Part 2: Tessa Hicks Peterson, PhD on Social Justice + Awareness of Inequality

Corn interviews Tessa Hicks Peterson, PhD, assistant professor of urban studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and an activist for social justice and antibias education.

DIGITAL EXTRA: This is an extension of the interview that first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Yoga Journal. Here, learn more about Tessa Hicks Peterson’s perspective on the connection between yoga and social justice.

Seane Corn: You said that sometimes we look at systems of oppression as units or organizations that exist separately from the individual. But we can’t change the system without changing the individuals who make up the system. So how can we begin to shift the consciousness of individuals?

Tessa Hicks Peterson: We have to work on the structural, systemic level, and we have to work at the individual level because it will be individuals who are informing policy and laws—as well as how those laws and policies are put into practice. If you have been educated and infused with the consciousness to care and think about the inequities in society, you’re going to run your business differently from someone who is ignorant or apathetic to these issues.

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SC:How do you help people go inside and look at their biases and work to help change them?
THP: It helps that yogis already know how to ground themselves, find their breath, and center themselves. They pause to breathe and think rather than having an automatic, reactionary response. And that’s very helpful when having these intense conversations about social justice and thinking about all the different identities we hold and how those identities shape the lens with which we view the world and the way in which we’re treated. We need to recognize our differences, celebrate them, understand what they give to us. We also need to learn to transcend the divisions that they may cause so that we can see where we can be allies and where we can work together. Yoga can teach a lot about how we can shift the paradigm of dualism and separateness. You can recognize the different identities that you hold, how they have influenced you, and how they have influenced how you’ve been treated in the world. Then recognize both the differences and similarities with others based on those identities and think about where you can find empathy with others. Talk to people and build bridges across our differences and understand where you can have empathy for each other’s experiences.
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SC Let’s talk about burnout. Do you see a lot of burnout in the world of social justice and how do you think yoga can help?
THP If you’re not careful about how you are participating in scenarios of pain and suffering and oppression, you will take that into your body and soul. I had been teaching a class on healing arts and social change at a men’s prison. The conversations require a tremendous amount of vulnerability on the parts of participants and a depth of conversation that is pretty atypical in the prison culture. My students, the incarcerated men, and I had these incredible transformative conversations, but it was so intense. Even though I am trained in this work, I would come out of those sessions feeling depleted just from having held the space for this type of intense dialogue. After leading the class, I had a practice of going to the mountain near my house and sitting at the base with a cup of tea. I breathed and sat in a meditation.

We all have to maintain that self-care, that connectedness to spirit, that grounding to our own internal compassion and the things that keep us going strong. We need to water the seeds of peace within us so that we don’t become depleted and so that all of our basic needs—love and sleep and food and whatever else—are met. When we get caught up in the work, these basics seem like luxuries, but they are not. I see it all the time: activists who are burning out either because of the pace they’re keeping or because of the pain and suffering that they’re holding space for. The yoga practice has so much to offer. Just as yogis have much to learn from the social-justice activists, social-justice activists have so much to learn from the yogis about how to keep the movements sustainable and nourishing and respectful. Some folks are beginning practices of mindfulness or yoga to social-justice movements, but I think we still have a ways to go in that regard.