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Trauma-informed Mindfulness for Youth with Micah Davis Anderson

Updated: Mar 19

In this episode, Micah Anderson speaks with cohost Fleet Maull on his experiences working with incarcerated youth through the Mind Body Awareness Project.

  • 3 steps for creating safety while facilitating training/workshops

  • Barriers to using a curriculum with traumatized youth

  • Importance of partnerships for sustainable support for youth parolees


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Born in Connecticut, Micah spent several of his teen years in and out of placements due to struggles with drugs, crime, and anger. Around this time, he was introduced to 12-step fellowship, and after extensive travel overseas, began a personal meditation practice in the early 1990s. He is now the Clinical Director of the Mind Body Awareness Project, which transforms at-risk communities—and those who serve them—with mindfulness-based mental health tools that support equity, healing, and empowerment. Micah is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist, focusing on both trauma-informed approaches and mindfulness-based interventions. He has led retreats and trainings on mindfulness, emotional literacy, and mental wellness in multiple countries, and has served thousands of incarcerated people in the San Francisco Bay Area. He lives in Oakland, CA with his wife and two children, and received his Masters in Psychology from Sofia University in Palo Alto, CA.


Trauma-informed Mindfulness for Youth with Micah Davis Anderson Transcript


Fleet Maull: 

Hi, welcome to another session on the Prison Mindfulness Summit. My name is Fleet Maull. I'm your co-host for this session. I'm thrilled to be here today with Micah Anderson from MBA. Welcome, Micah. 


Micah Anderson: 

It's great to be here. Thanks, Fleet. I appreciate it. 


Fleet Maull: 

I've really been looking forward to this conversation. The work of the MBA Project has just been so important for decades now. I was privileged to have some involvement with the organization probably 20 years ago, but you've always been connected with us at Prison Dharma Network, and we've always really admired the work that you've been doing with youth all over the Bay Area for so long.

 

And so I'm really interested to see what's happening now and learn more about you and your work. So, I'll share your bio, and then we'll jump right into the conversation. Does that sound good? 


Micah Anderson: 

Great, please. Thank you. 


Fleet Maull: 

Born in Connecticut, Micah Anderson spent several of his teen years in and out of placements due to struggles with drugs, crime, and anger. Around this time, he was introduced to the 12-Step Fellowship. After extensive travel overseas, he began a personal meditation practice in the early 1990s. 


He is now the Clinical Director of the Mind-Body Awareness Project, which transforms at-risk communities and those who serve them with mindfulness-based mental health tools that support equity, healing, and empowerment. Micah is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist focusing on both trauma-informed approaches and mindfulness-based interventions. 


He has led retreats and training on mindfulness, emotional literacy, and mental wellness in multiple countries and has served thousands of incarcerated people in the San Francisco Bay Area. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife and two children. He received his master's in psychology from Sofia University in Palo Alto, California. 


So, we heard a little bit in your bio, kind of how you got into metta. You had your own struggles when you were young. You found your way into a 12-Step Recovery Fellowship. And then, somehow, you got into meditation. Maybe you could tell us a little bit more about that. And then, how did you eventually end up getting involved in prison work or working with incarcerated youth? 


Micah Anderson: 

Yeah. Yeah, I love the question. This story is really linked to my 12-Step involvement. Right? Because by the time I was 17-18, I had already had a year clean under my belt and was starting to get involved in helping run 12-Step communities and meetings. One of the steps they talked about was using prayer or meditation to increase conscious contact. They would say, God. Right?Their conscious contact with God. 


I was always interested in that. I came from a Christian background and upbringing. That really sparked something when I was in Connecticut at the time, and I started sitting with a Korean Zen group there. That was my first taste at that age. I was probably, again, 18-19 when I started kind of getting into Buddhist meditation. And at the same time, due to my service work and 12-Step groups, I started working with H&I, which is a hospital and institution. Right? So, that was the first time I stepped foot into a juvenile hall. I was probably around 17-18. 


I was there as a speaker at one of these meetings for the youth. It was super chaotic and, you know, the kind of stuff that you would see back then, but it was really the first taste I had of going into an institution and working with incarcerated populations. That seed kind of stayed buried for about a decade, as is said in the bio. The retreat time overseas and did some travel in India, Nepal, and Thailand, with some friends, and we were kind of pursuing meditation practice there. 


And then, when I got back, those very people who I was traveling with started the Mind-Body Awareness Project. So, it was kind of a natural flow from there. And then they, you know, started building, and as the organization grew, kind of put me on. I started as a volunteer and started climbing my way up the ranks, so to speak. So that's a little bit of light on that question. 


Fleet Maull: 

Wow, that's great. Quite a journey. I deeply resonate with that during my own journey with incarceration for 14 years. The 12-Step work was a really important part of my own recovery and transformation process. I had actually found meditation and Buddhism much earlier but had this whole shadow side going with addiction and alcohol and all the rest of it coming out of the counterculture of the 60s and 70s. 


