A lot of folks recognize there are Taos kids in need, but do little or nothing to really help. Not so with Jill Cline, and it’s for her efforts on behalf of Taos youth that a focus group hosted …
A lot of folks recognize there are Taos kids in need, but do little or nothing to really help. Not so with Jill Cline, and it’s for her efforts on behalf of Taos youth that a focus group hosted by The Taos News chose her as one of this year’s Unsung Heroes.
After receiving an email informing her of the honor, she said, “I had to read it several times. I did. And, then I got all teary-eyed. I was on my way to Santa Fe and was driving with blurry eyes. I really am stunned. I look at the quality of people who have been named over the years for this kind of stuff and I’m like, ‘You people are crazy.’ ” We’re not, just for the record.
Cline has made a name for herself as a tireless advocate for youth and families in Taos. The roots of this service to community go back to her youth in Oklahoma. Having worked with kids in summer camps, she went on to college and then went to work in St. Louis, Missouri for the Six Flags amusement park, after which she was transferred with the Six Flags data center to Fort Worth, Texas in 1995. In 1997, she and her husband Ron were married and by the turn of the century she was working for Tom Worrell’s Dharma Properties, which sent her to Taos, arriving here on April Fool’s Day.
Much of her life in Taos has been centered on raising her kids: Dylan, age 19, who has a third degree black belt in karate and is a student at the University of New Mexico-Taos; Aaron, 17, who plans to get his pilot’s license before he turns 18; and Sidney, 15, who is a student at Taos Academy.
One thing she has become aware of in Taos is the prevailing notion that there is nothing here for youth to keep them engaged after graduating from high school. Cline said she has observed certain challenges in small-town life as opposed to large urban settings.
“A small town is hard because there’s not always access to resources like you find in the larger cities. And, at the same time, a small town gives you the opportunity to get to know people better. So, you can create your safety net of resources if you need to. My kids and Ron and I have benefitted from that safety net and creating relationships that allow for resources to be found when needed,” she said.
As for the “nothing to do” idea, Cline said she believes there are plenty of things for youth here, but if you aren’t willing to think outside that box, it’s easy to fall into thinking negatively.
“I think the people that stay in Taos, regardless of whether they come from the outside to live here or are raised here and choose to stay, I think the person has to really want to be here. It’s not about how there’s a lot to offer or not,” she said.
That’s where one of the roots of her community advocacy became centered. “In 2016,” she said, “when we had the fourth teenage suicide, at the end of that summer anybody who has teens or works with teens or anybody who has a conscience or a heart ended that summer wondering what the hell was going on. I knew we had to do something.”
Spurred into action, she said, “Several in the community — me, Ted Wiard, Sue Mulvaney, Risa Lehrer, Florence Miera and Stephanie Waters — started working on building a safety network to develop a program to reduce suicides in the Taos area. We created Help Outreach Taos (HOT). It is a suicide risk reduction project run as a special project of the Taos Community Foundation. I have written and we have received grants from Taos Community Foundation, Con Alma and United Way of Northern New Mexico to create a formal community-based network.”
Working with St. James Episcopal Church in Taos, she also starting having “lock-ins,” described as a kind of sleepover where groups of youth could hang out at the church, watch movies until late and then have breakfast the next morning. Of course, during that time, Cline and other adult leaders had a chance to participate in conversations with the kids about what is important to them. The idea has continued and grown to include lock-ins for New Year’s Eve, the Fourth of July and other occasions, during which they’ve included as many as 35 kids.
Out of these conversations, Cline said Common Grounds was born. “Common Grounds is dedicated to fostering relationship with self, community and the natural world through non-traditional counseling and re-wilding practices with an emphasis on marking transitions in one’s life. Our programs aim to bring people together to find “common ground,” according to a description on the website at taoscommongrounds.com.
While Common Grounds was being developed, a group of these kids expressed their concern for the pervasiveness of gun violence in the nation, sparked especially by the shootings in Parkland, Florida. At one point, she said a group talk took place in which youth sat in the center and adults sat in a circle outside and just listened. This culminated in a demonstration in solidarity with Parkland students that took place earlier this year (see youtube.com/watch?v=gRppwPdKtlM). Some of the teens who spoke at the demonstration were present when an active shooter incident occurred at a local high school, one that brought home the sense that school safety is an issue as present in Taos, New Mexico as it is anywhere.
Cline’s advocacy also was part of what motivated her to stand up to a Taos Municipal School Board vice president. After a state Supreme Court battle, she won. The opinion issued May 22, 2017 reinforced the First Amendment rights of New Mexico citizens to petition their government without fear of retaliation in the form of civil litigation.
The issue was sparked after a recall effort was initiated for school board member Arsenio Córdova. Although the recall effort eventually fell apart, Córdova sued Cline and the Citizens for Quality Education for damages, saying they used the recall process simply to harass him and lacked any legitimate complaints.
The high court found that the group’s recall effort was protected by a state statute on what is known as SLAPP litigation, an acronym for strategic lawsuit against public participation.
Asked if she felt vindicated after the ruling, Cline said, “I don’t think vindication was part of it.”
She said the incident, though, did have the effect of shining a light on still prevalent issues.
“We have so many wonderful educators in this town, and we have a horribly dysfunctional education system,” she said. “And its not dysfunctional because of educators, administrators and not because of school board members. It’s dysfunctional because of what we created as a society … we have an educational system that was built when we were in the industrial age and we’re not that now.”
Today, Cline is a youth minister at St. James and is working toward being a spiritual servant rather than a political activist. About her calling, she said, “I don’t know, when you hear God calling you, I don’t know if it’s a motivation. It’s a sense of knowing. You’re just supposed to go and follow … My calling is to be a servant of the community in a spiritual capacity and to be a thorn in the side of those who need to hear from me … My mission in life, I think, is to find places where we can develop relationships with each other to make a better world for all of us, and do what Christ taught us, which is to ‘walk in love,’ probably why I’m studying to be a priest now, huh?"
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