Jenny Davis, founder of Achieve, on neurodiversity, why you’re better at meditation than you think, and searching for the Dalai Lama’s tea pot
(Publication Date: 12.27.22)
In this episode of the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast, host Adam Williams talks with Jenny Davis, founder of Achieve, Inc., and Little Engine Eatery.
Jenny’s story of a Midwest upbringing and parents who divorced when she was a teen highlights her entrepreneurial spirit. Jenny and Adam talk about her setting aside the Christian faith of her parents and exploring Eastern philosophies, ultimately coming to identify as Buddhist.
Jenny tells how she had to persuade her parents that, in fact, did not mean she had joined a cult. It would, however, lead to a frantic search on one Sunday morning in Boston to find the right kind of tea pot for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who was visiting.
Adam and Jenny talk about meditation practices, and why people who so often try it once and think they just really aren’t any good at it, actually are and just don’t recognize it. And they talk about her volunteer work in the correctional facility in Buena Vista, Colo., where she leads a Buddhist meditation and study group for those incarcerated there.
They also talk about neurodiversity, and Jenny tells about the inspiration for her having founded Achieve, Inc., which is for advocacy on behalf of those who are neurodiverse.
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.
Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.
We Are Chaffee
Looking Upstream Host & Photographer: Adam Williams
Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray
Producer & We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin
We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby
Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom
Director of Chaffee Housing Authority: Becky Gray
Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service. Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.
[Intro music, guitar instrumental]
Adam Williams: Welcome to We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of humanness based in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams.
Today's guest is Jenny Davis, an attorney and founder and executive director of Achieve Inc. A nonprofit based in Chaffee County that provides work experience for neurodiverse teens and young adults with learning disabilities.
Jenny and I cover a solid range of topics and ideas and stories in this conversation as we tend to do here on Looking Upstream. We both have Midwest upbringings and parents who divorced when we were teens. It factors prominently, I would say, into Jenny's story in various ways.
I think it really highlights an impressive capacity for resolve and determination that she had to develop early in life and an entrepreneurial spirit to solve problems and make big things happen. And those experiences influenced Jenny's early beliefs that an industrious money-oriented set of values were the key to life happiness until she concluded that they weren't really.
(00:01:10): We talked some about how that philosophical shift in Jenny's life came to be and about how she would set aside the Christian faith of her parents and her upbringing and explore Eastern philosophies, ultimately coming to identify as Buddhist. She tells how she had to persuade her parents that in fact did not mean she had joined a cult.
It would however, lead to a frantic search on one Sunday morning in Boston to find the right kind of teapot for his Holiness the Dalai Lama who was visiting that day. Jenny and I talk about meditation practices and why people who so often try it once and think they just really aren't any good at it actually are and they just don't recognize it. We also talk about her volunteer work in the correctional facility in Buena Vista, Colorado where she leads a Buddhist meditation and study group for those incarcerated there.
(00:01:57): And we of course talk about neurodiversity, which is a term that, like me, you probably have heard in recent years, but might not know a lot about. Jenny tells about the inspiration for her having founded Achieve Inc. Which again is for advocacy on behalf of those who are neurodiverse.
All right, so here it is, the wonderful conversation that I enjoyed with Jenny Davis.
[Transition music, guitar instrumental]
Adam Williams: Jenny, welcome to Looking Upstream. I'm so glad to have you sitting here with me today and get a chance to get to know you more.
Jenny Davis: Thanks. Nice to be here.
Adam Williams (00:02:32): I do think we have a lot to talk about. There's a lot of interesting things that you've been involved in. And let's start with work that you're doing most recently having founded a nonprofit called Achieve Inc. And I am familiar with Little Engine Eatery, which is an aspect of that.
So, how about we just start with some basics on that. When did you found this nonprofit and what's the mission or purpose?
Jenny Davis (00:02:59): Sure. So, I founded Achieve in 2017. It has a mission of providing paid work experience and social and job skill training for young people. Well, it's not limited to young people, so teens, young adults, and we have some older folks as well that are neurodiverse. And that's a term that refers to people on the autism spectrum, ADD, ADHD, nonverbal learning disability and similar types of disabilities.
So, people that often have trouble finding first jobs, have trouble maintaining jobs. So, I wanted to Achieve to be a vehicle where they could feel comfortable and learn some important skills that will help them become independent.
Adam Williams (00:03:58): I have a feeling we're going to circle back because I do want to talk about neurodiversity and go deeper into all of this, but for now what I'd like is I guess to learn a little bit about what led you to the founding of this. I think that your son was part of the inspiration and I'm curious how old is he and to the extent that you feel is appropriate and that you want to share, we tend not to share other people's stories a whole lot. So, I leave that to you and how you want to express that. What was that inspiration? What does this mean to you?
Jenny Davis (00:04:35):
Sure. He definitely was the inspiration behind it. I've lived in Chaffee County since 1999 and he was diagnosed with a very pronounced learning disability. Gosh, I mean I knew there was something up probably four to six months, but I think he received an official diagnosis at two years. And throughout that time with someone with a pretty pronounced learning disability, we quickly discovered that there aren't a lot of services in Chaffee County and surrounding areas for families or individuals who are neurodiverse outside of the school system.
So, as a family, there was quite a bit of struggle dealing with his issues, getting support locally for them. And so we dealt with a lot of issues as he was younger. And then when he got older, those issues continued into the workplace in that I was sort of raised that it's important to get a job when you're young, you learn a lot of life skills working and I strongly believe in that.
(00:05:56): I think it's really important to encourage kids to get jobs in a variety of different fields. So, I was encouraging my son to do that, but he was having problems, first of all, getting that job. There is a program in the school system that helps place kids with jobs, but they don't really provide that training that's necessary for them to be successful on the job. So, he was terminated from one job. He had a lot of conflict at another job where I think managers didn't fully understand the nature of his disability.
And it just seemed like there was such a need to have an organization where people who were struggling in the workplace or perhaps didn't even have the desire to go out into the workplace because they were afraid of how they would be treated. But have a safe place where they could get some confidence, acquire skills, get paid for their work, and develop a good sense of self-worth, and then be able to go on into whatever fields that they're interested in.