And so, it was really when I got locked up that I was able to stop all the craziness, get clean, and get into recovery and do that work. The people that came in had a profound impact on me because, you know, we had a regular meditation group that I read in the chapel twice a week for 14 years. We had a few outside volunteers that would come in now and then. When we were in Springfield, Missouri, I wasn't a hotbed for Buddhism, and it still isn't probably considered one of the bio buckles of the Bible Belt. 


The 12-Step volunteers that came in, were from both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. When you were in the room with them, it was just like you were a human being. And when you're locked up, that's a big deal because the system is not treating you like a human being. You were just there. You are just a fellow addict, a fellow drunk. They had no pretense. The humor, the camaraderie, the straightforwardness, the directness, it's like you weren't in prison for that hour. 


I remember some of the guest speakers they brought in over the years. Really powerful. So I can imagine you coming in as a guest speaker, someone who had turned their own life around and had their own struggles as a youth and then got into recovery. It just has so much credibility and has so much power to influence young people. I'm sure that's still the case today as you go into facilities. 


Micah Anderson: 

It certainly is. It's interesting. As you were talking, Fleet, I think kind of the collaborative nature of AA and NA, right? It's much less a top-down kind of structure, right? I can't help but reflect on what an influence that still is on myself and the groups even though I'm not in the 12-Step fellowship anymore. Just this idea of this being our group and our community. Not me coming in as the expert with an opinion or something that, you know, I have to see this change, right, especially with incarcerated youth. There's a lot of finger-pointing, right? It's just like you're on the road to ruin. You're screwing your life up. That kind of scary straight kind of stuff. Right? Which we know doesn't work. 


Fleet Maull: 

Right. Research is pretty clear on that. 


Micah Anderson: 

Yeah, for sure. For sure. Right? So, this other tact of, you know, kind of going in. It's an ethos that would carry collaboration because we know a lot of these use the trauma that they've experienced, right, and that trauma takes away power, it takes away a cohesive narrative, it takes away the ability to feel like you're even wanted someplace. So, I think that there's real power in that pure, kind of pure lead group from that AA house. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah, I'm also not in the fellowship. I actually miss it a lot. But when I got out of prison, I was so deeply involved in mountain Buddha's path. You can kind of only follow so many paths at once. And that is their spiritual path to 12-Step work. If I ever got in trouble with substances or alcohol again, I'd be right back there because it's an amazing program, but I have written about it. 


I think it deserves more attention because, uniquely, it's this global movement that is not hierarchical, completely service oriented. It has a very loose governmental structure, which is all about just getting the books printed and kind of key, you know. It's really leaderless. And the two founders, Bill W. and Dr. Bob could have made it about themselves, but they just turned it over and stepped out of the way, and it became this global non-hierarchical movement. 


So at the global level, as well as the way meetings are organized, and it's a really non-hierarchical ownership and empowerment model, it is really unique. I think it deserves a lot more attention. I think that maybe it gets in the world. 


Micah Anderson: 

Agreed. Agreed. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what you described. One of the advantages of that kind of non-hierarchical approach, and it's us the circle and so forth, is it facilitates relationships. It facilitates eyeball-to-eyeball relationships. Right? The social sciences literature is pretty clear that the leading contributor to the impact to the effect in any change program. Although the content, the curriculum, and the interventions can have power, the most powerful part of any intervention is the relationship of the facilitators with the people going through the program. It's the relationship. 


And so, that's so key. I was always very impressed when I went into the Alameda County facility several times with some of the MBA guys at that time, the facilitators. I was going into the men's group, so there weren't any women when I went in, but they had this uncanny ability to get into a relationship with these kids. When you go into these facilities, it can be really wild and crazy and tough to get people's attention. There are all kinds of stuff going on. Often, that institution isn't really that supportive of the group, and everything interferes, even if they are things that are noise and loudspeakers going up. And, you know, the young people, they're being young, plus a lot of trauma. And plus, they're in a crazy place. 


And so, to be able to come in there and actually get in a relationship with these young people to me takes incredible skill. I've always admired how the Mind-Body Awareness Project is just amazing at discovering these amazing facilitators. So they do a good job of training or both. I was always impressed with that. I wonder if you could talk more about that relationship. And also, the idea of bringing mindfulness to people who've suffered trauma who've been marginalized as individuals and as communities doing that in a trauma-informed trauma-sensitive way. 


Micah Anderson: 

Yeah. No, I love what you're saying. What comes to mind is the thing I learned in school, right? I think it's a Rajouri and Carl Rogers principle, right, this idea that the relationship is the intervention. We could pull out all this fancy stuff and DBT and CBT, mindfulness and journaling, which, again, to your point, it can be helpful, right? But as you pointed out, the research shows it really comes down to relationships, empathy, and compassion. These are the things that actually I've seen institute change no matter what the curriculum might be. 


It's funny. Someone who interviews new volunteers and facilitators, the thing I've started looking for over the years is actually not someone who's equipped or has a substantial mindfulness practice because those people are easy to find. Even people who can teach mindfulness. But can you connect with another human being? 


