TLS Members e-Newsletter

Members eNewsletter
At least four times a year, TLS members are rewarded at their inboxes with a copy of the Labyrinth Society e-newsletter. It serves as a means of direct communication with the membership and provides an historical record of the Society.

Interview with Jay Stailey: Educator and Community Visionary

Interview with Jay Stailey: 

In keeping with the theme of this year’s TLS Gathering in Houston, "Diverse Journeys on a Common Path: Building Community Through the Labyrinth," the TLS eNews Quarterly will publish a series of interviews over the next few months, highlighting the various ways labyrinths are used to address social issues. This first one is an interview with Jay Stailey, co-host of this year’s Gathering, discussing the creation and implementation of a conflict-resolution and problem-solving labyrinth and workshop at the Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, a suburb of Houston.

Reginald Adams and Jay Stailey with the Bales labyrinth.
Photo: R. Adams

Christiana Brinton (CB): Hi Jay. First I’d like to get some background information about you for our readers. How did you come by labyrinths and how did you connect with Reginald Adams, the co-host of the Houston Gathering and your Houston area labyrinth construction partner?

Jay Stailey (JS): Hi Christiana, sure. I was a school principal for 25 years in Houston. About the time I was to retire, I discovered labyrinths, reading about them and walking the University of St Thomas medieval, Chartres-style labyrinth. I walked many times, always with the question of where my path would lead me after retirement. Then a friend in leadership coaching in Michigan, who has a labyrinth in her backyard, talked to me about doing the Veriditas Facilitator Training, so we decided to do it together in Ohio. I then did the certification part and became more and more involved, but I was not aware of any labyrinth community in Houston and I still didn’t know where this was taking me.

Meanwhile, I’d become a volunteer Guild member at the Rothko Chapel. After a meditation there two years ago, I was talking about labyrinths with Mike Pardee, then Outreach Director of the Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University, and he said he had someone I needed to meet, Reginald Adams. At that time, Mike and Reginald were introducing high school students to various religious persuasions through multiple year-long field trips that culminated in an art project encapsulating their experiences. Reginald was doing mostly mosaic pieces around the city, but they were thinking that the upcoming year project should be a labyrinth instead of a mural.

Reginald and Mike asked me to be the labyrinth coach for this construction. I told them I’d never built a labyrinth, but they insisted that I was their guy because I knew more about labyrinths than they did. I said, "Okay," and I was hired. This collaboration resulted in the design and construction of the Historic Freedmen’s Town Labyrinth at the former site of the Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, a beloved community church that had fallen into disrepair and was subsequently—and abruptly—razed by the city. The labyrinth is a memorial to the freed slaves who settled in that part of Houston in the late 1800s and created the Freedmen’s Town community. Their descendants wished to preserve this sacred space for the congregation, some of whom still live in the area.

The overgrown, empty lot filled with the original bricks scattered about, the church steps and the intact baptismal font took 450 volunteer hours to transform. The bricks were used to mark the paths of the 50'x50' brick and crushed granite Chartres style labyrinth. Mosaic benches, built by the student volunteers, were placed around the perimeter.

This experience radically changed Reginald’s focus with his art and he is now using the labyrinth process as community based art installations, engaging students in various Houston communities in the design and construction of labyrinths in far flung locations (France, Ecuador). He still lets me coach, so I come along for the ride!

CTB: Ok, that explains a lot. Now, how about the backstory for this workshop? Why this particular school and who made the connections?

JS: The work Reginald and I did at Bales Intermediate is based on Lisa Moriarty’s poster presentation, Branching Out in New Ways to Resolve Conflict Using the Labyrinth, from the 2015 Gathering in Waycross, Indiana. The subject matter struck a chord with me because of my background. I took photos of Lisa’s poster examples that showed the labyrinth as a tool to enhance a peer mediation model.

