Abrahamson: Creativity results through embrace of all identities


Joan Abrahamson responds to a question following her lecture in the Amphitheater Thursday morning. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

Joan Abrahamson’s eyes began to water as she ended her 10:45 a.m. lecture Thursday in the Amphitheater. She was about to share something very personal with the Chautauquans there.

“I’ve got to tell you,” Abrahamson said, “I don’t usually talk like this. I usually give an analytical presentation about a problem and how we’re going about solving it, but I feel here that what’s special about Chautauqua is that all these levels operate simultaneously.”

At the Institution, she said, she could see a perfect public forum. Therefore, to end her speech, she explained how one of her three sons had died at the age of 2 from a heart virus.

In an effort to “come back together” after the loss, she began to write songs. Her lyrics appeared on the 2002 album “Getting Through It.”

“And you are my spirit child, came to stay with me a while. We will never be apart — you live deep within my heart,” Abrahamson sang, her voice shaking with emotion. “You came to me with peace and joy as my precious little boy, then you returned to where you came. I will never be the same.”

Abrahamson shared this display as the fourth speaker on Week Eight’s topic, “Sparking a Culture of Creativity and Innovation.” She said people should embrace all aspects of themselves in order to be truly successful.

Abrahamson is president of the Jefferson Institute, which works to bring creativity to practical public policy issues.

Abrahamson said her primary identity always has been as an artist. However, her secondary identity is that of justice, of making the world a better place.

“People often ask me what I do. Am I a lawyer, or am I an artist?” she said. “I’ve never known why I have to choose. It would be like cutting off an arm. My husband of 26 years tells me that if I die before him, there will be only one word on my tombstone: ‘Both.’”

She spoke about people being more dominant with their left or right brain. While the left brain controls analytical and logical thinking, the right brain oversees creativity and intuition. Many have linked left-handedness to the right side of the brain and vice-versa.

Abrahamson said that when she draws, she does so with both hands at once. She likes to view her life experiences using both analysis and creativity. By drawing with both hands simultaneously, she said she stimulates both sides.

“For example, when I’m in a meeting, I try to notice the way the light falls on the face of the person I’m talking with. I’ll think of how I would paint his or her portrait and how I would mix the colors for the skin, the clothes, the shadows,” Abrahamson said. “And I find that when I do this, I’m more engaged in the discussion and that my focus is reassuring to the person I’m listening to.”

Abrahamson received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and a master’s degree from Stanford University. Finally, she earned a doctorate in learning environments from Harvard University and another doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley.

She told of her education and her time as a teacher for troubled children. She explained how she helped to turn Fort Mason, an Army post near San Francisco, into the Fort Mason Center, a cultural area protected as a Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Later, Abrahamson went on to serve as assistant chief of staff to George H. W.  Bush, as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Commission and as a member of UNESCO’s Division of Human Rights and Peace.

Through all these experiences, Abrahamson developed the skills to lead the Jefferson Institute. The song she sang was a symbol of her dual identity.

“Just as I feel it’s wrong to isolate the artist from the lawyer or activist or public policy person,” Abrahamson said, “I feel it’s wrong to isolate the spiritual and what keeps us going.  I feel like the solutions that we’re going to find in the future for all of our problems have to have all those keys, and that it’s difficult because, of course, you become vulnerable when you get to that level in public.”


Q: Joan, perhaps you might speak to this question of, ‘Can this happen inside government? … Can it happen within the constraints of our systems?’
A: I believe that it can happen within government, and frankly, I think it ought to happen within government. I think in the current climate that it’s difficult to do that. And what I try to do is insulate the government, so that they don’t feel exposed, and they’re not going to get attacked, and they don’t have to float an idea. What happens is some intrepid reporter finds out that someone’s working on some fascinating issue, and they want sometimes to prick it, to explode it. And that’s the danger. So if it can be done, yes, I think it can be done. But it has to be quiet — not in the sense of a back room kind of thing, or a smoke-filled room, but just in an intelligent conversation that is not hyped in any way before it is ripe and ready to be shown.