To me, that's something that can't be taught. Right? Whereas, if someone comes in and I see that they have an experience with teaching and they have experience with youth and building with youth and authenticity. To me, that goes way more than someone, for example, who has ten years of meditation practice and maybe even one to a teacher training program, right? Because we know, that doesn't necessarily mean that you know how to connect with another in an authentic way. That's one very important piece that I think actually speaks to your second point about trauma-informed care. 


Well, first of all, in trauma-informed care, we try to create the situation, kind of like we're speaking around the AA influence, where it is peer-led. Stating clearly that there is a power dynamic in the room. I am a facilitator, right? I have the ability to kick somebody out of a group if I need to or end the group if I need to, and at the same time, try to level that power differential as much as possible. Right? Recognizing is never going to be perfect. Right? So that would be, I think, the first thing I look for in trauma-informed care, just working with traumatized youth and youth. 


And when I say traumatized youth, I'm really saying that because, you know, I was just in a group last Saturday, right? I don't know, eight to 10 kids. And you can sense in the room just through body language and through my own training just around kind of how trauma starts to look in a room full of kids? Right? And like you pointed out, it could be as simple as that one kid, who every time he hears something, he's looking out the window, like, what was that? Right? There's this kind of flight response or fight response. 


Again, the fight doesn't usually look like this. It can come up in a lot of different resistance, you know, ways of resistance in the room. So I think, you know, that's an important part of I think providing trauma-informed care for you, especially with mindfulness, is first just recognizing and knowing what trauma is. And then secondly, recognizing that, for example, and you know this, right, because you've taught in jails for much longer than I have, right? 


"Everyone close your eyes. We're about to do a meditation." I never ever say that. Because is it safe to close your eyes in jail? Generally not. Right? Even if they feel safe in the circle, right? There could be that, "Hmmm. I'm not so sure if I want to do this." So, little things like that. Just leaving the option open. If you feel comfortable, close your eyes. Please do so. If not, find a point in front of you and focus on it. Just leaving that optionality for kids. 


I think another piece just to wrap up this question. Mind-Body Awareness Project is funny. A lot of people think like, we go in, and our group has like a 45-minute set, and then we do check in for 15 minutes or 20 minutes, and that's it. It doesn't usually look like that. We try to introduce mindfulness in a lot of different ways, not only traditional formal meditation practice, while we do sets every session, sometimes one could be 5-10 minutes, right? And then we go into a module on self-compassion, for example, and kind of discuss the implications of that and what that might look like to be able to turn, you know, love and compassion inward rather than outward, or we go into psychoeducation around what trauma is and developmental theory and attachment theory, even for youth. So, yeah, let me pause there and see if you got any reflections on it. 


Fleet Maull: 

You made so many important points. I'd like to explain a couple of things. First of all, working with youth is very different from working with adults. 


Micah Anderson: 

That's right. 


Fleet Maull: 

Somebody who's experienced teaching mindfulness or guiding mindfulness for adults doesn't mean they're prepared to do it with youth. It's a whole different ballgame. This piece of being trauma-informed. So, we started off talking about relationships and talking about the circle and peer-led, but also just the power of getting in a relationship because the ground for trauma-informed work is really safe, creating some. You can't create complete safety, but you create some quality of safety. And it's the relationship. Like, if you're in there, and you know, many of us have heard that both adult and youth folks who are incarcerated have pretty good bullshit detectors, right? They got great radar. 


Micah Anderson: 

That's right. 


Fleet Maull: 

They've been on the streets. They know how to survive, right? And so, first of all, they need to know if you're real, then they need to feel you like you're there, you're present, you're in a relationship with them. And you're going to keep coming back. You're not a tourist, right? That creates that initial safety. 


And then, you went on to talk about the importance of providing options. With trauma, a lot of what happened, especially in childhood trauma, as we didn't have options. We're trapped in an untenable situation of emotional or physical violence. We can't escape. We can't fight back. Right? So, they need those options and so forth. 


Also, titrating how you introduce the practice or offering it a multiplicity of ways so people can connect with some kind of self-reflection, practice, some kind of mindfulness, some kind of way without having to be. We're going to sit now for 45 minutes, which with young people probably isn't going to work even in the outside community. I've tried. It doesn't work. 


I like to bring up one more thing with you. The kind of standard prison program I've known over the years, it's very often you come in, and as adults as well, you come in, you sit in a circle, the order may be different but you do some sitting practice, you do some dialogue, and you do some movement of some kind in whatever order or some mix thereof. That's kind of your standard. 


With our Path or Freedom work, we decided to create a mindfulness-based emotional intelligence curriculum that has some cognitive behavioral aspects as well on the acceptance side of that. I know MBA created a curriculum way back when I was with you guys a bit in that process. And so, kind of following up on what you were saying, we really work in training our facilitators. 


Look, you got this great curriculum. You've got this whole facilitator's guide. You've got all kinds of ancillary materials and things. All this stuff is in your back pocket. The curriculum was developed for youth, but we have Adult Path of Freedom programs as well. Whether they go in there with adults or youth, your first job is to get into a relationship. 