Every time I do consulting in the Houston area I mention my work with labyrinths. I was principal of Bales Intermediate for 12 years, leaving in 2008. The counselor who is there now, Barbara Gruener, was a colleague from my time in Friendswood and is noted nationally as an expert in character education. Reginald and I told her that, if Bales would pay for the materials, we’d come out and build a problem-solving labyrinth. We’ve found that the labyrinth process always works best as a community-based collaboration. I knew about the Peer Assistance & Leadership (PALS) program at Bales and Barbara assured me that it was still in place and going strong. It’s a program for students in grades 3–5, experiencing social and emotional issues, who are paired with high school mentors. I suggested to Barbara that the PALS students would be a good volunteer source and she agreed. Reginald and I arranged to visit when the PALS students were at Bales and we arrived early to decide on the best location and optimum size for the labyrinth.The Bales maintenance crew had already power-washed the playground area and we decided that a 32' labyrinth would fit best. According to Lisa’s mediation model, this special labyrinth is a five-circuit, dual path, mirrored labyrinth designed to help two people mediate an issue. There are five distinct stopping places on the path inward where the opportunity exists to examine and communicate:

1)    The problem is identified

2)    Each student states how the problem makes them feel

3)    Each student repeats how the other person feels –encouraging empathy

4)    Students brainstorm possible solutions

5)    Students meet in the center where they are encouraged to choose one of their solutions and make a concerted effort to work on the problem together

Bales problem-solving labyrinth
5-Circuit problem-solving labyrinth. Photo: R. Adams

With Lisa’s model, the labyrinth experience ended in the center with both participants either returning on their own path or just exiting from the center, but we wanted the two to be able to walk out together to reinforce the decision to work on the issue together so we created a mirror exit as well. Barbara was very excited about this model because it wasn’t just a passive process; instead, the dual walking experience became a metaphor for the journey from discord to agreement.

Then, Reginald and I did the taping for the design and prepared the paint trays and rollers, after which the Bales students and their PALS mentors painted the entire labyrinth. While the paint was drying, we modeled a real problem and how it could be solved though this process. The "model" issue was a travel related problem that Reginald and I were having and we stressed that each felt that his idea was better than the other’s. We went through the steps and Barbara videotaped the entire journey with the understanding that it would be used for training purposes in the future.

Painting the Bales labyrinth. Photo: R. Adams

CB: This must have taken all day! How did the students respond?

JS: We worked in a window from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The kids were excited to be painting, excited to be working with their PALS mentors, and excited to see the labyrinth complete by the time the PALS returned to their classes at the high school. Reginald and I pulled the tape up and there was their labyrinth.

CB: Have you heard how the labyrinth’s being used now?

JS: That’s a good question. I’m not sure how it’s going. I’ll call and find out how it’s being used. Barbara seems to be very conscientious, but their principal just resigned and so the school is going through leadership changes. I’m not sure what’s happening with the labyrinth now.

CB: Are you and Reginald using this conflict resolution model and labyrinth anywhere else?

JS: I think we’re probably going to suggest this type in Israel for a summer 2017 Sacred Sites Quest and labyrinth project with a high school group and the Texas Medical Center Orchestra. But right now CIS (Communities in Schools), as a part of their mission to "empower kids to stay in school and achieve in life" offers a program that encourages connections between schools and communities. Melissa Phillips, the campus director of CIS has asked Reginald and me to install a labyrinth at Youens Elementary School in Alief ISD. Alief, in SW Houston, is a "large, ethnically diverse community which Houston began annexing in 1977"(Wikipedia). She explained that this is to be a part of their community beautification project. As a counselor, she is excited about the problem solving design we used at Bales.

CB: What are the grade levels at Youens?

JS: It’s a Pre-K through 4th, or maybe through 5th.

CB: Do you think that the conflict-mediation/dual labyrinth model can be used for junior high and high school students dealing with issues like rape, bullying (gender/racial/ethnic/religious) and abuse (emotional/psychological/sexual)?

