I stood on a makeshift stage in front of a roomful of 100 young adults, most of them huddled together on couches and on mats on the floor. It was the first time I had performed for this group and, on that night in 1990, I was excited to share my newest original song.
As I strummed my guitar and sang the last verse, I felt extra proud to be a part of a movement of people as committed as I was to healing the world. I finished my song and stepped down into a pile of supportive hugs. Suddenly from the back of the room, the workshop organizer told me to get back on stage. She proceeded to say, in front of everyone, that I had performed wrong. She said my song was “rooted in distress” and not “attention out” — two jargon terms commonly used by this group, Re-evaluation Counseling, also known as co-counseling or RC. I felt a combination of deep humiliation and also righteous anger. Who was she to tell me that my own creativity was wrong? When I tried to defend myself, she reiterated a Re-evaluation Counseling policy against criticizing leadership.
I had joined Re-evaluation Counseling at age 24 to be part of a movement to end racism and sexism and other social issues — while simultaneously supporting personal healing. I didn’t realize that I was in a group designed to break me. I didn’t realize that night on stage would be the moment they succeeded. As I stood alone with nobody speaking up for me, I remember thinking that the work of liberation was supposed to be hard. I remember thinking that humiliation was a reasonable price to pay to be a part of something so much bigger than myself.
Recently a group of students resigned from the Boston Student Advisory Council, citing psychological abuse and manipulation at the hands of the director and cofounder of Youth on Board, a nonprofit that had a decades-long contract with Boston Public Schools, and which is based on Re-evaluation Counseling. Re-evaluation Counseling brands itself as a peer-based counseling procedure that aims to help people and bring about social reform; it also claims that eliminating racism is its main issue. Critics and former members, myself included, share a growing concern about its widespread practice of influencing, and ultimately disrupting and harming organizations seeking social change. Many of us believe that Re-evaluation Counseling is a high-control, cult-like group.
The leader of the Re-evaluation Counseling young adult workshop that broke me back in 1990 was the same Youth On Board director being accused today. The organizer of the workshop is now a high-ranking administrator in the Boston Public Schools.
When I tell people about my history in Re-evaluation Counseling, they inevitably wonder how I could have been susceptible to something so rigid and controlling. How did I not notice how bizarre it was? How could I not see the damage it was having on the organizations it purported to help? How could I not have known I had joined a high-control group?
Nobody intentionally joins a cult or any other high-control group. People join groups that promise to offer meaning, community, a persuasive worldview. The truth is, it can happen to anyone — even the most secure, curious, untraumatized among us. It can happen to people in your workplace. Re-evaluation counselors write articles and lead workshops on “actively getting RC into the world” and “Going Public with RC/Bringing RC principles and practices to Wide World Organizations & Movements.” As was the case with the youth leaders in Boston who were not told that they were practicing Re-evaluation Counseling, leaders and members of vital organizations do not always know what and who is influencing them.
I know this to be true because I loyally followed Re-evaluation Counseling’s instructions and “naturalized RC” inside more than one organization without understanding how problematic it was. I stopped providing the usual coffee and doughnuts to survivors at a rape crisis center where I worked because sugar and caffeine interfere with “re-emergence” and the clients shouldn’t numb their feelings. Clients felt controlled and stopped coming to the group. I gave Re-evaluation-Counseling sessions to the director of the immigrant rights labor organization where I worked in Oregon, thinking I was “supporting her leadership.” People could hear her crying and laughing from behind the closed office door. I later learned that this was one of the reasons that people lost confidence in her, me, and the organization itself.
It has been painful to come to terms with the fact that for the 15 years I was in Re-evaluation Counseling, I bought the ideology hook, line, and sinker — to the cost of not only the movements I so believed in, but my own curiosity, introspection, creativity, and free time. After I left, it took me years to expunge Re-evaluation Counseling from my head and to learn to think for myself again. I succeeded with hours of therapy, dozens of books on political cults, and humble reckonings with my past.
There has been an increased focus on how right-wing groups recruit youth through video games, fashion symbols, and social media; Re-evaluation Counseling, while falsely claiming a leftward mantle, continues to fly under the radar, while doing great damage to the causes it purports to help.
By speaking out, the Boston Student Advisory Council leaders saved themselves the decades that I lost — but not before being subjected to intense emotional manipulation. We owe it to them and to ourselves to believe and support them, hopefully paving the way for others to follow their lead and speak truth to power.
Jeyn Levison is a long-time social justice activist, senior vice president of strategic partnerships of Race Forward, and serves on the Board of Political Research Associates.