Whenever I teach yoga I always leave feeling taller and calmer, standing proud with beautiful posture, thinking only positive thoughts about the world and all of its people. “You must be in a hurry,” I smile at the person cutting me off on my drive home. “Go ahead.”
Have you ever wondered, “Hmmm…what if everyone did yoga, wouldn’t it make the world a more peaceful place?” Fortunately, Robbin Carroll, Founder and President and Tameka Lawson, Executive Director, of I Grow Chicago have. And, they’ve proven that theory true.
I Grow Chicago combines yoga and meditation, art and culture and urban architecture, for the purpose of “strengthening connections to ourselves, to our community and to the earth.” They offer free programming, including yoga, meditation, mentoring, gardening and services to support varying needs in Chicago’s Englewood community. Programs take place in the Peace House, an intergenerational community driven site intended to “serve and support our neighbors.”
Peace House is so new that hammers were still banging on the roof, participants asked not to get footprints on the freshly painted walls during yoga at an event last month, held to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Day. The MLK day event opened with a conversation about privilege, followed by yoga and meditation, then lunch.
Upon entering Peace House, one found wall to wall yoga mats spread across the ground floor, to accommodate the 50+ guests of all ages.
“Yoga means no separation, no division,” says Walton. “There’s one energy. We utilize yoga as a tool to center oneself. We teach mindfulness so neighbors can show up and not react, remembering to take a moment to breathe. Yoga at the foundation is a tool to self-help and self-regulate.”
Deb Sitron, who was volunteering at the Peace House that day with a group from Jewish Child & Family Services, felt the spiritual connection between the practice of yoga and the theme of the day. “It was very powerful to have the discussion of Social Justice done from yoga mats, creating an environment of sharing and love. Sitting on the floor was like sitting on Mother Earth.”
Sitron also engaged with the spirit of yoga, appreciating “the beautiful energy, love and support that was being shared by all. I felt like I was part of a big family and that is what I Grow Chicago is about.” Sitron has volunteered at the I Grow MLK Day event for the past two years, and has since initiated other year-round collaborations.
A Conversation about Privilege
Walton let the morning conversation about privilege. “I wanted people to understand in some way we are all privileged. It has to do with what we have within us and how we see ourselves. Stereotypically people in Englewood would not see themselves as privileged,” said Walton, who wanted to turn that idea around. “One young man, who society might potentially label as ‘a thug’ said ‘I am privileged because I have a family that loves me. I go home every day to a mom that loves me.’ Equally there was a white female there who said ‘I get judged as privileged, but I also have my own struggles.’”
Walton herself acknowledged feeling privileged to be in a capacity to serve others. “Recognizing privilege is about not showing up to help from a perspective of deficit. I’m not coming to help the ‘poor Englewood community.’ I can gain something and grow as well.”
It’s on this last point that my son and I connected to I Grow this year. “Why are we going there?” my 13-year-old son asked as we pulled out of our driveway. Originally we had planned to volunteer to help with the event, but, running late, I wasn’t really sure. “So basically we’re driving 30 minutes to take a yoga class,” he summed up the situation. “Yeah, I guess so,” I answered at the time—wishing I could teach him a bigger lesson as we ventured out on Martin Luther King Day.
But, in retrospect, there is some good learning to be had:
1. If someone else is doing something positive to change the world, support them, no matter the size of your gesture.
Many talk of social change, but not everyone has the wherewithal to go out and start a not-for-profit that actually makes a difference. Have a friend taking action and doing something? Show-up, help, tell them they are amazing. If you can give money, too, that is always welcome, but your encouragement, volunteer support and spreading the word make a difference, too.
2. Go to a neighborhood that’s not your own.
We often think how cool it would be to go to another country to be immersed in another culture, but, often it’s neighborhoods within our own city that are worlds away. For us, it was heading from Edison Park on Chicago’s northwest side to Englewood on Chicago’s south side. First-hand experience is a critical way to defy stereotypes and expose your unconscious biases (in a good way so as to acknowledge and grow beyond).
Good news is, you’re only a stranger the first time you visit, as I realized after a big welcome hug from Andres (I Grow’s Community Coordinator, whom I had met at last year’s event) and sharing of great news from Shango (the Youth Coordinator at I Grow, a parent at the local Montessori school and also an Interrupter, a la Cure Violence) about a grant for an amazing and successful summer program he led for young men in the community.
3. It’s natural to see color, but look beyond.
I’ve heard people who are white say say “oh, I don’t see color, we are all people.” And I’ve heard people who are black say “when you say you ‘don’t see color’ you are saying you don’t see me.’” And, of course we do see color—it’s in our hunter-gatherer ancient DNA to look at and assess people. Plus our life experience and core identity are intertwined with our race and culture.
But the point is, while our physical attributes may be different, we share common roles or identities that connect us to others. I loved watching Quentin’s daughter climb all over him as he sat on the floor in yoga poses, because it reminded me of the first-time doing yoga with my son when he was a toddler. My son loved how all the kids lined-up for water after he got a cup for one youngster who was too small to reach. Kids are kids. Parents are parents. It’s a common bond that transcends superficial or surface differences.
Conclusion: Reconnect to Yourself, Reconnect to Community.
“When people feel connected they feel safe,” said Lawson, about the goals of the day, of I Grow and its programs. “Yoga and meditation allow people to reconnect to themselves, which is the basis for feeling safe and reconnecting to community.”
Sounds like a good strategy for not only connecting to one’s own community, but for connecting communities.
Who do you know who’s doing something amazing to bring peace to the world? How do you connect to communities apart from your own?