On Morality, Transformation, and Vulnerability: A Talk by the Publisher

At an annual summer talk at First Unitarian Society on July 16, Minnesota Women’s Press publisher Mikki Morrissette shared some historical perspectives about transformative justice, philosophy about human evolution, and stories from the Changemakers Alliance visits to statewide communities for the “Hometown Values & Vision” series.


The founding Humanist minister Rev. John Dietrich, of First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, was ahead of his time in so many ways. Among other things, he realized we had outdated visions of morality, ethics, and justice. Here are excerpts from two of his talks, one delivered to his congregation, and the other delivered at a Unitarian conference held in Iowa in 1922.

Do We Need a New Moral Outlook?

The old ethical system in which we have been trained deals almost exclusively with individual relationships. This was perfectly natural, because the complex social relationships with which we are familiar had not yet come into existence; the real evils then were those committed by one individual against another individual. But today our moral problems are no longer the old individual problems, for we all live our lives in a vast network of social relations. 

Jacob Riis used to say: “You can as surely kill a man with a rotten tenement house as with an axe.” And I judge that for everyone killed with an axe there are hundreds killed by rotten tenements. In the former case the murder is avenged while in the latter no one even knows or cares who the murderer is. 

The old question of right and wrong is not so simple as it once was. We have outgrown their old individualistic forms and they must be translated so that we will cease to condemn only the man who steals a loaf of bread, while we pay honor to the man who steals a million dollars. 

In “New Morals for Old”  he added:

Our morality must keep pace with the new forms of exploitation, of injustice, of unfair privilege, of destructiveness. It is this new morality of group activity that the coming generation must search after and endeavor to create.

The Talk

I have begun traveling to different communities around the state to learn what people value, how they see their visions for a stronger future come to life. I call this the “Hometown Values & Vision” tour. It is a series in the Changemakers Alliance network that Minnesota Women’s Press is building. Changemakers Alliance, or CALL, is where we develop online stories and in-person conversations for continuous series around a few core topics. “Re-Imagining Public Safety” is another one of those series. We have hosted conversations and I have been writing extensively about it for the past few months.

100 years ago Rev. John Dietrich wanted us to create a new group morality that treated exploitation and injustice just as we treat individual acts of crime. In the 1920s, Dietrich also delivered a talk called “New Justice for Old” where he said:

“Our whole system of criminal justice is based on vindictive punishment without ever inquiring as to the cause of guilt. … The scientist is not interested in the expression of vengeance or the punishment of the offender. … He will observe human conduct and seek to penetrate the hidden sources from which it springs. … I believe without doubt that an offender should be detained as long as he is a menace to the public safety, but he should be detained for only one reason: to restore him to physical, mental, and moral health.”

Michele Braley of Seward Longfellow Restorative Justice is one of the people we have been connected with for Changemakers Alliance. I moderated a Minneapolis conference in June in which she said: “Part of the challenge is, we’ve spent 400 years building a system that has led people to believe that punishment works.”

She received a call from the Hennepin County attorney general’s office, wanting to talk about whether restorative justice has proven to be effective. She responded that they should sit down with their prosecutors and talk about success in the punishment system.

“I’ve been on the hot seat for 20 years trying to prove to people that restorative justice works. All the data is on our side. Yet we don’t ask enough hard questions about the billions of dollars we put into the retributive system. My restorative justice budget is under $100,000. You know what would work a lot better? If we funded it.”

A few months ago, I learned from a guy named Shea at a Changemakers Alliance event. He said that while he was incarcerated for violence, he learned about empathy in a workshop hosted by Alternatives to Violence Project (aka AVP). AVP asks questions that engage people in one-on-one and group conversations. Questions are not simply designed to help the individual understand themselves, but to also learn what has challenged someone else.

Shea said that understanding things from another point of view — sharing that two-way vulnerability about fears, trauma, anger — “helps to break a cycle. [After that] you can help fix something that you have broken. … To really understand that things start somewhere, and where they started — to do that true self-reflection — is when things change.”

Another person who spoke at our event was Tom. Like Shea, Tom is an AVP facilitator, who joined the program in 2015 as a community-based volunteer. When he attended his first workshop with incarcerated people, he said, he assumed they would be close-minded and would not be vulnerable in a group setting. But he said he learned on that first day that he was wrong. He said: “How to be nonviolent is our whole goal. We do role playing, and the guys love it. It builds community. It’s been remarkable.”

