Good to virtually meet you, Dr. Lopez!
I teach mindfulness and communication around the country to adults, educators, therapists, and healthcare practitioners. A main part of my work is as Senior Program Developer for Mindful Schools, where we train educators in mindfulness for their own well-being and to share those tools with their students as a foundational life-skill. I started working here in 2008, when we were a small program of local charter schools. In those days I was going into schools in the inner-city in Oakland, teaching mindfulness to children and kids grades K-10.
It was a wonderful experience for me, connecting with the children and their classroom teachers two or three times a week. Part of what was so rewarding was how much the teachers themselves benefited from the short periods of mindfulness practice! Many would regularly thank me for creating the space in their classroom for a few moments of stillness in which they could let their nervous system relax and settle. The students also remarked on how much they enjoyed when the room got “still and quiet” during our mindfulness practice. Some of the little ones would say the most amazing things: “I could hear the wind… I felt like I was a leaf floating outside… I could hear myself breathing…”
What is your work, Dr. Lopez?
It is a pleasure to e-meet you! Congratulations on your work; it is incredible and much needed in this world.
I am the founding principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy (MHBA), a middle school located in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. This community has the highest rate of poverty, crime, and high school drop out rates. Although we are located in one of the richest cities in the world, the average annual income in this community is $11,000 within the densely populated housing development. This community also lacks resources, access to fresh fruits and vegetables, along with mental health services to deal with the impact of poverty and post traumatic stress disorders.
Sounds like an important place for you to be. What drives your approach to the school’s mission?
Prior to opening the MHBA, I served as an assistant principal at a neighboring K-8th grade school and quickly realized that using a holistic approach to understand our children would be essential. "Hurt people, hurt people", which is why I firmly believe that we must provide our scholars with social emotional support in order for each of them to develop a healthy sense of self and how to relate to others in a positive manner.
We want our scholars to be compassionate, respectful, loving, and accepting, therefore we create a curriculum that is centered around global citizenship. This helps them to explore the world and gain compassion for others, both locally and beyond, by asking questions, analyzing perspectives, and sharing their own personal experiences. Our scholars learn that each of us may be different based on our religions, race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, or sexual orientation, but within differences lies tremendous similarities that connect us all.
Through this process we begin to see tremendous growth in building tolerance that transforms into acceptance. Observing children willing to learn and help others is probably one of the most beautiful things to see as an educator.
Absolutely. Broadening a child’s horizons, giving them other ways of looking at things, and helping them to believe in themselves are probably some of the most useful things we can do for kids.
I can recall a time we engaged in our annual fundraising campaign called "Change for Change". The premise was for each homeroom teacher to collect pocket change from their scholars as a means of donating it to make change within a community of need.
One particular year, we decided that the donations would go to an organization that supported the ongoing relief in Haiti from a previous earthquake and hurricane. As part of the preparation to develop an understanding of the devastation that impacted that country, a team of teachers of Haitian descent developed a lesson plan with a PowerPoint for each homeroom teacher to review with their class. The content included the history and culture of Haiti, in addition to the outcome of the devastation, which was eye-opening. Our scholars realized that on an island far from their homes, there were children suffering with the effects of poverty and post-traumatic stress as many of them have been doing.
At the conclusion of the campaign, our scholars raised over $500 by collecting coins over a period of four weeks. We then invited Karen Civil, an entrepreneur, and social game changer of Haitian descent to the school to donate a check to her non-profit Live Civil. The event was epic and our scholars truly felt like they were a part of something greater than themselves that would offer healing to someone else.
Oren, I would love to hear a time when you saw a healing moment in the work that you do.
What a moving story. It’s so empowering when we’re able to not only connect with others far away, but to see that we can make a difference and have an impact. I can only imagine how transformative and eye-opening of an experience the “Change for Change” drive was for your scholars.
To your question, re: “True healing”… a deep contemplation. For me, true healing is of the heart and mind: when we are able to find a place of acceptance and inner resourcefulness in the face of adversity or trying circumstances. I remember teaching mindfulness one day in Oakland. After a few moments of mindful breathing, I asked the class who remembered to use their mindfulness since they last saw me. One young boy, about 8 or 9 years old, raised his hand and said, “There were gunshots last night outside my house. I was scared, and so I did mindful breathing.” He was still shaken up, but the fact that he had a tool to use in that moment to help calm his fear was so moving. We talked about it some more, how scary it must have been, and what else we could do in moments like that.
