What we find along the way is that that has been, one, incredibly helpful in terms of broadening access in a way that’s very inclusive for all, and it’s also been able to, drawing on the existing research of, obviously, mindfulness and its impact on the brain, but also being able to weave it about how we can draw on mindfulness as a tool to help heal many people who’ve experienced toxic stress and pervasive trauma, because that’s really most of our population. Our population, I believe, is about 200% below the poverty line, and when experiencing these practices, they first want to understand why and how and also how would it benefit their kids?
How Mindfulness Benefits Families
What I find most often than not is parents are more willing to have their families or their children engage in opportunities that would enhance their learning and strengthen their opportunity to engage or further their education somehow. So when we’re able to educate them on the transformative power of mindfulness, just by way of the amazing research that the West has really given this gift to the East in many ways, but oftentimes what does come up in our communities is that, you know, I come from a community of faith. How does this either complement or differ around that? And I think what really is helpful for us is to share the research that shows that those who come or are born with or into a spiritual core have an added advantage in some ways when practicing mindfulness.
For the communities that come and say that I either follow a particular faith or I have contemplative practice of sorts, I often say, “Well, your life is already primed to create these spaces for contemplation. It might look different, it might feel different, it might sound different, but you already, because of that priming that your life has, where you actually have these habits, combining that with mindfulness practices that are completely secular, or combining that space or time with mindfulness practices that are completely secular, actually gives you an added advantage.”
And we actually see their benefit to be far more quicker. Sometimes they’re able to see and experience the benefits far more easily, as opposed to then trying to build habits from scratch. So while we offer our entire programming in a secular capacity, I think it’s really about understanding the communities that we’re serving and making sure that we’re speaking the same language, where we’re honoring both their spiritual and their cultural and ethnic backgrounds in ways that we can actually show them that this is something that when joined together can be something even more powerful and beautiful. I think that’s why we’ve been able to grow as we have.
Ivy Child has been the lead agency for the Boston Public School System, where we’ve offered robust professional development training to all staff, and that begins with senior leadership within the administrative and central offices, including the superintendents and school committees, in addition to janitors and secretarial staff. So with a real lens of equity, we focus on having access and opportunity for all staff. All of those that interface with our children and are devoting their lives to serving and working with our children and families have access and opportunity to both engage in our practices and learning about mindfulness in an ongoing way.
While we do that robust professional development training, we look to develop staff investors, in addition to our student and child and youth investors as well. With this cohort of really intergenerational ambassadors within each school site and each school district, we then develop connections with our larger community. For example, we have our children and youth leading mindfulness practices for law enforcement and for other systems of both education and care within our larger urban system. We create pathways for our students to be able to lead and share what they know in their local after-school program, and we really are very intentional about the intersection of really healing for our community, and oftentimes building and creating relationships or opportunities for overlap where there may not otherwise be.
There has been a great source of, really, mistrust between many of our kids within urban communities and law enforcement, for example, and being able to bring them together where really our children are leading and co-leading this work in a way that adults are much more receptive to than having another fellow well-intentioned adult lead mindfulness. People are much more willing to pause and engage and share in those opportunities when a very amazing child is then leading what they’ve learned and how they’re accessing these skills. That can be the case through movement, mindfulness and movement.
Creating a Mindful Community
In many of our communities we bring in things, like we have a amazing Caribbean community where we bring in Caribbean drums, and through rhythm and movement and then music, we then share various mindfulness practices where they synchronize breath with movement. And they do so while creating their own personal narrative, and that narrative is then translated into lyric, and lyric to the musical genre of their choice. So being able to address both healing and oftentimes pervasive trauma our communities have faced, this has been a really powerful tool to really ignite a variety of modalities while teaching mindfulness.
What’s really critical, I think, what we’ve seen and through our experience, has been having and ensuring that there is system leadership prioritization and buy-in, which means that everyone from the superintendents of school or even a mayor of a city, to ensure that leadership both understands, recognizes, and prioritizes this as a priority. We’ve met along the way some remarkable teachers and support staffs and individuals who can then help mobilize this work, but ultimately, without senior system leadership being completely engaged and bought-in to ensure that everything that needs to happen to make our world go round, whether it be physical space or time resources or human capital they’re willing to allocate to engage, all of those things really require leadership to be able to help make those things move.
So one, senior system leadership, and then with districts or schools who are willing to participate in a very careful and thoughtful assessment, we essentially build a mindfulness strategic plan for each system. That includes a careful evaluation of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of existing human capital, existing organizational structures, incentives, symbolic messaging, and being able to actually carefully evaluate and put in the time required of taking a look at ourselves. Because at that point, we’re there both as a partner to really learn and to understand their needs and values and assets and to really build a very customized plan that would resonate and make sense for their community, so really drawing in community who would be willing to engage in that kind of evaluative assessment process would be very critical.
And then basically having a key sort of a team of ambassadors to then carry it forward, that would really and should be representative of the entire, whether it be system, the district community at large. So there should be a representation of not just superintendents and leaders at the school, but also teachers, support staff, secretarial staff, janitorial staff, to really ensure, like I said, to have that lens of both equity and inclusion that all voices are at the table when going through this process. And as we develop both the assessment process, as well as developing that mindfulness strategic plan, we can then both customize and create a plan that is reflective of the needs and assets of the district, and then actually activate that plan, with a very deliberate intention of developing both staff and student ambassadors.
Because really our focus is, how do we build capacity within communities? And ensuring for us, we have a special focus on working within urban systems and ensuring that … So that is something, even though I know that we all would love to have mindfulness everywhere, that just happens to be our organizational focus.