Transforming kids, classrooms and communities in Richmond, CA

As Project Manager at the Mindful Life Project, Salina Espinosa-Setchko runs programs that teach mindfulness, yoga and performing arts to over 6,500 students in the Richmond, CA’s school system. Located north east of San Francisco, the city of Richmond was once ranked as one of the most violent cities in the US. While violence has decreased, the Richmond community remains a heavily impacted and under-resourced community. The work of the Mindful Life Project is deeply transforming that by giving the children the skills to understand and relate to their own, often traumatic, life experiences.

What do you do with the Mindful Life project?

 We are in 15 schools and work with about 6,500 students offering mindfulness to classrooms, preschool through 6th grade, once a week, throughout the entire year.

We have a whole classroom program where we take kids on a journey of mindfulness: we teach them how to do mindful sits, mindful listening, mindful breathing and to use mindfulness tools to navigate their difficult emotions.  We teach them to think about emotions in a more community oriented, heartfelt, compassionate way.

Then, we also work with the highest referred students—the students who have the highest numbers of detentions, who have a higher need and are struggling in school.  On Mondays and Tuesdays, they’ll either have expressive arts and mindfulness or yoga and mindfulness.  And, if they show positive changes in their behavior, then they get referred to our swag session, which is a hip-hop and performing arts session.

We consider ourselves to be very engaging, student friendly, student-centered, and culturally relevant.  Music is a very big part of our program.  Our hip-hop instructor JustMe has taken all of these hip-hop songs and changed the lyrics. It’s called mindful hip-hop.  And, the kids LOVE it.  Now we have all these catchy songs about mindfulness and heartfulness and all of our mindful skills.

How is your work contributing to the Great Turning?

I think of what we are doing as Radical Truth Telling.  When I think about the Great Turning, I see that as the center of everything.

I feel like the school system is in complete denial of what is actually happening.  Its policies, curriculum, and structures are so irrelevant to our student’s needs. They completely fail to create an environment that is actually nourishing for our kids.

I say often that the school system is like the emperor with no clothes on.  The emperor parades around and we all know that he has no clothes but nobody dare say it.  In the school system, the emperor being naked is our students being complete broken-hearted, with such high level of grief and sadness and pain and rage.  And nobody is talking about it in a way that matters.

Mindfulness, to me, is a big flashlight.  It is a big light of awareness that helps us see what is here, in a nonjudgemental, loving and compassionate way.  Mindfulness is the ability to look at our own inner world—our mental world, our emotional world, our physical world—and our outside world as well, our community.

And one of the most beautiful things about mindfulness is nonjudgement. I have internalized so much of this: I am a product of the Richmond community, I am a person of color, I am someone who has had a lot of family trauma. Mindfulness gives me a framework to look at my own experience and say, “I accept myself, I am not my past, I love myself.  And what is happening in this present moment isn’t wrong, it’s not bad, and who knows what is coming?”

This message for young people is so radical because so much of the trauma that is happening in their own lives they view as wrong and bad and it shouldn’t be happening. Then they think, “I am wrong and bad, I am unworthy” and it creates all these levels of not accepting and deep shame around these experiences.  So, mindfulness can not only give us a larger view of these experiences but a tool to navigate them in a loving way.

When you practice mindfulness, you are actually expanding the chest, expanding the physical space around the heart, to hold the complexity of this human experience that we’re having, in a nonjudgemental way.

It asks the question: can I hold my own breaking heart?  Can I hold the breaking heart of my community?  Can I hold the breaking heart of the world?  Yes, and I can do that with breath, I can do that with a nonjudgemental, heartful acceptance.  In those ways it is very linked to the Great Turning.

What contributions do you young people have to the Great Turning?

Really often, especially with our young ones, their parents tell me, “Oh, you’re Ms. Espinosa?  You’re their Mindful Life teacher?  My son or daughter does this at home.” They really go home and do this with their families. There is such potential for them to be leaders.

This generation has a lot of imagination and has also been gifted the opportunity of a great challenge and problems—multiple, multi-layered, complex problems to solve.

And they are really creative beings, and they are also really resourced beings.  I think about what these beings have: a lot of the resources that create a lot of opportunity for creative problem solving.

How do you see transformation happening where you are?

I think about myself 3 years ago, and where I was then.  I was so broken hearted.  I had been a classroom teacher for 8 years.  But, at the end of year 8, I was so sad, exhausted, burnt out, depressed.  I really felt like I did not know what I was going to do. I felt very strongly that I couldn’t go back into the classroom, that I was not going to find work that was in integrity.

After teaching for 2 years with Mindful Life, I feel transformed.  These lessons that I am trying to teach my kids, as much as I am trying to teach them, I am in the daily process of living them in a really concrete way.

And I remember even just two years ago coming in and feeling really unsure about how this was landing and meeting some resistance.  Now, in the schools I have been in the last two years, I walk into a room and a child is already in their mindful body.  The teachers in many of my classrooms are doing mindfulness on the daily.

I have students who run up to me on the playground and tell me, “I taught my little brother or sister mindfulness!  Or, this weekend, I danced with my anger!”  Or telling me about how they are naming their emotions to tame their emotions or, being able to see when they are judging themselves.

JustMe, our hiphop teachers, and I do assemblies.  We have 450 kids all doing mindfulness and then jumping into some really beautiful mindful hip-hop.  I really feel like we are transforming Richmond.  I feel like we are in deep integrity.  And, even that just tastes delicious.  After being in the school system for so long, where we don’t tell the truth, it feels so good to be in integrity.

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