Controversial Training Funded by Taxpayers

Contact/February 10, 2000
By Marita Vandenberg

Up to 36 prison staff, including six from Rimutaka Prison, have received taxpayer funding to undertake a controversial form of personal development training called Landmark Education. This follows news last week that Canterbury's Crown Public Health spent $40,000 putting 38 staff through Landmark courses. One health manager sought psychological couselling after participating.

Catherine Hall, acting general manager Public Prisons Service said staff had received a subsidy for the initial course. ''Landmark is one of many courses that the Department supports and has on offer for staff to take part in,'' she said. Contact understands at least one other large Government department may be funding staff through Landmark courses.

Landmark is one of the fastest growing self-improvement and leadership training organisations in New Zealand. A multi-million dollar organisation franchised from the United States, it arrived in New Zealand 10 years ago. Many who undertake the courses enthusiastically claim it to be life- changing. But it has been dogged by controversy overseas. Concerns about Landmark centre on the intense nature of training which sees many people enthusisatically adopt its principles after being brought to an emotional state, called ''transformation.''

Also of concern is alleged pressure on trainees to recruit or ''enroll'' other people, and the way in which people stay with the organisation spending increasing amounts on higher training levels. The entry-level course is called the Landmark Forum. This involves three consecutive days of training, 15 hours a day from Friday to Sunday. A Tuesday night session follows, forming part of 10 follow-up seminars. Entry-level weekend courses are run in Wellington every eight weeks and cost $425. One course last year had 180 participants. At last year's rate of $325 each that meant Landmark earned $58,500. Similar size weekend courses now bring in around $76,000.

Courses lead to the Advanced Level and later the Self-statement and Leadership course. The latter requires people to undertake community projects involving at least 20 people from the community. Landmark is based on training developed by American salesman Werner Erhard. It has a relatively low profile as it is staffed mainly by volunteers and uses word of mouth rather than advertising to fill its courses. It has offices in Auckland and Wellington. According to a recently retired local newspaper editor and Landmark graduate, Richard Woodd, those who have attended Landmark courses include a QC, journalists, and public and private sector staff. He said Landmark had also worked in prisons and maraes. While many people paid for courses from their own pocket, ''a lot'' had fees paid by employers. Landmark will quote corporate rates.

Mr Woodd went through the Forum in the middle of last year. Now 55, he is full of praise for Landmark and says his life has more meaning. He quit his stressful job and credits Landmark with improving his marriage and his relationships with his daughters. He says he ''shared'' his experience of being unable to relate to his mother with Forum participants, crying in the process, and then leaving the room to phone her. Other participants made similiar phone calls or wrote letters. Mr Woodd said Landmark was not a cult or brainwashing or Amway or Scientology, as various critics claimed. It was a technique called large group sharing and it was genuine.

Writing publically about his experience soon after, he said: ''For three days I sat in a room with 180 others, finding out who we are and why we are. For 15 hours per day a 59-year-old, balding, overweight, short man from Texas named Roger Armstrong talked to us practically non-stop. He is a mixture of entertainer, evangelist, stand-up comic, actor and Bart Simpson. ''We listened, we shared our experiences, we confronted demons in our past, we wept together, and we declared: this is the most important thing to ever have happened in our life. We left transformed to begin new lives of discovering our personal greatness.''

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