Brandon Phillips, one of the facilitators for Parenting While Black, has a conversation with some of the children involved with the mindfulness training initiative in Homewood. Photo courtesy of the Homewood Children's Village.

Mindfulness training in Homewood centered on school-aged youth, their parents and educators? That sounds intriguing. We hear about mindfulness practices adopted in various corporate spaces, but there’s little evidence that a kinder, more enlightened capitalism has resulted from it. 

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that mindfulness is just another faddish practice outside of the spiritual disciplines that provided its original context. 

Since February, a grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation has underwritten three partnering organizations now working together to introduce mindfulness training techniques to the Homewood community.

Recently I met with Walter Lewis, president & CEO of the Homewood Children’s Village, Stephanie Romero, founder of Awaken Pittsburgh and James P. Huguley, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems and founder of Parenting While Black, to find out about their efforts to bring “mindfulness and trauma-sensitive practices” to a community awash in generational trauma.

Meeting at one of the large basement classrooms of the University of Pittsburgh’s Community Engagement Center on Homewood Avenue, Huguley, Romero and Lewis said that though the multi-pronged program is still in its formative stages, they like what they’re seeing so far.

“The system of education that we have is dehumanizing and I see this as a solution to humanizing both the students and the teachers,” Romero said. “You see teachers who start off as hopeful to make change in children’s lives, who end up viewing the kids as test scores because that’s how they’re being evaluated. You lose that humanity of this child’s life and what’s going on with them.

“We’re all a part of these big systems,” Romero added, “but mindfulness could help support our mental health and well-being to get us to the place where we’re healthy enough to act on those ideas of change for ourselves, our families and our communities and those systems that we’re part of.”

Awaken Pittsburgh’s founder and CEO Stephanie Romero and James P. Huguley, associate professor at Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems and founder of Parenting While Black. Photo by Tony Norman.

Romero said that the school district of Oakland, California, where she did some training while working on her doctorate, is also using the methods now being taught in Homewood to impressive results. 

She added that the approach to meditation and mindfulness practice taught in Homewood isn’t rooted in any religious traditions that might conflict with those undergoing training.

“What Awaken Pittsburgh does is entirely secular,” she said. “We don’t incorporate any kind of religious philosophy. My whole dissertation was around, What is the brain research, what is the neuroscience telling us, what is the research on trauma, healing and that intersection with meditation and mindfulness telling us? What are those practices that people are doing that promote healing, well-being, reduction of stress and burnout?” she said, adding that mindfulness training in Homewood is designed to be at that intersection. 

Many new practitioners of mindfulness have told her that not only were their early fears about indoctrination incorrect but that increased mindfulness has deepened their respective faiths.

Huguley and his colleagues at Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems have done a lot of research on race and parenting. “We know from this research on intergenerational narratives that Black families have responded to racial barriers and oppression in society with unique practices that are validated in the research and produce positive youth outcome,” Huguley said.

“A positive Black identity produces better academic achievement and better psychosocial outcomes,” he said. “They [students] feel better and do better when they have a strong sense of who they are.”

Huguley said that the Parenting While Black component of the training has attracted roughly 60 parents so far. His three-person team works with parents from all over, but mostly from Homewood, to help them draw upon mindfulness training when conflict arises with their children, the schools or society in general.

Huguley said an issue that parents bring up a lot is centered around a search for strategies for dealing with school bureaucrats and how to engage with a system they have a lot of racialized experiences in.

“These experiences are stressful,” Huguley said, “but we’re giving people tools around wellness and self-care while introducing them to other forms of healing. We’re also saying ‘This is how you go in there and talk to the principal; this is how you advocate for your child in this space.’ ”

Walter Lewis, president & CEO of Homewood Children’s Village. Photo courtesy of Homewood Children’s Village.

Lewis’ favorite part of the sessions is quizzing participants about how they were able to put mindfulness to work during the time he last saw them.

“Some people are, like, ‘Nah, I didn’t really get to it,’ but there’s always at least one or two people who will share and it’s always powerful,” he said. 

He recounts how a woman in the parenting group told a story about her brother being upset about some injustice or something that was being done to him that he thought was unfair. He was angry and pumped up, but she realized there was nothing either of them could do about it at that moment, so they both should relax. She led by example; her brother followed her advice and cooled off, too. She credited techniques she learned in the mindfulness class.

The class listened intently. It prompted other stories from those who were reluctant to share anything a few minutes earlier.

“It’s one thing to learn these things in isolation, but it’s another to learn it in a community of people,” Lewis said. It was at Lewis’s invitation that the other two programs agreed to come together to integrate the distinct curriculum and offer mindfulness training to the Homewood community.

“I’m biased, man, I want everything for Homewood and Homewood families,” Lewis said. “If I see something good out there, something that’s beneficial to people that could help transform a life, I want to do it in Homewood.”

Lewis’s allies in the effort aren’t “outsiders” as far as he’s concerned because they’re part of the organic process of making mindfulness techniques work in his community.

“This stuff is all relational,” Lewis said. “The same community we talk about in the programming that we do is the same community that we established this organization we’re working together,” he said nodding toward Huguley and Romero.

“That’s the only way you make stuff like this happen. You can’t authentically integrate programming like this in a way that benefits people if people [aren’t] at the table organically doing that. 

“At the Children’s Village, our mission is to improve the lives of Homewood’s children and simultaneously reweave the fabric of the community. We want to do that holistically. It’s not just school and what happens at home, but it’s their mental health, their well-being, their nutrition — all of those things matter.”

In an attempt to further destigmatize mental health, deep self-reflection and meditation, parents participating in the Parenting While Black program were also offered three free visits with a therapist. This has been well received in a community where even talking about mental health was once taboo.

The sessions have finished for the summer but will resume in the fall. Once again, children ages 5-17, their parents and educators will be invited to participate in a grand experiment to bring mindfulness to a community often on the edge. 

All the while, the three partnering organizations will continue gathering data that proves their multi-pronged approach is working. The tales are anecdotal at this point, but they believe the proof is in the lives of families who have already been changed for the better.

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.