On Creating Inclusive Spaces

Dominique in Queen Village, Philadelphia

<em>Dominique is a yoga and meditation guide, and the creator of <a href="https://www.instagram.com/unjar.co/">Unjar</a>, a space to preserve and grow wellness in communities.</em>

I thought it would be really interesting to talk to you about creating space. I’d love to start there: I’d love to hear you describe Unjar and that concept of creating space.

When I moved back to the East Coast, I was really missing a lot of my community that I had had in college, and creating space and doing social justice work. So when I eventually moved to Philadelphia I was getting really frustrated because I was just seeking and searching for people to build some sort of community with and I didn’t really know at the time what that meant or what that looked like. I knew predominantly I wanted to be surrounded by more like-minded women who were empowered and bold in the way that they were committed to whatever value system they were strongly drawn to. And so I vividly remember walking the block around my apartment, having a lot of vibrancy and energy and just being really frustrated and on a rant about: where are these people and why can’t I find them? And really wanting to co-create something. I have always really been, since I was little, very drawn to being artistic in some sort of way or being able to creatively express myself.

At first I thought I was going to do that with one of the yoga teachers that I had been taking classes with in Philadelphia for about two years probably at that time. And then they were sort of flaky and it fell through but we had had such good conversation. We had met in parks in Philadelphia and sat on benches and had really good conversations about needing a physical space to go to and gather women and celebrate each other. So that’s the start of my decision. That really was the fuel under my seat to go and get my yoga teachers’ certification. I was going to co-create with her, so I was like, she’s the yoga teacher, and I can do other things in order to help build this space. And then it ended up, nope. You have to go and do it. So I went and got my yoga teachers’ certification and that also was what led me to reach out to other women in other places in the United States who are doing this work. One of those women is Maya Breuer, who is the co-founder of the Black Yoga Teachers’ Alliance - it’s separate from the bigger certification body called Yoga Alliance, and is specifically for Black women or people of color - and several other people. But Maya was the first person that responded to me and she’s been hosting yoga retreats for women of color for over twenty years. She was doing this in the nineties, and if you can imagine that time, that was post- a lot of the race riots across the United States. She had so much knowledge and wisdom and she had responded, and I was very humbled by that. And other mentors - Amina Naru, and Pamela Stokes Eggleston, all these Black women leaders in the yoga community who were just really welcoming and wanted to know what I was hoping to grow into, and nurtured me in a lot of ways.

I ended up going to a yoga symposium that the Yoga Service Council threw. Joining forces with Pam and Amina and having conversations with them led me to be around these people who are prioritizing amplifying all the voices in the room, and making space for all people, regardless of whether you have two PhDs or if you were formerly incarcerated and are teaching mindfulness and movement from a place of real experience of what it’s like to be isolated and not have access to those things. Inviting me to spaces where diversity isn’t just this tokenizing thing, but inclusion and equity is created in how the entire space is founded and facilitated. All of those people and experiences sort of contribute to what I do now, as far as hosting [conversations] during the pandemic. I am doing what I know needs to be done, which is creating a container for the conversation to happen, and then everything else as far as people coming across the conversations or stumbling upon them or their friends forwarding the conversations, that will just happen naturally. And really trusting that that can contribute to peoples’ feelings and their being inspired to create communities that model what I’m doing. That’s my hope, is that there are people who are like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool!’ And that has already happened. I’ve had people on there that haven’t had the confidence to share, and now they are sharing. That is really inspiring to me, and also why I started doing women’s circles. Those really were the precursor to Unjar and having one-on-one conversations with people.

One thing that I really value in the women’s circles is the idea that you can have spaces in cities that are able to bring people together. If we want to really transcend a lot of the barriers that exist within capitalism, one of the most important things for people to be a part of and witness are spaces where poor people and rich people are brought into the same room and have conversations about what’s going on in their lives, and reach out to one another on an emotional level.

Yeah, wow. There was a lot in there that I find really interesting. I really like what you were saying at the beginning about how you looked around and you felt that you weren’t finding these spaces, so you aimed to create them yourself. I really love that. And so I have a question that is something along the lines of - what do you think are some of the challenges of trying to do that, of trying to create those types of spaces?

I think one thing that’s interesting that I’ll add since you brought up the point that I started with: there are a couple of people that I’ve come across in the past six months to a year and we told one another our journeys. These are women who are older than me in terms of age, they’re closer to their late thirties, early forties even, and about three years ago, they were doing a similar thing of pacing around being like: where are these people? And so in some ways everybody was doing their own thing, searching for other people doing a similar thing, and in the past couple of years - I don't know what the shift has been - but now we’re more in conversation with one another about what’s working, what’s not working. I think one of the barriers initially I would have said is that we hadn’t found one another yet, or we weren’t ready to find another yet, but now we are, and so I think that things happen the way they happen for whatever reason.

