Susan Olesek is a self-identified “human-potentialist.” Having developed a remarkably successful curriculum for soon-to-be-released prison inmates through her nonprofit Enneagram Prison Project, Olesek is now translating that work into executive development at Fortune 500 companies. In our conversation, we explored the journey that led her to take on the U.S. prison system and how approaching inmates as already high-potential helps them see it in themselves.
Voices: On Healing and Human Potential, a Dialogue with Susan Olesek
Your work at its core cultivates people’s potential to know themselves, which allows them to connect with others and the world in more positive ways. Was there something in your upbringing that shaped your understanding of human potential?
Very much so. When I was 12, my father was transferred to Hong Kong, and during the four and a half years we lived there, our family traveled extensively. One summer night in Bombay, I remember driving through the streets with kids putting their arms through our windows, begging for food. I was stunned by the disparity between myself and these kids. All I knew was that it was unfair. And for the first time seeing people prostituting and taking drugs in the street. Somehow it was always easier for me to recognize my similarities with the people I saw, even though our experiences were so vastly different. It was only a question of circumstance. So, even before I was really aware of it, I had an inclination, maybe even a tenacity, to see how we're all worthy, lovable.
Tell me how you were introduced to Enneagram, the tool you’ve described as your passion, and how your work in the criminal justice system began.
I was first introduced to Enneagram as a new mother in a parenting class. The Enneagram made it clear to me how hard I was on myself. I mostly only saw what I lacked, which is why I felt I needed a parenting class! It was such a revelation to see that my view of myself was part of my personality structure. I am type 1, which is called the Reformer, which means that I'm wired to look for how to make things the best they can be. All aspects of our personality are filling of an emptiness in one way or another. So I came to understand that I was driven to reform the world, make the world enough, make myself enough.
After eight years of applying Enneagram to my own life, I was inspired to certify as a teacher. Shortly after completing my certification—I was teaching one class in my living room and one to a church—I was invited to teach in a small prison in Texas. I hadn’t planned to use the Enneagram for social justice, but this opportunity proved that I was already organized inside myself to see it that way. I had about 100 students, serving a variety of sentences. Some were in for murder, others for drugs, but they all had come down to the last part of their sentence and would soon reintegrate with the outside world.
They self-selected into a pretty tight group that had a lot of capacity and interest in change. That motivation enabled them to go deep with the Enneagram in a short period of time. It was so inspiring. I came away thinking, “Why isn't this tool everywhere? Why isn't it used in more places?”
And how did you come to create the Enneagram Prison Project, or EPP?
I founded EPP as a nonprofit in 2012, around the same time I was trying to find my way into a local jail, here in California, so I could run a program similar to the one in Texas. It’s not easy to get access. The people who manage programs for their prison population want proof of commitment. They want to avoid programs that get started and quickly dropped. I didn’t have a lot of experience, but finally I found one program manager who let me make a brief presentation of Enneagram. I showed her a film I had made during the program in Texas, and between that and my passion about for the potential I saw in the inmates, she allowed me to present to 60 men, 12 of whom signed on for a 12 week program.
Those 12 men and I grew a lot together. As I mentioned, the Enneagram presents an opportunity to heal your relationship with yourself then take that into the world. In a teaching environment that healing takes place for both the teacher and the students. Part of healing involves each of us to ask about the pain inside us. We have to know about the pain, because it’s how we end behaviors that don’t serve us. But you can't just dive into your pain. That’s where the Enneagram comes in. You have to understand some fundamental things about yourself. You have to be ready to take emotional responsibility for what happened around that pain, and with self-knowledge you gain the ability to self-regulate and focus. And that was possible because the Enneagram levels the playing field; it doesn't matter where you come from, even with the disparate amount of power and privilege juxtaposed in a space like that. People are disempowered in so many ways that are very personal and that is what makes us similar.
EPP is now an international organization. How did your nonprofit evolve to that level in just six years?
Our project at the California prison lasted for two years. Along the way, I started to talk at International Enneagram Association, and I started to blog. A few people joined me and we worked together on the curriculum, experimenting with different elements of the training. My talks at conferences drew people to come observe the training in person. Someone came from Finland, and before we knew it, we were opening a program in a prison outside Helsinki. Then came the opportunity to teach at San Quentin. By focusing on the work and on the curriculum, we consistently achieved great outcomes with our students. These inmates want to know why they do what they do, and the Enneagram tool is clear and incisive. It answers those deep questions and offers guidance for what they can do with that information to change the course of their lives.
You give so much credit to the Enneagram tool, but you must certainly be a big part of why your program works so well. What do you bring personally to the classroom?
I’m always willing to be part of the healing that takes place in the classroom. That part never ends. And I wasn’t even aware of it, until David Daniels—one of the major developers of the Enneagram at Stanford—came in to observe my teaching. David noticed that a big piece of my work was my natural appreciation and love for my students. EPP allows me and all of our teachers to communicate that appreciation, that belief in shared human potential, which some students have not felt for a very long time, if ever. This makes it safe for them to show up in their highest potential, because we see them as that already.
Where do you see the future of your work headed?
Having worked with so many productive, intelligent, and creative inmates, I feel we are just starting a great movement. We’ve given several of our students scholarships to become certified Enneagram teachers. And after their release from prison, they are coming back into the institutions where they were imprisoned as the teachers. I was in the room when one of these teachers entered the classroom four years after doing 25 years as an inmate. It was profound. This African-American man, who was in one of the bloodiest gangs in LA, started in talking about being a type 9—that is the future.
I would love to see our work grow to include the correctional officers themselves. There are many institutions across Belgium where the wardens and the directors all know their Enneagram type. The more that people are willing to know themselves and bring that knowledge to their work, the higher functioning the entire institution becomes.
A version of this interview was originally published on Women@Forbes.