(00:07:12): But first you need to have that sort of self-confidence in yourself to be able to know that, yes, I can do this. Because his entire life, he was being told that he really couldn't do certain things. And I get that there's limitations. There's definitely some things he's not going to be able to do. I mean, he's not going to be an airline pilot, or at least not in a plane that I'd choose to fly in with him. But there's definitely limitations.
But at the same time he was told, you can't do this, you can't do this. He was told that he couldn't go to college and I think you also asked about what he's doing now. And now 23, he's held several successful jobs and he is finishing up college. He'll have one more semester and living independently in a campus apartment at UNC in Greeley.
And actually he did work in our program originally for the first few years, he'll occasionally work a few days here and there when he comes back for the summer. But he's been able to acquire internships this past summer. He was able to successfully complete an internship for regular kids, not an internship for people with disabilities. And that was in Barcelona and he traveled to Barcelona on his own and did the internship. So, these are all things that I don't think he would've been able to do if he hadn't had a successful job experience where he developed some self-confidence.
Adam Williams (00:09:00): I've got a number of questions and first of all, we circled back to this a lot faster than I thought we would and I think it makes sense. Let's go ahead with this path because one, there's a lot, I think about the term neurodiversity that it's become much more mainstream.
There's even a show on Netflix called Atypical that a lot of people might be familiar with and I have watched. I think there's a lot more here that we need to go ahead with if that's okay.
(00:09:30): So, one thing I'm wondering is do you think education of employers was a difference maker as they got to know him? Was it his work experience, which started at Little Engine Eatery, which we probably need to explain a little bit more what that is and how you have set up these work experiences.
And then just to go ahead and further load the question here with more, that's got to be big steps also as a mother when you're seeing his development and he goes off to college and he goes to Europe, he goes to Barcelona for this experience on his own. So, I understand, I just put a lot out on the table there, but you've got my mind running in all these directions and I think they're all valuable.
Jenny Davis (00:10:17): I think that employer experience or education is critical when you're dealing with someone who's neurodiverse. So, to understand some of their quirks. And I like Achieve to be able to get more into that. So, as kids are developing interests in certain areas and there's an employer that might be a good fit, really talk to the employer about what reasonable accommodations might be appropriate and how to help support that worker.
Nationwide, we're seeing a lot of improvement in this area. There's a lot of large employers who are developing their own programs in this area and even bringing in their own consultants because they're seeing the value in employing neurodiverse people and that the character in Atypical is a great example. He makes a great employee.
Locally there isn't a lot of education for employers and they're also, most of our employers are pretty small, so it's hard for the employers to be able to devote the resources necessary-
Adam Williams (00:11:34): Sorry, what resources are necessary? What is it that is that education that is necessary? And I'm thinking also for people who might be listening to this, maybe they're in a position of management or they own a business or just our general understanding about what is different in this work experience, both for someone, maybe it's your son or someone else who is Neurodiverse. But also then for coworkers, for the management.
Jenny Davis (00:12:03): And it's going to depend on the individual that they're employing because there's so many differences. In our program, for instance, we have an individual who is very sensitive to noise. We operate a food trailer that has a snow cone machine that's quite loud.
So, instead of saying to this particular employee that you got to run the snow cone machine, it's understanding that he has this sensitivity, understanding that he may need to put on some headphones that are going to silence that noise for him or have him step out of the food trailer when someone else is creating those snow cones.
So, that's just a example of a very simple accommodation. But first of all, that individual might not have felt comfortable when he first got there of expressing, hey, it's this loud noise that's bothering me. All I need is permission to wear my headset or don't put me on snow cone duty type thing.
(00:13:11): And being able to first train both the employee that it's okay to express what sort of accommodations you might need and let the employer know that this is a simple change you can make. Now it's going to depend, again, like I said, on the extent of the disability though, we have some kids that are going to need one-on-one support. And so a lot of employers are not going to be able to afford that kind of one-on-one support for that person to be successful.
Now my hope is that a lot of these people that maybe initially need that one-on-one support can use Little Engine Eatery as a springboard and develop some skills, develop some comfort level that then they can move on to an employer that can find a position that's useful for them. A lot of our local employers are retail food service, and that's where there's a big need for employees.
(00:14:16): Well, it's a really stressful working environment and it can be difficult for a lot of people who are neurodiverse, not all of them, but many might have difficulties working in a very fast paced environment without an understanding employer that knows what this person's feeling overwhelmed they're going to need to take a more breaks than a typical employee.
So, it's those types of accommodations that are going to change with each person. But you need to have an employer that's willing to explore those types of accommodations and have enough staff to cover for them. Does that make sense?
Adam Williams (00:15:07): It does. And I'm wondering then about the progress you saw with your son. And 23 years old now you said you saw things that you thought were clues to something very early on in his life. So, you have seen more than 20 years of progression working at Little Engine Eatery, working in this nonprofit that you established. I feel like there's advocacy there.
As a parent myself, I feel like that's a parent stepping up and saying, we need this and my son needs this, and you've created this opportunity for so many people. But he then was able to get other jobs, do other work, go off to college and live in another town on his own.
Were those steps that when he was a baby, a young child that you envisioned would be possible? Was that part of the growth or was it always something that in his individual case you're like, well of course this is possible and we'll get there. It just takes some cooperative understanding from some other people outside the house along the way.
Jenny Davis (00:16:18): A lot of parents, those initial plans that you have when they're first born of this is what it's going to look like for the next 18 years. Yeah, I don't think it's limited to parents of kids with disabilities. It's like that went out the window. It's not what you expect. And so from the very beginning we quickly learned to try and set any sort of expectations aside because ...
At the very beginning, he was very delayed to walk. Language was an issue. There's a lot of clues as to why we knew that he had a disability, but we were being told throughout his education that he may not ever be able to live outside of the house or be independent in any way. And you just don't know. There's no way to know.
So, even as late as high school, he was being told he may, and as a family, we were being told that he may not live outside the house. Definitely we were told that college was probably a poor idea and I just saw that he had room to grow.
