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Justin Michael Williams Teaches Underprivileged Kids How To Meditate

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After surviving childhood bullying, the musician and teacher is bringing zen to the people with his fun, fresh take.

Justin Michael Williams, a dynamic author, musician, public speaker, and meditation teacher, possesses a warmth and wisdom that defies his just-over three decades on the planet. But whether Williams was born a baby Buddha or had to work hard to become a master of mindfulness who now shares stages with Deepak Chopra, he is certain of this: he was born Black and queer.

His childhood wasn't always easy in Pittsburgh, Calif., a rough suburb just outside Oakland, where he says, "There's gunshot holes outside of the house I grew up in." Looking back, his parents "did the best they could" and gave him "a lot of love," but he also recalls feeling isolated, shamed, and bullied for being different.

"The challenges of being a young, queer, Black boy, you know, it's so specific," Williams says, recounting a particularly painful story of the first time he was told he was gay via some playground taunting. After the bullies convinced him the word meant "happy," Williams said he went home that day and excitedly told his mother, "I'm gay!"

"She freaked out and was like, 'That's the disease! That means you have HIV. It's the disease God gives the gay people so they go to hell.' And that was my first time knowing what gay was," he recalls. "[I was] getting teased and bullied a lot. Kids used to like, jump out of trees and choke me and just crazy stuff. It was really hard."

Williams says these experiences not only pushed him deep into the closet, but ultimately held him back from being the person he was born to be. Music and singing had been early loves of his, but another traumatic bullying incident almost made him give up on that passion forever.

"I always wanted to do music," he says. "But I was always trying to do things that made me look less gay or made me look less feminine, so that I wouldn't get teased as much. There was this one time in particular when I was in choir class.... The teacher was like, 'Does anybody want to try to do this solo?' And I raised my hand, and I was actually so excited because singing was something that, at home, I just loved. As soon as I started singing the song in class--just imagine me standing on that choir stand--the bullies started laughing and teasing [and] screaming. And so I just completely shut down my voice at that point for years."

Williams, now a chart-topping recording artist, says he may have given up on this dream forever had his dying grandmother not given him a beautiful gift. After she was suddenly diagnosed with stage four cancer at 67, one of their last conversations changed him forever.

"She pulled me in the room and said, 'If you were in my shoes and you knew you were going to die in two months, what would you do?'" he reflects. "You know, at that point in my life, I had done all the things that I thought I needed to do to be successful or to be accepted or to be loved or to be validated. I got good grades. I went to college. I got a good job in marketing. I did all these things and I just said to my grandma in that moment, 'I would quit every single thing I'm doing and I would record an album.'"

After rediscovering his musical talents and uncovering new passions--for meditation, public speaking, and social justice--Williams was finally on his true path. Now he devotes his life to helping others find their own way, especially those stuck in dark or difficult places, like he was.

Although opening himself up to things like mindfulness and meditation eventually helped Williams transform his life, he says he quickly realized that the people who needed this awareness most didn't have access, which is exactly what he hopes to change with Stay Woke: A Meditation Guide for the Rest of Us.

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More than just a self-help book, Williams describes the work as part of a broader movement. The true power of Stay Woke is that it acknowledges the very real struggles people face, and delivers ancient wisdom in refreshingly practical, down-to-earth ways.

"It became this interesting journey for me to really go through," says Williams now of wanting the book to reach a variety of people who feel othered. "I kind of named [the book] for my Black brothers and sisters, for LGBTQ [people], for the women who've had enough, for starving artists and creatives like me. It was an interesting challenge but also a gift. It really felt like a responsibility for me to make sure, even in the illustrations, that those of us who have been left out of this movement or sometimes don't feel seen...that our issues and our struggles are named here."

With the beautifully inclusive illustrations by Victoria Cassinova and sections named things like "I Am Beyonce," Williams says he also intentionally made it a priority to inject a bit of fun and sass into the book.

"The mindfulness world and the spiritual world and the healing world, it's always so damn serious all the time!" he exclaims with a laugh. "And it doesn't have to be. That's not what our lives are really like. I just taught in Southside Chicago with a group of women who all had lost a child to gun violence, often police gun violence. And yes, we were like, in there deep--but then at the end of the night we were dancing and doing the Electric Slide together! What our real lives are, is being able to hold the joy and the sorrow and the pain and the happiness and all that, at the same time.... When you look at communities of color and when you look at the LGBTQ community, what does activism really look like, even in healing and grieving, for us? It looks like joy. It looks like dancing. It looks like pride."

But having grown up in the struggle himself, Williams knew a book alone would not be enough to make real, lasting impact. Rather than embarking on a traditional book tour, he developed the Stay Woke Give Back movement, which incorporates his passions for music, social justice, and public speaking.

"It's standard with a meditation or self-help book [to] go to these kind of affluent areas and go to bookstores. And I was like, 'Y'all, that ain't gonna work,'" he says. "Suicide is the third leading cause of death for not just kids but young adults 10 to 24. And that's a major thing to say: The third leading cause of death for kids. And check this out--it's three times more likely that you'll attempt suicide in those age groups if you're LGBTQ. Three times."

Such startling statistics inspired Williams to deliver his message to young people in some of the most heavily impacted areas in the country.

"We do a free event for all the kids and we give away all the books for free, and we even give them like a longer-term support program," Williams explains. "This was important to me because I didn't want to be one of these people who comes in and is like, 'We're saving the day--'bye now!' So we created this 40-day guided audio meditation program that all the kids will get for free as well, too. Literally, the first stop is in my hometown in Pittsburgh, [Calif.]. There's 3,500 kids at this school. We're giving away 3,500 books [and] 3,500 guided meditation programs. And then just imagining in a community like that, when you teach 3,500 people to meditate at once and they go to 3,500 homes--that is game-changing."

Williams is hoping to expand the tour (which costs roughly $15,000 per city and about $8 per student) through a partnerships with Sounds True Foundation. By visiting StayWokeGiveBack.org, individuals can make donations to bring the program to more areas.

Beyond just bringing meditation as a relaxing coping mechanism into marginalized people's often-chaotic daily lives, Williams says he hopes to see people use these tools to realize their true potential and purpose on this earth.

"So, if I could angle it from a queer [perspective], most of us have had an incredible amount of practice at compartmentalizing ourselves in certain ways--silencing certain things and highlighting other things so that we can seem accepted or loved or validated or successful or whatever," he says. "And I think that the advice that I have for people is that you are most powerful when you are most integrated. When we have these separate parts of ourselves that are existing in these different silos, then we kind of cut these parts of ourselves into these smaller pieces that aren't as strong as they would be if they were together.... When we try to describe ourselves as these nouns, it limits us. I am Justin, who is all encompassing of all these things--and when I'm able to really bring that forward, that's where I'm the most powerful."

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