Sunlight streams in through a wall of windows lined with hanging glass balls encasing air plants. The lights are dimmed, ideal for those sitting and talking in low brown chairs placed in a community circle, as well as for people practicing yoga in the adjacent open area.
The mindfulness room at Martin Luther King Middle School exudes calm and serenity. It’s a place where students and teachers can engage in compassionate listening.
Inspired by the Holistic Life Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit committed to nurturing the wellness of children and adults in underserved communities by helping them develop their inner lives through yoga, mindfulness and self-care, the Richmond Public Schools have teamed up with the Innerwork Center, a nonprofit in the Museum District, to do the same. The program was the idea of Ram Bhagat, the system’s manager of school culture and climate, and Rachel Douglas, executive director of the nonprofit Innerwork Center.
“I see mindfulness as the link between trauma-informed and restorative justice practices in our classrooms,” Bhagat says regarding the grant to bring Holistic Life to Richmond and train teachers, Innerwork instructors and community members.
According to Douglas, mindfulness is the practice of purposefully paying attention to the present moment. It can be done formally though different kinds of meditation and informally through specific techniques a person can use throughout the day.
“Mindfulness teaches us to observe our thought patterns and the information we gather through our senses,” she says. “When we focus our attention on the present moment, we enhance our ability to gain clarity, act with intention and reduce stress.”
The Innerwork Center offered scholarships to 10 teachers from Boushall Middle School, Albert Hill Middle School, King Middle School, Huguenot High School and Open High School for an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction class at their facility this summer. These teachers are the first group in Richmond schools to learn these mindfulness-based stress reduction practices for professional and personal benefit.
Because the center doesn’t work with children, it came on board to teach mindfulness practices to adults — teachers, parents, nurses, administrators and security personnel at the schools — who could then use and teach them to students. “Mindfulness brings spaciousness between something that just happened and how you respond to it,” Douglas explains. “We were a natural fit to be part of this project.”
The next step was developing a curriculum that was culturally relevant, more in line with the Holistic Life Foundation, and that will start in the spring. Douglas says the intent is to instruct teachers in their own mindfulness practices as a way of having more empathy and helping students unlock it inside themselves.
“It ties in with our overall strategic plan to create a safe and loving school culture,” Bhagat explains. “It’s a process of using spaces where students and teachers can engage in compassionate listening.” With mindfulness rooms already established in three schools, he expects the process to be in active use by June and fully fleshed out by the start of the next school year. Eventually, the program will be in every Richmond public school.
But he also acknowledges that the program will require a cultural shift and mindset change among all involved. Teachers are being taught that they can come in and use the room as a community space and students will learn that it’s a safe place to go and deal with issues.
“Ram was brought on to shift the culture of Richmond Public Schools and they were brilliant to hire him and give him the breadth to shift a culture that’s 100 years old,” Douglas says. “But that culture is not a kayak, it’s a huge cruise ship and it’s going to take some time to shift direction.”
Training is not only important, it’s key because the school system doesn’t want to see the room misused, especially as another form of punishment.
“We know so much more now about the benefits of mindfulness because of evidence-based research, but people still do what they know,” Douglas says, while Bhagat mentions companies such as Google and Aetna that have brought in mindfulness programs to help employees cope, which they say enhances performance.
“We’re here to gently and supportively cheer them on to make changes because your brain grows when you focus and take a breath.”
The goal is to help students and teachers self-regulate so they move out of the “fight, flight or freeze” mode and go back to learning and teaching. Bhagat believes that mindfulness helps people have healthy relationships with each other, a necessary component of beginning to alleviate stress.
“It goes back to inter-connectedness,” Douglas says. “Your struggle is my struggle.”