And then, if the theme of that week's session is about self-compassion or about forgiveness, okay, well, how over the course of that 45 minutes or an hour can you get in a relationship and guide people a little bit along the journey of developing some self-awareness practice, and in some way smaller great land and ocean of forgiveness or whatever it is the theme that week. That's all you got to do. You got all these resources, but it's not about coming in and just grinding away like a classroom instruction or something, right? 


Anyway, maybe you could follow up on that on the idea of curriculum-based programs and then being able to do research because I know you've done a lot of research on your program because a lot of programs are not curriculum-based, and it's harder to train facilitators to deliver curriculum-based programs with fidelity while at the same time empowering them to go in and just relax and be themselves and get something across. 


Micah Anderson: 

Yeah. No, I love the question. I like how you framed just the curriculum being something that's in your back pocket, right? It's like E and Eve. I would even take it a step further. The curriculum is even something that can completely be dismissed for the day if there's something else happening in the room. Again, that piece of am I trying to jam a round peg into a square hole? Right? It's got to be self-compassion this week, and some kid came in and started talking about something completely different, and I'm like, "Cool, that's great. Let's get back to the curriculum." Right? In the name of having to do the research and get the learning objectives done. So that's been some hard learning for me, you know what I mean? It's just being able to be willing to just put it all aside and go with what is alive in the room. Right? 


And again, this takes a level of skill. It takes therapeutic skill. You have to be able to read the room, understand that. And, as I often say, you know, to me, this was taught to me by my mentors at MBA is the first intervention starts with myself. That doesn't start with the room. So, if I see resistance coming up in the room, or something coming up in the room or like that, that idea that I am trying to jam that round peg into a square hole, I shouldn't be coming back to me first to be on like, what am I trying to do here? Like, what's my agenda? Right? 


Micah Anderson: 

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. You've pointed to this before. I can't remember the context, but it's like, get out of the way. Micah, get out of the way. Let it happen. Let the healing happen. Let the change happen. Because a lot of times, as the facilitator, I can actually be in the way. 


Fleet Maull: 

We use a lot that comes from Council, another type of circle work that way of Council, going with a slide. So if something's happening in the room, which may seem like it's completely disrupting what you were trying to do or it's breaking all the rules and whatever it is, it's something disruptive, like, that's something alive, that's something to work with. That's where you want to go. Right? 


It's the same thing about working with youth. If you're working with adults, they may let you get away with coming back to your agenda. Youth probably won't. If there's something really alive in the room, they're not going to let you get back on track with your agenda. They're going to go, "No, we're going to deal with this now." It's such a learning experience to work with young people. They're so direct, you know? 


Micah Anderson: 

Yeah, there was an instance maybe about a month ago or so we had in a Bay Area juvenile facility. We had a kid who had been in there for a while throughout COVID. We could talk about that a little bit, too, right, throughout COVID. And then we got back into the facility and, you know, was meeting with him, and he was getting released. He had turned 18. And it was a direct release. 


Again, we had our curriculum of the day, and we had to do this, but we also wanted to do something honoring him, right, because he was leaving. He had kind of been the elder in the group. He was 18. He was the elder in the group. Right. I think we're definitely one of the leaders. This was a kid who started leading meditations, right, because once kids reach a certain point, we'll actually open it up and be like, anybody else wants to lead the sit today? It's like, "I'll try." Let him. Give him the floor. Right. So that sense of empowerment, again, right? There's such healing in that because, as we pointed out before, trauma removes power. Right? It removes a sense of power. It removes power and to have somebody be able to be like. Can I lead the sit? 


So, we had our agenda that day. And one of the facilitators, you know, Hasina. She was like, "I want to share things with him. You might be familiar with challenge day. And if you really knew me and that whole thing, right? So, we use it in part of the MBA curriculum if you really know me. If I never see you again, right? Hasina started it, and she shared, and tears started flowing. That was kind of like, Yeah, let's check it out. Because there were some new kids in the group and I was like, let's give it a shot and see what happens. And then another kid came up, and he started really speaking from the heart, right? And we just went with that, right? We got on that train, and we took that train because that is where the palette was. Right? That was where the change was. That was where the healing was. It wasn't in the emotional intelligence curriculum of the day. That would have been completely uncalled for, in a way. Yeah, let me pause there. Yeah, it was a really sweet moment. 


Fleet Maull: 

That ability to really work with what's really alive at the moment in the room, be really connected in that way. So you know, we've been talking about trauma. I think it's, you know, it's heartbreaking, the level of trauma in some of these young people's lives, you know, the place where we developed a Path of Freedom, crimson Lookout Mountain, which is in Golden, Colorado, outside of Denver, a maximum security juvenile facility. It's about a 45-minute drive from where I lived in Boulder. 


