What Can We Do When The World Feels Like It’s Falling Apart: Cultivating Safety in Community

I recently had the pleasure of being a panelist for the East Harlem Scholars Academy charter network community in a discussion about how to cope in the face of the rash of conspicuous police brutality, terror attacks, not to mention the inflammatory and degrading remarks provoked by presidential campaigns, and innumerable other anxiety producing incidents that have flooded our cultural landscape. The audience was made up of EHSA teachers, administrators, parents, and community members and was held at St. Lucy’s Catholic Church in East Harlem. That a forum was this community’s response to the surging social and racial challenges of our times; that the EHSA's collective energy was focused on how to come together, to listen, and to connect with one another touched me profoundly.

The very act of creating this forum demonstrated the universal core values that support community building and wellbeing in us all: connection, curiosity, kindness, mindful listening, self-reflection, and collaboration. In my view, the panel was a noteworthy example of taking the principles of yoga and mindfulness “off the mat”.

The panel was composed of a cross-section of diverse perspectives and areas of relevant expertise: a child psychiatrist, a parent of three children in theEHSA schools, a middle school faculty member, a recent EHSA high school graduate and sophomore in college, a doctoral student studying the relationship between trauma and learning, and me, a specialist who works to support the wellbeing of our kids and school communities using the combined tools of yoga and mindfulness. The moderator made a few notable inquiries: 1) What were some of our raw emotional reactions to the back to back murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile ; 2) What is the appropriate age that parents and teachers should consider talking to children of color about possessing an undervalued and abused status in a society plagued by the complex issues of race, class, socio-economic access, education, poverty and a history of violence?; 3) What is the most important thing that we can do as educators to support our students and be allies during upsetting times of conflict within our society?; 4) In the face of all this madness, what brings you joy? 

Each question offered panelists and members of the community an opportunity to reflect, and tap that tender emotional place in ourselves that had been affected by the recent violence. As we all listened to each other, the collective sighs and murmurs made clear the well of empathy felt for the diverse spectrum of emotional and intellectual responses to the questions. Many sought strategies to cope with this trauma that had affected us all. Yes, trauma. It is arguable that watching or listening to the murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric  Garner, Mike Brown, and Trayvon Martin (and so many others) die and then be denied the basic human dignity of an acknowledgment of the wrongness of their deaths has put this entire nation, let alone our children, into a deeply traumatized state.  To witness a serious injury to, or the death of, someone else is a traumatic event. And when experiencing such traumatic events repeatedly calls forth overwhelming feelings of terror, horror, or helplessness, it can’t help but be traumatizing to the national psyche on a large scale.

Our panel discussion asserted that trauma can be soothed when one's experience and emotions are heard. There was a felt sense that a real catharsis was silently and sometimes audibly occurring within the hearts and minds of those present in the church. This release came about through the act of empathetic communication, which creates space for the possibility of authentic sharing of innermost fears, feelings and concerns. It’s amazing the way even some of the toughest and most upsetting events, when shared in a safe place can yield deep healing. The more questions we answered as panelists, the more collaborative our responses became, as one panelist’s response dovetailed with another’s, or one echoed the phrasing or continued the thread of a previous panelist’s thoughts.

What we can achieve in community is boundless when we intentionally carve out the time to cultivate the practice of being with each other with open hearts.

When the discussion ended, each person who approached me to thank me or introduce his or herself mentioned that she wished we had more opportunities to participate in forums like this one. It was simultaneously an obvious and remarkable request. We live in community, we work in community, we transition from place to place in community, and yet we rarely make time to simply connect in real and meaningful ways. We often wait until a crisis has occurred to pool our collective resources of wisdom and empower ourselves by coming together. 

While this panel asked the room of mostly adults to reflect on “What Can We Do When the World Feels Like It's Falling Apart?”, the parallels between the challenges and responses shared and what happens in the many classrooms I’ve taught in was uncanny. I was reminded that being a teacher affords me the critical opportunity to create a little microcosm of the world where my students and I can learn to cherish the full spectrum of what it means to be thinking, feeling, active, complicated, and creative human beings. This full spectrum includes EVERYTHING that can occur while being human in relationship with others: from the uglier or more unpleasant conflicts and upsets that arise in the classroom community, to the simple routines and procedures that ritualize being together, and finally when the learning and application of skills and new knowledge are integrated by my students in a seamless and thrillingly empowering way. As a teacher to both adults and youth, I have learned to obsess less on the content I have taught or teach, and more on what kind of human being I am supporting my students to become. ELA, math, STEM, SEL, yoga and mindfulness are vitally important content areas. However they are all merely the tools that I may offer my students to help them access themselves, their power, their fullest potential, their self-realization.

I hope to remember that a singularly powerful remedy when things fall apart is to create safe spaces to come together and share how we feel. I hope we continue as we did during the forum to practice seeing each other. I hope we listen with kindness and curiosity. I hope we trust that we will be heard and valued. I hope that we repair. I hope that we heal. I hope that we learn from each other. I hope we collaborate and create new possibilities for ourselves and our world. In doing all this, I hope we come to know ourselves better and become less fearful about putting ourselves out into the world in the most fully expressed way. I hope that then we can take each step in our individual journeys from a less bound and more resilient place.


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