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Tunde, Ibram X. Kendi, and Peloton Pledge Partner, The Center for Antiracist Research, Discuss Mental Wellness and Antiracism
In June of 2020, Peloton shared the Peloton Pledge, its ongoing commitment to combat systemic inequity and promote global health and wellbeing. As part of this Pledge, Peloton established a partnership with Boston University’s (BU) Center for Antiracist Research (CAR) and on Wednesday, Feb 15, Peloton and CAR held a panel discussion on mental wellness and antiracism moderated by beloved instructor, best-selling author, and host Tunde Oyeneyin.
For many of us, Peloton is not just about physical health—it’s about whole-mind-and-body health. It is no accident that so many of us often express how good Peloton is for our mental health. Peloton is very intentional and deliberate in how it incorporates mental wellness into its platform–from how instructors frame the idea of “success,” to how Peloton reports on member satisfaction, and to Peloton’s support of key partners in its Social Impact goals–it’s by design that we should feel mentally well when we engage with Peloton.
The mental wellness and antiracist panel discussion was Peloton’s direct response to the fact that antiracist work requires mental health work. The discussion was also a very compact deep dive into the antiracist work being led by CAR and how their learnings can apply to our lives. This discussion is one example of how Peloton is supporting its employees, members, and partners in their aim to be antiracist—and to be mentally well while doing so.
What is the Center for Antiracist Research?
The Center for Antiracist Research (CAR) is a collaborative interdisciplinary research and education effort out of Boston University (BU) founded by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. CAR aims to build an antiracist society that ensures equity and justice for all. When looking at inequities, instead of asking what is wrong with people, CAR asks what is wrong with policies.
Where antiracism and mental health intersect
Throughout the discussion, a few themes emerged as key challenges in the effort to be antiracist:
- There is a gap between the academic world and the general public in how racism is understood and discussed. This can create misunderstandings.
- Antiracist work can be painful. This can create fear.
- Creating change at a broad level can seem hopeless. This can lead to disengagement.
All of these can lead to poor mental health. So how do the professionals at CAR combat these challenges? How do they keep their heads up and their brains engaged? Who better for us to learn from than experts who live deeply in this work every day? We recap the panel’s insights from their professional and personal experiences below.
- Bridging the narrative gap on antiracism enables better communication and understanding.
- Focusing on the other side of pain means keeping a positive mindset focused on the impact you can have and the goals toward which you are contributing.
- Focusing on systems and should-be’s promotes mental wellbeing by addressing the larger goals for antiracism and the root causes for racism, where systemic change can happen.
- Are the kids all right? Promote mental wellbeing in BIPOC youth by empowering them with antiracist language and an understanding of our history and systems of oppression, and supporting them in their connections.
- Overall, community connection is key. Throughout the discussion, community bonds were repeatedly cited as key to mental wellness.
An esteemed panel of experts
The discussion panel consisted of three CAR team members:
- Dr Ibram X. Kendi, CAR’s Director and Founder, bestselling author, contributing writer at The Atlantic, CBS New Racial Justice Contributor, an acclaimed professor, and 2021 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship (popularly known as the “Genius Grant”). Kendi’s focus is on acquiring resources and support for the Center’s projects on a broad scale.
- Monica L. Wang, CAR’s Narrative Office Chair, Associate Professor of Community Health Sciences at the BU School of Public Health, and an Adjunct Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. CAR’s Narrative Office is focused on reframing the national and global conversation on race so that the conversation can move beyond academia and into the public.
- Jasmin Gonzales Rose, CAR’s Policy Office Chair and Professor at BU School of Law. CAR’s Policy Office drives evidence-based advocacy and community-group-informed policy change in order to mitigate and eradicate not only racism, but 15 different forms of bigotry as well, including ableism, sexism, and heterosexism.
Bridging the narrative gap
As Tunde said early on in the discussion, “it’s one thing to demand a seat at the table. But, once you fight and get that seat, if you feel like you don’t understand what they’re saying—the language they’re speaking—then you’re missing the entire conversation.” How do we engage in positive conversations with people who know much more (or less) than we do about antiracism? Or worse, people who think they know much more than we do about antiracism?
