By Wesleigh Roeca
December 10, 2012
It’s a dark Wednesday evening in the heart of the Mission district of San Francisco. Class was supposed to start at 6pm sharp. Shikha and I quickly review our lesson plan while sweeping remnants from lunch off the floor. We fold up the tables, and place eight brightly colored, donated yoga mats in a circle on the still somewhat sticky floor. It’s now ten minutes after six. Suddenly, excited voices resonate from the stairs. We exchange glances and share a deep breath to prepare. We’re ready. The girls tumble into our makeshift yoga studio, sneakers haphazardly stepping all over and soiling the purple and blue mats we had carefully positioned. I try and relax. “Breathe,” I say to myself. Just as the shoes come off and yoga mats are noisily claimed, another voice erupts from the stairway – “Get your things! Everyone out the back door and upstairs immediately! There was another shooting.” “Another shooting?” I say, uncomprehending. “Let’s go. Now!” the voice commands. My heart pounds as I grab my shoes and scurry out the door with the rest of the girls. Once upstairs, one of our students nonchalantly comments, “Weird, usually the shots are louder than that. I didn’t even hear them this time.” “Breathe,” I again say to myself.
The Art of Yoga Project’s mission is to break the cycle of gang-related violence affecting at-risk teenage girls. The goal is to lead them toward accountability to self, others and community by providing practical tools to effect behavioral change that will ultimately guide them to a more positive future. At Mission Girls in San Francisco, a community center offering after school and summer programs to Latina girls, we have spent the past two months introducing GEMM (Girls Empowered by Money Mindfulness) curriculum to teach financial literacy. Through guided yoga classes and lesson plans incorporating yogic principles, we are offering a fresh approach to the fundamentals of managing money. Our lesson plans have included discussions and activities on topics such as needs versus wants, budgeting, creative and ethical ways to make money, and the empowerment that can come from saving money with a savings account. We covered the difference between credit unions and banks – which included a special guest lecture from a representative of Mission SF, a community-based credit union, located just a few blocks away from the Mission Girls’ site. For our next session, we have organized a field trip to Mission SF so the girls will have the opportunity to open savings accounts and begin planning for a more financially responsible and empowered future.
We are all affected by money. Some of us have it. Some of us don’t. Most of us stress about it, and inevitably, our lives are influenced by the beliefs we have about it. Most of these beliefs are acquired from our upbringing and culture – rarely do we spend time formally educating our youth, especially those in at-risk populations, about their finances. The goal of GEMM curriculum is to spark discussion and self-inquiry into what these beliefs are and how we can learn from them in order to take responsibility for our financial decisions. By teaching money mindfulness through yoga and interactive, theory-based activities, we are engaging the girls in a way that encourages them to deeply consider the role of money in their lives so they may become thoughtful consumers and more knowledgeable about their financial lives.
Providing alternative perspectives on how to live is essential to break the cycle of gang-related violence in the lives of these young girls. GEMM curriculum lays the foundation upon which they can begin to build stable financial lives by instilling the importance of having a budgetary plan, by teaching them the discipline to stick with that plan, and perhaps most importantly, by empowering them to take control of their finances and escape their gang-infected environment. In the words of one GEMM participant, “If I had enough money, I would go to a good college.” Her dream job, by the way, is to become a Supreme Court Justice. GEMM curriculum is empowering these girls to take action and create lives that are meaningful, authentic, and outside of the detrimental cycle they’re already too familiar with.
It should be noted that after the shooting incident, we have taken extra steps to ensure our safety as AYP teachers. While we will do whatever we can to make a positive impact in the lives of these at-risk young girls, we do not believe in risking our own lives in order to accomplish this. We now carry pepper spray, coordinate carpooling to and from class so that we each arrive along with a co-teacher, and we have rescheduled class to avoid having sessions when gang violence is “hot”. That being said, I strongly believe in both our program and our students and believe that with GEMM curriculum, they’re being given tools to break the cycle. Hopefully, their children don’t make the comment, “Usually the shots are louder than that.”