That’s powerful. What are some of the other approaches you use in your work?
Today, our focus at Mindful Schools is training educators. We work with teachers (and other adults working with kids) from all over the country and around the world. Sometimes I am asked, “How do you help children understand the concept of compassion.” We train educators working with kids who are preK all the way up to high school age, so we take a very direct, experiential approach to understanding compassion. We begin with an exercise to strengthen kindness in the mind and heart, training the student’s attention to feel and stay connected to that quality of care by directing kind thoughts towards someone in their life. We discuss how it feels to send someone kind wishes. Students have great fun making up their own wishes to send to friends or family members.
During the next lesson, we do an experiential exercise guiding students through imaginary situations in which they offer a kind word to a student who is being fun of, or in which someone else supports them in a difficult moment. We also have them imagine not helping out, and then discuss how it feels to be on either side: offering empathy, or receiving empathy. This helps kids recognize that it doesn’t take much to show up for another in a kind way, and how much more nourishing and rewarding it feels to come from a place of compassion.
I’m grateful and inspired to learn of the work you’re doing. I had a chance to look at MHBA’s website and watch a couple of the videos posted. I’m celebrating the powerful changes you and your faculty are making in the lives of your students. Wishing I’d known your school was in Brooklyn earlier! I was just teaching in New York recently; it would have been great to stop by, meet you, and get to see the school first hand.
I'm glad that you were able to visit our website to see some of our work in action. This school year has been such a whirlwind. We have many challenges, as it pertains to our incoming 6th grade scholars. Many of them have tremendous needs, both social emotionally and academically. It is heartbreaking to say, but many of the issues are related to low parental involvement and lack of high expectations from their previous schools.
I see so much potential in my children and I say “mine,” because they are with me Monday through Saturday from 8 am - 6 pm. It's hard not to see them as my own, when they are being nurtured all day to become better emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
I think we share many of the same goals and visions for our children and youth today: giving them the capacity to see their own self-worth; teaching values like tolerance, empathy, and generosity; and offering them the tools they need to succeed in life. One of the benefits that we see with mindfulness practice is increasing learning readiness. As we know, when students are preoccupied with stress from home, family, or other challenges it’s impossible to focus on learning. With the support of mindfulness practice, we can give kids the tools of self-awareness to begin to manage their inner experience. Thoughts and feelings don’t have to rule us. With practice we can learn to have more choice about what we do with our attention, and bring more compassion to ourselves when we’re struggling.
I’ll share a couple of stories from two of our educators around the country. The first is from one of our educators in Los Angeles, who was working with a fourth grade class. One girl had recently lost her baby sister, and her mother forbade the child from talking about it. A girl who had previously been engaged and cheerful had grown silent, withdrawn, and unhappy. A couple of weeks into our curriculum the mindfulness instructor did a lesson on difficult emotions, giving the children some guidance on how to notice, name, and feel their feelings with mindfulness. That day, the young girl opened up to her classroom teacher. She gradually became able to participate in class again. At the end of the year, she wrote a note to the mindfulness teacher telling her how much mindfulness - and that lesson in particular - had helped. She showed the instructor a picture she had colored in her journal. The drawing showed her standing near a gravestone, with flowers and a tear on her face. The caption read, “I felt lonely and shy of things because my baby sister died. But ever since I’ve been noticing, I got better.”
This story is so potent for me. We are such resilient creatures. Our hearts have the power to heal, when we give them the space and tools needed. With the permission and support of mindfulness to feel her emotions, instead of shutting down, this fourth grader was able to begin to mourn and process the loss of her sister.
Another educator shared a story about the power of our “kind and caring thoughts” practices. In these exercises, we teach children about how malleable our minds are, and invite them to experiment with cultivating positive mind states like kindness by sending good wishes to each other or those they care about. One day, a student in the behavior/social-emotional program who had been having particular difficulties feeling safe and getting along in the classroom broke the classroom’s marble jar. The class had been using the jar to mark acts of kindness - every time someone observed a kind act they would add a marble. The class was agitated and angry with the boy, when one girl spoke up, saying, “He has more to learn. Let’s take a mindful moment and send him a heartfelt thought 'may he find peace' and remember he hasn’t learned to control his angry feelings - YET.” The students all sat for a moment, did some mindful breathing and sending kind wishes, then worked together to clean up the marbles and broken glass. When the student returned he was welcomed back with ease from all his classmates.
