Creating Safe Mindfulness Spaces for People of Color

I was introduced to mindfulness at a weekend workshop for cancer patients and their caregivers.  It was recommended to me by a mindfulness-based therapist.  I had just shared with her that my sister had just informed us of her third recurrence of the breast cancer she had been battling for 12 years.  Having previously losing another sister and my father in less than two years, my thought was that I didn’t have the capacity to endure this new challenge.

I convinced my sister to join me for two full days of learning and practicing mindfulness.  For those two days, my sister fell into what appeared to be a restful sleep every time the bell rang to begin practice.  I, on the other hand, fell in love with mindfulness.  Mindfulness wasn’t a magic pill but it did allow me to slowly alter my perspective on things.  I learned how to be more present . 

After that seminar I began to search for other programs.  While there were many options to choose from—weekend or week-long retreats and multi week courses and workshops—not many were affordable.  So I practiced where I could for free, putting money aside for future mindfulness trainings and retreats. 

My job in the crazy world of pharmaceutical marketing had recently been eliminated and I was anxiously searching for a position, yet another challenge. As fate would have it, I learned about a program coordinator position with the Penn Program for mindfulness.  I submitted my resume on the last day they were accepting applicants and ultimately got the job.

The Penn Program for Mindfulness (PPM) is part of the Penn Medicine Health System and offers mindfulness programs open to the public.  As an employee, I could now take courses at no cost, as often as I wanted and I did.   

I ended up taking the 8-week foundation course 6 or 7 times with different instructors.  Every class was different and I learned something new and benefitted from each one.

The one consistent thing across all classes, however, was the lack of diversity.  An 8 week class typically has 25 participants.  If there was one single person of color, it was unique.  If there were actually more than one, I was shocked.  I realized that this wasn’t unique to Penn.  I had found this to be the case in many of the places I practiced and retreated.  

I began researching mindfulness practice sessions, retreats and classes specifically for People of Color and unfortunately found few.  I finally happened upon a 7 day retreat for People of Color at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA.   I was thrilled that they offered scholarships and even free transportation.  I went to that retreat and was quite surprised.  The retreat itself was no different in content than any other retreat I had attended.  However, there was, in fact, a different feeling to it.  It’s hard to describe but I was immediately comfortable in my environment.  I found it easier to be comfortable, to relax, let down my guard and just be myself.  A week after I arrived home, I received an email with the group picture we had taken on the last day.  The sight of those 100 or so faces of color—all shades of tan, brown and black—actually brought a tear to my eye.  I was so happy I had had the chance to be a part of something so special.

That’s when I decided to create what I called The Penn Mindfulness People of Color Initiative.  I got permission to offer our  8-week MBSR course at a scholarship rate to one person of color for each class in each session.  It spread through word of mouth.  I then began offering monthly open sittings in a basement conference room of my office. This too was well received.  We have developed a core group that attends regularly and evolved into a secular sangha—a community—and now meet virtually.  

My biggest endeavor was to be Penn Mindfulness’ first ever, weekend residential retreat which was sadly cancelled due to the Covid-19 quarantine.  That retreat was to be supplemented by a donation we had received to be used specifically for POC programming.  That donation allowed for people to pay on a sliding scale basis and some people could even pay what they could afford. Once things get back to normal, we will try again.

Our most recent new POC offering is our signature Mindfulness-based Stress Management foundation course for People of Color only.  As with the IMS retreat, the content is the same as our other MBSR courses.  If the topic of race comes up, we discuss it, but that isn’t the reason for this course.  The real reason—and the reason I continue to expand the POC Initiative—is simple.  I wanted to create a safe space.  A space where people of color, any person of color, not just African Americans, can feel comfortable, able to relax, let down their guard.  A place where we can just be ourselves.  

Editor’s note: For more information about Robin and her work, be sure to check out the Philadelphia Inquirer’s article: How mindfulness and meditation have helped Philadelphians of color cope with stress


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