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In the summer of 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic and a nationwide reckoning with racism following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, community organizer DuShaun Pollard recognized that people needed spaces to rest and reflect.
Pollard decided to post her thoughts on social media, arguing that people desperately needed a place to process all that was happening in the world. Eventually, that post led her to a partnership with Taylor Mason, a fellow activist who also saw the demand for more opportunities to slow down, breathe and build community with others in a supportive setting.
Together, Mason and Pollard founded Black Brown + Breathing, a grassroots organization that “hosts socially distanced, healing-centered activations at sites of resistance and protest throughout Chicago to reclaim them as our own,” according to its Facebook page. The roughly hourlong events, which are initially guided by organizers but largely group-led, give students a chance to talk about their feelings, meditate or just rest in a supportive environment.
A year later, after Mason and Pollard started hosting virtual or socially distanced events, Lauren Hamilton, an equity analyst at Evanston Township High School and the secretary to the assistant superintendent, reached out to them about conducting workshops with ETHS students. Hamilton had attended one of their events in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, and she thought BBB could be a great resource for students transitioning back to in-person learning.
“With everyone going back to school, the school itself wanted to have programs that could support students, support staff and teachers, particularly students of color who were not only processing coming back, but also knowing that Black and Brown communities had borne a lot of the brunt of the pandemic’s effects when it came to mental health and the actual health impacts of it,” Mason said.
With 2020 and 2021 being so overwhelming, Pollard said the goal was to build a space for ETHS students not only to feel the full extent of their emotions, but also to grapple with the impact of their experiences along with a group of supportive listeners. One of the most important things the organizers found out, according to Pollard, is that not everyone has somewhere they can go to breathe, meditate or process their feelings.
The last two years have also brought immense challenges for high schoolers, who have seen practically every aspect of their lives upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering the uncertainty and stress they have faced every day, high school students need support and a place where they can talk about their experiences, Pollard and Mason said.
“When we did our first activation at ETHS, the response from students was overwhelming,” Mason said. “We set aside time throughout the day for four different activations, and I think within that five-, six-hour period, we had over 150 students that attended. And for us, it was beautiful to see, but it was also very eye-opening because so many students knew that they needed it and felt that they needed it.”
That initial activation at ETHS took place in October, and since then, Mason and Pollard have spent time meeting with students, teachers and parents in a number of different settings. More than anything, parents of color have specifically mentioned the need for young people to feel comfortable being vulnerable and discussing societal issues like systemic racism, policing, gender inequality, the pandemic and more, according to Mason.
“You have to remember that there have been so many transitions, and it’s not like kids don’t notice these things. They’re living them,” Pollard said. “They are fully present in what is going on in their lives, so that’s something I’ve learned and continue to think about often.”
Additionally, social distancing requirements during the pandemic have also led to Mason and Pollard holding some of their gatherings in outdoor spaces like parks or forest preserves around Chicago. People often take the natural beauty of the Chicago region for granted, Mason said, while adding that nature is frequently less accessible for communities of color.
BBB has used its platform to show people of color how they can use public outdoor spaces to take a break, get in touch with their surroundings and recharge. Both Pollard and Mason argue that being in nature can be a tangible reminder to avoid getting caught up in the intensity of and to cast off the blinders of work, school and daily life in general.
“I think something young people really get to work with us on is being seen as a whole human,” Mason said. “We’re not teachers, we’re not disciplinarians, we’re not anything like that. We just come in, we get to have our time and they can feel a little bit more free.”
Pollard also added that while BBB is specifically focused on providing space for communities of color to deal with trauma, white students and parents also are welcome to take advantage of the space. Above all else, BBB is a place where anyone can rest and speak their mind, but allies must acknowledge that people of color deserve that space, too, Pollard said.
“Come in and be open and ready for Black and Brown folks to be centered, but also know that this space is for you, and that’s OK,” Pollard said. “It’s OK for Black and Brown folks to be centered because there are so few places that they are.”