I don't know how many times I was in tears on the way home because of what some of these youths have been through, and they'd never known anything but chaos, violence, and disruption their whole lives. For some of them, it's a really light bulb that goes on to the extent that you are able to guide them in any kind of quiet or silent kind of city or even a few minutes are like, I never experienced that ever. Right? 


Micah Anderson: 

That's right. 


Fleet Maull: 

But then so many of them, you know, I heard time and time again, you say, you know, I'm going to go to prison. I know where I'm going. My uncles are there. My brother is there. And even our work in Oregon in the Oregon Youth Authority. There were so many times. I don't know how it is there in the Bay Area, the facilities where you work, but there are so many youths that when they hit 18, or 19, they're on their way to an adult correctional facility to serve more time. And they had already transformed, it was clear, they've been in this youth facility for five, six years, they've gone through a tremendous process of transformation. And now they're going to send them to an adult prison or state prison for another 6-7-8-10 years. It was just heartbreaking to witness that. 


I think it's important just for people to understand the heartbreaking, you know. My colleague, our executive director, Vita Pires, can attest to this. We worked in juvenile facilities in Rhode Island for a long time. I don't know. Sometimes I go in there, and the kids that came into that group were so beaten down. They all kind of murmured and whispered. At one time, we couldn't hear them. She would challenge them. She's pretty adventurous. She just had his insight. "Oh, yeah. You don't think people are going to listen to you, do you?" "No. Nobody listens to us, you know." 


Sometimes I walked out of there, and I had to really kind of do some work on myself because I walked away feeling like these young people out there that I was just in a room with, their lives are not going anywhere but bad unless a miracle happens. They were so beaten down already. I would stop and say, "No, I'm a very hopeful person. I'm an optimist. We're planting seeds. Something's going to happen, right?" But it is important, I think, to recognize how rough many of these young people have it. 


Micah Anderson: 

It's so true. As a systems therapist as well, it's like, you know, if I go up to the kind of larger view, right, you just see, like, you know. For example, that kid who got released. One of the biggest struggles he was with is he's like, "I don't know how I'm going to be on the outs and not carry a strap with me." Like, you know what I mean? Not carry a gun with me. It's like, it's not safe for me not to carry a gun. Right? And he was kind of undecided on that. He was just like, I don't know what to do. Right? This was a kid who was a gang member and had gotten involved, which we see younger and younger and younger. 


These kids are showing up 14-15. They already got tattoos. They are already card-carrying members because, as you pointed out, their brother is, their uncle is, everybody in their house is, the whole block that they live on is, so what happens is a lot of these kids, they get released, "Yay, they're released. He learned some skills. Where did he go?" Right back to the block, where he got picked up in the first place. Right back to the home, where he got picked up in the first place. 


So, to your point about losing hope. It's a struggle. I'll be honest, right? Especially with youth work, too. I could count on one hand how many times I've been in a relationship with a youth who we served in jail and then got out, and we were able to direct because we don't have any type of aftercare reentry programming, right? We work really direct services inside. And it can be very sad, just like you pointed out, like heartbreak, right? You used that term, right? 


I think just looking for the windows of hope and looking at those windows where I did see the needle move. It wasn't all the way. It wasn't what I wanted. It wasn't, you know, blah, blah, blah. But it was like I could see that something had changed. And again, in the spirit of trauma-informed, making sure we're calling that out when we see it. Even if it's a small change with youth, right? 


Again, this happened in the last couple of weeks. We had a kid who came in, and you could just tell. I mean, he was thick with trauma. Just thick. His body was tense. He was sitting like this and had no eye contact and one-word responses. The second week, we came back in, and we were doing check-in, and it just started coming. It just started coming to the point where I had to kind of be like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa." It was starting to become like a trauma dump because I think he felt a little taste of safety, right? He had never been able to maybe share his narrative in a space like that before. 


And then, the third week, I could see he was able to do that but do that, like you pointed out, in more of a titrated way. He would share a little bit and then swing back and kind of, okay, and then share a little bit more and then swing back. I call that out. I said, "Wow, that's a difference. Did you notice in yourself that there was a difference between this week and last week when you were sharing?" He kind of talked about it. 


Those are the types of successes that we have to look for. It's really just about planting seeds and the prayer that someday those seeds will be there when they need to be there. Right? When that kid needs it. And sadly, it may be when he's sitting in a prison cell for another ten years at Quentin or whatever. Right? But hopefully, it can be before them. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah. I want to circle back and talk about post-release a little bit, even though you are not doing it. I still would like to talk with you about the possibilities. I'd like to talk about the time of the pandemic for a moment. I do want to name one other thing about trauma-informed, a very important thing that you brought up in making the power dynamics transparent. I really love that. You're trying to create a pure kind of led circle kind of group non-hierarchical as much as possible. But as a facilitator, you do have a certain power. So, by making that transparent, that's part of that leveling process as opposed to trying to ignore it or pretend it's not true. Transparency is another aspect of trauma-informed work, right? Yeah. 


Micah Anderson: 

100%. 