CAR has one grassroots (ok, slightly bigger than grassroots) initiative aimed at leveling the communication playing field. Dr. Wang shared how CAR’s Narrative Office is partnering with The Boston Globe to produce The Emancipator, a national media outlet that aims to reframe the conversation on race using social media, video stories, written commentary, and elevated critical voices.
With common, accessible language around antiracism, the public can be empowered to engage in antiracist conversations more comfortably and confidently.
Focusing on the other side of pain
Tunde asked Dr. Kendi how he stays positive and hopeful doing work that is so heavy. She recalled that in an interview with Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts, Dr. Kendi said that “most people want healing without pain, but we must understand that there is healing on the other side when it comes to treating racism,” and she asked what the other side looks like to him. His answer came down to community and mindset.
Being surrounded by a community of people who are passionate and open about their antiracist work creates the safe space and energy to continue that work each day. Dr. Kendi described each day coming to work with people who are confident and openly antiracist as healing—the opposite of pain. He also keeps focused on the “other side” where the world will be equitable and no one will be houseless, food-insecure, or judged unsafe because of the color of their skin.
Tunde referenced her previous interview with businessperson and marketing leader Bozoma Saint John (a Black woman who has been a leading executive at Netflix, Uber, and Apple Music, among others), in which Saint John told her that “when you break down glass ceilings, know that it leaves scars.” When Tunde asked how this quote resonates with him, Dr. Kendi made a personal analogy to his own cancer treatment, which has left him with scars—physical, emotional, and mental—that are an unavoidable part of the necessary and painful process of healing.
“We can have scars from the healing process and still know we’re going to live as human beings, as a society—[still know] that justice is going to live,” he said.
Instead of letting the fear of the scar stop his progress, Dr. Kendi takes up a courageous mindset: “There are too many times in which we shy away from doing the things that can leave scars… when to me, if we don’t do those things that can leave scars, then we won’t be here anymore. That’s why courage is so important for healing.”
Focusing on systems and should-be’s
Dr. Kendi describes a mindset of being focused on policy, not people. In other words, his response to inequity is not to blame people, but to work with others to understand the policies or practices that can be leading to that inequity and then to focus their work there. And when people inevitably come into his field of vision, he chooses to focus on the open-minded ones. They give him hope. They remind him that even though closed-minded folks are sometimes louder, open-minded people are listening and they are the ones that will make a difference.
Tunde asked Prof. Gonzales Rose: In her work on Critical Race Theory with a hyper-focus on evidence and jury behavior, what does she tell her students that “helps them keep their heads up and remain optimistic for change, specifically in the world that we are living in today when there’s countless examples of doing the opposite?”
Prof. Gonzales Rose modeled an optimistic mindset as well. For her, “what really helps is talking about antiracism, talking about and analyzing these systems of oppression and thinking about what we can do.” She tells her students, “you’re not just studying what the law is, you’re studying what the law should be.”
And this, she explained, is not just something for law students to consider—it’s something for all of us to practice in our spheres of influence. In our own lives, doing the work of being antiracist can mean having conversations with friends, family, classmates, coworkers, and educators in ways that will promote racial equity.
But what about the hopelessness that comes from processing how much work is left to do? She acknowledged that racism has been present since the US’s founding and continues to show up in new and different ways, but she went on to compare antiracist work to work against disease. Just as we don’t give up on fighting and preventing illnesses, we don’t give up on fighting and preventing racism. In fact, she said, we know that we need more investment, more professionals, more investigation, and “that’s how it is being an antiracist—we see it…[and] we can respond in so many ways, with the skills that we have and using our voices.”
Are the kids all right?
Dr. Wang shared some best practices specifically for promoting mental health in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) youth, citing research performed by a team of Boston University Professors that studied activism and organizing as a mental health intervention for BIPOC Youth. She explained that “a huge part of mental health is feeling isolated and alone” but “when you bring people together to talk about both political education, organizing and empowering, and mental health, the youth [feel] better equipped to handle both.”
Dr. Wang explained that the research shows that two key tools used in activism and organizing actually promote the mental health of BIPOC youth:
- Knowing what language to use in their antiracist and political conversations and
- Understanding our history and systems of oppression
With these tools in hand, Dr. Wang said, BIPOC youth are “better equipped to bond with one another and identify individuals and adult mentors in their lives that can support them.”