A few weeks ago, I learned at the Black Men Healing conference about the Next Step program. There are 20 people in the program who are on call to visit hospital rooms — often at the Hennepin County Medical Center — shortly after someone, often a young person, has been shot or stabbed. If the victim survives, the conversation begins. It is not a chat about what got them into a violent situation — but about what they want to do next. Sometimes Next Step mentors will be with a person for years as they work to become someone transformed through simple acts of conversation and compassion.

One of the Next Step team members said: “People can go back to issues from way back in childhood that they have been holding in for years. Trauma that sometimes has been passed down from one generation to the next. Helping people unpack that has been an incredible experience.”

What these stories tell me is that powerful transformation happens in the collective, when we are taken out of the isolation of unspoken fears and hurts embedded in our brains and hearts. Talking freely about what we care about, what we want to see in our futures, and what challenges and inspires us.

Talking from the inside out about what matters to us — and getting to the why.

I bought Minnesota Women’s Press 5.5 years ago, thanks to a bank loan and my mother’s ability to supply the down payment. Just as I was stepping into the role of publisher and editor, I finished writing the rough draft of a novel called “Evolve.” Each letter in the title represents elements the main character in my novel feels are essential for human evolution. E for Energy, for example — the subtle shifts that happen when we connect with others and nature. V for Visibility — everyone is seen and recognized. The second V stands for Vulnerability. The last E in Evolve stands for Error.

A few weeks ago, after my son Dylan returned from his first year of college in Oregon and explorations in Alaska, he was looking for new reading material. I pulled down a 1979 book from Lewis Thomas called “The Medusa and the Snail.” I randomly opened up to a page that I realized was a perfect encapsulation of why E for Error is part of our evolutionary process.

Thomas wrote: “We think our way along by choosing between right and wrong alternatives, and the wrong choices have to be made as frequently as the right ones. … The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music. … The molecule of DNA was ordained from the beginning to make small mistakes. If [the best minds were pooled together], we would have found a way to correct this, and evolution would have been stopped in its tracks.”

The word ‘error’ comes from a Latin root meaning to wander, looking for something. It is not a bad word.

Lewis Thomas wrote about how debate engages our thought processes that helps us move somewhere new.

It might be easy for some of us in this room, and watching online, to resonate with the idea that transformative justice — working through something collectively after someone has made a mistake — is a much better response to public safety than simply incarceration.

But … what about other errors in judgment that people make?

In a recent story I wrote about gun violence legislation in the omnibus public safety bill, I quoted Rep. Matt Grossell, a Minnesota legislator from Clearbrook. He opposed giving funds to “untested, untried nonprofits instead of putting the money where it should be, into law enforcement communities, so they can do the job that we have asked them to do — to stop evil, to do good, to protect our communities.”

Most of us here might agree that Grossell is mistaken. That “evil” does not equate with committing a crime, and law enforcement is not uniformly doing good protecting everyone.

With the DFL trifecta, the public safety bill passed this year on partisan lines. But I wonder: What happens in a few years if people who opposed it are back in political power in Minnesota? Will they be convinced that the bill accomplishes what it sets out to do — make our communities safer? How will they get to that understanding?

Attending a rodeo in Colorado

I had a few days of vacation in Colorado recently, where I had the chance to talk extensively with a person I would describe as a libertarian modern-day cowboy. He has equated feminism with setting ourselves on a path where more women lead in the future, by virtue of their increasing numbers as college graduates. He equates that with men kind of stagnating as “minions,” as he called it, without a real purpose.

I am simplifying his argument but suffice it to say that his view — as is the case with so many — is that if some segment of the population ‘wins’ that means another one ‘loses.’

Of course, that is the individualistic thinking that there are winners and losers for everything, and you do everything you can to be on top.

The feminist perspective, I told him, is not about that. In the past, it was about leveling the playing field so that men and women are treated equally in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. But the new definition of feminism is much more than that. The people we feature in our magazine — and that has included feminist men lately — are not looking to have superiority, but to support the inherent dignity and worth of everyone, from birth to death.

Our mutual friend in Colorado tells me that he is now starting to consider feminism as less about taking something away from men, and more about a humanitarian effort. Score!

And, I also better recognize just how threatening change can seem even to a middle-aged cowboy. Why it matters how we talk, as much as what we say.

