Community Engaged Mindfulness: Shanthi Project's Commitment to Belonging
Happy New Year! As we settle into 2023, I hope we can reflect on 2022 with gratitude and a lens of growth. What are you proud of? What do you want to do more of?
In college, I was part of a small group of service-oriented students. Sometime during those four years, we found a quote that I often return to when reflecting on my personal journey. This quote, from Frederick Buechner, speaks to the idea of a "calling:" the task we feel meant to do, or the life we feel meant to lead. He said that your calling is “the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”
Right now, Shanthi Project is that place for me. This organization promotes reflection and growth and not only feeds my passion, but helps others along the way, too.
A Changing World Around Us
I’m not revealing anything new when I say that the last few years have been difficult. On top of pandemic-related impacts to our world, there have been dynamic shifts in ideology and belief systems that have created rifts, tension, and—importantly—change. While I was working full-time as a school psychologist, George Floyd was murdered. Though violence against Black bodies and people of color certainly existed prior to May 2020, this tragedy created a salient ripple effect, widely and quickly. Schools and other organizations began to assess their roles in the unjust systems around us.
Statements were issued (I co-authored one for the school where I worked—not an easy task). Committees were formed (I joined the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee). Goals were made and integrated into strategic plans (I helped with this). Trainings were provided (I attended these). New positions were created to ensure that this important work lives on—and it does, thankfully. It is much needed and long overdue. Now, I feel fortunate to find myself in a position to support Shanthi Project in this area of growth.
Ushering in a New Era of Mindfulness Education
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) work is hard and reflective. It's not a checkbox—“Okay, we’re trained now. Done!” Rather, it's aspirational work. This means that the goals we set don't demonstrate that we've completed the work, but that we're living the work and continually supporting ourselves in doing so.
When I joined Shanthi Project in January 2022, I didn't begin working on DEIB-related initiatives right away. In fact, I wasn’t quite sure what those initiatives might be. I thought, we're a mindfulness-based organization; isn’t that inherently inclusive? Can’t everyone access this? Mindfulness is great for everyone!
Well, not quite—and not because Shanthi Project (or any mindfulness practitioner) is being willfully exclusive or inequitable. And not because mindfulness isn't great for everyone, either. DEIB is central to this work because so many of our systems were built by and for white people, and we can't expect that our practices of wellness are equitable and inclusive simply because we think they should (or could) be.
Take, for example, the breath. It's a huge component of mindfulness practice, and is truly a tool that we all have. But the way in which the breath is used, talked about, supported, and integrated is not always equitable or accessible.
We know that teaching mindfulness in the classroom is important and powerful. Still, if we're not careful how we teach mindfulness, we'll continue to exclude the very people we're trying to care for. We're reflecting on these things. We're slowing down so that we may eventually speed up—not to get things done quickly, but to align our efforts with our aspirations in a way that's continuously reflective and growth-oriented. Even if those reflections could be potentially unpleasant.
To do this, Shanthi Project has partnered with Dr. Chris Liang and the professionals in his Gender, Race, Inclusion, and Trauma Lab at Lehigh University. We are calling this effort Community Engaged Mindfulness. The focus of this project is clear from the title: we are engaging with our local community to better understand their perception and practice of wellness (generally) and mindfulness (specifically). In doing so, we hope to incorporate their feedback and experiences into our own education around mindfulness. We want these community members to see themselves in our teachings and instructors and be able to connect their own personal practices to the experience of mindfulness. No small feat.
Getting Down to the Details
You might wonder, how is this being done?
In partnership with Dr. Liang and his lab, we've been scheduling family listening groups at local elementary schools where we are currently or have been recently providing in-class mindfulness education. During these sessions, we're connecting directly with local families—not to teach them about mindfulness, but to learn from them.
During our first listening session, 14 family members attended, many of them Spanish-speaking. With the guidance of Dr. Liang and the support of an interpreter, we learned about our community members' own practices of wellness: how they know when someone is unwell, how they try to stay well, and traditions that support wellness and connection. Much of what we heard centered around family and faith. Caregivers talked about respect for adults, being kind and honest, and asking for help when needed. Wellness strategies included song, prayer, and connecting with others. They discussed the importance of setting examples so their children not only feel supported, but also learn that there are consequences for their actions, whether good or not-so-good.
In that same conversation, we heard from families about how they celebrate—ways they showcase their values, wellness, and traditional practices. Some examples included the Day of the Dead, family gatherings to honor loved ones, and the use of dance, song, and sounds.
When we transitioned to the topic of mindfulness, we quickly discovered one important limitation: the world "mindfulness" does not translate perfectly to Spanish. Instead, families frequently used respirar (to breathe) and another family member asked if mindfulness is related to self-reflection. Despite the language barrier, I was happy to hear that families held these ideas about mindfulness, as they brought up some of the central tenants of mindfulness practice.
Learning that the translation of mindfulness to Spanish is clunky (at best) was particularly enlightening—this is something that, moving forward, will help us reflect on the language we use. In fact, I think the same can be said about any language: mindfulness tends to be one of those words that people connect with in different ways, depending on culture, context, and lived experience. This makes it important for us to find ways we can speak clearly about what mindfulness is (and is not), all while while building useful connections between communities' existing ideas and practices.
Looking Inward with a New Lens
Beyond listening groups, we're revisiting our curriculum to ensure that the material we present to our students is inclusive and accessible. We're working toward this goal through two methods: first, by incorporating feedback from families.
Second, Dr. Liang’s team is helping us review our curriculum. Within his lab are experts on the practice of mindfulness and inclusive practices, and their feedback will be invaluable to the development of an accessible and inclusive curriculum. Additionally, we are constantly working to diversify our hiring practices and bring a variety of voices to the table. All this work moves the needle toward our long-standing goal of building an organization that promotes belonging.
Belonging is at the heart of our organization, and it's one of the most important characteristics of this work. In the pursuit of cultural responsivity and growth, Shanthi Project is more dedicated than ever to building relationships; after all, we know from a trauma-informed perspective that relationships offer opportunities for healing and growth.
Thus, as we continue to move forward building an organization that is dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we will also focus on the relationships we cultivate with our community—internal and external—so we can foster belonging in all the spaces we inhabit. May we be happy, may we be healthy, and may we be connected to those around us in ways that are supportive and enriching.