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A meditation center in Oakland rooted in diversity and social justice

Courtesy of Spring Washam
Spring Washam

Meditation teacher and author Spring Washam wanted more diversity and focus on social justice issues in Buddhist communities. So she, along with other teachers, activists co-founded the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland.

Spring Washam taps a singing bowl. The sound gently reminds people to wrap up their first silent meditation of the day. Spring is leading a day-long retreat at the East Bay Meditation Center (EBMC). She reminds people to take care of themselves throughout the day.

I want you to feel like you can be comfortable,” she says. “So if you need to move at any time, you can stand up.

People like Craig Raphael who practice meditation at EBMC, tell me they’re comfortable here for another reason.

I love how diverse and welcoming EBMC is,” he says.

EBMC’s sangha, or community, is a blend of different genders, cultures, and class. I look around the temple. Rainbow flags are draped along the walls. A photo of Martin Luther King shares the altar with a Buddha statue, and near it, a memorial table with a Black Lives Matter sign. This is not only a spiritual center, but a social justice space. That’s evident by the talk Spring gives after the first meditation. It’s on having joy during these tough times.

She says, Ok you can try to deny me my rights over here. You can say I’m inferior, try to manipulate economic systems and use police to intimidate me. You can do all of these things but here, I can know I’m free here.

She’s pointing to her head. “Here” is in the mind. She emphasizes using the practice of mindfulness to stay centered and present, even when you’re impacted by chaos.

What led Spring Washam to Buddhism

Spring Washam knows personally about trying to survive. She was born in Long Beach to a black father and white mother in 1973. This was back when interracial relationships were even less accepted. She spent much of her childhood in Southern California living in rough neighborhoods. Her parents were poor and had a rocky marriage. Spring’s father struggled with drug addiction and left the family. Then her mother brought violent boyfriends to their home.

I had to move out due to my mother's relationship when I was about 15,” she says. “I was on my own in Los Angeles and [there was all of this] drama that happens when you’re alone and you don’t have a lot of wisdom.

Drama like enduring more violence, and selling marijuana to pay the bills and rent.

She says, “When I got to be in my late teens, I sort of had a breakdown and got very depressed for a long period of time. I would just cry all the time and I wanted to heal.”

Several years later, Spring moved to East Oakland. She was out of a job and in a bad relationship. She tried learning meditation at a Hindu temple in Richmond.

I would go to the three-hour meditations and just sit there. And they would say, ‘Love God.’ And I was like, I'm trying to love God but my mind is crazy. I don't even think I'm meditating right. I would just think about all my problems. So, by happenstance, someone told me about a 10-day retreat and they teach you how to meditate.

Spring drove to Southern California for the retreat. She says the teachings were life-changing.

“So when I went to the retreat they were saying just be in the present moment, follow your breath. It was like this loud insane TV channel was turned off and then I was like, oh. And I felt this peace. It sounds so simple just stop. And I was actually able to do that over the 10 days. It led to so much profound feelings of peace, understanding and letting go.

“It's hard for people to stop,” I say to her.

“Oh, I mean we're crazy,” she responds. “We're running around. We have our phones. We have our computers and everybody is going so fast. It's a radical act to press the pause button and just be present. But learning how to do that is essential if you want some kind of inner peace.”

As she began to immerse herself more in the Buddhist faith and travel to retreats, she realized how often she stood out.

Everybody was in their 70s and I was the only woman of color. I was the youngest person and it became disheartening. You need to feel like you're one with your people. I didn't feel like I fit there. Also when you're doing meditation practices or any kind of healing work, those layers of oppression and suffering start to come up; the sadness of my father's life, my ancestors, my own life the feelings of that. The did leave me wanting to create a community in Downtown Oakland for everybody. But, I was really focused and on communities of color.”

Diversity and Inclusion

People come from around the country and abroad to EBMC because of its diversity and social justice programs. And some visiting teachers say it’s one of the most diverse Buddhist centers they’ve been to in the world.

“Yeah that's been said many times about us,” says Spring. “I think that that is the new wave here as this movement toward including everybody. Inclusivity is the word.”

But why is inclusivity a new wave in Buddhism here in the West? Especially since the Buddha was from India?

Chinese immigrants brought Buddhism to North America back in the 1840s when settling on the West Coast OF the United States. North Americans and Europeans traveling to Asia brought back Buddhist literature/texts. In the 1890s Asian Buddhist leaders began lecturing here in the U.S. Then in the 1950s and ‘60s, during the eras of Beat Poets and Summer of Love, younger white people saw Buddhism as a spiritual practice without the rigid expectations of some religions. They became deeply interested in Asian cultures and some went on to become teachers in the 1970s.

Some of the early teachers who brought this kind of Western Buddhist philosophy and they brought it here and it was seen as exotic and a little exclusive,” explains Spring. “And they didn't have a multicultural lens.”

So western Buddhist spaces became largely white. And many still are but things are changing. A few meditation centers focused on diversity have formed in OTHER parts of the country. And some communities are including more multicultural programming and teachers. EBMC even has a White and Awakening Sangha for members to learn about their own racial privilege and inclusivity.

Class/Economic Inclusion

I meet Michele Williams. She is African American and lives in Oakland. Michele has volunteered with EBMC since it opened 12 years ago. The location is convenient for her because she doesn’t have to travel to remote places for retreats. She says affordability is another major draw too.

“You don't pay to come to workshops,” she says. “You can just come and make a donation if you're able and willing to do that. You have to pay quite a bit of money for some other places.

Quite a bit can be hundreds to thousands of dollars. But the center was founded on the principle of dana, which is Sanskrit for generosity.

Spring’s next steps

The daylong retreat has come to a close and turned into a going away potluck. Spring is leaving to write another book and travel in Peru.

Jenn Biehn is on the center’s leadership board. She’s pretty comfortable about what’s next for the center.

What’s beautiful is that EBMC kind of flows with the river,” she says. “You know teachers come and go. A lot of the founding teachers come back and teach periodically as well.”

Spring Washam isn’t gone for good. She says she’ll still visit the East Bay Meditation Center, to help with big events.

Spring Washam’s book is A Fierce Hart: Finding Strength, Love, and Wisdom in Any Moment.



Jeneé Darden is an award-winning journalist, author, public speaker and proud Oakland native. She hosts the weekly arts segment Sights & Sounds and covers East Oakland for KALW. Jenee has reported for NPR, Marketplace, KQED, KPCC, The Los Angeles Times, Ebony magazine, Refinery29 and other outlets. In 2005, she reported on the London transit bombings for Time magazine. Prior to coming to KALW, she hosted the podcast Mental Health and Wellness Radio.