Building an Inclusive Community: Mindfulness Affinity Groups
The Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness (MAM) values diversity and understands the importance of supporting an inclusive community. In alignment with our core values, we are fortunate to be able to offer a number of affinity groups here in Kansas City.
WHAT IS AN AFFINITY GROUP?
An affinity group is made up of people who prefer, usually for reasons of comfort, ease of connection and/or safety, to gather with others who share a common identity, background, or interest. Larger mindfulness centers and those in bigger cities all around the country offer these types of groups in an effort to provide a place of refuge for those who might otherwise not feel comfortable or welcome when entering a new mindfulness community. You can also find affinity groups in organizations, schools, and businesses.
Affinity groups play an important role in ensuring a welcoming environment where all are valued, included, and empowered. At MAM we are fortunate to be able to offer affinity groups for people of color, Spanish speakers, those who identify as LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities, and first responders. We have also been able to offer gender based programs, ACT courses for those who identify as Highly Sensitive People, yoga classes for people in recovery, and classes designed especially for caregivers. These groups are offered in addition to (and not instead of) our more general classes and offerings that are open to everyone.
WHY ARE AFFINITY GROUPS HELPFUL?
Affinity groups, when well attended and supported, can foster inclusion and equity through a support network of peers and allies. They can help attract greater diversity into the broader community and enhance overall experience through building awareness of different perspectives and experiences. They can also help advocate for social and organizational change to better meet the needs of all members. According to MAM Community of Color teacher Sydney Spears, PhD, “For SOME diverse people, it is very critical for them to have a context of sharing and experiencing with others whom they tend to identity with in order to develop a greater sense of safety, support, trust, belonging and connection – especially when perceived new or traditional ‘mainstreamed-based’
BUSTING MYTHS & MISPERCEPTIONS
Fortunately most people seem to understand the importance of offering groups like these, but there are a few who have expressed some confusion. Here are our responses to the questions and concerns we’ve received.
MYTH: Affinity groups are unnecessary – Some people may feel that the best way to promote unity is to create a forced choice situation by only offering one type of community. What experience has shown us however, is that many folks just won’t show up under these constraints. According to Larry Yang, a meditation teacher with Spirit Rock, East Bay Meditation Center (Oakland) and Insight Community of the Desert (Palm Springs) who is committed to creating access for diverse multicultural communities, “The mainstream model of ‘If you build it, they will come’ has not worked as it unconsciously imposes dominant cultural values upon marginalized diverse communities.” Instead, meditation centers must do their best to support as many communities as possible as a path to inclusion.
Its very challenging for those of us who have never lived day in and day out, without any real option for escape, in an environment where we are the only person like us – especially when our particular identity (or set of intersections) is devalued, ignored or even aggressed against. Those of us whose identities are heavily represented in most of the places where we live, work, and play, can perhaps begin to empathize by imagining a time when we felt alone in a crowd, misunderstood, or disempowered. Think about the first time you walked into a meditation or yoga studio as a complete beginner. Remember how nervous and uncertain you felt? Maybe you found a spot in the back of the room and wondered if you really belonged there. Now imagine that, as soon as you walked in the door, it became very obvious to you that nobody else in the room reflected your particular reality. Or, imagine some of the things the teacher or other participants said or did were unintentionally hurtful or alienating because of their lack of understanding of your lived experience. Even if we stayed for the duration of the class, it’s very likely that most of us would simply not come back.
It wasn’t until I began sitting with a POC sangha that I felt seen finally and fully for having a skin color, a minority experience, and a double consciousness. I was not alone and my stories not uncommon. A sense of relief poured over every cell of my body as I began to hear other voices of marginalization, invisibility, accommodation, injustice, rage, and loss. I cried. I smiled. I felt. I knew. I relaxed. I am safe, and I am home. – Yenkuei Chuang
In his article No One Like Me, Lama Rod Owens said, “There are people of color who survive spaces where they are marginalized. I am one of those.” He relates how being in a space in which one feels insignificant or peripheral requires additional “emotional labor” just be in the room. This can get in the way of the practice people come to the space to do and can even lead to burnout. He added, “Integrating space is exclusively the burden of the marginalized and the under-represented, and working so hard at that level may not be conducive to the fruition of [practice].” Affinity groups help to reduce this burden so that practitioners can dedicate their energies to the practice they came for.
