This week it feels like the entire city is at nerve’s edge, between the civil unrest and the impending election, we are at a fever pitch. Perhaps it’s a good time to take a collective deep breath as we navigate the waters ahead. Perfectly poised to help with that is Jesse Frechette. Frechette is a mindfulness educator, coach, facilitator, and psychotherapist. He is the founder and director of Center Mindful, a mindfulness studio, and he is a licensed clinical social worker. Frechette leads weekly guided mindfulness workshops online and encourages people from the LGBT community to join him on Wednesdays for special sessions sponsored by the Montgomery County LGBT Business Council. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/CenterMindful/.
Tell me where you hail from…
I’m originally from Tupper Lake, NY which is a small town in the Adirondack mountains. It was very rural and absolutely beautiful. It’s one of the largest federal parks in the country. That’s where I first learned to be mindful, because growing up in wilderness like that I did a lot of hiking, even as a small child. I learned a lot from paying attention to nature. I actually teach a class now on Mondays called “Mindfulness Mondays: Wisdom and Lessons from Nature.” Then from ages 11 to 19 I lived in a Mexican American community in Tucson, Arizona. It was pretty amazing, I attended quinceaneras (right of passage celebrations at age 15) and learned from my friends how to dance the cumbia and the queridos, I participated in traditional celebrations such as the Posada at Christmas, and I learned how to make some traditional Mexican food dishes and speak some conversational Spanish.
Big family, small?
I’m one of nine.
OK, now I don’t have to ask what folks do for fun up there.
[Laughing] Well, we have long winters!
Where do you fall in the lineup and what would they say they remember most about you?
I’m the youngest, and that I was a fast runner. I had to be right! Actually, they’d talk about my love of nature. On Saturdays, instead of watching cartoons, I’d watch the nature channel.
What did your folks do?
My dad had a construction company, he was a brick layer by trade, and my mom was his bookkeeper for his contracting business.
With 9 kids he’d better know how to expand the house.
That and more. He did big construction on hospitals and colleges. They traveled a lot with that.
Were you close to your grandparents?
Suzi, the town I grew up in had all my relatives there, both sets of grandparents, and all my cousins, aunts, and uncles. We were French Canadian Catholic so like a lot of big families back then.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Sometimes I wanted to be a biologist and sometimes I wanted to be a photojournalist. I actually did my undergrad in photography and film production with a concentration in documentaries and social justice.
Yes, it was really my introduction to social justice. I was the male teaching assistant for a “Women’s Lives” class, helping the men understand things like misogyny and the pro-rape mentality on campus. I studied Latin-American cinema and issues of colonialism, courses like that which broadened my world. Getting a point of view from other ethnicities and cultures. It was the beginning of me decolonizing my mind.
When did you transition from films to social justice work?
Capturing stories in a community made me want to get involved full time to build relationships and work for change. So I went to graduate school for social work at the University of Pennsylvania.
What was the first thing you did after grad school?
I started out as a foster care social worker in West Philadelphia. I did home visits and worked with individual children and both the foster parents and the birth parents.
Watching Law and Order: SVU and just about every movie, they all tend to paint the foster care system as pretty grim. Foster care workers are especially critiqued as overworked and/or negligent.
Interesting you say that because at the time I was working, foster care workers were having to go to court for neglecting their caseloads, but no-one was talking about how to support the workers so that they could adequately take care of kids without any of them slipping through the cracks. There needed to be systemic and institutional changes made because the lives of these children were at stake. The caseloads were too high for us to cover all the needs of the children and families we served, there was a shortage of staff, and yet they would cut budgets even further. It was tough when it turned into a criminal justice issue instead of putting that time and effort into making changes to support the workers and thus the children and families.
Was there a positive story that moved you?
We had some amazing foster parents who took care of children for decades. Mostly strong black women who were the backbones of their communities. When they took in a child, you knew that that kid was going to get good support, not just from them but from the community around them where they were such a fixture. One woman in particular was a favorite, I absolutely loved her and we had some great opportunities to get to know each other over time. It was a little tense in the beginning until it was established that I wasn’t trying to come in as some white guy with all the answers, but that I was there to learn from her and to be a part of the village there to support the children. After the trust was built we could talk and laugh about it.
How did you get into the work you do now?
I worked in the foster care system for two years, and in that short amount of time I became one of the senior members because that’s how high the burnout and turnover rate was. I’d done an internship as a school social worker and loved it, so I’d been keeping an eye out to get back into the schools. An opportunity opened up with a company that allowed me to work with several Catholic Schools in the inner city that catered to some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. I worked with them for 15 years and then another 6 years with the company that took over from there. I became a program supervisor for about 30 social workers from about 42 schools. At that time they were the Independent Mission Schools, which was great because they were a little more progressive. They even had sexual orientation protected in their official manual. That meant a lot to me.
When did you come out?
Well, despite the manual, I never officially came out on the job. Working in the Catholic school systems around the city, I’d seen people let go from their jobs, and there was no protection for us in PA. There was a woman I knew from one of the schools on the Main Line and when she married her partner, the news got out and she was let go even though she was well liked and accomplished. Personally, I came out to my family when I was 24. When I tried to tell my mom she stopped me and said, “I think I know what you are going to tell me and I don’t want to hear it.”
Yeah, but I told her anyway. I just had to, then she called my dad into the room and I told him. Initially, he handled it better than my mom, he acted like he was fine with it but that changed. I was living at home and he said that every time I left the house, he wondered where I was going and what I was doing. He told me that it wasn’t going to work out and asked me to leave. Luckily it was the summertime and I was able to stay with friends. Eventually, they came around, they just needed some time.
