I recently visited the Coastal Evaluation Center (SCDJJ) in Ridgeville, SC. Jelena Popovic and I introduced mindfulness to four classes of students and then led a session with staff.
The first thing I want to share is that the staff at this school is incredible. These folks are heroes. These people enter a stressful and difficult environment every day to try and make a positive impact on students who are going through a very difficult period of their lives. I sincerely admire them and hope I made that clear to them.
I had never been to this facility, or anything like it, before today. For me, I felt an extreme heaviness, emotional and psychological heaviness. The pain and suffering these young people are experiencing is palpable. Several times during the day I had to push back a growing sadness to stay focused on what I was doing. Seeing so many young people behind barbed wires in prison uniforms, you begin to wonder what led them here, where our society/culture failed them, and what role I played in the creation of that society/culture.
That sadness then leads to anger. And yes...I'm going to get political here for a bit, so feel free to skip....Knowing that we live in a country where the 400 wealthiest Americans control more wealth than the bottom 50% combined is maddening. We have 16,000,000 children living in poverty in a country that can find a way to pay trillions for wars that do not need to be fought. When the water crisis in Flint came to light, we saw how the failure of government to fulfill its responsibilities led to the poisoning of children in that community. Similarly, our failure to address economic inequality, provide equitable funding for ALL schools, and ensure that all children have access to affordable health care, including mental health services, leads to a different type of poisoning, an insidious destruction of human lives. Instead of addressing the root causes, we blame the victims. We get outraged over a second string QB kneeling for an anthem, but ignore true injustice and display apathy towards systemic racism. I'm not against young people being held accountable for their actions, but who is being held accountable for failing these young people? How did they fall through so many cracks to wind up here? OK...rant done.
While my visit aroused sadness and anger (I know...not very mindful), it also inspired me and gave me hope. Many of the students were receptive to our message. Most were willing to engage in practice. We could see lights turning on. I'm not naive enough to think that we transformed anyone's life in one day, but perhaps we started the process for some. They now have a tool to search within, to manage stress, and begin to see how their thoughts, in large part, create their reality. They now have a set of instructions to begin being more compassionate with themselves. But the best thing they have is a staff open-minded enough to learn more about mindfulness and apply that learning with their students.
So today was a beginning. It was an incredible experience that inspires me to work harder because my lack of action makes me as accountable as anyone for the suffering of these young people. When you come face to face with that suffering, you can no longer escape that sense of accountability. All of us have a sacred duty to make the world a better place for the next generation, not just our progeny.
As we prepared to leave, Jelena and I were each given a painting created by students. That painting will go up in my home. It will serve as a reminder of everything I learned today, and I learned much more than I taught. It will serve as my daily inspiration to work harder to create a world where Departments of Juvenile Justice are no longer needed.