Syra Smith joined the MBA Project team in 2014 and has been educating and working with young people for over 15 years. A lifetime meditator, she graduated from East Bay Meditation Center’s Commit to Dharma study program in 2011 and is a current participant in Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s 2 year Community Dharma Leaders training cohort, CDL5.
What made you want to become a meditation instructor?
It’s largely related to how transformative my own meditation practice has been for me. As a young person, I had similar struggles as the youth we work with. As I was exploring my own spiritual self and my own path, I knew I wanted to have a positive impact and there were folks in my life that impacted me deeply so I’ve been motivated by that imprint and those models. I feel like young people are definitely our greatest resource and it’s important to me to be plugged into the particular population that we work with. The vibrant curiosity and potential of these kids along with mindfulness are things that completely inspire me. I see young people like seeds growing roots. We’re cultivating, nourishing and nurturing those seeds and those roots and watching them blossom and that’s the picture that I have doing this work, especially working with our folks who have been historically marginalized or underserved. There are a lot of seeds that are going undernourished that have so much potential.
What are your strengths as an MBA Project instructor?
I try to pay special attention to creating a safe environment, and that’s one of the foundational goals that we have at the MBA Project. Creating an environment where the youth feel okay being more vulnerable and authentic with each other. Building that trust and deepening our relationships is key. A lot of feeling safe and connected has to do with inclusivity. Paying special attention to making sure that no one is overlooked and that everyone is included is an important part of the values that we’re cultivating. When we get to that place where they feel good about participating, being open and real, it contributes to the bond that they have as a group and the feeling of being part of something. You can create that kind of safety by doing something as simple as paying attention. Even from the language we choose and how we frame things, to greeting people when they walk into a room.
What’s your most memorable MBA Project moment and/or experience?
In the therapeutic unit at one of the county facilities that we work in–where a lot of young people who are having mental health or even behavioral challenges in juvenile hall will go–we had a group that was particularly challenging, because there were all types of issues arising in the room at the same time. There was one young man who had been in juvenile hall for a while. He was a leader in the unit and had participated in a lot of different MBA groups. He asked if he could talk to the group and tell them about his experience. When he spoke to the group, you could literally feel the vibe change and see the respect they had for him. They listened to him speak about how transformative MBA groups had been for him. For me, the reality of our impact really came through. In MBA groups we try to incorporate leadership development and sometimes youth will lead meditation. He went to a few different MBA groups in the hall and gave his speech. It was something he really enjoyed and the effect on him really showed. That was phenomenal for me.
How would you describe the impact that mindfulness meditation has on incarcerated and at-risk youth?
It’s as widely varied as the youth we serve. Overall, I think they do have that sense of feeling connected during a time that can be very uncertain and they have a space where they can go to feel supported by peers and MBA staff. They’re learning alternative ways to deal with the challenges in their lives. We’re essentially adding to their toolbox of coping skills. They’re developing stronger communication skills. They gain increased self-awareness and confidence. Groups help them increase self-respect and respect for others as well as self-compassion. I’ve witnessed many of our youth go through changes and transformations. I think being part of an MBA group leads to feeling rooted in something positive and of taking ownership of their own development and their own growth. They then have the option of using their practice as a go to. At the very least the hope is that we’re a positive contact and that they are able to leave all that’s happening in their lives outside for a while and be kids. When they leave, they walk out the door with smiles. You never know how much difference the small things can make. On the other end, some of them actually develop a meditation practice on their own that they do outside of the group, and report that they meditate when they have problems, when difficult emotions arise or when they have trouble sleeping, even if it is just a few deep breaths. I hear things like, “the other day someone got in my face and it didn’t affect me.” They are learning to be more aware of their own impulsive patterns. The tools that we’re offering give them options.
What are you most excited about in terms of MBA Project’s future?
I’m really excited about expanding in new areas and increasing access to mindfulness. The MBA team feels a lot like a family and those relationships are deepening and feeling super special. I’m excited about our official affiliation with Against The Stream and coming full circle with Noah Levine. This partnership gives us a little more muscle, more resources and more visibility. The horizons are looking great as more opportunities open up for us on this amazing journey. It’s more than I could’ve hoped.