Gabrielle Prisco is the executive director of the Lineage Project, a nonprofit organization that offers mindful movement, secular meditation, breathwork, and conscious conversations to vulnerable young people in New York City. Lineage Project was founded in 1999 by Soren Gordhamer, a mindfulness teacher and author who also established the popular conference series Wisdom 2.0.
In the organization’s early years, volunteer teachers coordinated with the city to offer classes to young adults incarcerated jailed at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. Since then, Lineage Project has expanded into an independent organization with paid staff and teachers, a board of directors, and ongoing professional development programs and trainings for adults. The nonprofit has also extended its reach to young people in homeless shelters, public schools, sites for students suspended from schools, and alternative-to-incarceration facilities across New York City. Additionally, Lineage Project contracts with the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development, and partners with that agency and the Administration for Children’s Services to offer an after-school arts and mindfulness program to young people who are in secure detention.
In an interview with Tricycle, Prisco—who formerly worked as a Legal Aid attorney representing children in family court—explains why our society has an obligation to not only keep children safe but also to see them for who they really are: multi-dimensional, complex, wise beings capable of self-reflection and transformation. She also introduces Lineage Project’s larger vision, which she has worked to cultivate since she joined the organization in August 2015: to shift public policies and institutions toward more mindfulness-based approaches.
Can you describe the Lineage Project’s model? How is it embraced by the students?
The Lineage Project class is a three-part model. The first part involves mindful movement, which is often yoga or tai chi. The second part is breathing and meditation, and the third part is a facilitated group discussion around a theme. The theme may be something like responding versus reacting or what anger feels like in the body. The theme links the movement, the breathwork, the meditation, and the discussion.
The feedback we get from students is often positive. Many students in our programs have communicated remarkable insights about their own minds and bodies. They talk about how the practices change the way they feel about themselves or the way they feel in their bodies. They also say that they teach the breathing to their families. One young man said, “I feel like I come home.”
There was recently some research about Lineage Project by Doctor Carla Barrett [an Associate Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice whose research studies the impact of criminal justice policies on court-involved youth] that was published in a peer-reviewed journal. Much of the research was based on qualitative interviews with young men aged 18-24 in an alternative-to-incarceration program. She examined Lineage Project’s model and compared it to traditional anger-management classes.
One of the things she found is that the young men in the Lineage program had embodied experiences, whereas in the anger-management classes they did not. They were able to actually feel self-regulation and shifts in thinking. They were able to witness themselves, to slow down and pause, and move out of reactivity. They are so self-reflective and wise.
At the same time, our students can also experience skepticism and uncertainty, especially those students who have never had exposure to these kinds of practices. There are kids who say, “I don’t need this” or “Yoga is for girls.” They might sit out. They might crack a joke. They may even make fun of their peers in class. It’s important to note that many of the young people we teach have experienced several traumatic events in their short lifetimes, so being vulnerable or being perceived as soft might feel very risky to them. Usually, though, once the young people try the practices introduced in the Lineage Project class, they want to do it again and come back. They articulate in very powerful ways that the practice changes them, that it helps them feel calmer and feel that they can cope.
Many young people we teach are also actively experiencing trauma because of what they’re currently going through, such as living in a homeless shelter or being incarcerated. There’s very good research that shows that body-based practices are really crucial to working with trauma. We believe that the embodied practice helps kids get into their bodies and creates shifts in their brains and nervous systems. This can open them up to other kinds of healing. So, we give young people who are in these very constricted and traumatizing environments some opportunity to experience pause, stillness of mind, and their breath. Lineage Project gives young people access to these tools. They’re free, they’re portable, and they’re lifelong. Once they learn to return to the breath, they can return to the breath for the rest of their lives.
What’s a misunderstanding or misperception that people may have about the children and adolescents in Lineage Project classes?
I think it’s very important to recognize that there are kids who are incarcerated for things that most people have probably done at some point in their lives: gotten into a fight, shoplifted, smoked marijuana, wrote graffiti in their school, jumped a turnstile. Racism is endemic to the criminal justice system in the United States, which means that there are predominantly black and brown kids who are incarcerated for things that many white Americans have done and have not been punished for.
Bryan Stevenson [a renowned social activist and public interest lawyer] has said, “each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” Think about the most harmful thing you’ve done to another human being, or the time you violated your own moral code the most. Would you want to be in a world where that becomes the center point of your identity? Children who are incarcerated, as well as children experiencing other challenging situations like homelessness or foster care, often become flattened or defined by their experience. We as a society don’t see them multi-dimensionally and in all of their complexity. The students at Lineage are wise and funny and smart and loving. They take care of each other.
Also, another misperception forms when kids talk back, behave in disruptive ways, or don’t pay attention. When they behave this way, they’re not just being difficult. They’re actually signaling that something is disrupted inside of them. At a recent training I attended, I heard Dr. Stuart Ablon [an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School] talk about how oftentimes the young person in the room who has the most challenging behavior is the young person who is trying the hardest. Sitting still in a chair may be a monumental or herculean effort for a kid because he has PTSD, or because of things that may be happening in his brain and body.