Fleet Maull: 

So in terms of the pandemic, so many of us in this work had to experience it. Just overnight, everything shut down. You're about to film your program, and things shut down the day before you were supposed to start filming or maybe the day of. And so, we've gone through this period where most correctional facilities adult and youth were not allowing outside volunteers, facilitators, contractors, anybody from the outside coming in. And it's been a really tough period. 


We scrambled as an organization to try to find ways. We put our programs on DVDs and mail them into prisons and still continue to train and support volunteers, so hopefully, when things reopen, we can, you know. We ended up stumbling into some opportunities to start delivering the Path of Freedom over Zoom inside facilities. We're doing that for men and women in upstate New York County Jail. We're doing it in a maximum-security South Carolina prison. We never thought that would happen, but it's happening. 


Now, we're also a new wave in the kind of education within incarceration is the secure tablets. And there are these big companies that are providing security tablets, and the facilities love it because it's more secure than us shipping books in that they don't like because they could have something smuggled in them. Now they're going to put on the tablets. These companies are making money off FaceTime calls. You know, people are entrusting you with their families, probably some exploitation there. 


When I was in, the phone companies got sued over that, and we won. And actually, we ended up getting some benefits out of that, some extra common care things and some improvements to our exercise facilities. But at any rate, that's all happening, but we found the Path of Freedom we got. Somebody approached us. We got it with a company about six years ago. We were kind of lost. We don't know what happened to it. We finally got reconnected with them, and we found out that 36,000 prisoners had done the Path of Freedom on that tablet. Now they're opening up the other company, and we could get exposure to, you know, half a million or a million. 


So, you know, these are kind of some developments. And so, I'm curious about what this time has been like for the MBA Project, as well as things are starting to open up again. And so, what's that going to look like? Everybody's talking about the hybrid and integrating, you know, the online with the in-person. I'm just curious about where the work is going for your organization. Let's start with what it has really been like during the pandemic for you individually and as an organization. And then, where do you feel it's going now? 


Micah Anderson: 

Yeah. Well, in the beginning, as you pointed out, it was rough, right? It was rough. I mean, literally, you know, in the middle of cohorts, starting cohorts, as you pointed out, we had a filmmaker from France, who was going to kind of be embedded with us for ten weeks to do a documentary on the entire cohort and everything signed off, and then the plug got pulled. 


What we did in the beginning was we tried to do some groups over Zoom. We found it very difficult because it was like, you know, you've got a room of all right, ten kids, the cameras on one side of the room, right? I'm a talking head on the screen, right? You got kids sitting over in the corner. Their faces are covered with masks, and the lighting is bad. It's like, I can't hear people, I can't see people. So it was like, this isn't going to work. We can't deliver. 


It really made us realize, "I think this is a benefit." In this case, I think a shadow side to it is like, our work has to happen in person with these youth. Right? And it is different from adults. I think adults can be more self-led, right? Often with adult populations, it's maybe not a mandated group, or they pick they want to be in that. They've got this passion. They want to learn something. They want to transform themselves, right? So there's a motivation there where they think you fit. It's kind of the motivation that partially comes from us showing up every week, right? 


It's just like, "Okay. I know MBA is on Saturday morning. I told Micah that I was going to, you know, try and sit for 10 minutes a day. I want to make sure when he comes in I can at least give them a good report. Right? That is like I got some of the sitting practice in. So what we did was we switched to one on one. Populations plummeted. So they let out a bunch of kids. I mean, we're talking facilities that could house four or 500 kids, 10-15 in the entire facility. Units closed and shut down, which we're happy about. They are locking up less kids. Beautiful, right? I had a feeling it was going to be a kind of temporary thing, which we're starting to see it's creeping its way back up now. 


We switch to one on ones. We had a couple of different facilitators because, again, they only have one computer, right? So it's not like you could have three or four different kids at the computer. And then I could see them in the group. Right? So it was a real struggle. And finally, we got back in, and then they had a case, and then they shut down for another three months. And then we got back in for a couple of months. And then, so that kind of happened again and again. I would say now, for the past four to six months. We've been pretty regular going in. 


Now in our group, I think we've got about 10-12 kids in one group. What we did do, and this is interesting, we had been, you know, we also do training. We have three kinds of trajectories for training. It's education. People who work in injustice. So, whether that's the sheriff's department or police officers, juvenile institutional officers, and then mental health clinicians, we had a relationship with the California Department of Education. 


And obviously, the stress that the education departments have been under has just been off the charts the last two years. So, we really started doing a lot of online training with teachers, principals, and admin, including mindfulness leadership coaching one on one, 10 hours of our com training, which is just introductory mindfulness, and socio-emotional learning. 


So, that was really a godsend. That helped us carry through the pandemic until now we can get back in, and we're still continuing those training. And, yeah, we're really grateful. I mean, this one school year, we've got about three or four different contracts with a bunch of different regions in the states to do work. So grateful for that. 


Fleet Maull: 

Wow. 


