Inner Strength Education

When she was a kid, Amy Edelstein’s father, a particle physicist, would challenge her with deep questions about the big, complex world around her. This kind of upbringing opened her eyes and nurtured Amy’s adventurous spirit. At 8 years old, she moved with her father to live in Israel. By 20, she had moved to Asia on her own, eventually ending up in the mountains of Nepal. This was the 80’s, a much different world from the constantly connected culture we live in today, but Amy was embarking on a decades-long journey that would see her teaching around the world, and crossing paths with the likes of the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Jane Goodall. Now, she’s using all of her experiences to help inner-city kids in Philadelphia through Inner Strength Education, formerly known as Inner Strength Foundation.

Full Transcript

Chris Straigis – 0:02
From AAC Studios, welcome to scrappy, the podcast about small companies doing big things. I’m your host, Chris Straigis.

Chris Straigis – 0:15
Today we meet Amy Edelstein. She’s an author of five books including the award winning bestseller The Conscious Classroom. She’s an educator, a public speaker, and the founder and executive director of the Inner Strength Foundation. They provide innovative programs that use mindfulness training and cultural development to help transform teens and by extension, transform the city and the world within which these kids grow up. Amy has 35 years of experience working with contemplative tools like meditation and developmental philosophy, and is taught in half a dozen countries around the world. When I first heard about her Foundation, I was really really intrigued by the mission. Being a parent of teens myself. I’m keenly aware of some of the challenges they face. The idea that she’s committed to is simply changing the life of a child from the inside, so that not only will that child benefit, but the world outside will also be a beneficiary of that transformation. And she’s doing her work in a place where kids can really use it. The inner city school system of one of the largest cities in the US, Philadelphia,

Amy Edelstein – 1:25
My goal with the program is to reach a significant percentage of Philadelphia’s high school students every year. Over time and and look at the outcomes.

Chris Straigis – 1:36
I asked me what started her down the path and she told me about her dad and how he really unlocked in her and awareness and an appreciation for the greater world around us and our connectivity within that world.

Amy Edelstein – 1:48
When I was a young child, and I mean young, sort of four, five and six, my father who was a particle physicist, used to ask myself and my brother these very difficult to answer questions. So he wanted, he would ask us what infinity was, and he would have us look at the stars and say, well, if the stars ended, what happens after the end? And we would look at the night sky and try to figure out these unanswerable questions. And he would talk to us about quarks and mesons and pi mesons and how we’re all made up of the same stuff at this very microscopic level. So he, he engendered in us this pursuit of the unknowable and the miraculous in the mysterious and in the world, how the world works. When I was eight, he had took a sabbatical in Israel. We were, I was raised culturally Jewish, but we weren’t religious, but we went there when I was in third grade. I learned the language and I loved it, and I decided that I really felt at home there. After high school I went for another year. It was an era of hope and possibility. It was the era of the Camp David agreement, the peace agreement. It was just a real time of hope and possibility. And I was swept up in that. I was interested in building an urban, small urban model where Arabs and Jews live together. And and there were a few examples at that time, I think they’ve probably disbanded, given the political climate in the intervening decades. And so that was what inspired me to get on that course of study and to build a new community. And that idea of how do we evolve the structures of culture to create opportunities for everyone’s creative potential to be released is something that’s really motivated me all my life. Philadelphia is a good place for that. My house is on a tiny cobblestone street where, quite literally, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and, and Adams and Hamilton and they all walked around that street. And they were, you know, a bunch of guys in Philadelphia and they weren’t that old. And they were trying to figure out, you know, how do we design structures of culture that are going to better encourage human higher potentials. And, you know, here we have, you know, the American democracy was really, you know, a bunch of people just sitting around and drinking beer and talking and trying to figure out how it could work and then working hard to make it happen. So being in Philadelphia is a good it’s a good place at this point in my life, because it feels, it continues to feel very real that we actually can innovate in a way that’s going to produce better outcomes for everyone.

Chris Straigis – 4:52
I was curious if she started feeling that sense of mindfulness or just general compassion or social compassion, that deeper connectivity, in her college years when she was developing much bigger and broader worldviews, or if it was something sparked from when she was a kid, you know, when her dad was helping to open up her world.

