In these trying times, kids just might be the key to a brighter future.
Ask Natalia Davis. As artistic director of Irreducible Grace Foundation (IGF), a St. Paul-based nonprofit dedicated to creating safe spaces and healing opportunities for youth of color, she often teaches adults, teens and younger children how to use healing breathwork to calm their minds, reduce conflict and support their mental health.
Learning these important skills isn’t always easy, Davis said: It takes an open heart, time and commitment, and many adults in particular struggle with incorporating them into their everyday lives.
“Self-care is messy,” Davis said. “It’s a fact that you’re going to mess up. You’ll have to start over. But it is so important, especially in the times we live in now.”
While adults sometimes struggle to make the connection between breath and mental wellness, kids seem to get it almost immediately, Davis said: “We explain to them that breath sends a message to your brain. It calms you down. They pick it up right away and they understand intuitively how to put it into use in their everyday lives.”
Pre-COVID, Davis and a team of IGF members, young adults who lead the group’s interactive presentations, led school-based workshops designed to show children how to use tools like four-by-four (or box) breathing, soft-belly breathing and humming (or “bee breath”) to calm their central nervous systems and support their mental health.
“We’d start to hear stories from the students like, ‘The kids in my gym class were fighting because they couldn’t decide who won the game. I decided we needed to use that breath you taught us and the fighting stopped,’” Davis recalled one young student telling her. “I thought, ‘This is how we change our community.’”
Students in the IGF workshops even talked about how they brought their new skills home and taught them to their parents.
“They reported that they told their parents when they saw them start to fill with anxiety, ‘Mom, we need to take a breath now,’” Davis said. “My kids say that to me, too. They remind me. They say, ‘Hey, Mom. You’ve had a rough day. I think you need to take a breath.’”
Davis and her colleagues felt so excited about how these skills translated to young children that they announced plans to expand IGF to create IGF Kids, an independent initiative dedicated to teaching children self-care skills so that they could “trickle up” to the rest of the community.
If kids could lead the healing, they thought, maybe adults will follow.
“Kids understand this all so naturally,” Davis said. And they can be effective at teaching these skills to the adults in their lives: “Even my little daughter was able to tell me, ‘Mommy, my amygdala has taken over my brain.’ She grasped the knowledge so easily and so quickly.”
Jan Mandell, IGF program director, said that she and other members of the IGF staff were particularly inspired by a group of third- and fourth-grade students they worked with last school year.
“The workshop was absolutely fabulous,” Mandell said. IGF staff were able to interact with the students over several sessions, and saw that children were deeply engaged in the work: “We had this epiphany. We taught them the tools that we had and then had them teach the tools back to us. We saw that when they had these tools, kids could do this work just as well as we could.”
Support secured; pivot required
Inspired by their work teaching self-care tools to children, Davis, Mandell and other IGF leaders decided to secure more funding to support the IGF Kids initiative. When Suzanne Koepplinger, executive director of Catalyst Initiative at the Minneapolis Foundation and a major IGF supporter, told them that she had money to distribute to grantees, the timing seemed perfect.
“Last year Catalyst received a $1.5 million grant from the Bush Foundation to see what it would look like to go deeper with some of your partners,” Koepplinger said. She invited five nonprofits, including IGF, to apply.
Koepplinger was intrigued by IGF’s proposal. “They presented this idea that they wanted to train a second cohort of young people with the IGF Kids program,” she said. “I was able to give them a two-year grant of $70,000 a year.”
This was wonderful news, Davis said. The group began organizing and planning workshops to be held with students in public schools and a summer arts program in St. Paul.
Then COVID hit — and all their plans had to change.
IGF member Mariana Morgan-Sawyer explained that as soon as schools across the state were ordered move to distance learning, Davis and Mandell organized a series of virtual planning meetings with IGF members. Together the group came up with a strategy for moving IGF Kids forward under this new set of limitations.
“I’m really excited that we were able as a group to be flexible,” she said. “I was excited to be able to use technology to expand on the relationship with the young people we were already working with, though I have to admit I missed the opportunity to work with them in person.”
Koepplinger said she was impressed with the IGF team’s flexibility in the face of crisis. “They just pivoted and said, ‘Let’s do an online series,’” she said. Instead of holding in-person workshops, the group quickly decided to produce a series of videos demonstrating the key tools that they teach. They called the series, which they posted on YouTube, “Finding the Pause.”
The series’ name came from a saying IGF leaders often like to quote, Davis explained: “’Freedom is finding the pause between a trigger and a response and making a choice.’ With this series, we are trying to tell people how they can pause before responding, by going for a run, by making music, by breathing. Finding that pause is so important.”
In the midst of a worldwide crisis, the message felt more important than ever, Davis said: “We came up with this idea of making these virtual videos of the tools that we thought we would’ve been teaching in schools this year.”
While the IGF group was pleased with their “Finding the Pause” series, after reviewing their original work, they decided that they were a bit off the mark. The first videos, Davis explained, “Came out ‘adult style.’ We decided we’d need to translate them into something that worked better for kids.”
