Whidbey Institute Director Larisa Benson spoke with me recently about her board service and background. Larisa is one of the folks behind “Strategies for a More Joyful Government,” and brings a great wealth of leadership, governance, and teaching expertise to her role on our Board of Directors. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation. —Marnie Jackson
What’s your history with the Whidbey Institute?
I found the Whidbey Institute almost ten years ago when I was looking for a didgeridoo concert, and when my father and I were taking tender steps toward mending our broken relationship.
When we arrived, I was a little overwhelmed with the compassion I felt from the land. It was an awakening, and really powerful!
We needed spaciousness, and that’s what this place gave to us. The ferry ride provided that, the land provided that, the labyrinth provided that, the music, Thomas Berry Hall. We found sanctuary, and that allowed us to reconnect with what was divine, sacred, human, and beautiful within one another.
After that visit, did you stay involved with the organization?
The Whidbey Institute seems to attract this wild variety of talent, like a wild garden. I kept an eye on it. I have had colleagues serve on the board, and I’ve participated in and referred others to Powers of Leadership. I love the unique way that leadership development and individual development are nurtured at the Whidbey Institute.
My daughter Alina experienced Power of Hope Camp here on this land, and it was very healing for her. She was terrified when it was time be dropped off. White as a ghost! She didn’t want to cross that threshold, but she was greeted purposefully, by Kate and by others—all with open hearts. That was compelling to her, and I left knowing she was in good hands. Now, she can’t wait to go back each year.
It seems that’s just what happens when people come onto the grounds at Whidbey Institute. It’s as though this place calls out to the world. “You’re invited here to transform! Please bring your true self. Please pack your masks and performative habits, leave them before you step onto the ferry. When you get here, trust that we can hold one another and do something more amazing than the sum of what each individual can bring.”
What happens when people expose their true selves to one another?
This heart-opening, authentic, healing work set us up to be more fully ourselves, and more fully empowered to do what the world calls for from us. This kind of transformation has to happen in some kind of container. The Whidbey Institute is like a kitchen, and we cook together well when we’re there. There’s a little heat there too . . . something calling us “up”.
In a retreat, there’s laying back to rest. Contrasted with that, at the Whidbey Institute we’re called up—in a gentle way that still supports us, but which has strength and purpose at its core. You can feel the structure here, and feel called into hard, good work.
What experiences led up to your being ready to assume a leadership role with this organization?
Without trying, I’ve been offering my energy toward helping communities heal from the get go. It seems like a natural thing to do. Just as my mom comes in and tidies a room—she can’t help it—I show up, and if people are suffering or facing confusion I say, “how can I help?”
I’ve been involved in public service and government work. Government should have an important role of intervening on behalf of justice, fairness, and connection. Government provides things like roads and bridges, structures that hold our communities and keep people safe. I have encountered a feeling of stiffness and rigidity in that sector, and I’ve seen people in government suffering. People come to government because they want to do good, and I invite a perspective that’s rooted in compassion: yes, let’s get stuff done, but let’s care for one another in the process. Let’s be exceedingly good to each other while we’re doing this work.
I’ve brought this sentiment into all of my work—teaching leadership at University of Washington’s Evan’s School, serving Governor Gregoire, and working with the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, which spun out of an effort at Google. It blends compassion, emotional intelligence, and micro-practices of mindfulness. People can see with more clarity and get more done when they’re relaxed and when they’re kind to themselves and one another.
What were your reasons for joining the Whidbey Institute board?
I was invited into this team by Kate Snider, Sheryl Harmer, and Ted Sturdevant. When those three invite me to do something, I usually say yes!
I am called to support life-serving, life-giving work—breathing life into our experiences, bringing joy into our interactions, and creating opportunities for more people to have life-giving experiences. For my daughter Alina, it was Power of Hope. For others, it’s Powers of Leadership or a labyrinth walk. People that come to the Whidbey Institute experience an internal transformation, becoming the leader that these times call for. It is so necessary. It has to happen, and it can only happen in community. We can’t do that work by ourselves.
I’m moved by Alina’s story, about how she shared in circle. The response she got was incredible: she was seen as her true self, and then embraced rather than rejected as a result of showing her true self. I want to invite more of that, for more people, as a step toward breathing life into all our systems.
What shape is your board service taking?
I am called to work with systems, structure, and order. The Anchor Circle work, which guides strategic decisions, excites me.
I’m very interested in exploring organic growth and transformation, contrasted with a mechanical view. I’m excited by all we’re doing as we evolve our campus and our organizational systems, and I’m eager to help ensure our growth is stable, flexible, and sustainable.
The Whidbey Institute is not the only collection of people in the world attempting to hold sustainable, organic organizational transformation. Whenever people find a beautiful thing to create together, excitement and fear play their parts. Our Whidbey Institute 2020 capital initiative requires a delicate balance between liberation and structure.
The youth campus evolution calls to me. Seeing the world through my daughter’s life, I see what is possible. I continue to learn from her generation, and from my position I hope to offer some wisdom.
What’s your vision for how the youth campus and Heartland will co-evolve?
I think about the potential for the Whidbey Institute to operate like a binary star system. Even without the youth campus there’s a big bright star calling to people, but with the Youth Campus evolution I see two bright suns spinning around each other in an energetic dance. I want to give this vision my tenderhearted care and attention.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
First, I’d add that the natural environment is crucial to me, and to us as humans. It’s absolutely vital that we work to protect it.
Second, I’d add that [Board President] Kate calls me and Joel “fresh horses”. I am delighted to be called the fresh horse, and I feel honored to be stepping in as a sort of an apprentice to this incredible generation of board leadership.