Amy Edelstein – 5:12
I had, as many kids do, I just had a sense of some kind of connectivity, some kind of unity factor, oneness or happiness that seems to rise without cause. And that didn’t really come from the explorations. It just was something that you know, you often see kids who seem to know things and then they forget later on, and I don’t really know where it comes from, and I don’t want to speculate but I did have that sense and then college was a more organized pursuit. You know, how do I want to live my life what is meaningful and purposeful? Why are we here? I did a lot of reading in high school, both visionary thinkers and poets and mystics. And once I was at Cornell, I realized that academic pursuit is great and I had extraordinary teachers, but they would knowledgeable and good people, but they weren’t necessarily wise. And I was looking for what I consider to be wisdom. And I couldn’t really define it at the time, but I was looking for people who really seem to know what the human quest was all about. And that was partly what sparked me to go East.

Chris Straigis – 6:41
So in 1983, at 20 years old, she jumped into her life quest with both feet, or maybe more fell into it. She ended up in one of the spiritual epicenters of the East, Nepal,

Amy Edelstein – 6:55
I went to Asia when I was 20. It was a little bit of an accident that I I ended up in Nepal. And that was really the beginning of the next 30 years of my life. I was going to Japan for a junior semester abroad, which was a big thing to do. And in ’82/’83, a lot of trade was opening up with Japan and they needed people who spoke Japanese. So I studied some intensive Japanese language at Cornell. And then I was going to go there and continue my language studies. Secretly, I wanted to get good enough so I could go live in zendo and practice. But I didn’t tell my advisors that. And on my way there I stopped in Thailand, and I had had a pact with a high school friend that if we ever had the opportunity, we would go to Nepal and see the Himalayas not necessarily together but we, we promised each other we would do that. So I thought, okay, now’s the time. As soon as I arrived in, in Thailand, I felt that the exoticism and the freedom there being in another culture and you have to remember this was 1980. It was January of ’83. There was no internet. There were no cell phones. If you wanted to communicate, you had to send an aerogram back. And it could take two or three weeks. You couldn’t really look things up unless you had a book and the book could be out of date. None of the monasteries or retreat centers had phones. It was a really, really – there was no GPS, you could really explore now. I of course, thought that it was too late. You know, it was 1983. And I felt the real explorers when in the 60s and 70s. So I always felt like I was 10 years behind at times. But I met travelers there and they told me about this Buddhist country called Burma, present day Myanmar. So I went to Burma then I went to Bangladesh. Then I went to Nepal. And that was it. You know, I a world was opening up to me that I had no idea about.

Chris Straigis – 9:09
Amy took an opportunity to study meditation on a 10 day retreat at a Tibetan center in the Kathmandu Valley. She says the time it actually felt monotonous that style of meditation was being taught to monks from a very young age, so coming into it at 20 years old was difficult. But in hindsight, she said she still carries the wisdom of some of those lessons with her today. She then spent the following 12 months literally walking around the mountains, sometimes at altitudes as high as 17,000 feet, using just a paper map of trails that she got from the Indian government. She eventually found herself in Dharamsala and study with the Dalai Lama and other teachers there. As she tells me being around those kind of people throughout her life is an invaluable part of her experience and her teaching.

