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Lions Roar : November 2016
From the Streets to College Taz Tagore, cofounder of the Reciprocity Foundation Taz Tagore is not going to get you a job at McDonald’s. While many organizations working with homeless and foster youth are satisfied with helping them find part-time jobs, Tagore believes young people deserve more. In 2005, Tagore and fellow activist Adam Bucko were collaborating on projects at Covenant House in New York City. “We were seeing that young people were not making a successful transition out of homelessness,” Tagore says. “They were stepping out of the system for a few months, but they’d be back in. Conventional tools weren’t helping, and it was heartbreaking to see.” That experience gave Tagore and Bucko the courage to start the Reciprocity Foundation, which has pioneered the “Whole Person Approach” to working with homeless and foster youth. The foundation helps young people trust their inner voice through yoga, meditation, holistic counseling, and spiritual retreat. Once they’re ready to connect their inner wisdom to the outer world, the foundation helps them apply to college, find independent housing, cultivate professional skills, and eventu- ally start careers in media, education, social activism, or any- thing else that inspires them. “We’re not interested in solutions that simply try to work with external conditions,” says Tagore, who now serves as the foundation’s executive director. “We’re interested in uncovering deeper solutions that engage a young person’s mind and heart. They’re much more comprehensive and sustainable solutions because they’re rooted from within that person.” Tagore says they’ve had to pioneer their own model, often in the face of skepticism. “We’ve had to be advocates for weaving contemplative practice into social services and proving it was the secret sauce that created healthy transformation. Proving it was this approach that creates real and lasting change was a dif- ficult but wonderful challenge for us.” The first few years of the foundation were difficult. “I had to cash in part of my 401(k), and we felt like we ourselves could become homeless,” says Tagore. “There wasn’t much openness to contemplative, holistic approaches. Back then, people didn’t see how it was going to make a big difference.” Eventually the effort paid off. “Now our approach is not just an idea,” Tagore says. “It’s been proven with data and statistics and stories. We have become teachers of our methodology. It’s really nice to have gone, in twelve years, from not many people having faith in our ideas to showing others a different set of outcomes that are much more sustainable.” Tagore, who is a Buddhist teacher, says this work is spiritual practice for her. “It was clear, from a very young age, that I’m here to serve others. I’ve seen so much suffering in youth— trauma that’s psychological or physical or sexual. They feel helpless. “Buddhism taught me experience is relational to our mind. Depending on our orientation to our experiences, we can either feel overwhelmed and disempowered or we can feel like, ‘Aha, how interesting. By changing my perspective, and practicing mindfulness and compassion, I can shift my experience.’ That’s empowering for someone feeling a lot of pain.” Suffering can be a reason to shut down and get angry, or it can become the spark for compassion, Tagore notes. “There’s so much potential for positivity in anger, but many people working with homeless and foster youth are dealing with it as a completely negative situation. We wanted to provide a space for youth to work with very caring adults and contemplative practices so they could see what’s possible beyond what they’ve already experienced.” Future plans for the Reciprocity Foundation include form- ing a leadership collective with graduates from their programs, meditation sessions for incarcerated youth, and connecting to other large social movements such as the LGBT community. “The engagement of Buddhist practice gives immediate relief,” says Tagore. “That’s unique. There are a lot of other organizations—religious and secular—that offer meals or tem- porary shelter. But we’re offering peace. That’s profound.” PHOTOFROMVIDEOBYALEXFRADKIN Taz Tagore and Adam Bucko founded the Reciprocity Foundation in New York City to show homeless and foster youth that a better life begins with self-awareness. Through their programs, many at-risk youth have gone on to earn college degrees. LION’S ROAR | NOVEMBER 2016 67