Welcome to Reflections from the Mirror Project

This space—Reflections from the Mirror Project—is to capture how the conversations in 2018 are shaping the shared narrative emerging out of California’s experiences of health, wellness, and access to care.  Hopefully, questions that will help leadership training, support new policy ideas, and create new collaboration models will be a part of the sharing of conversations.

We wait to see what the journey presents as people, places, and insights begin to merge in this unique and vibrant state, California.

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Healing is Why I Do It

Billy TiangWhat is the part of our California narrative on health and wellness when it comes to formerly incarcerated people?  Those are the folks who are coming home from prison, back to community, having paid their debt to society, and searching for ways to re-enter communities and families, in a different way than when they left.  The answer:  A lot of healing comes from medicine that is readily available within.

Here is part of the conversation that took place between the Mirror Project and a former lifer who was released after 22 years of incarceration in California’s prison system.  (And then, within 24 hours of freedom, he was detained for 6 months by ICE until being released on bond.)

I asked what part of the narrative on health, wellness, and well-being comes from his experience as someone who is a former prisoner having served more than two decades inside. After 22 years in state prison, he had clarity and firmness in his reply.  The crime was both serious and violent – kidnapping, armed robbery of international tourists traveling to Las Vegas on a bus.  He and his co-conspirators held up about 15 people and created a terrifying experience for the victims.  No one was injured.  No one was killed.

The defense had to try the case because there were no reasonable offers, even for those with no criminal history, a past that included being a part of the national guard reserves, and college education that was unfinished. 

“When did you start to meditate?”

He replied, “I think it was about 5 years before I was released.  I was going to a Buddhism/meditation class inside; the guy leading the class wanted us to take refuge and I didn’t feel right about making that kind of commitment inside there.  I just went (and there were very few who attended) because it was a quiet space.”

“Why did you stay with it for years?”

After a slight chuckle, he said, “The other guys thought it was sort of weird in the beginning – but I kept doing it because it seemed to calm me down and give me more clarity about what I had done.   The meditation is really healing.  I think the main point is HEALING.  I used to sit facing my locker so I wouldn’t be distracted by the action around me.  At first, it was challenging.  But then after a while, I noticed something.  The guys would quiet down when I was doing my meditation and I thought to myself, ‘Wow.  They’re showing me consideration.’  And that was really something.  It was like, ‘Hey, they are being human.’ “

“Did other people ask or join you in our meditation?”

He said, “Nah, but they left me alone and I also noticed after a while, that the area around me got calmer, too.  So I think when you meditate, you can affect other people and the space. At least, that’s what I experienced and that was cool.  I think the practice is something that is very individual.  You either get it, or you don’t.  And it’s not easy to do, even though it looks like you’re just sitting there.  But when you do it – a lot of things are going on inside your head and you have to confront things that you can easily ignore when you’re just living your regular routine.”

“How was it when you came out – was there a difference in the meditation experience?  And why do you keep on meditating now?”

He thought for a minute and then replied, “You know, when I think about it – it’s weird. Inside you are constantly thinking about freedom, and being able to do whatever when you get out.  And when you get released, it’s kinda frantic because you have to look for a place to live, work, re-establish relationships with family,  and all that stuff is really stressful.  Freedom is not an easy thing.  So when I came out, I knew I had to keep my practice because I experienced how much it helped to keep me stable and clear when I was in prison.  It doesn’t cost anything, it’s something you can do no matter where you are, and the effect seemed to be the same. “

As life would have it, when this former prisoner re-engaged with family and community after being released, he had the support of a re-entry program that was culturally sensitive and accessible in southern California.  He also found the regular sitting with Gift of Compassion – a weekly connection to communities and people, beyond the formerly incarcerated.  And, over time, with consistency and commitment to the practice and self, another community was discovered.  That is a community that uplifts humanity, the spirit, and struggle as a part of living.

He continues to face life with courage,  knowing struggle is a constant companion.  Yes, he is “free” – but anti-immigrant sentiment bleeds over to refugees, refugees have no pathway to citizenship, work requires an education or opportunity to come into view.   The heart and spirit are strong.  His material circumstances are equally tough.