Micah Anderson: 

It's been a struggle. It's been very, very hard. And you know, a lot of grief. Some of those guys that we were in the adult jail in Alameda. That was where the filmmaker was. Never saw any of them again. These are guys that I hadn't seen for, you know, a year and a half, two years have been working with, and then no idea where they are. There's a lot of grief around that. It was. It was hard. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah. Yeah, it is hard. I want to talk about the whole release situation in a moment. Now, I'm curious. So you do work in the Alameda County Jail. You also have done work in some of the surrounding counties, right, San Francisco County, and some of the others. 


Micah Anderson: 

San Mateo, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Contra Costa. Most of the Bay Area counties.


Fleet Maull: 

Well, let's talk about the post-release situation for a moment. When we were developing the Path of Freedom at this Lookout Mountain in Colorado for juveniles, we really wanted to develop a post-release program, a reentry program of some kind, but these youths were from all over the front range, from all the way north to the border of Wyoming all the way down to the border with New Mexico. Right. And so, they're just released all over the place. Where would we put a group? How would we run a group? It's just impossible. 


Fortunately, in a kind of Christian prison ministry, you know, it's a very Christian country and has a lot of resources. There are churches everywhere and groups everywhere. And also, a lot of facilities will not let the volunteers who go into a facility have any contact with released prisoners, adults, or youth. Right. And so some of the Christian ministries have some of their community go in, and the other do the outside program. And they do the handoff, right? 


Mindfulness and Dharma are way too young in this country to have those kinds of resources, right? When we moved to Rhode Island, this was mostly about the adults, but they were mostly being released into a few neighborhoods in Providence. We thought, "Well, we'll have a better shot." What we ended up doing was partnering with some other organizations that provided post-release services already in that community. We thought, well, we'll do a program there. But we still found that the people coming out of facilities are just surviving. 


They're trying to survive. They're dealing with the craziness of their life. They're dealing with their family. They're trying to make rent or get a place to live. They're trying to get transportation. They're trying to get a job. They're just trying to survive, or, you know, trying to stay free of the crime game, if they have that intention and they're just in survival. They don't really have the same bandwidth they had in the facility to focus on mindfulness and maybe do a mindfulness-based emotional intelligence curriculum and do a lot of great work. They get out, and they just don't have the bandwidth. So that was part of the problem. 


We did eventually have some luck. We have continued to work with some big facilities in the Boston area that support people coming out of facilities and out of homelessness with job training programs, and they're in there. They get housing for something like 16 weeks, and they get a lot of training. They're kind of a captive audience. They get housing, they get food, they get some job training, and they basically do whatever they're asked to do in terms of the programming. So we've integrated our programs there and had some success, but it's a really tough landscape. 


We talked about that hopelessness before. And you know, this is more of a question for the whole prison mindfulness movement, prison Dharma movement, you know. I don't know how we're going to do it, but until we find some sense to have some sense that we can support people when they get released, it's going to be difficult to deal with the hopelessness. I mean, that's one great thing again about the recovery movement. They have enough people involved in going into prisons, but they also have people that can meet people at the door and get them right to an AA or an NA meeting. Right? 


I'm just curious about your thoughts about this because it just seems like it's a passion of mine, how we're going to get there, but it seems like we have to find some way to provide for people because some people go really deep in both youth and adults. They become real practitioners on the other side. But if they don't get any support for that, and they don't have anywhere to go on the outside, it can slip away pretty quickly. 


Micah Anderson: 

Yeah. I wish I had the answer to give you. We have struggled throughout my tenure here. I don't think there's ever been a time where we've successfully been able to do any sort of group on a regular basis that's an aftercare group because even in a place like the Bay Area, right, it's so segregated in certain aspects. 


There are kids from East Oakland. They've never been to San Francisco. There are kids in San Mateo who have never stepped foot in a certain neighborhood in East Oakland because they're wearing the wrong colors. So there's all of these other dynamics. I remember that was a big one because there was a period of time, I want to say, like six, seven years ago, where we were starting to kind of like, this came up again, right? It kind of pops up every year, every two years. Like, "Argh. How are we going to do this?" And we were trying, and I remember the feedback from kids was like, "There's no way I could. How am I going to get there? Even if it's downtown. Let's take a cab. I don't have money to take a cab." Public transportation or all these kinds of things. So, it's been a real struggle for us. 


I think the one thing that you pointed out, which I kind of think the answer lies in, and I just don't know how we get to it yet, is partnerships. And it's one thing that MBA and I'll just speak, frankly, that we haven't really done well in over 20 years. It's like we've kind of gotten our contracts and been insular and just kind of keep your nose down and keep doing the work. But I think partnerships with other organizations, CBOs, that may be those people at the door, or there's some way to kind of corral around. For example, a group home. 


I think specifically targeting that captive audience. That's really the piece that you don't have. When they get out, like you said, it's like between all the responsibilities, and then maybe just like, not really giving the shit anymore about mindfulness or whatever because they forgot or it's been three months, and it's like, yeah, I don't have time for that or whatever. Right? 