Vulnerability and trust and conversation get to the heart of fears embedded deep inside.

Talking from the inside out about what matters to us
— and getting to the why.

In the 1940s, Pierre Teilhard put his thoughts down in a book called “The Phenomenon of Man.” It was not published until after his death in 1955, because it was rejected by the church and Teilhard was a faithful Jesuit priest. He gave the manuscript to a friend to publish after he died.

In the original introduction to Teilhard’s book, Julian Huxley wrote: “An isolated brain is a piece of biological nonsense, as meaningless as an isolated human individual. … [Teilhard knew that] a developed human being is … a person that has transcended individuality.”

The book was republished recently, now titled “The Human Phenomenon,” with an introduction by Brian Swimme, who wrote that we do not need to explore new galaxies and stars in our universe. The new frontier is expanding into the creation of “a new form of human being.”

In a biography of Teilhard, who also had been a paleontologist, Ursula King said he became “less and less interested in the past and more and more interested in where we are going, what are we doing with the potential we have — with the imagination, the creativity, the consciousness, the complexification of people thinking together and acting together.”

Teilhard’s optimistic vision was that the universe of matter and mind would gradually increase in collective oneness, partly because of global transmission of ideas and knowledge thanks to the emerging system of giant computers. He envisioned the Internet before it existed.

On the other hand, there is the more pessimistic outlook of Milan Kundera, who died this week. He has long been a favorite author of mine, known for “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” but my favorite is “Immortality.”

In an interview in 1980, Kundera said: “It seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than to ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties.”

The “Hometown Values & Vision” tour is my attempt to ask questions, to explore, to learn what Minnesotans who come to the conversations care about.

Talking from the inside out about what matters to us — and getting to the why.

Ortonville backyard

Last week I was in Ortonville, a town of 2,000 on the South Dakota border, to talk with more than a dozen people about rural healthcare, housing, and sustainable agriculture. A realtor there is passionate about housing disparities. A radiologist has created a mini village around taking care of rescued cats and dogs in her garage, and finding them new homes. I met entrepreneurial women who have converted unused spaces into an art gallery, locally made gift boutiques, and a florist shop.

I have connected with a few mothers on the Iron Range about their desire to have stronger sex education in the public schools. I met people in Fergus Falls who are using art and creativity to transform and heal communities.

I visited with people at Peace House on Portland Avenue, where unhoused people come to congregate for a few hours each day, to talk and share a meal together. One woman I met there said she is no longer unhoused, but she still comes to connect with her friends.

From Chisholm Main Street on Juneteenth

I was in Chisholm for Juneteenth, where a Latina woman named Seraphia is breaking down racism person by person. The mayor and police chief offered themselves up in a dunk tank. Soul food was served from a biker bar.

Thanks to the Wilson Fund of the First Unitarian Foundation, we will be able to have larger events in Worthington and Willmar and Grand Rapids, offering food that is locally grown and produced.

We also want to do more about eliminating gender-based violence. Global Rights for Women, where my daughter Sophia works, recently published a 140-page report about how the Minneapolis police department handles domestic violence calls. We wrote about it, but it has gotten very little attention otherwise.

One special project I would like to see come to fruition is sharing the story written by Deneal Trueblood-Lynch. She wrote a one-act play from personal experience about why so many people who have experienced traumatic childhoods, often involving sexual assault and abuse, end up incarcerated.

I am trying to raise funds to film the reading of her one-act play so that people around the state can better understand why we need to pass a Survivors Justice Act in Minnesota. Similar to legislation we have for veterans experiencing PTSD, the Survivors Justice Act would take trauma into account during sentencing for a crime and not simply isolate people, but restore them to “physical, mental, and moral health,” as Dietrich wanted to see.

Deneal said at our March event that after she was incarcerated, for reacting violently to someone who had assaulted her young daughter, she asked herself:

“How can incarcerating me solve or cure that old childhood trauma? There were no doctors in there I could talk to. I realized it would have to be me to start to unpack things. I found my purpose … to unpack the secret, because there were other women surrounding me while I was incarcerated who were dealing with the same issue.”

Can Minnesota become a state that more collectively understands the nature of trauma — the transformation that can happen in conversation rather than simply punishment, or canceling — and how much stronger our communities are when that happens?

Talking from the inside out about what matters to us — and getting to the why.