How Mindfulness Supports Social Justice in Schools: Q&A with Rhonda Magee

Although mindfulness is about stretching our comfort zone, it can feel like it after decades of practice. Is my comfort zone. My comfort zone. I have become a sort of ambassador for stillness and am willing to talk about mindfulness and meditation anywhere, anytime. Last year, I was still a bit stumped.

For a series of lessons on health and wellbeing I was going to be teaching fourth graders, I wanted to make the connection between mindfulness and social justice. After teaching mindfulness basics for a few weeks, I was ready to teach the next sessions that integrated diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Although I participated in many professional development workshops that were centered on DEI, I was never the one to actually teach this material in a classroom setting. It’s not surprising that I felt at home talking about mindfulness as a white-identified, transgender male. This practice has been largely adopted in white, exclusive spaces. Reflecting back on this experience, it became clear that I was afraid of stepping outside my comfort zone. I mistakenly believed my personal identity would make these conversations seem inauthentic. The connection between being still and taking action felt a bit arbitrary as I approached the lesson.

Instead of trying to do it all alone, I joined forces with the school psychologist who has more experience in implementing this curriculum. She watched with admiration as she led students in engaging and constructive discussions. To better understand each other’s stories, we practiced deep listening and engaged in loving-kindness meditations to inspire compassion. The experience made me wonder about the interconnectedness of mindfulness and DEI. How valuable is practice if it fails to support justice in school curriculums?

Rhonda Magee is the author of This Is How It Works. The Inner Work of Racial JusticeHe was a pioneer in linking contemplative practice and intentional action. It was an inspiring and encouraging conversation that made me realize why my own vulnerability, discomfort, and willingness to be vulnerable is exactly the place where lessons about mindfulness and DEI could occur. This is a message that I have taken to heart. Rhonda Magee clarified that asking whether mindfulness and justice can be integrated in a school curriculum is a mistake. They are not only mutually supportive but essential.

Rhonda Magee answers questions

Alex Tzelnic: How did mindfulness become a tool to support and inform your DEI work in the first place?

Rhonda Magee Mindfulness is both a view from my body and my experience as a Black woman living in this world. Living in a world that is increasingly open, supported, and infused by mindfulness has allowed me to be more open to understanding my social experience, even those that are related to DEI. These experiences have an impact on how I view mindfulness. It’s not just one direction, but this iterative experience.

Your and mine both arise in a world that I did not create and that you didn’t. However, one in which identity, race, gender and identity are all part of the experience being alive. As I sought to understand what it means to live fully, these practices we call mindfulness were available to me.

Alex Tzelnic: In The Inner Work of Racial JusticeYou write that mindfulness can help us to be more present with the hard truths of “the way things are”. This will allow us to see and change the patterns that perpetuate racism. We can begin a critical process that can create real change in the only place where we can be certain of real change: our minds.

Rhonda Magee When we are more aware of the nature of reality and the conditioned nature, we can see that everything is possible. This applies to our social identities, our stories about ourselves, our wounds, and the suffering our fellow human beings have endured. Mindfulness and compassion practices are centered on how we relate to this experience.

All of this is about revealing the truth of our relationships to these experiences. We can begin to see how these experiences, thoughts and narratives are carried in our bodies, how they are passed on to others and intergenerationally, and how we plant them. This will allow us to be more aware of the dynamic interplay between ourselves and the wider contexts in which our actions take place. We can then see that our actions and words have an impact on the larger systems and patterns. However, we can each exercise some agency within these systems and patterns. It is easy to see that all of our lives matter fundamentally. We all belong and are embedded in the complex relationships and relationships that make up our lives. If we can become more aware of the subtle reactions we make to situations, our experiences and the stories that turn into narratives, then we might be able to navigate those waters more effectively. It can make a huge difference in the outer world because our actions and our intentions are important.

“Once we are able to see clearly how these experiences, thoughts and narratives are carried in our bodies, how they pass on in our interactions intergenerationally and with each other, and how we seed them, we can be more aware of the dynamic interplay that is present in us and in the wider contexts in which our movements take place, we can be more aware of how this interplay plays out.”

Rhonda Magee

Every thing I do is grounded in a particular kind of ethics. The core of this ethic is my commitment to minimize any harm I cause. This is where you can practice your skills in order to help DEI. How can we get involved in making the world just, equitable, and inclusive? This is the next edge of DEI. How can we engage in the effort of minimizing harm and leaning into mindfulness practices and compassion in secular spaces where the types of harm we’re referring to morph and shift? They rhyme, but they don’t look the same as they did twenty-five years ago.

This is where I am at the moment in my work. It’s being faithful to my deepening practice, and having space and hope in the effort to bring mindfulness/compassion practices into secular settings.

Alex Tzelnic: Some might be puzzled about why mindfulness should be included in the teaching of social justice in schools. How can mindfulness help students learn in this area of learning?

Rhonda Magee Mindfulness invites us to reflect deeply on our own lives. Fourth graders are far more capable than we think. They are astonishingly capable of holding complex ideas. Adults are often not prepared for complexity. It is possible to bring mindfulness, DEI and well-being together. The challenge is to be aware of how social identities are constructed. To bridge into our common humanity and our common human condition on a planet that is interconnected, we must have a strong sense who we are and not let our sense of beingness be a barrier. There is no one-size fits all way to achieve this, according to me.

“To bring mindfulness, DEI and well-being together is to create space for being conscious of how we build social identities. The challenge is to have strong self-awareness but not let it become a barrier to our shared humanity and our common struggle as human beings living on a planet that is interconnected.

Rhonda Magee

This work has helped me to see it as a way to expand our capacity to handle multiple, complex realities. It is about deepening our capacity to hold complexity in a way that isn’t scary, but more able to use play, excitement and curiosity to explore who we are. This allows us to be curious about ourselves and supports our ability to connect and build bridges instead of reacting with fear and trepidation. Respecting people at their own level is key. Fourth graders are encouraged to be open to learning about themselves and how they connect. It’s about being vulnerable, and being comfortable with that vulnerability.

There’s room for curiosity when we discuss DEI and related topics. Then there’s the question of how to respond to injustice, inequality, and inequity. Yes, we need curiosity. But we also need help in considering the different dimensions of the conversation. It doesn’t matter who’s there, but it does matter what kind of historical conflict or inequities are being discussed. So skillfulness in understanding the part of diversity, equity and justice that we’re discussing, as well as how mindfulness and compassion practices may help, will be the core of the work we do throughout our lives.

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