He has an aging mother to care for because his older brother is on the streets, homeless and drug-addicted.  Younger  brother (by a different dad) has his own family to take care of and is constantly traveling for work.  And his extended family (all refugees) can barely make room for his mother to survive by providing a small apartment for her to live. 

After gaining freedom, he realizes, “I am it.  And because I took so much from my mom, from now on I will make sure to take care of her.  My goal is to get an education and work with young people to prevent them from making dumb mistakes that can take away the good years of your life.  I want to study sociology.  I also will apply to get into an apprenticeship program to become an electrician.  I was in line for this but then got detained by ICE so lost my place and then, because of a deportation order, I could not get a work permit.”

And here’s the end of this chapter of  his story:

Governor Jerry Brown, in his last week in office, granted this man a full pardon for the crimes he committed as a youth.  The effect:  no more criminal history, ability to lift the deportation order, and life continues….as a refugee from Cambodia.

Not bad, so far. Life, for now, is good. 

Meditation continues to heal.

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Early Renditions

Armando in reflection

In 2018, the Mirror Project launched as a two-year program of the Gift of Compassion / Commonweal (south). The conversation and art project aims to explore what, if anything, is California’s shared narrative on health, wellness, and well-being.

The first quarter of 2018 was a planning and outreach phase in which individuals were contacted to ask for input and a chance to meet.  The goal was to reach a diverse cross-section of people who live and work in California.  The rest of the calendar year was dedicated to meeting with individuals and communities across the state to ask how what they see as a shared narrative thread in a very dynamic population. 

In 2019, after more than 15 interviews, 3 community conversations, and countless hours of internal processing of contributions made, a foundation for deeper understanding about California’s narrative has begun to take form. 

The final set of conversations with individuals will be completed in the first quarter of 2019. A complete body of artwork, inspired by these conversations, will be produced along with a plan to disseminate and engage a much broader audience throughout the remainder of the year. 

There appears to be a shared narrative about health, wellness, and well-being in California and it is being co-created by the diversity of this state.  Further, people are seeking transcendence toward equity, justice, and compassion.

Not only has the Mirror Project found viewpoints that diverge, it also has reached across disciplines, so that activists/organizers, educators, philanthropy, health policy experts, faith leaders, and former prisoners have all been a part of the conversation.  In many instances, the unheard voices of California have been captured.  And the spirit of determination and creativity and soulful dedication is undeniable.

Here are reflections on what has been emerging:

  • Californians are self-aware on every level. As individuals, there is a quality of “early adopter” behavior that transforms into trends that take hold across the country.  As communities, there is a quality of co-creation that repeats again and again, especially in communities of Color where economic, social, cultural marginalization has taken hold for generations.  As part of a larger, societal phenomenon, public discourse about the ways people can change national health policy is cutting edge. 
  • The values of equity, opportunity, and justice are drivers. Among those who are actively and consciously engaged in changing negative health conditions and increasing access to health services/care, these themes are a constant.  Activists are organizing to take more control over access to knowledge and processes to change all kinds of negative conditions in communities from toxic air/water exposures, to recognizing the existence of food deserts, to the lack of affordable housing, to violence prevention, to reentry from years of incarceration.
  • It is not just about money. The most disenfranchised and invisible members of communities across the state are being seen as Californians wake up to the reality that some of the most critical threats to the population are environmental conditions that are beyond financial fixes.  There is growing recognition that in order for threats to health and well-being to be minimized, a shift in consciousness is needed.  Therefore, many are engaged in leadership development – especially among young people.  Also, those who manage and direct financial resources are seeing and hearing the voices of organizers in communities.  Innovative grant making strategies are being adopted in order to account for the lessons being shared from communities who have organized.  Finally, the experts in health regulatory and policy development are moving in a direction that recognizes the importance of ensuring that more people are provided with options for health care access because it is clear that the costs of failing to maintain the health and wellness of a population could produce collective financial disaster.
  • Families forgotten. The rural parts of the state continue to suffer a disproportionate burden of struggle as access to care is limited by geography, the shortage of health care providers, the closure of hospitals, and the income/economic disadvantage among rural versus urban populations.  The intersection between health maintenance, access to care, community economic conditions, and the culture of rural communities is being eroded. Click here to read stories about the quality of life in California’s rural communities has been virtually lost.
  • The reality of inter-connectedness and the importance of spirit and soul are readily recognized in California. Whether it is in the form of church, temple, mosque, forest, sea, or the results of hard-driving organizing — the population in California recognizes that health outcomes are related to something beyond conventional therapies and interventions in clinics and hospital settings.  Almost every individual and in community conversations, when asked about what drives continuing effort – the response was related to the belief that humanity, dignity, compassion are fundamental.

