someone who herself is such an amazing human being, and a such a fundamental contributor to the field of family therapy. You deserve all the support you can get for the amazing way you are able to connect with people, and to connect people (I am in this sense one of the most profoundly grateful witnesses of how the space around you brings love to those fortunate enought to enter it!). It is a talent that not many people have, and which has made a massive difference in the lives of many. May you find that as Lynn lends us her gaze, many others can see you with her eyes, and know how fortunate we are to know you and to have the opportunity of being inspired by the work of your heart as it walks in this world.

Love and blessings to you, my dear friend,