"What Inside Circle introduced to me is that it is very difficult for me to want to see harm come to you when I can see myself in you. What helps me be able to see myself in you is me going within and doing my own work, and then supporting the space for you to do your work because as you begin to do your work, there are going to be things that come up within you that I can identify with that are in me. We can meet as humans—there's a connection and a unity." —Eldra Jackson III
Eldra Jackson III has harnessed the power of transformation and tapping into his human potential. As a 24-year inmate in the California prison system, he was given ample opportunity to turn inward, and when he discovered Inside Circle, his inner journey took a significant turn, which led to his release in 2014.
Today, in addition to being the co-executive director of Inside Circle, the sea-changing non-profit organization that offers weekly peer support group circles focused on assisting incarcerated men to heal their trauma and take responsibility for their choices, Eldra is a writer and sought-after public speaker.
He says it became vital for him to speak on the topics of community, at-risk youth advocacy, effective criminal justice rehabilitation and turning around toxic masculinity.
"My past provided me with the tools to share rare insights with people," says Eldra, who earlier this year spoke at the Wisdom 2.0, where Esalen was a community sponsor. "After the 'lynching' of George Floyd in May, my initial feelings were, 'here we go again.' In my experience on this planet, this was not something new, but I think collectively, we are pulling our heads out of the sand and coming to a new awakening.”
Eldra shares more with Esalen News.
Esalen News: How hopeful are you about whether we, collectively, are turning a corner with racism?
Eldra Jackson: We may have reached a place where we're now having more conversations and there are more questions being asked. People are, at least in my experience, more open to looking at what racism really is and how it affects people, and what role people may play in it; that it’s not just really about being a racist, so to speak, but more like, ‘What is my role in participating in a system that is designed to oppress other people? How do I benefit from that system? I can be a part of the system without being active, I can be a passive participant in what's going on.’ I think that there are a lot of people now looking at what their passive roles may have been.
When you imagine organizations—big ones, small ones, retreat and wellness centers—being a just, equitable and inclusive organization, how does that look for you?
Well, number one, it looks like a safe space for me. It looks like a space that anyone can go to and feel comfortable—no matter what their background, no matter where they come from, no matter what their life experience, no matter what their personal or religious beliefs are. They can feel there is space for them to show up as whoever they are.
They can look at what they believe, what they've been taught, what they've been indoctrinated in and find the space to find out how that works for them or doesn't—without being judged or ridiculed. It looks like a place where it’s like, ‘I don't have all of the answers for you and I don't pretend like I have all of the answers for you, but I can support you on your journey in finding your answers for yourself.’
You discuss ‘toxic masculinity’ in groups and in your TED Talk. How do you define toxic masculinity?
I'm speaking about my experience and how I have shown up in the world. I'm not coming from a place of indicting manhood or maleness or trying to convict anybody. I'm speaking about the ideologies that I adopted based on my gender; based on having a scrotum with a pair of balls and once hair started to grow that meant that I was a man.
And, actually, whatever came up from that—that however I chose to show up in the world that that was okay based on how I was born and not at all considering what the impact would be on people who were not males. I gave encouragement to men to show up in a toxic way, either by what I was doing overtly or again, passively, by not calling out things that I knew I wouldn't want my sister or my mother to be subjected to.
Several years ago in a Los Angeles Times article, you wrote: "As a gang member, I immersed myself in a world of toxic masculinity. I saw victimizing others as not merely a choice but a right. If I wanted something, I took it.” So take us back a bit. What was it like for you growing up in Sacramento and joining a gang at 14?
I grew up in Sacramento in the 1980s during the Wild Wild West of the crack era. I was an athlete before I joined gangs. I was what they might call a fair to middling baseball player. During that era, there were really two cohorts of individuals that had respect in the inner city—athletes or gang members.
So, when I was no longer involved in sports, I chose to make the transition into the gang lifestyle and that was something which, for me, was thrilling. It was something that fed my addiction to power. It was something that fed my addiction to extremism and it was something that allowed me to build a persona to hide behind; to hide my lack of self-esteem.
It was a time in my life where I was very reckless and dangerous. I was somebody that you could call suicidal and homicidal, just based on the activities that I would place myself in. That's really what it was about for me. It was about me saying, "To hell with everybody else, it's all about me and what I want and if I want it, I'll take it."
Today when you are asked about the kidnapping, robbery, attempted murder—all incidents that were on your path—what immediately comes to mind?
What immediately comes to mind is shame and sadness, regret and empathy because these are all acts of terror I committed upon other human beings, and these are things that no matter what I do in this life, can't be undone. I can't just say I’m sorry—sorry is a sorry word to say.
What immediately comes to my mind is the debt that I owe until they put my body in the ground to try and atone for those acts and the people that I've affected in such a negative way.
What comes to mind is for me to ensure, number one, that nobody else ever suffers at my hand in that way. And, number two, if I can effect change in others and inspire others to maybe change the path that they're on and the things that they're doing so that no one has to suffer at their hands in that way, that's just a little bit of what comes to mind.
While in confinement, you wrote that you began to wonder how you spiraled so far into the abyss, and that you knew some questioning was due. This inquiry led you to doing the work and eventually joining the men's group, Inside Circle. How was that a pivotal point for you?
To give a little bit of background on Inside Circle, what it is today began as a kernel of a vision in the mind of a man named Patrick Nolan. There was a large racial riot in New Folsom prison on B Yard in 1996 and Pat Nolan was associated with the Aryan Brotherhood.
As the lockdown began to come up nearly a year later, he went around the various leaders of organizations on the yard and asked for permission to get members to be able to sit in a room without killing one another, to participate in a poetry class and it wound up turning into a support group that helped foster peace on a maximum-security yard.
For the decade that I was on that particular yard, there were no racial riots, there were no racial incidents across racial lines because we had people sitting in circle in Inside Circle and a men's group doing their own interpersonal work.
And how was that for you?
I learned a great deal. Mainly, that it is very difficult for me to want to see harm come to you when I can see myself in you, and what helps me be able to see myself in you is me going within and doing my own work, and then supporting the space for you to do your work because as you begin to do your work, there are going to be things that come up within you that I can identify with that are in me.
We can meet as humans, as brothers, and when we're doing this work with women as brothers and sisters, or whatever pronoun people choose to utilize for themselves, there's a connection and a unity. That is, in brief, what Inside Circle introduced me to.
You said you investigated your dark corners and figured out where you were “damaged as a human being.” Can you expound upon that a little bit?
I discovered my fear of connection with other humans. I discovered my fear of loving others and being loved by others. I discovered my fear of vulnerability. I discovered my fear of being hurt and I discovered where all of those things came from. I discovered how those things were showing up in my life and keeping me from being able to make a connection, first of all with self, and second of all with others in any meaningful way.
I discovered how trauma that I had suffered at a very young age had imprinted on me and compiled a lot of negative self-talk about myself—and about other people and how I would deal in situations that felt threatening to me. Those were things that I didn't realize were inside of me and were the pilots of my life, and so I was given the opportunity to be facilitated to look at those places.
What do you feel this time in history is really attempting to teach us?
I think that this time is attempting to show us how much more we are alike than we are different. It is providing us the space to reconnect, number one, with self, and then that opens the door to be able to reconnect with others.
Learn more about Inside Circle here.
Watch Eldra's TED Talk on Toxic Masculinity here.
Click this link to watch our Facebook Live interview with Eldra.