Planting the Seed: An Interview with Leslie Booker about her Experience Implementing Power Source with Youth on Rikers Island

In 2008, The Lionheart Foundation began our biggest pilot of the Power Source Program with youth in the adolescent units on Rikers Island. We were fortunate to recruit several committed facilitators to implement the program and help us to evaluate the impact of the program on participants, one of whom was Leslie Booker. Booker brings her heart and wisdom to the intersection of Dharma + Embodied Wisdom + Social Justice; an integration of ancient wisdom practices that support us in navigating our modern world. To learn more about Booker, visit lesliebooker.com

Watch the interview or read the transcript below!

Tell us about yourself and your work.

My name is Leslie Booker and my work is at the intersection of Dharma, embodied wisdom, and liberation practices. I started doing this work – really my heart work – around 2006, bringing the practices of yoga and mindfulness to incarcerated youth and vulnerable populations, so working with folks who are experiencing homelessness, living with HIV and AIDS, living with addiction. My primary heart work was always working with young people who were locked up and away from their families.

How did you first come in contact with Lionheart and the Power Source Program?

It was a total fluke! I had been teaching yoga and mindfulness in jails for a few years and really feeling my heartbeat just so deeply connected to that work and wanted to do it in a much bigger way. And at that time, I was able to teach a class or two a week, and I had just sat my first retreat, and then I went to Uganda to sit a private retreat with a monk, with Bhante Buddharakkita. And when I left Uganda I asked him for advice because I had quit my job, I had taken every penny that I had to go there and be on this retreat with him, and when I left he said to me, “your work has to be your practice and your practice has to be your work there can be no separation.” So, I came back and I was trying to figure out how to have a life that was fully intertwined and connected where I wasn’t doing my practice and my life – that I was doing both together. A friend of mine had forwarded me an email from The Lionheart Foundation looking for a facilitator to do a project on Rikers Island, and I remember I got it and I said, “I’m completely not you know – I can’t do that sort of work, I’m not qualified for that.” My friend said, I think this is your job, and I said, “I don’t know, I don’t know.” So I put it away and I put it away, and finally I circled back and I responded to them. I think I was the 100th applicant for this job and it was like just boom, boom, boom, and within three days they hired me. It blew me away and it felt like it was the right time, the right fit, the right people – like all the circumstances just fell into place and I was so happy to find a home with Lionheart.

How was your first experience with Power Source connected with your life goals?

I think the job description was “research assistant” and I was like I don’t do that – but I teach yoga and I teach mindfulness, and I’ve been working with vulnerable populations for a long time – I really know how to do that. And so it was this really beautiful fit of me coming in and saying these are my skills, and then the people that ended up being my co-facilitators, Jess and Isaiah, who are both getting their PhDs in psychology, and so it’s this really beautiful combination of all of our skills and our heart work coming together. I kind of introduced and educated them around mindfulness, and then they brought in their psychology and educated and supported me in learning about CBT. It was just the perfect… it just came together so beautifully. And the ability to be able to do the work, so to take the work I had been doing, and go on to Rikers Island and to do this work full time was really such a blessing and unheard of at that time. So it really gave me the opportunity to take this heart work and to really do it in a very full way.

Who can benefit from the concepts and skill-based learning in Power Source?

You know, the thing about folks who have been incarcerated – about that whole system – is that they don’t want you to survive, they don’t want you to thrive. They do everything they can to take away your humanity, your nobility, and your dignity. And this project, Power Source, was allowing folks to reclaim all of that: to have autonomy, to have choice, to have decision making skills – to tell people like, you’re not done. We’re not done with you – we still think that there’s something in there, we still see your humanity, we still see that light. And this project really allowed us to go in and work with young people, with young men, that were 16 to 18 years old who were already serving, some of them, multiple year sentences, and so many of these young people happened had been in and out of jail since they were teenagers – they had been told that that was just who they were going to be, that there is no other opportunity for them to be anything other than an incarcerated person someone who is constantly in and out of jail. And this project said that’s not true. You know, it really was like, this isn’t true; we see you, we see you, we want to celebrate your humanity, we just want to love you up.

How would you describe the impact of the Power Source Program on the people you worked with at Rikers Island?

