A Yogi in the South Side: Reaching Black Youth in Chicago

by Frank Jackson

I had been working for I Grow Chicago, a non-profit organization helping “at-risk” youth revitalize one of the Englewood neighborhood’s many vacant lots by transforming it into an art garden. As we broke for lunch under a sweltering summertime Chicago sun, the leaders of I Grow approached me with a proposition. They wanted me to teach yoga. Their reasoning was simple. It was because I’m Black. And I have never been more ok with it being because I’m Black.

I Grow Chicago is based in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, and it employs the arts, yoga and meditation, sustainable farming and nutrition education to, “foster creativity, wellness and empowerment for individuals in the community as a whole.” A part of the youth summer program that I was working with included a daily morning yoga practice prior to our work in the lot.

Most of the kids weren’t having it.

Most of the kids also didn’t realize that while I hold secondary degrees and used my mean code switch daily, I am still from Decatur, Georgia and none of their posturing phased me in the least. So while not yet teaching, I enforced yoga. You will take your shoes off. You will attempt downward facing dog. You will close your eyes during meditation.

After a couple of weeks, I no longer had to be such an overt enforcer. And it wasn’t because the kids had begun fearing me as though I was the Trunchbull from “Matilda.” It was, I think, because they had begun to feel the effects of the yoga. For instance, there was one girl who had self-diagnosed as bipolar, due to her penchant for losing control of her emotions and lashing out at people. But when she began to use the breathing techniques she’d learned to reassess and respond differently to stressors she encountered in her daily life, she realized that she simply hadn’t developed the necessary coping methods to successfully navigate her world.

It was because I’m Black tweet


There was a particular group of boys who seldom showed up on time, with the accepted excuse that their bus service from 35th to 79th streets was unreliable. They would often show up rowdy and unfocused – not unlike any other group of teenage boys who had spent their commute horsing around on public transit, with yoga practice falling last on their list of things in which they wanted to participate. I took an interest in them, as they seemed the most likely candidates to clown their way through the summer.

I began simply by listening. I would sit quietly as they conversed while digging fence posts, or while they devoured sandwiches during lunch after a physically taxing morning in the sun. They were always vocally thankful for the provided lunch, as they knew kids participating in other projects across the city seldom had lunch provided, which spoke to the manners they buried under their posturing. In their conversations I began to hear themes that were all too familiar – teenage fathers, broken families riddled with and addled by substance abuse and absentee parents, and the inescapable draw and eventual glorification of gang life.

As I became more familiar with the group, listening to their stories and attempting to relate to their south side Chicago narratives from my Atlanta-informed perspective, I started to see just how scary these kids weren’t – and given my own upbringing and experiences, I was ashamed of myself for having in any way subscribed to the largely media-driven notion of what kind of person resided in these areas.

They were just kids. They weren’t consumed with gang culture, though it was still a part of many of their lives. And they weren’t brimming with anger at all times, ready to commit violence with the smallest provocation. And when they were angry, one could hardly blame them when taking into account the larger exterior forces and stressors present in many of their lives. But mostly, their worlds – much like mine as a young teen – revolved instead around the latest music and clothing releases, proving to one another how cool they were, and of course, trying their best to attract women (I spent a significant amount of time trying to educate them as to why cat calling at women who passed by was not only wrong, but wouldn’t produce the results they desired – getting the digits).

In short, they weren’t the monsters depicted on CNN and in drill music. They were just teens trying to figure out their world and how to best survive in it. And survival often meant putting up a wall and assuming the mantle of a “savage.”

The barriers between us came down further as they learned who I was beyond the Northwestern education that had been the only data point provided about me. They began to see that it is possible for someone of modest means like me (although I will not pretend to come from quite as dire of a situation as some of the kids with whom I worked) to make it out. They began to see that being educated doesn’t equate to being whitewashed. They saw my blackness, and began to see that black can mean more than what Englewood (like ghettos nationwide) had taught them. As I saw myself in them, they also began to see themselves in me.

That establishment of a comfort level allowed us to do more in-depth transformative work and mentoring. There was one kid, (referred to as Winston here to protect his identity) who was 19, could barely read, but had was willing to try to overcome his past lifestyle. He had a genuine and consistent desire to better himself. I gave Winston the Autobiography of Malcolm X to read, knowing that the story – as it had done for many before him – would change his life. I knew, though, that it was unlikely he was at the reading level where he would be able to easily navigate the book.

I was right, as days later he returned the book stating that he was unable to understand many of the words. I responded by saying that was half the point; for every word he came across that  he was unfamiliar with, he should look it up and learn its meaning and pronunciation. I also told him that Malcolm himself had done something similar while in prison, reading the dictionary by moonlight, eventually degrading his vision, resulting in his wearing of the now iconic frames that make him immediately identifiable.

I handed the book back, telling him that it would be slow going, but by the end of the story he would be transformed in more ways than he would realize. I told him to keep the book, to care for it as I cared about him. I still can’t describe the look in his eyes at hearing that he was cared about. From that day on he reported to me which words he’d learned, and the steps he was taking to avoid backsliding into his former lifestyle, though he admitted it was hard. But because we were available and supportive of him and his efforts, he said he was able to maintain his course.

As if they could feel the shift in perspectives and energies, the I Grow leadership approached me about becoming a yoga teacher. They first positioned the offer within my own interests: martial arts, eastern philosophy, etc. But then they offered that they had been watching as I built my rapport with our group, and that such influence was more easily garnered because I myself was a black man who was inherently more familiar to our group than the, “middle-aged white [women],” as Robbin Carroll, co-founder of I Grow Chicago self-identified.

I couldn’t disagree.

From my personal experiences and discussions with strangers at bus stops, gang members and others in my community, I knew that there was a deep distrust of white people (all non-black people, for that matter) residing in many South Side communities. And I applauded Robbin for realizing and accepting what she represented there – an alien presence that many feared was concerned with the community only as far as she needed to be to satisfy the requirements for funding, or some other such sinister motivation serving only to further exploit those in the community – and putting forth the necessary effort to prove that her and I Grow’s presence in the community was indeed for the community.

In time, folks around the hood began to warm to the organization’s presence, forming an almost symbiotic relationship evinced by situations in which there was reciprocal protection. When police would swarm groups of young men at the end of the 6400 block of Honore St. where we had begun work on the I Grow Peace House, assuming that only illegal activity could be taking place, I Grow members would defend against police, assuring them that those young men were not engaged in any illicit activities. And as work began on the house, renovating and landscaping the premises that would eventually feature classrooms, an outdoor farm, and space to practice yoga both in and outside, those with clout in the neighborhood made it plain to others that there was to be no vandalism of the property – it was to be protected, because it was for them.

So I jumped at the chance to become a certified kundalini yoga instructor. Not only did it speak to my bent toward eastern spirituality (they were right to use that approach first), but it afforded me my first tangible opportunity to affect real change in the lives of the types of kids I’ve always wanted to help. I had already seen the positives, and if there was any way that my being black could foster a deeper connection to the practice and bring about more positive results, I was totally down.

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Frank Jackson
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  1. MrAveryBrown

    Wow! A powerful story! In an amazing way, something as simple as yoga and a willing instructor, sparked a change in thiscommunity. Innovative ideas and expasion, leading to lasting change. Money can’t buy that. I’m sure that Winston was changed too!

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