(00:17:50): And I see that in so many people. And I want to emphasize too, the program is, while he was an inspiration for it, I saw that in the other kids in his class, the Neurodiverse kids, kids with other types of disabilities. That there's potential there and that we just have these sort of preset ideas mean everybody.
We have these judgements that we frame and say, this person is a certain way and this is what they're capable of doing. And so Achieve a sort of about helping us take down those mindsets and let's just see what they can do. I'm not saying that everyone that goes through our program is going to live a hundred percent independent without any sort of interventions.
(00:18:40): I don't think that's going to ever happen for my son, but he'll be able to be independent, he'll be able to live where he wants to live and work in a field that he wants to work in. So, that's where the shift is. I think that what's important is getting rid of the expectations and the judgements. And that's why, again, I think it's really important for employers to keep an open mind and employ people with neurodiversity or any sort of disability because it shows the public that hey, our preconceptions about what this person can and can't do may be wrong.
Adam Williams (00:19:26): Have you had any employers that you've engaged in this conversation ask a challenging question of maybe, well, why do I need to hire a person that I need to make accommodations for when I can hire this young person over here who also needs job skills and I don't have to, I can tell them what to do, I can say, go do any job and they have to do that. Versus, oh, well now I need to remember this person needs this accommodation. That person needs that. Have you had to deal with that sort of conversation and address that?
Jenny Davis (00:19:58): I haven't yet, but I'm totally prepared to because just like you want a diverse workplace, it just makes life more interesting. And every person has skills that the, I'll use the term neurotypical, the person that's not neurodiverse. They may have what an employer might see as abilities to work in a stressful situation or whatever.
But they may not have an attention to detail that someone who's neurodiverse has. So, in a broader workplace, I mean you want to have people with different abilities. There's a Temple Grandin has a quote that's says that the world needs all kinds of minds. How boring would it be if we all thought the same way and all had the same skillset?
(00:20:57): And I see it even on a really small scale in our food trailer that kids will come and they'll have different skill sets and I encourage them to cross train and try things that maybe they're not comfortable in. But they all bring different dimensions to it. We had one guy this summer who's a really good tech guy and we use a state-of-the-art technology system that's used in a lot of restaurants. So, they'll get comfortable with that.
And then if they want to work in a restaurant, be able to go onto that. And I had something going on with it and I didn't know how to fix it and this kid is like, let me do it. He fixed our system for us. Another kid was awesome at the barbecue type thing. So, there's going to bring something to the table. I think that you see it too, and then difference in their personalities, it creates some more ... I'm trying to search for the right word, not friendlier, but just more interesting place to be when you encourage that diversity.
Adam Williams (00:22:17): I agree. And it almost sounds what I'm hearing somewhat through a personal lens, is that what you're describing as being able to almost make a case for these are the strengths, don't look at the accommodations if that is a question mark in your mind, these are the strengths of what this person brings their capacity for, whether it's technology, it's math, perceptivity to just plain deal with people in a way that maybe someone else is not their strength.
It seems like there's a history of all of us acting as if all of us think the same, brains function the exact same way, expectations can be the same. Strengths and weaknesses therefore are compared to some standard that doesn't actually exist in the world.
Jenny Davis (00:23:07): Yeah. There is no normal, there really isn't. And not every kid in our program, and I keep calling them kids because I'm so old. But I mean we have older people, but they bring a passion too.
These are people that for the most part have been told their entire life that they can't do something and then they have this opportunity to do something. They are thankful for that opportunity. They're dedicated employees and they are doing their best job to help the operations succeed. I mean, what more could an employer want than that?
Adam Williams (00:23:55): I want to go back to the show we mentioned before, Atypical. It sounds like you're familiar with that as well. And what I'm curious about, I've watched, I don't know, there are five seasons or something of it and I've watched it all with my family. And I wonder if from your perspective, the show has done a service in terms of taking it more mainstream and helping something exactly like what we're talking about. There was a character, the lead character of that show, who worked at an electronic store like Best Buy or something.
And we really got taken through the way the interactions are, it's in the workplace, it's in family, it's school. Did that shine light in a way that you think was positively representative? Did it sort of sometimes Hollywood type things can for the sake of story, lead us in a direction that might be misleading, get us to misunderstand a topic?
Jenny Davis (00:24:51): Yeah, I think for the most part, I love the show. We watched the show as well. I love that it's, as you mentioned, bringing issues of neurodiversity into the mainstream and exposing people to the gifts that neurodiverse people may bring to a situation. The lead character is clearly gifted. And I guess my only criticism of the show would be that if you think that every person who's neurodiverse is going to be gifted in some way, that they're going to be like this amazing artist, this A plus student.
That's not the case. Some of them won't be gifted and there's all types of different disabilities. But they all bring something to the table. That show in particular the lead actor is in real life is not on the spectrum. But they did start incorporating a lot of characters and actors who truly are neurodiverse. And so a lot of the other characters in that story are neurodiverse.
(00:26:10): So, I also was appreciative of that show utilizing actors with disabilities on the show and again, exposing the public to their capabilities. It also was helpful for us as parents of someone with neurodiversity living in a small town and not really having much of a support system and feeling really isolated because of that.
To see some of the things that we've gone through that his parents were going through and go, you just feel like, oh, we're not alone because there's not a support group up here for parents of kids with disabilities. I tried to get one started. It's hard in rural areas.
Adam Williams (00:27:02): Do you have a sense for how many people that might involve just in this area where we are in Chaffee County, Colorado, obviously the rural area of all this extends much farther beyond our county that might unite around this. But is there any way to have any sense of, oh, this might involve 10 families, it might be 40 families.
Jenny Davis (00:27:25): The way I use it for my program and my planning is to, I base it on the number of kids in the school system that are involved in special education in some way, either through what's called an IEP, Individualized Education Plan or a 504, another type of plan that's not as robust.
But either of those, they need to have some sort of disability. So, there's a greater number than you'd think. The problem is that, well, I call all families, you're just spread so thin. So, it's hard to take the time for yourself to get that sort of support network.
(00:28:15): It's difficult. But I get asked that question about, well why are you doing this program? Is there really a need in Chaffee County? And yes, there is. We're not as big as Boys and Girls Club of course. But last year we had 19 kids involved in our programming in Buena Vista and that wasn't just kids in BV, we do have kids from surrounding counties, we have kids from Salida.