Amy Edelstein – 9:56
I always encourage the students I teach now and everyone I meet to meet people that you admire up close and personal. And when I traveled in Asia, I always wanted to meet the teachers directly. And I always wanted to just sit with them and absorb who they were, how they were, how they treated people what they did. And I think it’s really important we learn from each other and we learn through relationship. And, you know, nowadays you can see anybody online, you know, and you can pull up you know, YouTube’s and watch people talk. But it’s a whole different thing when you’re when you’re standing next to somebody you know, if you’re standing next to Nelson Mandela, it grabs your arm, it leaves an impression on you. And when you can look at him and you see that he can’t really see very well because he worked in the chalk mines on Robben Island for 27 years when he was imprisoned there and then you go to Robben Island, you say oh my god. It’s like white chalk and this blue sea around the island, and it’s blinding. And that’s why he is the way is and then you get his gentleness and compassion. It comes across on video, but it’s different than when you’re, you know, right in somebody’s vicinity. So I always wanted to do that. I wrote for a magazine that did long in depth interviews with contemporary philosophical and visionary and spiritual figures. So I got to be I had a private interview with the Dalai Lama. So I got to fly back to India where I had already lived in that town, probably a total of about a year and a half. And so I’d gotten to see him on many different occasions where he was teaching or meeting, Tibetans in the town. But getting to interview him was special and I got to talk with him for an hour on the nature of emptiness. I went as a freelance journalists to the UN summit on sustainable development South Africa 2002. So I got to interview, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum . I got to interview Jane Goodall, Dr. Jane Goodall, this extraordinary primatologist among other people. And what has inspired me about all the great people I’ve had the good fortune to meet is their humanity. You get a sense that they’re larger than life in one way but when you’re with them, year having tea with you know, your childhood friend that you’ve known forever. It there’s a sense there’s a sameness about all of these people were their phone afraid of other people. And mostly we’re so afraid of each other. There’s so many barriers between us and each other. And when you meet some of these extraordinary role models, you you will realize that it’s the essence of their humanity that’s most important in their ability to be not naiveyl exposed but undefended, unguarded in a way that is so, it makes you feel relieved, it makes you feel like, okay I can I can I can exhale, I can be here. It’s okay to be in the world, it’s okay to be on this planet. And when I saw that those people, that was what I wanted to emulate. I wanted to be able to access those depths of our nature.

Chris Straigis – 13:36
Amy spent many of the following years living, working and teaching in meditation communities around the world. She learned a host of techniques and tools and gain first hand knowledge of experience with what worked and what didn’t and eventually it sparked a desire for her to utilize this body of knowledge in a broader way.

Amy Edelstein – 13:55
I moved with my husband to Philadelphia in 2014 2013 and I was trying to figure out how I could really have an impact on the on the very entrenched issues that affect, you know, urban America. And I mean, I have to say that it’s, I find it quite sad, the state of American cities. When I went to Asia, and lived in India for four years in the 80s, I saw poverty there that I’d never seen before. And in Philadelphia, where some of my schools are or some of the neighborhoods I drive through to get to my schools, I see worse poverty. Then I saw in India that is to me for such a developed country. You know, with democratic aspirations I find just so unacceptable. And and I find that there’s so much lost human potential, you know that there are so many kids and adults who with a little bit of, especially educational support have so much to give. And we’re just squandering that. And if we squander that potential of the kids of this generation, then, you know, in 20 years, we’re not going to be benefiting from what they have to offer. So we’re really setting ourselves up for just mediocrity and worse, you know? I was in grade school in the 60s and 70s, and that was the race to space and the belief in, you know, the American education system and a lot of money was poured into American education. And we really saw a lot of creativity come out of that, and we’re not doing that and we all lose. So I wanted to take the best of what I’d learned and over the 35 years and see what I could do. I really wanted to embed myself in the city where I was living in and get to know the people here. I initially didn’t want to work with high school. I mean, I didn’t want to teach people were like me, I was, I would have been a tough teenager to work with, I think, because I didn’t like the system. It was the 70s. We were, that’s what we did, we bucked the system.

Amy Edelstein – 16:36
But it’s really hard to get college kids and millennials together. You know, people have young children, they don’t have time. They don’t have money, you have to do a lot of marketing. And I had a friend whose wife was a guidance counselor, and he kept saying, and he had done meditation courses with me and he really loved my work and he said, why don’t you do something in high school? I said, No, I don’t really want to go into said, you know, my wife school would love to have it, you know, and he worked on me for about six months. And finally I acquiesced. And I, first of all, that school was just so warm and inviting, and the kids were phenomenal. They were great. And, and I also realize that teenagers are captive audiences. And if we can reach a significant percentage of these kids every year, they’re going to self reinforce with their families, with their siblings with their peers. And then when their entry level employees, they’re going to be better team players, they’re going to be more innovative, they’re going to have their act together a little bit more and be less all over the place and then we can improve the culture. So it did seem like a good way to go.