One of things that I think was supposed to happen was to do my yoga teachers’ training, and have the experience that I had, which could be at times not ideal. A lot of the glamorized yoga stuff did come through. I think the teachers that I did have were really trying to educate their students not to be that way as far as mainstream yoga, Western yoga. But at times they were exemplifying some of the things that they were asking us to consider and not necessarily celebrate. I think those experiences can be the barrier. There’s a lot of yoga-lebrities, and there’s a lot of people that are not practicing yoga in its fullness. This is a thing that’s come up recently - one of my friends Daniel Hickman, he talked about the complete practice of yoga. Mainstream yoga is very focused on the asana, or the poses of the modern practice. So Warrior 1, Warrior 2, all that. And not necessarily focused on the internal work that’s a part of the practice, and that is problematic. That is one of the barriers of the work itself, is you can’t really rush someone into furthering their practice in that way. And so you’re holding space for people that are not quite there yet sometimes, alongside people that are really seeking and need a little bit more depth. So you’re holding space for both at the same time. That can be really educational for folks at times or it can be really difficult.

Yeah, I feel that. I was really interested in your comment about how it doesn’t feel like there are a lot of spaces for inter-class mingling, where rich people and people of not as high means intermingle in that way. I don’t know that I have a question - I just thought it was a really interesting point.

Yeah, I think I can add to it a little bit, in terms of when you enter any space. I was a theater minor, and one of my professors Aldo Billingslea had us do this exercise where you had a deck of cards and each person taped them so that you yourself could not see what your status was in terms of the deck. But the people around you automatically treat you differently depending on what your status was on that card. And then at the end we were tasked with ordering ourselves in the order of the deck of cards, like ace to whatever. And we were successful in doing it.

Place/Love Project · Dominique T

I think that that is a really good example of when you walk into a space, there are assumptions made and judgments placed on people, just because we’ve been socialized a particular way. And one of the ways that some of that - not all of it - can, if you create a space that’s super welcoming, be for people. Especially because everyone’s walking in in athleisure, there’s an opportunity, and that can also enforce some stigma because of brands and labels, but at the same time you could also create a really beautiful space where some of that is sort of minimized or deemed unimportant in that space. And you’re connecting with people in a different way.

The last thing I really liked when you were speaking to the first question: it seems like spaces - you used the word - nurturing seem really important. I like that you talked about your mentors. Is that important, and if so, why?

I think that mentorship and having teachers are important, but I also think that one of the things I’ve learned - and this is the way I end any sort of meditation that I typically offer or anything of that sort - is the teacher and student in me honors the teacher and student in you. So everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student, no matter what space you’re in. The way that you interact and treat people - you’re teaching other people something about yourself and you’re also either reinforcing insecurities or empowering people as well. The way that I treat you is going to either enforce things that you’ve learned about yourself or think are true about yourself or are going to teach you something new about yourself and what you offer and affirm you in some way. And so I think deciding in our interactions what hat you will be primarily taking on in that space, but then also acknowledging that in that space you’re also learning from people because that’s what communication is is just exchanging messages and so you do that regardless of whether you mean to or not because of non-verbal communication everywhere you are. I think that a lot of the teachers that I have had that I’ve really been drawn to are people that acknowledge that I’m also a teacher.

One of the spaces that I did want to uplift is last summer I got to teach twelve weeks at an LGBTQ youth center in Phillie called the Attic, and I remember it could be difficult on a lot of days, because they were teenagers in high school and they were there to really socialize with one another. And I was like, “Okay everybody, let’s be still and notice our breath.” One day there was a lot of talking from one of the students in particular, and so I asked them - I invited them in instead of calling them out - and I was like, “Okay, can you count out ten second? We’re going to hold this pose for ten seconds, can you count them out for us?” So they were able to talk in the space, like they wanted to. And in that moment they also became a teacher. And one thing that was funny afterwards is they were like, “Wow, I just taught the class, I just taught yoga, I could teach yoga!” And that’s true, right? They could practice on their own time and in that space they were teaching me a lot. I had to learn how to navigate that student that wanted to talk and I found a way to do that that was creative and they also got a little bit of insight into how they could teach and support their fellow peers in that moment.

Questions for Personal Reflection: How do you aim to create spaces that are inclusive, equitable, and non-hierarchical? What are some spaces in your life that could use these principles and techniques?

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