I’m sure; often we’ve been trying to figure out ourselves for years and then expect people to automatically adjust in a day when we drop the bomb!
Exactly, and there weren’t any other gay people that we knew of in my family or in our town. It was tough. We always had Christmas together, and one time my partner and I were going to go up and my sister said, “Well of course you’re welcome, but it would be uncomfortable if you brought someone.” So I didn’t go. I felt that to go alone when they would all be there with their spouses and children was asking too much of me, just so that they’d feel “comfortable”. Fortunately, they’re in a very different place today. It took a while to get there, but most of them have. There are a few that are very conservative and haven’t been able to embrace us yet, but hopefully soon.
When did you get involved with Mindfulness?
I was working with 3 schools in the city and always seemed to be getting paged to solve different crises at all three schools everyday, and I was getting burnt out. I felt like I couldn’t possibly meet all the needs, and I needed something for my own well being and survival if I was going to continue. I started studying mindfulness and went through a year long teacher certification process. I started teaching it in one of the schools and started seeing the impact. A lot of our families fit into the ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) definition of trauma. Since the mindfulness teachings were so beneficial to me, I wanted to share it with the families I was working with. I was able to bring it to all 3 schools to teach people how to deal with stress and triggers and things like that.
Mindfulness is kind of an ambiguous term for most of us, is it breathing, standing on your head, is it meditating? Can you give me the definition as you interpret it?
Sure. Mindfulness is about present moment awareness. You can be aware of your thoughts, your emotions, your body sensations, sounds and breath, those are the most common. The idea is to bring curious, compassionate awareness to the moment of whatever you’re experiencing. To take a moment to become aware of what is happening rather than just reacting to it. It’s a curiosity and an allowance, to take the experience and train ourselves to react with self kindness.
When did you start your own practice?
After the last election I opened up Center Mindful to teach mindfulness to the people in the community. To help people learn the coping skills needed to get through what was coming with the new administration. I especially saw a need to work with the LGBT+ community and the trauma many of us face. Especially teens. I started a support group for transgender teens and their parents. It was nice. I’d have a moment when I’d talk to just the teens and then just the parents and then I’d let the kids socialize on their own so that they could just be teens and support each other.
Any moments that stand out?
I had one teen who was really being crippled by their anxiety. He was transitioning and he was having difficulty dealing with his school. They kept dead naming him and using incorrect pronouns, wanting him to use the janitors closet to change for gym class, things like that. I worked very closely with the mom and him and I also went to the school and met with the administration. The first time I went, the principal accused me of having my own agenda instead of being there to support the teen. I said, you’re right I do have an agenda and that is to make you understand that you and I share a client and to see how we can work as a team to best serve the needs of our mutual client. After that, we were able to start implementing real changes, so this teen not only got their needs met and felt empowered, they were able to pave the way for future trans kids at that school. I’m happy to say that they’re doing very well, they have love in their life and they are feeling good about the future.
Speaking of love, are you partnered?
I am, we’ve been together for 21 years and we’re total opposites, he works in finance in Manhattan and has no interest in practicing mindfulness! He supports me but it’s just not his thing.
What’s going on for you during this pandemic?
On Wednesday nights I teach mindfulness online for the LGBTQ+ community. It’s through the Montgomery County LGBT Business Council, and we’ve had people online from as far away as Peru, Pakistan, Jamaica. I had an indigenous woman from Peru tell me, “You don’t understand, we don’t have anything here to support the LGBT community.” The guy from Pakistan said that it was 3 a.m. for him but that it was the best time of day for him to do that kind of thing for himself. And of course, we have a lot of local people participating as well, it’s been an amazing experience.
Let’s do some fun questions, did you have a stuffed animal when you were a kid?
Oh yeah, I had a squirrel stuffed animal that my mom made for me. I still have it and it’s become a metaphor for my mindfulness in a way, because just like squirrels store nuts, I think of storing away things like gratitude in order to support me and keep me balanced.
What was the hardest test you ever took?
I think the social service exam, mostly because I would over think it and talk myself out of the right answer. I passed it, but I was worried.
Something that intrigues you but frightens you?
I’d say the ocean. I’m intrigued but I’m afraid of sharks and whatever else might lurk beneath.
What song makes you happy?
“I am Enough” by Justin Michael Williams. He’s a meditation teacher and I have his book on audible. He’s also gay and I believe he’s half black and half Indian, I just love what he does.
What’s coming up for you? Is everything online now?
Pretty much, I closed the physical office though I still meet some clients on the grounds of the building but most of it is virtual. Once the pandemic is over, I’ll look for another place. At the place I was before, a lot of my colleagues were heterosexual and there were a lot of micro aggressions that they didn’t even realize or acknowledge were happening. When I tried to address it, I was met with that defensiveness that white people often have when people of color try to point out white privilege. The idea of heterosexual privilege was beyond their scope, and after 3 years of trying I realized that they didn’t want the uncomfortable feeling of having to deal with it, so it was time for me to move on. In the future, I’d like to build a bank of diverse mindfulness teachers so we can work in schools and have people of different ethnicities and backgrounds available so that the students can see themselves reflected in that teacher. Female and male, non-binary and trans teachers, different races and backgrounds, all with a seat at the table. But in the meantime, the virtual work has gone really well, I plan to start another transgender teen support group. I also have a psychotherapy practice that specializes in working with the LGBTQ+ community.
If things don’t go our way this week, you may have to open up a university of mindfulness to help us cope.