So, if you're looking at that greater area, I think there's a fair number of families that would benefit from it. And we're starting to see as the county's growing, a few more agencies step up. There's now the Autism connection has a, it's not a non-profit, it's a for-profit group of therapists. But they have an office here in BV.
That kind of service wasn't available 20 years ago. So, it's great to see that it's starting to step up a little in terms of services, therapies being made available, but it's just a function of living in rural Colorado that there's going to be less specialized service for that.
Adam Williams (00:29:44): Okay. I'd like us to step back now into your story more specifically to early years to, I guess let's get us started on the path here and then we'll work our way back up maybe more chronologically because I'm always interested in how and why we end up making some choices we do.
How do we end up just like what ultimately led you to found Achieve Inc? A lot of times those things start I think in our very younger years and what the impressions were of maybe our parents or family and whatnot. So, could you describe what early life was like for you and what those early seeds might have been?
Jenny Davis (00:30:30): Yeah, I was brought up in the Midwest and had a very typical middle class Midwestern family. I had a brother and my parents worked together, although I guess they did separate when I was in high school, late junior high, high school and they divorced. But I don't know that any of that impacted leading up to forming Achieve.
Adam Williams (00:31:10): Well, it certainly doesn't have to be specific to that. So, I didn't mean to mislead in terms of we're aiming directly toward Achieve, but rather just filling out your story because it all of course ends up factoring in one way or another as the arc of our lives here and where we end up now and in the future. So, you said your parents divorced, but you don't feel like that had an impact necessarily on that? My parents divorced when I was 19. I feel like it had an impact on me.
Jenny Davis (00:31:41): Oh yeah, definitely has. In fact, I think that teenagers who go through divorce, in some ways it might be worse because those are years where you think that you don't need any sort of parental involvement in your life. And I think that you really do need a lot of parental involvement in your life and when your parents are going through divorce in teenage years, at least in my case, there was a ... In fact, it was a very traumatic experience for my mom.
(00:32:14): So, the way my family did this is my brother was older and at the time they actually went through the divorce he was in college, I was still in high school and my mom got custody of me. And I guess legally my dad got custody of my brother. So, my dad paid for my brother's education and my mom was supposed to pay for mine.
But she was a housewife growing up. She had skills and so forth, but she hadn't been in the workplace for 20 some years. And so it was very difficult for her financially and that I kind of had to step in and be the adults in a way.
Adam Williams (00:33:06): That sounds like quite a weight to end up on your shoulders. And maybe not only just how you just said to step in and try to help financially in whatever ways that led to. But I mean, was there a sense of burden or guilt then on your part that you are somehow making this hard on your mom ... This reverse parenting sort of thing where you're almost feeling bad that you're there and needing her to be the parent for you.
Jenny Davis (00:33:39): Yeah. That might have been an undercurrent, but at the time it was more of just trying to help out. And then it was weird too because through high school, I got a job during high school and then I had always wanted to go to college, but it became really clear that if I was going to college, I'd be paying my own way.
So, a lot of decisions, I made a lot of decisions based on finances, which is I suppose pretty intense for someone 15, 16 to be doing that. I ended up in college. I figured out this idea I had was to actually buy a cheap college house, just a little bungalow. And I don't know how I came up with this, but that if we bought the house and then I got a couple roommates, it would pay for the house payment and I wouldn't have to pay for lodging in school.
(00:34:46):Of course I was too young. I was 17 I think, so I couldn't get a loan. But I explained all this to my mom and so she signed this and I had enough for, it was just a really nasty house, so it didn't require much of a down payment. So, we bought this little house and it worked out great. I had roommates and it helped put me through college.
But it was coming up with stuff like that, that I suppose is a bit unusual for a typical person who's 16 or 17. So, wow, kind of forgot about this, but I did at the time sort of view myself as being independent by the time I was 17. So, sort of self-supporting in that way. And I worked full-time too during college not full time, but I worked a ton. I was a server like everyone else that's in college.
Adam Williams (00:35:53): Did that have an impact on your relationship with your mom then that sort of, hey, I'm as much of an adult here functioning in this situation as you are. So, did that change things for you that you remember?
Jenny Davis (00:36:07): Yeah, it was rough. I think that having the mom daughter dynamic is probably pretty hard and most situations, especially with teenagers and especially someone who thinks they're totally independent. And then I'm sure it was really tough on my mom to have her, what she viewed as her life goal.
I think she viewed herself as a failure. She was having some depression. She did end up going, actually went back to school and got a master's degree. So, she was an incredible person. But yeah, there was a lot of stuff. Unfortunately they didn't have therapy back or at least it wasn't socially acceptable to go to therapy, so we just muddled through it.
Adam Williams (00:36:58): On a recent conversation on this podcast, I decided that we nationally all need some sort of program for therapy. It just needs to be a regular part of what we're all doing.
Jenny Davis (00:37:09): Would've been very beneficial. I mean, we definitely had our moments. I think it was probably harder for her. I was just driven to, I'm going to put myself through college and I'm going to get it ... And at that point, I think I decided maybe back even in high school that I wanted to go to law school.
So, I wanted to go to college and kick it out as fast as possible so I could get a job for a couple years and make enough money to go to law school. So, I had this plan that this is what I was going to do. And my mom, I'm sure, felt probably inadequate that she wasn't able to be more emotionally and financially supportive at that point.
Adam Williams (00:37:57): I feel for your mom in that I think I can understand on some level what that might feel like. And just impressed with you having handled the situation the way you did in terms of stepping up and saying, this is not going to stop my trajectory in life. I still can have ideas and dreams and goals and put in the effort and do that. And you did go to law school, right?
Jenny Davis (00:38:25): Yes, I did.
Adam Williams (00:38:26): And have a career as an attorney.
Jenny Davis (00:38:27): Yep.
Adam Williams (00:38:28): What developed through that career for you in terms of, I guess, I don't know if boards is the word I want to use, but you worked hard and you ended up earning a life that have gone a different direction had you been in a different person without that strength, that resilience?