I felt like so many kids that we worked with didn’t have access in their lives to be vulnerable, to be raw, to talk about the fact that there was fear in their experience, how lonely it was to be away from their friends and family and community as they were being locked away. And you know, me, Jess, and Isaiah created such a deep connection with these young people; they told us things that they never told anyone else. We really felt like their big brother and sisters, or their aunties or uncle – we felt so connected to them and so it was so important for us to keep showing up every day even when we were exhausted, we were like, “but we gotta get to our kids!” It was so important. Once we were on the Q100 going to Rikers Island, this horrible bus that takes you onto the island, and we got into a bus accident. So, the bus hit a cab and it was from those double long buses in New York and I flew from the back of the bus and woke up in the front of the bus, so I had flown two bus lengths and landed on my shoulder. And you know, I was unconscious for a little bit, I definitely had injured my shoulder, and everyone’s like, “you’ve got to the hospital” and I was like “no I gotta get to my kids.” And I might have been a little bit delirious – I might have been like a little concussed at the time – but I remember just being like “of course I’m not going to hospital, we’re on our way to go see our kids, we’re already late – we have to get to them.” So for those two solid years we never missed a day. It was so important for us to make sure that we showed up.

Has the work that you did with Lionheart influenced your work today?

So when the project was over I immediately went to Spirit Rock where I began my first of which would be 10 years of training at Spirit Rock to be a Dharma teacher. And so my foundational work of being an activist and working with vulnerable populations really allowed me to share the teachings of the Dharma. And it really helped me to understand the deep suffering of the world and to understand these teachings of liberation. It’s not just about sitting on your cushion and navel gazing and being quiet and having your own personal liberation – it’s really about collective liberation. So, if I’m not free you can’t be free, and if you’re not free I’m not going to be free. And so you know, what we did together in Power Source was that we came together as a community, as a sangha, to make sure that every single one of us were lifted up, and the young boys that we worked with – the young men that we worked with – they were so committed to each other. So in an environment that really pitted them against each other that made them believe that they were each other’s enemy, this project allowed them to understand that they belong to each other and that their liberation was inherently connected to each other. 

So the work that I do now as a Dharma teacher, as a meditation teacher, I bring that in and I remind people that this is not an isolated practice that we’re doing, we have to do this in a collective – in relationship. And when we were doing this work we realized – we noticed – that we would do this amazing work with the kids and then the Corrections Officer would be off in the background making fun of them or trying to interrupt them. And so, we started to engage with them, and I think that there was a little bit of jealousy of not being seen, of not being witnessed. You know, the teachers that are going in there, the Corrections Officers that are working there, they’re also locked up behind doors every day – they are also feeling the impact of incarceration, even though they’re able to go home each day, that is where they’re spending most of their lives. And I realized very early on in doing that work that it’s not it’s not just about working with the kids, with the students; we have to work with everyone – with the staff, with the administration, with everyone who is involved, because it doesn’t work with only one piece of the puzzle is in place. It has to be a collective practice and a collective understanding of what we’re doing together. And so to have the support of staff, of everyone, the educators, is what allows this work to really, really, really be in its fullest beauty and its fullest of strength – is when everyone can come together and share a similar language so that when there’s conflict we can find shared language to find resolution. So, it’s so incredibly important that everyone’s doing this work together, not just one aspect: everyone’s got to do this work together.

Who would you recommend Power Source to?

I think everyone who is in direct service with other humans should be a part of this work… which means most of the world! But especially if you are in service to other folks: if you are working with vulnerable populations, having the capacity to have a little bit more tenderness, a little bit more compassion; having the skills that really support you to peel back the layers and take off the mask and see the human behind the bad behavior. It is incredibly powerful. You know, I was doing this work before I came to Power Source, working with vulnerable populations, and having this additional language… I mean, it was transformational in how I was able to do the other work that I was doing in the world. It gives you a place to land, language to speak, a different perspective to look at things, and so it was just such an incredible platform to deepen my ability to be in better communication, to be in better relationship with everyone that I worked with in the past, what – between 2009 and 2022… So however many years that’s been. It’s really influenced everything I’ve done since then.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us today?

When I was younger, I was an activist and one of those people who had my mouth wide open, and my ears and my eyes completely shut off to anyone who didn’t agree with me, and I got really burnt out and left that world. And I started my work with vulnerable populations, and finding Power Source and doing that work – it really allowed me to reopen that part of my past experience, a part of my heart that I really wanted to get out on the streets and fight for what I truly believe in. And so, deepening my mindfulness practice and having the skills from Power Source allowed me to re-engage in the world and activism in a way that didn’t burn me out, in a way that didn’t harm other people, and in a way that really allowed us to understand we weren’t fighting against each other – that we were really fighting for our freedoms. And to understand that it might look different for other people based on our social locations, and I can still have a conversation, I can still be in relationship with those who I consider to be my enemies before, because I have this new way of communicating and integrating my practice, and really showing up in my heart work in the biggest way that I could.