I recently completed a four-day training in the Lineage Project‘s model for teaching awareness practices to teens living in at-risk environments. The Lineage Project’s work takes them to juvenile detention centers, group homes, alternative to incarceration facilities and suspension schools. Lineage works both “inside” and “outside,” teaching life skills that can make the difference between a kid becoming part of the juvenile justice system or not.
At-risk environments are legion in New York City, where the statistics about incarceration are still shocking (even if in our racialized society such figures have become common knowledge). It is incredible to hear these statistics: 60% of juveniles in detention are African-American, 35% are Latino. That means everyone else makes up 5%. These figures indicate the massive disproportion of people of color in the criminal justice system. Additionally, of this population, 60% are in foster care and 85% of the females have been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused (or all three). Beth Navon, the Executive Director of the Lineage Project, thinks the real percentage of abuse might be even higher. While the majority in detention are male, females make up 30% of the population and this percentage is skyrocketing every year, as more and more young girls turn to violence or criminality in the face of poverty, drug and alcohol dependence, abuse, racism, sexism, and lack of education that pervades the neighborhoods they live in.
More shocking statistics from the training: did you know that the minimum age at which you can be arrested and detained in New York City is 7 years old? Hearing that almost makes no sense, yet it is true and 3% of kids in the juvenile justice system are under 10 years of age. Teens make up the vast majority, with the largest cohort being 15 years old (55%) because at age 16, you can be detained with the adult prison population on Riker’s Island.
The majority of 14 and 15 year olds in detention read at a 3rd grade level. In 2009, the Federal Department of Justice brought a suit against NY State finding the the juvenile justice system violated the human and civil rights of teens in detention because it denied them access to educational services, which are required by law. Additional lawsuits have been brought against the detention centers, on the grounds of civil rights violations due to physical and mental abuse.
In this atmosphere of oppression and hopelessness, the Lineage Project teaches youth awareness practices so they might have a better chance at making it out of this morass of criminal and legal problems, broken homes, substance abuse, poverty, and so on. Can yoga really make a difference here? Lineage thinks so.
Over this teacher training, we explored how awareness-based practices can really be anything: yoga, martial arts, dance, art, whatever, so long as the activity is done with a focus on creating awareness around themes selected by Lineage Project teachers. Common themes include focus, gratitude, and choice. We built on these themes using various movement and healing arts, including West African dance, Qi Gong, yoga, and meditation.
The premise of the Lineage Project is that even one meaningful interaction with a competent adult could have a protective, beneficial effect on a child from these at-risk environments. Multiple interactions could have even more benefit, as children learn life skills such as patience, focus, reduced impulsivity and increased self-awareness through the practices.
During the practice teaching segments, where we got into character and acted like teens, I had flashbacks to my one year teaching middle school social studies in Brooklyn. This experience was rather traumatic, actually. A fight broke out in my classroom with one student going after another with a desk, attempting to hit him over the head with said desk. As the chaos escalated, I restrained the violent student, and was suspended from my teaching position, later found “guilty” of corporal punishment and fired from my job. The middle school where I taught has since been turned into a charter school, and from the looks of the photos, has had a major rebirth with classrooms with working lights, students in uniforms, and windows that actually work instead of being stuck closed (in summer) or open (in winter).
The Lineage Project’s model encourages teachers to be creative to find ways to teach mindfullness. Breathing, meditation, and body awareness are introduced to the young people in ways that might not “look” like yoga or meditation, but which teach the exact same thing: to turn the attention inward.