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This is the second in a yearlong series of interviews conducted by guest editor Seane Corn, founder of the yoga service organization Off the Mat, Into the World, each featuring a different leader in yoga service and social-justice work. Everyone profiled here will join Corn in teaching a workshop on yoga for social change at Yoga Journal LIVE! in Estes Park, Colorado, September 27–30. This month, 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.
Seane Corn:Where does your personal interest in social justice come from?
Tessa Hicks Peterson: To answer, I have to go way back. I think we always need to begin by acknowledging our ancestors and their influence on our paths. My maternal great-grandparents fled persecution as Jews in Eastern Europe and came to the United States. My maternal grandparents were labeled Communists and blacklisted because of their deeply progressive values around social change, justice, and equality. And my parents met at a radical social-justice filmmakers’ collective, making documentaries about the integration of schools and the fight against the war in Vietnam. So I think it’s in my blood. Also, I was born on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., and from a very young age, I felt connected to him and to the movement for social justice.
SC: How would you define social justice?
THP: Broadly speaking, I think social justice is about securing fair and just treatment for all, as well as access to resources for all people. By resources, I mean adequate and quality health care, education, land, water, food—and respect. Respect is often left off the list, but being seen as a valuable, contributing member of a community, being respected for your input and not being marginalized in any way, is an important component of social justice. When groups are not afforded access and rights to these things, injustice occurs.
SC:What are some examples of social injustice in our everyday lives that may go unnoticed?
THP: There are little things and big things. For example, for so long, the only “flesh-colored” Band-Aids you could buy were the color of white people’s flesh. And when the people in your textbook or in the commercials and shows you watch create a “norm” that is rich, white, beautiful, thin, and straight, it becomes a message both to those who have those qualities and those who do not. We start to see certain groups or identities as more valued, and, thus, they’re provided more access. We think now of our black president and all the progressive things that are happening without really recognizing the deep injustices that still exist today: Women are still paid less than men; students of color are still not achieving at the same rate as their white peers; LGBTQ [lesbian , gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning] communities and queer youths are being harassed to such severe degrees that many are killing themselves, or are even being killed.
SC:What do you see as the intersection between your teachings on social justice and the work within the yoga community?
THP: Each of us has a deep responsibility to challenge violence, oppression, and injustice because we are all interconnected. This involves putting ourselves in very uncomfortable positions, and in yoga we’re physically putting ourselves in uncomfortable positions all the time, right? We find our breath, ground ourselves, push past limitations, learn how to live at that edge and find compassion for ourselves. This is the same with social injustice. We can’t be afraid to face our ignorance or internal biases, our fears and apathy, our own oppression and pain; we must sit in that discomfort and learn how to find our breath and connect and build compassion for ourselves and for others, including the ones we don’t understand, the ones we think are too different from us culturally, racially, religiously—even the ones we hate.
This is where yoga really teaches much to social-justice activism. We learn how to balance our rage with compassion for the abuser, the racist, the homophobe, the people who exclude others. That’s the toughest practice of all. An example is someone who wants to do work on domestic violence based on her own experience of abuse, but she will only work with women. That’s understandable, and important work, but it also limits that person’s influence. If it’s men who are perpetrating the violence, they also need healing, services, community, and rehabilitation to break the cycle of violence because they, too, are often victims of violence. Individual and collective change must include all of us.
SC:How can people in the yoga community deepen their awareness of social injustice and take steps in their own lives to effect change in the world?
THP: Sometimes good intentions and good deeds aren’t enough. I want yogis to critically reimagine seva practice. Often, we’re doing a service in the community to heal ourselves, and this is not necessarily bad, but it can create limitations on the impact and effectiveness we are able to have.
And I would be cautious about the use of the word “service.” Sometimes when we say “service,” we create a hierarchy between the server and the served, the have and the have-not, the savior and the needy being saved. We need to understand what the community being served wants or needs, what social change they are seeking, and whether they have a voice in designing the service projects that will benefit them. Are we serving soup without looking at why we have so much hunger and unequal distribution of food in this country where we have so much wealth? If we’re not looking at the structural issues that create the conditions that necessitate our service, we’re only partially engaged with the social-change effort.
SC:It’s one thing that you and I are having this conversation, but what can individuals do to create change?
THP: Do what speaks to you. If you’re good at accounting and spreadsheets, volunteer to do that for an organization. If you want to be on the streets talking to people, get involved in community organizing. If you’re interested in policy, you can lobby on local or national levels. There are so many ways to participate in groups doing work that is mutually nurturing, respectful, and ethical. Once you become conscious of the biases you may hold, the injustices that exist in the world, and how you might be affected by them or perpetuating them, then you can come to terms with and move past any guilt that might result from being in a privileged position or any paralysis that might exist from being victimized or oppressed in some way. We have to be able to move from raising our consciousness to taking action.