Jenny Davis (00:38:46): Yeah, so my focus, as I mentioned, was making money. That's not why I wanted to go to law school, was to make money. I did want to help people and I viewed the law degree as a way to be able to do that, to be a problem solver. And that was my initial reason why I wanted to do that. Plus my parents had told me from an early age I was really good at arguing. But that was my original motivation. But through all this sort of happening, it was, it became clear, it's like I need to make money. And so in law school, I ended up doing well in law school and then getting job offers with medium to large size law firms and they had very enticing financial packages for people that did well in law school. And instead of maybe following my initial reason for wanting to go to law school, which probably I would've ended up as a public defender or something like that would've been my initial goal.
(00:40:03): I ended up working for a large corporate firm in Kansas City, making a good salary and doing that for a while. And it took a little bit of when in exchange for those big salaries that they give you, they also expect you to devote your life to them. And I'm talking like 80 hour weeks type thing. And that's totally expected. You can't really have any sort of life outside of the firm. And so I got fairly burnt out after a while of doing that and ended up, I am skipping over a lot.
(00:40:43): But ended up getting a job offer with a corporate client that was in Denver and always loving Colorado, I jumped at that. And so I was working as a corporate attorney in Denver with this client and got pretty burnt out of doing that too. I think it started catching up with me that, hey, this money thing isn't exactly satisfying and doesn't really ...
Just started figuring out that that's not what creates happiness for us. And ended up at, during this time in Denver, I met the man whose now my husband and we decided to move here and I left my job and came here and totally switched from having decent salary to back to financial struggle again. But that was a conscious decision knowing that it's a lot of us that come here. It's like it's hard to make a living in rural Colorado, for a lot of people.
Adam Williams (00:42:03): How did your family respond to your career choice in that path? We talked a little bit about the emotional relational aspects with your mom, but if we set that to the side, was that something that they had expected that level or that kind of life career path for you?
Jenny Davis (00:42:26): Probably not. Definitely not my dad. I think they saw that I wasn't happy in Denver though, so I think my mom was more supportive and she ended up following me out here and lived out here for a while until she wasn't able to care for herself.
And actually I was a caretaker for her for a little bit where she lived with us until that she couldn't do that anymore and she ended up moving into nursing and dying shortly after that. But yeah, I think there's a lot of things I've done that I think that probably shocked my family a little.
Adam Williams (00:43:11): I think I'm wondering, so I came from the Midwest as well, and you had mentioned a little bit ago that typical Midwest sort of upbringing and for me that conjures certain ideas and of religion and education and what it means to have a good job in the good life and the American dream kind of thing that wasn't just exclusive throughout the 20th century, at least to the Midwest, certainly.
But I feel like there's probably an aesthetic or essential something that we might be viewing in common. So, I guess what I'm asking is to draw out what might've been the picture as it was painted for you when you were growing up and then you are on this path to become a lawyer and have that career, what it might have been, the picture that had your parents kind of pointed you in that direction to begin with and said, this is the level of life we aim for you, or what was influencing that in that religion education thing?
Jenny Davis (00:44:16): And not just my parents. I think that's just sort of the Midwest vibe. I mean, yeah, you're expected to go out, get a job and your goal in the job, it's all about productivity. I guess, I do remember, and I think about this a lot, about how my parents would view a good day on what did you accomplish today, productivity wise. And I still get caught up in that as opposed to how did I make the world a better place today?
Adam Williams (00:44:55): Productivity.
Jenny Davis (00:44:56): It's just sort of assumption that productivity is what you do to be a contributing member of society. And by productivity I mean earning a paycheck and earning money. And then with that money, if you could do something nice for the community, that's great.
But it was more of, that's the secondary aspect of it and not ... the primary thing is earning the money very. So, it wasn't definitely capitalistic driven approach as opposed to what are you doing to make yourself happier and therefore make the world a happier place.
Adam Williams (00:45:46): Contribution as a human to humanity versus to the economic-
Jenny Davis (00:45:52): Machine.
Adam Williams (00:45:53): Capitalistic, yeah. Society that is ... Yeah, the word productivity is a challenging one for me from a similar place. I think it sounds like that what that means in terms of how it equates to our worth as a being. Speaking of you having come to this place geographically, but also philosophically that maybe going for the money that law firms provide, which also bring that 80 hour work week, you've made some significant life changes. And something else that I'm aware that you are involved in that I find to be of real interest in it on that human level is your spiritual practices with Buddhism.
(00:46:41): And that's not only individual to you, but also how you through that practice, engage others in the community, and not least of which that I'm aware of is at the local prison. Could you share something about that? How did you come to this place with your spiritual practices, understanding of the world?
Again, the Midwest thing, I'm guessing that wasn't anywhere around me, I'm guessing that's not what you were brought up with, if I'm wrong. Tell me and just what that means to you now and how you use that to benefit others as well.
Jenny Davis (00:47:18): Sure. Yeah. We definitely weren't exposed to any, I knew nothing about Buddhism and didn't until, gosh, after I was married. And so it did have a big impact in my worldview. It had a big impact in decisions that I made and how I've deemphasized judging my role in life and so-called success in life, how I would determine that. And so it had me transition. I'd already transitioned away from the corporate job.
But I still was on a focus of, I guess I valued myself based on whether I had enough money to support myself and my family type thing and Buddhism helped me shift away from that, that that's not how I should be judging myself. And I got exposed to it after we were already living in Chaffee County, not through a Chaffee County group. But through a group somewhere else and really got intrigued with it.
(00:48:42): It wasn't something I was even really looking for. My husband had suggested I learned to meditate as a way to maybe reduce some of my anxiety. And I was not even that interested in learning to meditate at the time. Because it was like, oh yeah, when am I going to have time to meditate? I can't even get the 50 things on my to-do list done. So, how am I supposed to squeeze meditation into my day? Thanks.
Adam Williams (00:49:08): Time to do nothing.
Jenny Davis (00:49:09): Yeah, right. It's really because I'm trying to figure out how I can do 10 things at once, which is opposite of meditation. So, I ended up doing a just a 10 little session with this guy that is supposed to introduce you to just meditation. And he happened to be a Buddhist teacher.