The group is now working on creating a video series that combines the concepts outlined in “Finding the Pause” with more kid-friendly elements of the school-based workshops. “It will be a 15- or 20-minute show called IGF Kids,” Mandell explained. “We’re creating animated characters. We’re creating a template. It will always start out with an IGF theme song. We’ll introduce a problem. It will be acted out by actors or animated characters, and then we’ll present viewers with a tool.”
Creating an IGF Kids show is important, Mandell said, because the Catalyst Initiative funding hinged on the in-school workshops. If the state’s schools remain virtual in this fall, the nonprofit needs to come up with strategies that could work as well online as they do face-to-face.
“We had to pick up the path and say, ‘How are we going to do this?’” Davis explained. “We’ve been having collective team conversations on Zoom, figuring out our next steps.” The IGF Kids virtual programming will be essential for remote learning; if students head back in person in the fall, the group could hold face-to-face workshops — or offer up a Zoomed hybrid option.
Koepplinger said she’s confident that the IGF team’s ideas are strong enough to work in any format.
“What we’ve learned over the years is when people are taught these skills by the right teachers — in this case with these young people as the messengers — the messages are more readily accepted and embraced and used. They will be able to make it work no matter what challenges they’re presented with.”
The IGF team learned many of the breathing techniques they now teach to others from Lora DeVore-Matz, senior faculty at the Center for Mind Body Medicine in Washington, D.C. Koepplinger connected DeVore-Matz with the group early on in their funding partnership; she felt that learning these healing tools could be essential for group members — many of whom come from cultures that have experienced intergenerational trauma.
“Lora was a foundational part of them getting to realize the role that trauma has had in their lives and then the power of teaching these skills to young people,” Koepplinger said. “They’ve taken it and run with it.”
Devore-Matz, who is white, began her work with IGF members by talking openly about her own personal history of childhood trauma. “Given the mistrust within communities of color I didn’t know I would’ve had the impact I did on them had I not been willing to be completely transparent and authentic about my own life,” she said.
Members appreciated DeVore-Matz’s honesty, and she said the partnership they forged soon became one of the most fruitful of her professional life.
“Very quickly I became devoted to them,” she said. “I love these young people. I have never met with a group of young people who’ve gone so deep and have asked such intelligent, insightful questions. Every time they go deeper and deeper. They give me hope for our future. They are our future.”
One of the key concepts DeVore-Matz taught IGF members was the role the amygdala — an almond-shaped mass of gray matter in the brain’s cerebral hemisphere that controls the way humans experience emotions — plays in the way we interact with others. She explained how breathing and relaxation techniques can help calm the amygdala and keep a person regulated in triggering times of stress.
“The amygdala’s job is always scanning for safety,” DeVore-Matz explained. “It is the oldest part of our brain. When it is triggered it hijacks the rest of our brain. We lose the ability to problem solve, the ability to communicate.”
IGF members found DeVore-Matz’s techniques helpful. Later, some told stories about how they used them to stay calm and avoid overreaction in difficult situations, like the time one member peacefully-but-directly confronted a supervisor at work who was intentionally mispronouncing his name. He reported that he took time to think and breathe before the conversation, to make sure he was in the right place to speak calmly and get his point across.
Davis has been teaching the techniques to her 7-year-old son. She’s grown to see them as survival skills.
“He’s a black boy being raised in America,” she explained. “If I can get him at age 4, 5, 6, 7 to see that taking that breath is a natural reaction, to pause and breathe when he gets pulled over and the police officer approaches him, then he can make it home.”
Morgan-Sawyer believes that IGF has an important role to play in this particular time of sadness and anxiety created by the killing of George Floyd and its aftermath. The group, while observing social distancing regulations, has been venturing outside a bit these days to spread their message to communities at the heart of the conflict.
Earlier this month, she said, a group — of “IGF folks, family members, community members” — set up a table on University Avenue in front of the Victoria Theater. They call the initiative “Mobile Grace.”
“We were just doing some art outside. We had origami supplies, some poetry prompts. We were creating music, talking about the importance of breathing.” All artwork created that day was posted on boards that had been put up to protect the windows of local businesses. “We wanted to spread the support and good wishes around the community,” Morgan-Sawyer explained.
Community-awareness activities like these can help spread messages that may have the power to save lives, Mandell said: “With police shootings and structural racism, these tools are particularly useful. We are going to be teaching tools to help young bodies of color heal themselves from white supremacy.”
The time to teach these tools is now, Davis said. Inner stillness and breathing can be a powerful way to create a more peaceful world. When the youngest among us lead, maybe the oldest will follow.
“Right now, everybody is animated,” she said. “Nobody is breathing. Nobody is calming down enough to talk about what is really happening to all of us. So many people are in pain. So many people’s amygdalas are activated. This is the time more than ever that we need to focus on finding our pause. Maybe the children can help us all get there.”