USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Transforming the American Sangha: Race, Racism and Diversity in North American Insight Meditation

Transforming the American Sangha: Race, Racism and Diversity in North American Insight Meditation

North American Insight Meditation institutions, rooted in the Vipassana tradition of Theravada Buddhism, are often seen as liberal, inclusive multicultural spaces committed to welcoming diverse constituencies into their communities. The research undertaken through the Transforming the American Sangha project, or TAS, nuances this image by using a social scientific lens to understand the struggles, experiences and practices of people of color (PoC) who are teachers, practitioners and advocates who have sought to incorporate race and diversity concerns in major American Insight institutions over the last three decades. The project will traverse ground between meditation practice and social justice and give voice to PoC leadership’s unique perspective on the way meditation is popularly understood in the United States.

Over the past couple of decades, PoC Insight meditation practitioners have produced a broad and varying set of initiatives to facilitate institutional change around diversity, inclusion and multiculturalism. These have resulted in changes within existing Insight groups and have encouraged the founding of new community spaces, both formal and informal. Yet, these multiple approaches are often disparate and not readily available to other teachers and practitioners.

TAS presents an opportunity to document, analyze and convert decades of experience and learning about effective social transformation by PoC leadership into practically applicable resources and potentially the development of new models for future leaders and funders to implement and champion. The core activity of the initiative will be documenting the experiences of ethnic and racial minority leadership within North American meditation-based Insight institutions and their efforts to confront and challenge racism and embed diversity, equity and inclusion practices (DEI) within these institutions.

Over the three years of the project, TAS will pursue two primary objectives: to facilitate learning and offer resources, and to help others build inclusive communities. Specifically, TAS will explore the various strategies, tactics and negotiations that PoC leaders in Insight meditation institutions have engaged in to bring race and diversity concerns to the foreground and examine the ways these efforts have been frustrated or rewarded. TAS will explore the lessons learned and best practice models from this struggle and the efforts of leaders in movement-building. The research will focus on both their accomplishments and how their efforts can be replicated, adapted and applied in other institutions, including other Buddhist organizations as well as secular institutions. The research will directly feed into a book-length academic publication. Written with a wide audience in mind, the aim is to create the most authoritative, comprehensive and relevant account of the experiences of people of color who have been at the forefront of DEI work in American Insight spaces.

Updates from the project—including articles, presentations and blog posts—can be found here.

Nalika Gajaweera, a cultural anthropologist with a specific interest in the intersections of Buddhism, race, ethno-nationalism and gender, will lead the project as co-PI with CRCC Executive Director Richard Flory. Gajaweera will coordinate the initiative’s research activities and will be responsible for the writing and publication of the resulting book project. In addition, the team will engage Prof. Ann Gleig, a CRCC fellow and author of American Dharma, as an external consultant throughout the course of the project.

Transforming the American Sangha project is supported by a generous grant from the Kataly Foundation.

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Photo credit: East Bay Meditation Center, People of Color Sangha