Five years ago, Vlad Moskovski, 32, picked up his life, moved to the West Coast and promised himself one thing: He would only do work he felt passionate about and that would be of service to the world. To uphold that promise, he channeled his love of education and mindfulness into a program that helps teens discover their inner calm, personal strength and ability to empathize with others.
A Russian immigrant, Moskovski moved to the United States when was 10 years old and spent the rest of his childhood in New Jersey. He then attended Rutgers University, where he studied environmental planning and design. He worked in the field in the years following his graduation, but said he always felt like something was missing.
“I always had this urge to not just be stuck behind a desk doing some job, but to actually make a difference in the world,” Moskovski told The Huffington Post. In 2009 he relocated to Berkeley, Calif., and began searching for the project that would help him find that meaning.
Moskovski turned his lifelong interest in yoga and meditation into a teaching career in the area, and within a month of his big move, he started volunteering in a mindfulness class at Oakland Middle School.
“It was amazing and really challenging,” he said. “It was an inner-city school, and our team of people was not used to working in mainly low-income, highly stressful environments where teachers were stressed out and therefore the students were stressed out, and almost all of them carried some level of trauma. It was interesting to volunteer there for a year -- I learned a lot about myself, about what to do and probably even more about what not to do.”
After spending the years following dabbling in various startups and grassroots organizations, he came up with the idea for a school program of his own with fellow mindfulness teacher Kate Janke, inspired by their drives between Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, Calif., and the East Bay in early 2013.
“We wanted to create a program that would enable teens to gain mindfulness and meditation skills in schools and put them forward in an action-oriented way to create impactful, positive change in the world,” Moskovski said.
These brainstorming sessions resulted in the creation of Compassionate Leaders, a 12-week, nonprofit, after-school program combining mindfulness meditation, leadership and local community service projects. The program aims to help its students develop a high level of emotional intelligence that they can, in turn, use to benefit the greater good.
Moskovski launched the pilot program of Compassionate Leaders last fall at Berkeley High School after educator Laurie Rodney reached out to him and suggested that it would be a perfect fit for her school.
The students spend the first two weeks of the program getting to know one another, including a half-day weekend retreat. They brainstorm what community issues they feel affect their lives and which they would like to focus on throughout the remainder of their time together. The pilot group collaboratively narrowed in on authenticity in high school -- or “being real,” in their terms -- while the spring 2014 group chose problems with the current prison system.
With their topic in mind, they then set out to create a public photography art project that raises awareness of their particular issue. Using the INSIDE OUT Project as a framework, the students take photographs of people affected by their topic, send them in and design their installation for the public to view online.
“Schools on the whole are really good at giving students knowledge and information, but they’re very poor at giving students practical skills that they can use when they get out of school,” Moskovski said. “And so communication is a really important factor, and what I consider to be even more challenging is to have empathic communication where you are to relate to one another in a way that’s authentic.
"You have some sense of what you’re feeling and what the other person is feeling, so through that you form a stronger connection. We are teaching those skills, which are all part of this broader category of emotional intelligence, where mindfulness is just one piece of it.”
Meditation also plays a central role in the program’s design. Every after-school session starts with a 10-minute intentional meditation practice. For the first six weeks, the program guides facilitate the meditation, but they pass along that responsibility to the students themselves for the latter half of the program.
“I think that school being what it is and their lives being so hectic, it’s a really good opportunity just to pause, to have those moments of stillness and silence,” Moskovski said. "For some of them, it feels awkward or uncomfortable, or they’re not quite sure how it relates to their life. So the challenge for us is to keep bringing it back to how it’s applicable to their life, to their project, to their homework, to their test coming up.”
Toward the end of the pilot program, the new innovation lab Kumu asked Compassionate Leaders to join their incubator for social entrepreneurs. Moskovski says it’s with Kumu's advice, mentorship and support that he will be able to expand the program to a second school in the fall. He also hopes to continue honing the program model to the point where he will be able to measure its social impact and build partnerships with larger school-supporting organizations.
“It’s been a really wonderful experience for me to realize just how much I can let go, and how much trust I can have in the process," Moskovski said, "and in the students who are perpetually surprising me with their level of depth, understanding, compassion, and willingness to get out there and be uncomfortable because they know that that’s what they need to do to learn and to grow."