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How transformational behavior change really works

Lessons from convicts and addicts teach us that we only change by doing, taking a chance, putting yourself out there and making something happen.

When Mimi Silbert earned her PhDs in criminology and psychology, part of her work included serving as a prison therapist at San Quentin. On the surface she felt she was doing good work by counseling with the incarcerated, but she wondered if her efforts were truly impactful for the prisoners.

That was 47 years ago. Silbert is now the CEO and co-founder of a residential learning community, the Delancey Street Foundation. The foundation’s efforts to reach substance abusers, ex-convicts with life sentences, homeless and others who have hit bottom are unparalleled as they’ve not only built their own residence on the San Francisco Bayfront, they successfully operate more than a dozen commercial businesses. Of the 85-90% who make it through Delancey Street, these 20,000 people never return to prison as they go on to live meaningful lives.

Silbert presented at the Art and Science of Health Promotion Conference last week in San Diego. The approach and principles she laid out underscore how transformational behavior change really is. Consider the parallels that can be drawn to your workplace or family environments with these insights.

1. Know your purpose. “Odds against the world” is the identity adopted at Delancey Street, ringing true for its residents who have been written off by society. Silbert embraces this truth and flips it to an earnest trying and wanting ‘we can do it ourselves’ mentality.

“If everyone hates us, we’re going to do this our friggin selves,” she said. “If a person wants to get better, they have to start by helping someone else. We don’t take government money, we don’t have a staff. We take people with severe problems, representing every life horror imaginable.”

There is a bench inside Delancey Street where applicant residents sit until they are ready to ask for help, showing their commitment that they want to change. Delancey Street then jumps into action, pulling out every bit of desire from that individual, helping to improve their life.

2. Community over the individual. Residents who come to Delancey Street are sneaky, slimy, drug selling offenders who hurt others. Silbert sees their self-sabotaging and destructive behaviors as demonstrations of what has been expected of them.

“When someone is always helping you it means you are undeserving or not enough, leading you to not believe in yourself,” she said. “This population has been passive for so long and has no self-esteem. You can’t give self-esteem to someone – it comes from doing things and giving. Otherwise, you become a poor useless person, always needing to receive from others. You only change by doing – from taking a chance, putting yourself out there and making something happen.”

At Delancey Street, the culture is designed so that the residents move forward by feeling needed. They are all climbing a mountain. If one pushes down, they all go down. By relying on each other, they rely on the newest person coming through the door. Instead of self-sabotage, the focus changes so that you do it for the community.

3. Teach and learn. The Delancey Street complex is kept clean by the newer residents who sweep and mop the stone tiles daily; dirty jobs that are tackled all day long. When you get good enough at sweeping and mopping, you are promoted to another job, often in one of their commercial enterprises—but not before you teach what you’ve learned to someone else.

“When someone does something for someone else, they feel good about themselves, it’s not when something is done for you,” says Silbert.

Learning as they built, the residents created a moving company that’s developed a reputation of being the region’s best. “Our people instinctively are quick, and have probably already been in most of these houses anyway,” Silbert quips. “The moving company teaches our people to like other people. Instill that we are there to help them and practice empathy because we understand upset and the hard change that can come with moving.”

4. Fail and fix. In her 47 years at Delancey, Silbert has jumped into tough projects without knowing how to do them. Her approach has always been one of having the right attitude and mindset which fosters ideas that the community can implement, test and fix along the way. Being on that path, residents find skills they don’t know they had as they learn and broaden.

“We are failures, we screw up and yet, the opportunity of the community says we need you and to rise up,” Silbert says. “People rise. Sometimes it’s just about eating and laughing and forgetting who you are. And realizing you are a part of a community that is laughing at themselves. All of a sudden you break through; something happens and you look around and say I like all these people.”

When one finally realizes that they aren’t failing, rather they are gathering more opportunities for learning and success, then things get better. When bad happens, one of two things will always follow. One either shrinks, becomes scared, and withdraws or they will grow, succeed, and charge forward. Everyone has within them the light that will make their life more exciting, to make civilization better – it’s a matter of finding the opportunities to fail at, fix and keep moving forward.

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