Social bonding and community were again referenced as key elements of mental wellbeing. Dr. Wang explained that “a part of promoting mental health and physical health is being socially connected with one another.”
In fact, even having a few trusted people in your life is better for your overall health than quitting smoking for a smoker. “There’s decades of research showing that if you just have a few people in your community…that you trust, who you can go to when you are experiencing a challenge, that’s actually more protective and better for your health than quitting smoking if you’re already smoking,” she explained, “so the power of community and the power of coming together—it really is quite generative.”
Connecting with BIPOC youth
Recognizing the importance of social connection with trusted adults, Tunde asked how young people might engage in conversations with the older adults in their lives. Dr. Wang advises younger people to begin the conversation by asking questions: “Have you ever felt such-and-such a way? Or was there a time when you felt anxious about a certain situation and felt powerless or helpless? Were there times where it was hard for you to get daily activities done, like getting out of bed and going to work?” Often, she explained, these questions create a space where people can share their life experiences with one another.
Dr. Wang stressed the importance of not leaving it all to the kids. The adults, community members, parents, and family members of BIPOC youth need to make the effort too. “When somebody opens up to you, respond back and help them feel not judged and support them when they are sharing something necessarily vulnerable.”
With a few moments left, Tunde fielded some action-oriented questions from the community.
Q. In terms of mental wellness, how do we protect our mental health in the face of racism? How do we remain hopeful?
A. Dr. Wang took this one. She recognized that work in the racial justice and equity spaces is incredibly draining. She quoted #1 New York Times bestselling author Nic Stone as saying, “we can do hard things and live softly.” And Dr. Wang modifies this slightly to say, “we can do hard things because we nurture ourselves mentally, physically, and emotionally.”
Dr. Wang shared that in her own life, she promotes mental wellness by working out every morning (though she declined to tell Tunde who her favorite instructor was until after Tunde’s class!), allowing her mind time to wake up before doing her antiracist work, and getting enough sleep.
And to remain hopeful, Dr. Wang looks to her children, who are learning about equity and inclusion at a very young age, and who are already demonstrating assertiveness and imagination about what the world could be.
Q. As a fellow educator within the space of antiracism, how do you maintain mental wellness when teaching crowds of people who don’t believe in your message?
A. Dr. Kendi answered that he tries to distinguish between open-minded people—those he described as seeking to grow and learn, with an intellectual understanding that they don’t know everything—and people who are closed-minded—who believe they already know everything. He chooses to focus on the very many open-minded people who are truly seeking to understand the world they live in.
Q. What can I do as a white woman to support and uplift the Black community without inadvertently offending or upsetting someone?
A. Prof. Gonzales Rose broke this down into four action items:
- Get educated and work on ourselves to be antiracist
- Understand our relative privilege in the world and take ownership of it (be that skin color, education, network, etc)
- Listen, reflect, and do not define other people’s experiences
- When we are in privileged spaces, work on the other privileged people around us to help them better understand antiracism
Q. How do you find a balance between not fighting every racial battle, but also not allowing history to be repeated by being too quiet?
A. Dr. Kendi confessed here that this is not easy to do, and that he struggles to find balance himself. However, when he feels most balanced, he is focused on his area of expertise and his sphere of influence, aka “his backyard.” And he believes that if we are all focused on doing the work in our own backyards, then our yards will eventually connect. As a collective, we can build broader equity and justice by starting in our own spheres of influence.
Peloton as a community
Peloton measures its success in part by how strongly its members agree that Peloton improves their relationship with their bodies. This panel discussion shows that Peloton doesn’t just care about how we feel about our bodies. It cares about how we feel in our bodies, and in our society. Specifically in a society that often feels in direct conflict with our hope for a more equitable world.
As the panel of experts expressed, community is key to both mental health and antiracism. For Peloton to provide a platform for its community to engage and connect on these topics is an incredible act of leadership and in itself a mental wellness boost.
As of the time of this post, the discussion is available to watch on demand here (note that registration may be required). For more information on CAR or any of the panelists, refer to the links throughout this post. And for any questions or comments, please reach out on our Facebook Page or Group.
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