In her article for the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion blog, My First Experience as a Person of Color in MSC, Dr. Spears recounts how it felt to her when she was finally able to connect with others that appeared to share her identity in the practice space:
As I began to find my spot during the Mindful Self-Compassion training, I finally noticed two participants who appeared to be people of color. From the sheer sight of these two strangers, I began to experience a slight sense of silent connection to the space. Perhaps this was not just a “white thing” that was created by white people, for white people and delivered in a way that would focus exclusively on the white, upper-middle class, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, colorblind experience of being in the world. There was a glimmer of some human technicolor in the space. Maybe there would be a possibility that this “compassion” experience might openly embrace all the dimensions of human suffering, including cultural experiences.
Noriko Harth, a Certified Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction & Mindful Self-Compassion Instructor and the Managing Director of UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness said of her experience:
Until I sat with the People of Color Affinity Group for the first time during the 10-day Metta Retreat at Spirit Rock, I didn’t know how tense I may have been. I felt the ease, comfort and safety I had never felt before at any of the retreats and training programs I had attended.
MISPERCEPTION: Affinity groups are divisive – a couple of folks have been under the mistaken assumption that people from the identity groups and intersections represented by our affinity groups have to attend those specific groups and that only those who identify as part of the majority should attend the general groups. This is absolutely not true. The affinity groups are there for people who want them and feel they would benefit from them. They are not an either/or, but a both/and option. We feel these groups add value and contribute to the overall diversity and unity of the community. According to MAM LGBTQIA+ Community Teacher Angela Caruso-Yahne:
It may be very difficult for some people who are having a different experience to know and understand it, but offering affinity groups and acknowledging the additional vulnerability and allostatic load faced by some people does the great service of removing one hindrance to practice for those who need it. We are explicitly offering a safe and affirming place for people to come and be supported in their practice of simply being… as they are… with no agenda… and no judgement… regardless of what is coming up for them. I believe that gift will ripple out into the world in a way that benefits EVERYONE.
MAM is only able to offer these groups to the extent that we have trained teachers available in our community who represent them and enough people who are willing to attend the meetings. If you are interested in participating in affinity groups or you just feel invested in having them available in our community, please help us spread the word. We would love to welcome you and anyone who is willing into our practice space.
I rest within and honor the labor of my teachers, ancestors, guides, and mentors. I will trust the Ceremony, submit to the Ritual, and abide according to the needs of my Mourning.
I finally realize that I am no longer of this world but understand that there are experiences of the world inside me and it is these experiences that I vow to surrender back to the world as they are not mine any longer to hold on to.
I am no longer afraid of the spirit world and welcome those spirits who wish to benefit me while understanding how I may benefit them. I have no use for spirits who seek to hurt others or myself. You are no longer welcomed.
I offer the things, ideas, beliefs, and relationships that are no longer conducive to my liberation back to themselves. I am no longer interested in being everyone’s friend or everyone liking me. Nor am I trying to be your teacher. I am not everyone’s teacher.
I take refuge in my weirdness, blackness, queerness, pleasure, and all of my complexity while also knowing that I am sacred AF. My sacredness no longer needs your consent.
I continue to free myself first, yet as I attend to my freedom, may I offer what is appropriate and within my realization to beings and the world.
I am finally realizing my wings are free from dust and now the love of the Mother is moving me on. I also return to the teachings of my ancestors, so I continue to wash, cry, laugh, watch, fight, and pray. I enter into this new life rejoicing.
– Lama Rod Owens, 7 Declarations for My 40th Year of Life
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