Repetition is often a component of meditation and mindful movement practices, and can also be an aspect of mindful communication. What is something you find yourself repeating to people you work with throughout the day?
When I was working with young people directly as an attorney for kids in foster care and in child abuse and neglect cases, the thing I repeated all the time was “it’s not your fault.” As a society, we often criminalize, penalize, and stigmatize children for the things that have been done to them by the adults and systems in society that fail them. It was remarkable to me just how many kids who have been abused or traumatized internalize that it’s their fault.
Now, at Lineage Project, I would say I often encourage people to bring their highest selves to work. One facet of that is hiring and bringing people on board for whom the job is naturally aligned with their highest skill set. It also involves exploring how people can align their day-to-day work with their highest selves. I try to help create an environment where people can feel supported, receive feedback, grow, and be honest and self-reflective.
In addition to working with kids, Lineage Project also trains adults to help create “trauma-informed, culturally responsive, and mindful organizations.” What happens inside of these organizations, ideally, if these training programs are implemented and scaled out?
We offer public trainings several times a year for professionals such as social workers, teachers, and front-line justice workers. We train people to understand trauma and trauma-responsive programming. We also train people to understand resiliency; the young people we work with are so amazingly resilient, so we train people on how to understand that and cultivate it.
We also train cultural competency. We discuss race, bias, and internalized bias. We also provide overviews of the justice system. A lot of our trainings focus on working with court-involved youth. Many people want to work with this population of young people, but don’t have exposure to it.
We know that an important component of mindfulness is bringing our awareness to what’s happening as it’s happening—without judgment—and being able to see it and have some choice over response. I think that many social systems have a tendency to be reactive because of factors relating to institutionalization: the pressures, the lack of resources, the incredibly depressing and traumatizing environments. So the people in these institutions can lose sight of what they’re really there for.
I’ll use an example of hospitals. I’ve unfortunately spent a lot of time taking care of family members in hospitals. A hospital is a system that is very much like the foster care or justice system; the well-meaning people—the doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals—are often exhausted, depleted, and working under very hard conditions.
As a result of this, what can happen is that there’s a lost sense of humanity. When I was taking care of my mother in the hospital, I remember trying really hard to find her a blanket. That task was a minor thing that was actually so difficult to accomplish. And when my father was in the ICU, I shut off all the lights in his room and brought in a table lamp with soft lighting. I brought in a radio to play his favorite music. When the doctors came in, they would say, “Oh, it feels so calm and healing in here!” Part of me was touched, and part of me was so angry. Every single person in the ICU should have better lighting and the option of listening to music. Hospital spaces don’t need to be so bleak.
I use this as an example, because I think many people can tap into the experience of being in a hospital and thinking that it is really disconnected from healing.
I think there’s something very similar happening inside jails. We say our goal is rehabilitation, or we say our goal is to help people make better life choices, but the setup is the opposite of that. The setup is about deprivation and control. The setup is about shutting people down from each other—and from themselves—and dehumanizing them. And then in the justice system, there is the reality—which we cannot take our eyes off —that this system is driven and defined by institutional racism. The dehumanization of young people and the institutionalization of racism is not going to give us the outcome we say we want, which is rehabilitation or healing.
So, what do mindful institutions look like? I believe mindful institutions reflect an alignment of the system to the goals of healing and rehabilitation. If those are really our goals, then we want children who are incarcerated to come out having received something that can help them in the future. We want families experiencing homelessness to get the services they need to stabilize them and get them into permanent housing. We want kids who are suspended from school to get back in school. We want to support them and see them graduate.
I think mindfulness can be a tool for systems change. Lineage Project is interested in moving more into how we can shift policies from a place of mindfulness. We know that replacing school detention with meditation has been done successfully in Baltimore. We have also started asking: What does it mean to have mindful schools or a mindful criminal justice policy? What would it look like if our framework for creating policies, laws, and institutions had mindfulness as a lens or a core value? What if values of compassion, interconnectedness, and empathy are also incorporated?
There is this discussion happening in mindfulness spaces that asks: Is mindfulness teaching people to accept the unacceptable? I don’t think that’s what we’re doing. I do not believe that the conditions or situations that many of these kids are in are acceptable. We can offer these tools that help reduce trauma, give kids healing and embodied experiences, and help them learn different ways of regulating, coping, and feeling empowered. We can also hold the fact that we need to work on issues of mass incarceration and the racism that drives mass incarceration. To me, those can coexist. Facilitating these tools is not accepting structural inequality, racism, mass incarceration, and homelessness. We have to work to change systemic inequity—like the racism, trauma, and harm done to people—and we need to promote tools for people to use to help them heal when they are actively in these situations in this moment.
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