And he just told me to stare at the wall and just keep my mind on the wall for 10 minutes. And I was like, yeah, whatever. Okay, if I'll do this and my husband will be happy, I can go on and start kicking out things on my to-do list. So, I did that and I was kind of blown away because it's like, oh my gosh, I have zero control over my thoughts. I can't even tell my mind for 10 minutes to just focus on X, Y, Z. It's like, that's tragic. And so it got me curious. But I was raised in a Christian household.
(00:50:19): My father was actually, he came from a Jewish background, but we didn't know that until I was an adult, we, I mean my brother and I. So, I was raised in this purely Christian household and I didn't have any desire to really leave Christianity. But I started studying Eastern philosophy and got really interested in it and discovered that it was answering a lot of deeper questions that I had suppressed.
And it was coming up with logical and even scientific answers for some of these questions. And so I started delving deeper in it and eventually became very interested in it. Eventually I now call myself Buddhist as opposed to Christian. And it's really helped me a lot in, again, sort of shifting that worldview, having a deeper understanding of the purpose of my life and helped me make the shift from being an attorney to being an executive director of a nonprofit.
Adam Williams (00:51:43): Is this one of
Jenny Davis (00:51:44): [inaudible 00:51:44] executive director. [inaudible 00:51:46].
Adam Williams (00:51:45): Okay. Is this one of the things that you've done in your life that might have shocked your parents if they raised you as ...
Jenny Davis (00:51:45): Yeah.
Adam Williams (00:51:45): Oh okay.
Jenny Davis (00:51:54): They were pretty shocked by that. I'm sure that they thought at first that I was involved in a cult. I'm sure they were. And I actually didn't continue studying with this first teacher I was studying with, shifted and studied with a different teacher and I had my mom meet him and had her figure out that it's actually one of the world religions. It's just different, it's a minority religion in the United States. Not everybody even views it as a religion. Some people view it as just philosophical study.
(00:52:35): So, she got over that and my dad did too. I think eventually that I wasn't involved in it cult. And we had a small group here that we facilitated just out of our house. And then that led eventually to an invitation to bring, I guess they try and promote volunteers to bring in spiritual study of all traditions into the correctional facility here in MBV and there was a request for some Buddhist study. And so I went in and started leading a Buddhist study group at the facility. And I've been doing that for numerous years.
Adam Williams (00:53:29): Who is involved in that? Who comes to it? If you can paint a picture, many people, what kind of space are you in? What has that experience like? What have reactions been to it?
Jenny Davis (00:53:42): Yeah, so we've been doing it a while and the attendees change over time. We had to take a break during COVID because they closed down all the volunteer programs during that time. So, unfortunately, well I guess fortunately for them, but we had a good sort of core group and when COVID hit, we lost that sort of ongoing connection. And when we restarted the guys that were coming in the old group, I don't know if they have been transferred or were released or what have you, so we have an all new group that we're starting with.
But yeah, so we've, boy, I think we've been doing it maybe five years. There's actually two facilities there. There's the main center right off the highway and then there's a minimum center and we switch off every other week at each center. The main center, we just go in and there's a sort of training room, teaching room, I think they call it a recreation room that we use that just tables and chairs.
(00:55:14): We sit around in a half circle and when the group is established, we don't do as much introduction, but we talk about basic concepts that are actually universal to most religions really. It's concepts of compassion and treating others as you'd want to be treated type things. So, it is a Buddhist group though, so we do touch on basic Buddhist philosophy, which again is not different than basics in a lot of religions in a lot of ways there's certainly differences. But we also don't require, we're not trying to convert anyone.
The idea is to make their lives better and help them both if they don't have opportunities to be getting out anytime soon, to help them acquire some skills that will help them lead satisfying lives, whether that be inside the facility or once they get out. So, that's why we're doing it. I don't care if they become Buddhist or not.
(00:56:38): I just hope that they can learn how to achieve some level of true happiness for themselves and the people around them, including other inmates and other guards, and when they get out to be able to use those skills on the outside. When we were doing that before COVID we've gotten a lot of positive feedback from the program.
We get feedback from the guys about how it's helpful while they're even within the facility in terms of avoiding conflict, changing their frame of how they view things. Something that maybe would irritate someone and lead to some sort of confrontation hopefully does not happen.
(00:57:28): Well, I say hopefully, I mean, we're told by them that it helps prevent that. So, I've found a big benefit of it in my own life and it's been reported to me from the guys that we meet with that it's helpful in theirs.
And you asked a numbers, gosh, that that's all across the board, but because we've now sort of restarted after COVID, I'm not sure they have a lot of other volunteer programs going on right now. And so the program's been pretty popular. So, 10 to 15 guys in a group will come and sit with us.
Adam Williams (00:58:09): You did a great job of remembering that question in the list because I do have a tendency, I am aware to sometimes just stack it up with, because I have so many things going on in my mind. So, that does help paint the picture for me that when we're talking about a half circle, you're saying right now, 10 to 15 people.
And you also answered what was a curiosity for me, which is are these people who might have previously in some way connected with Buddhism and identified that way. But through the course of life ended up here and now they're looking to reconnect or was it-
Jenny Davis (00:58:44): It's more like that.
Adam Williams (00:58:45): Okay. Or if it was just a general curiosity or simply people who are seeking something like you're describing more of a positive practice in their life to help them.
Jenny Davis (00:58:56): We'll even get some guys. I'm sure that there's right now. Before when we had been doing it a while and there were other groups coming in, the people that were coming to our group were sincerely interested in meditation and life philosophy and Buddhist philosophy.
Now I would imagine that some of those guys just need a break from being in the same spot because there's so many lockdowns right now because of lack of staffing or illness or whatever. So, they get stuck in their cells without a lot of anything else going on in their lives. So, I think we get some people that just need to have something different going on besides watching TV and hanging with the same people.
Adam Williams (00:59:50): Can you tell the difference between someone who's there because they are feeling like I just need something different versus someone who might have come through the door the first time knowing why they wanted to be there, knowing what it was?
Jenny Davis (01:00:03): Yeah, generally I think I can.
Adam Williams (01:00:05): But do you find that they end up participating just as deeply, ultimately once? Do they connect with what you're sharing?