Q: We now have more people in prison than the entire citizenry of some nations. Does the Jefferson Institute have any programs designed to solve this terrible problem?
A: Well, I’ve thought about that problem, and we’ve thought about it over about six years. It is, I believe, the big unspoken problem in America, the big dark side, the sort of underbelly of America, because it’s so easy to ignore for so many people, unless you live in one of those towns that’s dedicated to running a prison, which happens more and more. It’s like a whole industry.  When I was overseas, I met a man from Holland named Louk Hulsman, who is very famous over there as being a believer in abolishing prisons. He says they do nothing; that the statistics show that they don’t help at all. And he really believes that the only way around it is to get rid of them and come up with something else. And of course, everyone’s first reaction is, “Oh my God, dangerous criminals on the street, what shall I do?” But the fact is that prisons don’t — it’s very hard to be rehabilitated in prison, because it’s sort of like the junior high school I taught at, where you become a laboratory for crime, you know? You just get to be better at it, and you become, in the same way the servicemen and women are when you’re away for multiple tours, or you’re away in prison — you don’t have a job anymore; you don’t have family ties that work; you maybe hurt another generation, so I do not know the answer yet, but I think that may be worth a summit program.

Q: The bottom-line question here is around the cost of education: Is the cost of education and the increasing debt that students have to have ultimately going to prevent access to education for future generations?
A: Well, the way it’s going now, with the increasing college tuitions, is unsustainable. Everybody knows that. And yet the belief is that the colleges more and more need to support themselves on tuition and the costs need to be passed along to the consumer — this is the model. Everybody knows that many people don’t pay the retail price for education and that there are different systems for discounting in different ways that aren’t always fair. I think that we fundamentally need a new system where students will not be saddled with debt. There has to be a way to either do some service work in exchange for college tuition, which I think has some viability. Or to come up with something similar to what we’re doing with the foreclosures, which would be to figure out a financial mechanism to work with that debt in a way that reduces the cost to the student and maybe profits someone else. So I do agree that it’s a big problem, but I don’t think that one’s going to be as hard to solve as the others.

Q: Can you translate what you’re doing in public policy to the corporate world? How can we get industry to help the United States out of our current situation?
A: Industry is a big word. And as we heard earlier this week, there are some industries that have empathy, and there are some that are kind of like reptiles. I think that there are many business leaders, CEOs, in our country who understand all these issues and who want what’s best for the country. I mean, they have workers; those workers need to come and know their kids are in a great school. We can’t just keep escalating salaries to pay for more and more costs for the same services we have now. That’s a lose-lose for everyone. So I do think industry can help lead, but we have to have leadership from people who experiment with solutions within their companies. That’s why I like Zappos so much. I like the guys at Google. I actually walked through a rainforest in Madagascar with Larry Page and his bride during their honeymoon. That was interesting. There are some people who think big. I got a call from Craig from Craigslist. He’s interested in doing stuff. There could be some dramatic help from industry, but I think we have to stop thinking about it as, “Here’s the private sector; here’s the public sector.” I mean, when you think about it, everyone wants meaning in their life. They all want to do good, and the more we can think of mechanisms that bring revenue into the system and also help the problems, that’s the way to go. I mean, that’s what America is about, so that’s part of where the creative thinking is. I’d like the financial people on Wall Street to start thinking creatively, not so much for new products they can sell but for ways that they can contribute to solving some of these problems to do with money.

Q: The first question I was handed, which I’ve saved until now is: Challenge us. What can we do?
A: I actually believe Chautauqua has a role in all this. I’ve always believed it, but now that I’m here, I think it even more. I think that you have evolved a model here, and you are living a model here that is important to export. Not that you can have duplicates of it anywhere, no way, but I think that maybe you can help set an agenda for some public dialogue on some issues that are of concern to everyone. It’s my feeling that an underused resource in our cities are art museums, because frankly — I love art museums — there aren’t that many people in them all the time and they have beautiful, auditoriums and parking lots and security guards and cafés, and it wouldn’t be that big of a deal for them to host, maybe once a month, a discussion about something important that was moderated in a nonpolitical way, that was not a debate but that was maybe some new ideas, maybe something like the Chautauqua talks. And if we had something like that going, I think it would help change the climate, and maybe have people not just look to what they’re seeing on the news about what’s going on in Iowa or whatever, but maybe we could start deep and sustain conversations and be proud of it. I mean, it doesn’t have to be an elitist kind of thing. People in every neighborhood, people of every background, really care about this, and it’s sad when there’s no place to talk, no public square, and that people have to wait and maybe march or protest or something like that to be heard. But I don’t understand why we can’t have a real dialogue with the elegance and grace that you established here. And I think that maybe you can do some thinking about that.

—Transcribed by Emma Morehart