California is, without doubt, a leader in advancing beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors related to health. In this first 2019 entry, we begin to share.

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Radical Generosity, Magic, Healing

Journey to Justice program with the UFW in Bakersfield

A program with the UFW in Bakersfield

The year so far has been about exploring what might be California’s shared narrative on health, wellness, and access to care.  And the Gift of Compassion (GoC) has done some conventional activity in pursuing what might define this narrative, speaking to a diverse cross-section of individuals.  Beyond the conversations, the GoC has engaged other means to explore the meaning of health and wellness and how one might develop a greater connection to both.  The Journey to Justice: Citizenship for All campaign showed us the power of meditation in movement.
This summer, a group of highly stressed/distressed individuals came together to address their individual and collective trauma — all arising out of their immigration status:  being Dreamers and Undocumented.  The Dreamers are young adults who have received immigration protection through the federal program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA);  and the undocumented are individuals who have a multitude of migration stories.  These twenty and thirty-somethings came together to ride border to border along the west coast of the U.S. continent (from Seattle to San Diego), 1700 miles, cycling for 35 days through towns and cities, rural and urban in order to build capacity to face uncertainty for themselves and their families, to educate and share stories with local people in communities across Washington state, Oregon, and California.
journey-to-justice-On the road to New Cuyama

On the road to New Cuyama

Their bodies were put to the challenge of cycling almost two thousand miles, and their minds were, as one woman described it, “….totally GONE – I was drooling, sweating, yelling at myself — ‘Why am I doing this!’ … and she was laughing all the while.  She shared in one evening’s reflection circle:  “I really have learned what it means to build my capacity to face anything, to let go of the fear and stress, and to see that I am much stronger than I ever imagined.”  Several others expressed the exact same sentiment – a generation is emerging through engagement and creativity in order to have the strength to face all of the trauma that comes with nothing more than their BEING.  This was a leadership training of a different sort.  It was also a personal and collective growth opportunity with support from caring, loving, compassionate elders who could let go of control and see what young energy could reveal about next steps in building a movement for social change and justice.  Not only was the ride fantastic, the engagement of communities, the partnership between a national Korean American group (NAKASEC) and a national African American group (Undocu-Black) was deepened, and the lessons that came were truly beyond imagination.
The conversations with community in Sacramento illuminated the notion of Radical Hospitality (experienced all throughout the ride).  There were moments of magic when a 71-year old immigrant drove his truck from LA to Fresno to deliver 120 bottles of water, Korean BBQ, and ramen noodles — then decided to drive as support all the way to San Diego.  The healing effects were visible in the energy, happiness, expressions of confidence and clarity among the riders.  Not a single rider talked about being sore, unable to continue the journey, or regret about the decision to engage.
A church service with the Lao community in Fresno

A church service with the Lao community in Fresno

What do we know about healing from chronic, sustained, undefined trauma, like being labeled an “illegal” human being?  Not much.  The outcomes can easily be imagined:  physical and mental illnesses that cannot be diagnosed as to cause and cannot be treated in conventional ways.  We are living in a time of great opportunity because there is so much uncertainty, fear, stress, and anxiety from so many different sources.
The Journey to Justice – for now, is about Citizenship for All.  But in the future, it will be about much, much more.  GoC will be there to support and sustain those who find the courage and opportunity to engage in putting their bodies and minds to the test.  Meditation happens in all forms – meditation in movement happened in the summer of 2018 from border to border.
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