A community organization is hosting outdoor yoga lessons in Russell Square Park in Denver's Cole neighborhood to help local youth feel welcome amidst the changing demographics in the area.
“They’ve seen their livelihoods change, their homes change, and their parks change,” said Ramsey Harris. “It allows youth to come back into the park and reclaim it and say, ‘I belong here. This is my park. I was born and raised here in Denver, on the East Side.’”
Harris is the community program director for the nonprofit Gang Rescue and Support Project, or GRASP. The group was founded in 1991 following the tragic death of a teenager who was victim to a drive-by shooting. The goal was to create an organization to help young people involved in gangs or kids who were at risk of joining a gang. According to the nonprofit's website, GRASP is effective in part because it is run by mostly ex-gang members who understand the struggles of the young people they are trying to reach.
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“Yes, we focus on youth who are in gangs. But we also focus on something called intergenerational trauma,” Harris said. “And when it comes to intergenerational trauma, we realize that what we experience as adults and parents, we will eventually pass down to the youth.”
According to Harris, that trauma has been brought on not just by gang violence and drug abuse, but also by newly gentrified neighborhoods. “What we’ve seen in the last five to ten years here on the East Side is a lot of the residents who have lived here all their lives and passed on their DNA of Denver to their youth...they have been pushed out due to gentrification,” Harris said.
GRASP has several different programs to spread their message and help at-risk youth, from mural projects, removal of gang-related tattoos, to healing and support circles. Recently, GRASP started outdoor yoga lessons in Russell Square Park.
The idea for the yoga program came from residents near the park who were concerned about gentrification in the area. Harris said that so many new residents have moved into the neighborhoods in recent years that the kids who grew up there—and whose parents grew up there—felt like they weren’t welcome in the park anymore.
Beverly Grant, who owns Mo’ Betta Green MarketPlace, is a yoga instructor for the program. She says the yoga classes will continue for about five more weeks, until the summer programming ends.
“With these strange times, we need more positive outlets,” Grant said. “We need healing outlets, and yoga for sure is healing for the mind, the body, the spirit, the soul.”
Grant says the attendance proves the program is working. If you go to Russell Square park, you might see over a dozen kids and young adults stretched out on yoga mats, shoes off to the side, with an instructor calmly guiding them through the lesson. They’ll all have headphones on, too. That’s how they can better hear the lesson.
“Kids are naturally attracted to technology, and I don’t know a single youth that doesn’t own a pair of earbuds or over-ear headphones,” Grant said. “So the headphones, it makes it more intimate and it also helps you to drown out other distractions that are just naturally happening around you.”
Harris says GRASP works to provide youth with love, respect, family, and communal connection—all things that a kid might have been looking for when they decided to join a gang.
“You can get all those things in a different environment,” Harris said. “It’s about self-esteem, about loving who you are, and it’s about loving each other.”