Chris Straigis – 17:53
And that was it. The birth of the Inner Strength Foundation. Decades of experience and selfless realization finds itself influencing, arguably, one of the most critical demographics in the modern age – teenagers. Amy’s program is a 12 week in school curriculum for kids 14 to 18 years old. She utilizes evidence based mindful awareness tools, which teach the kids how to focus, self reflect, calm intense emotions, and also begin to gain some self knowledge and compassion. She also dives into the psychology of the process, which for her is an important part of that self understanding.

Amy Edelstein – 18:33
It also teaches them about 300 million years of the brain science and what’s happening during the period of adolescent brain development. So they understand the stage that they’re in how their brain is growing, why some of the reasons why they react the way they do. They learn about culture change, and the fact that that culture is not static. So we’re growing as as social organisms and that also affects their experience and how to think about their experience in terms of several hundred years of change, not the 40 seconds of a change of the last social media storm. And they also learn compassion building tools, so they learn specific exercises that help them feel a greater sense of empathy for self and other and also decrease negative effect negative emotions.

Chris Straigis – 19:34
And just over five years, they’ve had well over 5000 students in the program and Inner Strength is currently in 13 schools in the Philadelphia school system. But in a district with 49 schools and over 200,000 students, there’s a long way to go. Her goal is to continue to grow and, like any young business, that growth presents challenges.

Amy Edelstein – 19:56
I have eight instructors. We have more requests for classes then we can meet. The issue’s funding. We do a lot of grant writing. So we there are a lot of generous small family foundations in Philadelphia that really like to support education and mental health. So we do just a lot of pounding the pavement and looking for individuals who are interested in this type of modality. We are a Casel recommended program. Casel is the collaborative for academic, social and emotional learning. There was a two and a half year process where they vetted our program against outcomes and criteria. And then they designated us a recommended social emotional program related program, which also helps but a lot of funders are focusing on nuts and bolts because government money for social services is tightened. So for programs that they feel are not food and shelter. It’s a little bit more competitive.

Chris Straigis – 21:07
The recognition of mindfulness, though centuries old, has hit an all time high in our modern culture. It’s an amalgam and an evolution of many things, the eastern influences of the 1960s and 70s, the self help revolutions of the 80s and 90s, and even the advent of the internet and its ubiquitous connectivity, helping to spread ideas, and, frankly, anxiety to every corner of the globe. But with a heavily marketed modern spin on this ancient practice, its real strength and usefulness can get lost. That is, until you have an opportunity to connect it to understand it, in a practical sense, with its real world effects.

Amy Edelstein – 21:48
We see our program is essential. It’s not a luxury add on this isn’t like you’re, okay, once everything’s covered, this is enrichment. This is preventative of teen suicide. There’s a, you know, an alarming increase in incidence of adolescent self harm, adolescent depression, adolescent anxiety. Philadelphia has so much intergenerational poverty. And of course, the traumas that are associated with growing up with with scarcity of the basic human needs food, shelter, clothing, that a lot of these kids arrive in school with a lot of they’re carrying a lot of baggage. Oftentimes, I have kids in my classroom who have experienced the effects of gun violence firsthand. They either have had somebody in their family, extended family, they’ve seen something happened on their street, or a classmate schoolmate either a death by gun violence or an injury. Those are really hard things to deal with. You know, you think about the regular issues of adolescence, you know, the first love, you know, does he or she liked me or not? And, you know, oh my god, you know, I broke out before, you know, they dance, what am I going to do? There’s adolescent growth, personal concerns that feel overwhelming. Now, of course, kids get through it. But when kids have to carry all of the this additional trauma, it’s really hard to learn. It’s really hard to focus. It’s really hard to just calm down and be in class.

Amy Edelstein – 23:40
I had a student in one of my classes, she’s refugee from Myanmar, and she lived in a refugee camp, and then came to this country so I don’t know what you know, she didn’t tell me her story, but I’m sure it was not easy and she kept falling asleep in one class and I said, you know, what, you know, you should be getting more sleep, you know, why are, is everything okay? And she said, well, I was up all night because my brother died over the weekend, and we’re Muslim, and so our Muslim prayers go all night. You know, so I talked with her a little bit, but it turns out her brother, she was a freshman, her brother was 35 had died of an overdose. And she’s the one who found him. And she’s the one she, she had to contact, she wasn’t, she doesn’t live with family member, other family members. So she had to contact 911 herself and she’s 14 or 15 years old. And she had to be there when they came and then she had to figure out how to contact the Father. Then she had to arrange for the services. Then there she is on Monday in class, and nobody knew. Can you imagine like walking into your history class and trying to pay attention?