I think really trying to partner with companies, organizations, whatever it might be that can help maybe provide that captive audience. Because again, I think that's the key piece for me, but it's certainly something that we've struggled with. I would love to see if anybody else at the summit's got some answers. Maybe we can try to figure something out because it would be for us as well. 


Fleet Maull: 

I'm trying to plant some seeds here, actually, for our summit audience. I'll plant one more seed. You know, my Zen teacher, Bernie Glassman, you know, probably in the last decade of his life, he had a vision for creating. He came out of all his work at Greyston and what they did there, and Yorker is a very impoverished African American community that's actually now being gentrified. But you know, the way things go, but at that time, when they went there, really, in an impoverished place on every level, and really struggling. They just went there and showed up, and all that grew this incredible Greyston model of projects. It's still there today, serving people. 


He had a vision for a much smaller scale thing, and the idea of creating what he called Zen houses, and he was actually training people to become like these lay zen urban minister activist Zen house people who would go in and maybe, you know, right in those neighborhoods, and ran up a funky house, a storefront or something, live there and just get in relationship with that community. It seems like we can't expect people coming out of facilities that we're going to bring them out to the suburbs to some White upper middle-class meditation group, right? 


And then, I think about, you know, if you showed up there and you were there, it's not even just a traditional service situation, but you just start to attract people and maybe even give them jobs and empower them to be running the houses and get, you know, just somehow get in that community, attract those people that are coming out of the facilities that somehow connected with mindfulness, connected with the Dharma, give them a place somewhere in their neighborhoods, in their communities, where they can go connect, just like the churches are. 


One of the reasons churches have survived in our culture is because there is one on every corner generally. You don't travel halfway across town to go to your church. Traditionally, you could walk to church, right? It's not quite that way in the suburbs anymore. But still, there's usually a church in your neighborhood. Right? And so, I think, we got to figure that out. 


Micah Anderson: 

I think Bernie was onto something, as he was on to a lot of things, right? Meet the people where they're at. Don't expect them to come to you. Literally and metaphorically, right? I think, in this case, it's more of a literal sense. It's like, I don't know if there's a better answer right now. That takes devotion, right people. 


Fleet Maull: 

Oh yeah, real dedication. 


Micah Anderson: 

Lots of scratches. Again, that's the one thing. It's just like you keep running up against it. It's like, we got our hat in hand. And it's like, trying to just get through the next six months. Never mind opening up some sort of facility like that. I think that's a sad reality that many of us are facing in this work. It's just support for rehabilitation. It focuses on corrections, not rehabilitation. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah. Like you, we've both been involved in this for a long time. I have a sense that there's an openness in the world of corrections to change. There is an opening, even for people working in the system. Especially the administrative. A lot of the administrative people and the leaders in the system have master's degrees. They have doctorates. They're progressive by nature. They may be conservative politically or not, but they want to do something. They want to do something good. I think there was a lot of big window of change coming before perhaps the Trump administration, but even he signed some reform stuff. I think there are possibilities. 


One of the inspirations around having a summit was to kind of re-empower the prison mindfulness and prison Dharma movement because we've all been just so trodden down during the pandemic, right? Prison volunteers are such amazing people. Their own hook on their own dime. They travel hours and hours that go to places out in the boonies, and they get turned away because of paperwork. 


I mean, it's such dedication, but everyone, to a fault, will say, I get so much more from this than I put into it, right? They've all had this taken away from them. Their joy, their service, their ability to go and serve, and so, you know, happy that it's opening up again, and hopefully, we can create some energy around this movement and also attract more support from it from funders and the government and so forth. 


Micah Anderson: 

Yeah, and the last thing just to speak to that maybe to, you know, throw in a hopeful note at the end is, I think, our experience, especially working in the sheriff's department here in Alameda County, which is substantial. The facility there is very large. Even at the top levels, there are talks that are pointing in the direction, where I'm like, "I can get behind that." You know what I mean? You guys are using the right words. You know what I mean? Transformative and evidence-based and trauma-informed, like, you know, those buzzwords are getting thrown out more and more. 


I hope it's just a matter of time before we start to see that triple down and start to shift within the facilities. And we know, these facilities are very hard to change the culture in these places, especially with the employees. It's actually easier to change the culture with the residents. Again, that's going to take training of the CBOs and training of the CEOs. All of these things where we get people who are line staff now, who understand a little bit about MBA's curriculum and what we do, they can then point to it. Right? 


If they see a kid starting to spiral out, it's just like, what did you all talk about on Saturday? Remember, S-T-O-P? Remember, whatever little thing that they know, and then they can start to be there because the dosage, as you know, is key to that. So, the more partnership and collaboration, I think they're on for me like some sort of answer. 


Fleet Maull: 

Great. Well, it's been incredibly rich. Thank you so much, Micah. Thank you for your work and your contribution to the summit. Really great to connect and have this conversation today. 


Micah Anderson: 

Thank you, Fleet. Yeah, it's been an honor to be a part of it. Thanks. 


Fleet Maull: 

Be well. 


Micah Anderson: 

Yeah, you too. 


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