Jenny Davis (01:00:12): Yeah, I think they do. Well, I didn't know when I first started into Buddhism, it's like I didn't even, what is Buddhism and do they worship Buddha and is Buddha a god? And I didn't know any of that kind of stuff. I had no idea. And the answer's no. But yeah, they don't know what to expect with it.
And so when they're just talking about, hey, I try and have them experience the same thing I've experienced first time I meditated. It's like, do you realize that these thoughts are going on in your head all the time and they're just going around and around and you don't controlling them?
(01:00:58): And that, gosh, can you imagine if you have a confrontation with someone, what it might be like if you're able to feel that anger start rising up in you somewhere to be able to go, wow, that's weird. Where did that anger come from? Instead of letting it take over and acting out on it. Can you imagine what that would be?
And so try and get them curious in it and understand why we are even meditating. We're just meditating, at this level, we're doing a type of meditation that's single pointed meditation or Samatha where we're just trying to be aware of the thoughts as they're arising and being able to focus and then get into more advanced stuff. But that's really all we're trying to do.
Adam Williams (01:01:49): Well about meditation, I guess in a broad sense. There are different ways of practicing this, but one of the things that I have most commonly heard from people who maybe have tried it once and then they say-
Jenny Davis (01:02:03): Didn't help.
Adam Williams (01:02:04): I'm no good at this. I think there's a general misunderstanding of what the experience is that it's not a magical thing where you sit down and you're either good at it or not. You're either able to still your mind completely or you're not. But rather, in my experience with it, we're all dealing with those thoughts and that's, I think you probably have more experience and certainly in leading this.
So, I do want to hear your thoughts, but in my experience with it's understanding, it's coming to accept I have thoughts and it's not, that means I'm doing a bad job of meditating, but it's becoming aware of those and setting them off to the side and to continue refocusing my attention.
So, like you're saying on a point or the wall, in your first experience. What do you encounter with the understanding, misunderstanding, and how do you express to people whether that's these people in these sessions you're talking about? Or in general, somebody asked you, well, I've never heard of or tried meditation. I've never tried a Buddhist, anything. What are these things? What is Buddhism? What is meditation?
Jenny Davis (01:03:16): Yeah, and that's spot on from the way I view it. It's like anybody can really meditate and I'm crappy at it if you judge it by well, whether I'm able to clear my head. And it's certainly somewhat cyclical too. It's something for me that I have to practice every day. And if I don't, yeah, it's pretty darn hard to sit down after a week of a stimulating world.
And that's true whether you're an inmate and having safety issues going on in your life day after day or outside world stuff going on day after day, it's pretty hard to sit down and try and focus your mind on one thing. But as I do that, even if it's been a week, I notice that my shoulders start to relax. I start noticing releases in my body, just tension releases. So, if nothing else, it's definitely helpful for releasing anxiety and to the people that say they're terrible at it.
(01:04:29): That just means that you must be doing it right. If you've noticed that you can't focus on one thing, it's at least you've noticed that. Most of us don't even know that. Most of us like me, for my first 45 years went around just not even really caring what was going on in my sub thoughts and wondering why I do something a certain way or you got to develop that curiosity about the world around you and slow down enough to allow yourself to develop that curiosity and see where it goes from there. I'm not sure if I answered your question.
Adam Williams (01:05:17): Oh, I love the way you just said that, that's a sign that you're doing it right. Because I had never thought of it that way. And you hear people just assume thoughts keep intruding, I'm horrible at this, I'm never going to try it again.
But there's a reason we use the word practice. It's like anything else. It's like going to the gym or running or anything else we do. In parenting, I go through this a lot with my sons who think, well, I'm bad at X. Well, there's nobody who's born being great at anything and meditation is no different.
Jenny Davis (01:05:52): Right. I mean, look at the Dalai Lama. I think most people are familiar with, if anybody's got meditation down, supposedly he's got it down. So, does he not meditate anymore because of that? No, he meditates more. It's incredible at his age that he just sees the importance of it.
So, yeah, I also noticed too, people that will start me meditating will go, well, it's worse, it's made it worse that I now have more negative thoughts running around in my head than I did before I started meditating. So, I shouldn't be doing this. It's like the meditation didn't cause the negative thoughts to run around. It's just like you're finally taking the time to see, it's like, oh wow, look at all these judgmental thoughts I have going on.
And isn't that interesting? Let's not try and judge ourselves for having these judgmental thoughts. Let's just recognize them and hopefully let them go for now. There's different types of meditation that dig into analyzing them, but just letting them go and start with that.
(01:07:16): It's interesting, there's a lot of programs out in the world right now on how to meditate. And I think for me, had I not had that sort of tie into, bringing that spiritual side to it perhaps wouldn't have been as successful for me or something that I've wanted to stick with.
But I think tying it to a thought of wanting a goal of wanting to seek, achieve compassion or at least to benefit others is what has kept me motivated in the practice. So, I think that's a piece of it too. If it's just mindfulness, I think some people will see a benefit in that and others may not. But tying it into something that can be more motivational, like the idea that you're actually helping other people in including yourself, but by meditating.
Adam Williams (01:08:25): What's coming to my mind is that gratitude and service are often too ideas that I see and hear brought up as we need and want to feel better, that those are great practices to just shift our outlook on life. I also meditate and I see the value in that, but what I am seeing or hearing here in connection is that with your meditation, you then are serving others by going into the correctional facilities and sharing that and connecting with others. And it seems like that probably enhances your practice as well as it is spreading the positive of these simple ideas.
Jenny Davis (01:09:08): Yeah, it's that noble self-interest. It's like developing compassion for others helps you. So, you achieve a deeper sense of satisfaction and self worth in a positive way, not an egotistical way. But so it does help you become happier in your own skin by trying to develop this truly deep compassion. So, that's kind of how I've tried, that's how I view it, that's how it's helped me.
Adam Williams (01:09:52): I'm glad that you mentioned the Dalai Lama, because I also know that you have had an occasion to meet him, which feels extraordinary to me. There can only be so many people, surely, in all the many years that he has held this position in the world and been so well known, and tell me about that.