Amy Edelstein – 25:14
Using the breath to focus actually has a positive effect on the prefrontal cortex, which is our problem-solving area of the brain. It helps lower the levels of cortisol or the stress hormone that the body secretes. And it has a lot of positive benefits simply putting the attention on the breath. With the students, we teach them how to pay attention to sensation in their body, to relaxing different muscles in a progressive sequence, to watching their breath, to focusing on sound to seeing freshly, eating mindfully. Noticing the sensations of, and that helps them kind of come into their own lives, you know, inhabit their bodies, and not be, you know, distracted and somewhere else as they’re going through the motions of being alive. It brings a lot more contentment, a lot more sense of connectedness. I have to say that I been extraordinarily fortunate. So there’s been a tremendous updraft. I mean, I feel in a lot of ways that of course, I work very hard any any startup nonprofit or business has to work very hard. And unfortunately, at this stage of my life, I have done a lot of things. So I can, you know, it’s, you know, building an organization is is hard, but it’s work, but I’ve been incredibly supported. The school district has been very positive. They don’t fund the program, but they’ve been extraordinarily positive. You know, their only question is, why aren’t you in every school? I’ve trained teachers all over the country and some of them are implementing programs and some of them are official sister programs that their license so I have a program in Stowe, Vermont and a couple schools there to teachers are running it. I have a woman running the same curriculum in New Zealand. I have someone in Wyoming, Michigan, South Carolina, Victoria, Canada, so I have programs in different places. So I do hear about it and the curriculum is good, it’s adaptable.

Amy Edelstein – 27:37
The challenges are slightly different, but in the end, teens are teens. So, you’re you’re kind of dealing with the same phenomena whether you’re in Stowe or Jackson Hole or New Zealand or Philadelphia.

Chris Straigis – 27:56
As I mentioned at the top among all of her other accomplishments, Amy’s also best-selling author. Her book, The Conscious Classroom, which won an independent publishers Award for Excellence in educational theory is essentially a teacher’s manual for the teen program.

Amy Edelstein – 28:11
The conscious classroom is really the stories of the classroom and the philosophical background of why I’m doing what I’m doing and and some of the things that I’ve had to think through what’s happening in the postmodern world. People don’t really think contextually so it’s, it’s really a lot about postmodern culture. It’s a lot about understanding what interconnectivity is or impermanence, or what Alfred North Whitehead called process philosophy. We’re in a state of flux and movement all the time. If we recognize that what does that mean about our worldview, which is trying to create certainty and stability in a world that’s always moving and it really is about why teaching kids, this worldview now is more important than perhaps any other time, simply because we can’t predict what life is going to be like when they’re adults. I guess I just want to encourage anyone else who has is doing this kind of work to keep at it, it’s really worth it, people really benefit. If you’ve been thinking about experimenting with these are tools or bringing them into your company or your school and give it a shot. It’s not a chore, it becomes really interesting, it becomes really fun. It does have a certain snowball effect. So I would really encourage people to not be afraid of these things, not to think that they, you know, if they can’t commit, you know, six hours a day, then why bother or if a struggle with five minutes that it’s not worth it, but, you know, just start. Just start exploring and start bringing this kind of perspective back into, you know, your outlook because it really, it really does help, nurture and cultivate the better sides of our nature and that improves our experience of life.

Chris Straigis – 30:15
Thank you for listening to Scrappy, you can go to to check out show notes and transcripts of this episode, and links to the Inner Strength Foundation website, which includes video resources to help teens and adults with the practice of mindfulness. Amy is also the co-founder of Emergence Education Press. It’s a publishing house, which produces transformational books and programs for adults, will have links for that too. And please check out Amy’s best seller The Conscious Classroom. You can also support and donate to her Foundation at Amy’s doing incredible and important work with teams. Please support any way you can.