These are just a couple of the amazing stories we hear of how this training in mindfulness transforms the way young people relate to themselves and each other. Many others share how it helps them with their anxiety over tests, their ability to do homework, and even to cope with stress at home.
How are things going this year at MHBA? Any successes, challenges, or news you’d like to share?
Your stories are truly amazing!
To answer your question, I am often asked what keeps me going, honestly speaking it is because of my graduates, who I have named "LEGACY", that I am reminded of my purpose. I can recall all of the challenges the alumni posed when they came to MHBA. Many of the boys were defiant and had been suspended from 2nd - 5th grade, while the girls were often mean and would bully one another. The phrase, "hurt people, hurt people", was something I would see happen on a daily basis, which is why I was relentless in listening to the scholars and teaching my staff the importance of having empathy. You can not imagine the life circumstances that they were dealing with as adults at home, then being expected to act like children and obey rules here in school.
I can recall when one scholar yelled at me, then punched a wall after he said he hated being in our school. I was was ready to escort him out of the building, but knew something must be wrong from him to become so enraged. After sitting with him in the office, he told me that his mother lost her job and he didn't want to join a gang to get money. It was so much for a twelve year old to undertake, so we figured out a plan and I literally would take him with me and my daughter to Manhattan on weekends for him to get away from the neighborhood. When he entered high school, he gained an interest in media communications and became an intern for the Tribeca Film Festival. Through the program he learned videography, then fell in love with photography. He is now a freelance photographer at the age of seventeen and visits me periodically to check in for our heart-to-heart conversations.
Seeing this type of transformation happen in our young people gives me a sense of purpose, which is something I look forward to every single day.
I'm just curious, with all the great work you have been able to accomplish, what do you think keeps more people from exploring mindfulness as a means of healing and transforming their lives?
Wow. So touching to hear this story. It brings to mind the other side of that saying, “Healed people heal people.” I’m grateful to you for the healing work you’re doing. How much more of this we need today…
It’s an interesting question… I think that actually more and more people ARE getting involved with and trying out mindfulness practice. In the last ten years especially, as neuroscience has borne out what anyone who meditates knows directly: this stuff works to transform our minds and hearts. I think the remaining hurdles to this becoming more widespread involve a combination of factors: a lack of qualified teachers; individuals feeling too busy to learn; folks simply not hearing about it; and misunderstanding mindfulness practice for religion (you can check out this article for more). There are starting to be more trained teachers (and we’re doing our part to train more educators). The ironic part about being “too busy” is that the benefits of having a clearer mind and more balanced nervous system actually create more space and time in our lives!
Anything special you do to help keep your staff and faculty inspired and energized?
It's interesting how I try to remain in tune with the energy of our school, because there are highs and lows associated with different times of the year. The honeymoon period is always at the start of the school year, when folks come back refreshed and energized from their summer vacation, then by the end of October or early November the nostalgia has worn off and teachers begin to feel overwhelmed. This year in particular, I could feel the weight from the demands my staff encounters at work and in their personal lives. Luckily, the art therapist from our partner organization, Liberty Partnerships Program, facilitated a session, which I must say was an emotionally cleansing experience for many of my staff members. The art allowed them to channel their energy and express their feelings, which was great because it was free of judgement or any assumed expectations.
During the holidays, I hosted a staff gathering and gave everyone on the team a newly designed MHBA t-shirt. After the New Year, my assistant principal and I handed out LIFFT Gifts (Little Inspirations for Trying Times) to each person on our team. I hope to incorporate yoga in the next few weeks to help my staff learn how to center themselves in the midst of the chaos. We have planned a staff retreat to spend quality time together beyond the school community. I always feel like I can do more, but there never seems to be enough time. Part of it has to do with me realizing that I need to be more intentional with how and when we celebrate our team to keep them inspired and energized. After this discussion, perhaps using mindfulness practice will be my next step.
Interesting how we are connected, wouldn't you agree?
Definitely. Next time I’m out in the NY/NJ area I’ll drop you a line ahead of time. I’d love to meet in person and visit MHBA school!