This meeting of him, what was going on and just, I don't want to put pressure on this, but it feels like someone like that, that there might be some sort of aura of presence or something that you might have felt.
Jenny Davis (01:10:28): But I think it's available to anyone that goes, and if you ever have a chance to hear him speak in person and can do so with an open mind, I'd really encourage people to do that because you don't have to shake his hand and have an opportunity to meet him individually to feel that.
When you go into an auditorium with someone who has truly developed that very sincere desire for others to achieve peace. When you are around someone like that, whether it's in a large auditorium or individually, you can feel it that aura. Well, I do, I've talked to a number of other people that have felt that too. So, when you find someone who really speaks to you in that way you should pursue that.
So, yeah, it was a wonderful experience. I had an opportunity because my teacher is a very close student of his holiness. So, through him I had that opportunity to meet him and receive a blessing.
(01:11:48): But again, I think it's available to all of us that, and he's getting older, so he's not going to be with us forever. But at least in flesh. But if you have that opportunity, if he comes back to the US I encourage people to do that. But I met him in Boston. He was leading, I think it was a three day event and I was part of the team that was helping put on that event.
And so that's what led to me being able to meet him. But there's sort of a funny story on one of the things we had to do. Me and another person in my group, we were asked to get the teapot that would be set in front of him and the tea because of his relationship with China.
(01:12:47): We received a phone call on Saturday night for Sunday morning to get this teapot for his Holiness for the event. And if we could find something that wasn't made in China, and it's like really, we have Sunday morning in Boston when all the stores are closed to find a teapot that wasn't made in China. So, we're on this frantic attempt to do that. And anyway, hopefully his holiness was okay with the teapot that was made in China, because that's the only one we could find.
Adam Williams (01:13:26): Maybe he doesn't pick it up and look at the bottom when it's full and hot.
Jenny Davis (01:13:30): Right.
Adam Williams (01:13:32): So, I am thinking about what we've talked about. You have this early part of your life that you've described and these things that were rooted in, well, you used the word capitalistic in terms of productivity and the idea of what success, the common definitions that we're all familiar with and the idea of money.
And then at some point in your life, middle age, it seems not too many years ago, shifted to realizing what philosophically matters. And you start with Buddhism and these practices, and you've founded this nonprofit Achieve, and it brings to mind a concept that I think was Carl Jung's, but also Father Richard Rohr is well known for the two halves of life because he has spoken to that as well.
(01:14:16): It’s this idea that the first half is about ego and identity and its family teachings and loyalties and rules, and it's creating this container that we think we're supposed to fill. Then with all those successes and ideas of the money and the material, and then getting to the second half of our life and realizing that's not really the thing. It's not the money.
That's not where the happiness, that's not where the impact that we want to maybe have on the world is. I don't know if you're already familiar with that concept, but I wonder if that rings true for you and where you might be envisioning your life going on the course you're on now in this second half.
Jenny Davis (01:14:57): Yeah, it does ring true for me. I do though know people certainly not me that from a very early age are just amazing people that have devoted themselves to service and knew even preteen that that's what they wanted to do. And the person that is my teacher is one of those people.
So, it's just like, I can't imagine an age 10 wanting to develop spiritual practice outside of what my family had taught me to have that sort of presence of mind. So, I am more in the latter group where you know, you'd do something for a while and go, well, this isn't working, what next? So, I'm definitely in the latter group.
Yeah, I would like to at my age, which is 60, work more towards developing that inner peace. Right now I'm trying to do that through public service that's going to have to slow down as I age, but I want that to continue to be a part of my life in some respect.
Adam Williams (01:16:18): In developing Achieve Inc, are there visions there, because with what you're saying, I guess that sounds like maybe a balance is coming, that you're developing things. I think that it even has a place in the future with Jane's Place, which we've also talked about with Miki Hodge and Becky Gray on this podcast that will be built in Salida and that will be a permanent structure versus the Little Engine Eatery as a trailer that is seasonal here in BV right now.
So, there are big things on the horizon. While it sounds like you're also aware, and I'm also going to pull back at some point.
Jenny Davis (01:16:58): Yeah, it's not about me and I want it to be about serving the people in this valley and surrounding counties, and I want it to be about the mission. To do that I want it to be sustainable, and part of my Buddhist practice is reflecting on death. So, not in a good way or in a good way to reflect on death. So, it's important to me to build up a team that can take Achieve into these directions and then let it be a self-sustaining organization that can carry on and as I start pulling back.
(01:17:44): So, that's kind of what I see my role. But yeah, that's not going to happen probably until I get the coffee shop going in Jane's Place, which I'm very excited about. But it is a lot of work at this point, and I'd like to eventually be able to pull away from that for the reasons I said, because I want it to be self-sustaining and I think it's important to bring that new energy of program directors and so forth.
And you touched on too, an area that I'd like to get more into besides the food trailer, besides the coffee shop in Jane's Place, and that's working more with employers to an area employers and educating them about the virtues of employing people with neurodiversity.
Adam Williams (01:18:39): I really appreciate your taking the time to share so much with me and to go so deep into some of these areas. And yeah, just thank you.
Jenny Davis (01:18:47): Yeah, thank you. It's fun. Thought about some stuff I hadn't thought about in a while.
[Outro music, guitar and horns instrumental]
Adam Williams (01:18:59): Okay. That was my conversation with Jenny Davis. If what she shared here today sparked curiosity and thoughts for you, you can email comments to Lisa Martin, one of our producers at email@example.com.
We invite you to rate and review that we are Chaffee Looking Upstream podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or whatever platform you use with that functionality. We also invite you to share the Looking Upstream podcast with others on your social media pages and by word of mouth. Help us to grow the good, be part of the light the world needs.
Once again, I'm your host, Adam Williams. Jon Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you to Kay Radio, where we recorded today's conversation in Salida, Colorado. To Heather Gorby for graphic and web design. To Lisa Martin, producer and community advocacy coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Initiative, to Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment.
(01:19:43): And to Becky Gray, director of the Chaffee Housing Authority. The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it is supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities.
You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org and on Instagram and Facebook at We Are Chaffee.
Lastly, thank you for listening and until next time, as we say here at We Are Chaffee, be human, share stories.