JS: That is a very interesting and complex question. For a therapist working with a couple around sexual preferences/behaviors (or any other issue that has come up in a relationship), they might find success working with a model that engages the physical along with the verbal (body and mind). The same might be true of gender misunderstanding where both sides are open to talking. The thing about rape and bullying is that both are about power, not about sex or relationship. I think rape is something that would be beyond a face-to-face mediation model like this labyrinth. The same could apply with true bullying. The labyrinth might work if the two parties are at the stage of reconciliation.

CB: I like your answer. I've been asked if the labyrinth isn't a superficial panacea that can't address deeper problems, but maybe if these issues are raised earlier, in elementary and middle schools in the form of role playing on a labyrinth such as the one you and Reginald created, then its possible that more overt antisocial behavior as kids mature can be thwarted or diffused.

JS: I believe as you do, that if we start early and create the right lines for communication and neural pathways for thinking, maybe later issues will not arise.

CB: More on this at a later date, but it must feel good to tie your past with the present – sort of the answer you were looking for when you first started walking?

JS: It’s a great reconnection for me. Reginald and I both like taking it slow and waiting for interest to arise through conversations among local institutions. One example of this is the recent temporary labyrinth requested by the Rothko Chapel, a participant in Compassion Week – promoting compassion in various forms throughout the city. Their Community Engagement Director, Ashley Clemmer Hoffman, asked that a temporary labyrinth be constructed for the day. A 7-circuit triad design (the three parts of the triad walk representing compassion, intention and action) was laid down in the center of the festival and the labyrinth field lined with donated canned food. At the end of the day the food was boxed up for the Houston Food Bank– a visual, visible show of compassion by the people attending. Reginald and I gathered our students who’d been to France with us and chalked it out with tools suggested by Tom Vetter (a chalk roller for marking grass). Hundreds and hundreds of people came out for the festival and walked, danced and played the labyrinth. Again, it’s this idea of building labyrinths in places where the community is involved in the process that gets people excited.

CB: When did Compassion Week take place?

JS: April 10, 2016 at Waterworks at Buffalo Bayou (city parks program).

CB: It’s great to hear what the local Gathering area labyrinth leaders are doing. This information is doubly valuable because it lets people know how welcoming the location is: Houston is a city where compassion is practiced, where communities are involved. It is important that people outside Texas know this.

JS: We’ve never experienced any backlash, never any problems – only enthusiasm. Since we are new to labyrinths, we are always looking for new ideas and, going to the Gathering last year, we walked away with lots of ideas from Waycross.

CB: This is a perfect example of reciprocity in action—it’s valuable to come to these Gatherings and it’s the whole point of The Labyrinth Society; take what you learn and share it in your own community. This type of conflict resolution model and labyrinth design is easily adaptable to hospitals, prisons, university, and corporate settings as well.  

JS: I appreciate the opportunity to tell my story and will keep sharing! I’m looking forward to the eNewsletter as well as the Gathering presentation about our student trip to Ecuador I’ll be giving in November.

CB: Keep in touch, Jay. Thanks!


Postscript: Email from Barbara Gruener (Bales Intermediate School) to Jay Stailey that he forwarded to me:

"Thank you for checking in on us ... yes, we've been through a lot but all is well. You can read the post I wrote about the lesson I taught out at the labyrinthIt was fun to role-play with the students and they really seemed to get it once they realized that there's power in NOT just jumping to resolution in step 1. 

"I've had two teachers come to get the five-step cards to walk students through and I've used it a handful of times in my counseling. One was with a 3rd-grade girl, who was giving her teacher a really hard time, mostly with shouting out and non-stop talking; she played herself, I played the teacher. When we got to brainstorm options, her eyes got really wide that I would even suggest putting tape over her mouth ... and then she came up with using "talking cards" ... maybe getting 3 in the morning  and another 3 in the afternoon ... kind of like the age-old bathroom pass idea ... don't use them all at once, right? 

"So it's been really useful ... and I've recommended it more than once to people in my circle of influence. One school in TN is toying with doing one as a gift from the 5th grade class, another asked just last week about how to get those lines taped down so neatly ... Do you have a link to that tape-runner you purchased?