The Reciprocity Foundation’s Taz Tagore on taking kids from the streets to a new life. It starts inside.
Perched twelve stories above the clothiers and bustle that are native to its West 36th Street address, the Reciprocity Foundation has been quietly making a positive impact on the lives of homeless youth in New York City for ten years now. Its programs, strongly attuned to the needs of youth of color and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, are largely the work of the RF’s cofounders, Taz Tagore and Adam Bucko. They’re two dear friends who discovered a shared passion to help those in need and to meet those needs through unconventional, even spiritual, means. Taz met me in the Reciprocity offices, which feature a meditation room, a massage chair, and a fully functioning vegetarian kitchen, all respectfully, fruitfully shared by staff and kids alike. She explained why what makes Reciprocity different is what makes it work.
How is it that you came to work with homeless youth?
I was a teenager living in Toronto with my family, which had fled East Africa and bounced around Europe, trying to find a country that would have us. When they were allowed to come to Canada, there was still that sense of psychological homelessness. Who am I and How do I fit in are questions that I grew up not having answers to.
I used to skip school and head downtown to meet artists and designers and people who were trying to answer those questions in profound ways. On one of those days, I was looking for a student art show and opened the wrong door. It was a shelter. At first I was horrified—it was really very institutional. The walls were this awful color; it was noisy, it was chaotic. You didn’t feel safe at all. My first impulse was, “I need to get out of here.” But one of the kids bummed a cigarette from me, and I just hung out all afternoon getting to know one youth and another and another. Then I went back to organize a huge school event to raise money for the shelter. Now, after years of practice and therapy and everything else, I see I’d recognized something in this group of kids that was in me.
You also spent time working on Wall Street as an investment banker.
Yes, for a couple of years. I think I needed to know that I could do anything that I chose. In the end, I chose to turn away from the money and the power and the opportunity and the status, and to serve others. I also had a job in between, working for the designer Ed Schlossberg. But Adam called me there, asking to work on design projects with some of his students at Covenant House. As soon as we started that, it was like, “Okay, okay, I get it!” I left and we started Reciprocity right away. Adam quit his job too.
It was probably one of the biggest acts of faith of my life. I’d gone to Harvard Business School and had a good, wealthy network, but Reciprocity Foundation was a few degrees away from the kind of philanthropy that the people I was connected to were doing.
Has that changed?
We’re a contemplative nonprofit working for kids, not for donors. That’s a hard path to walk, and I think it’s why we’ve never become a million-dollar agency with a big, powerful board. Adam and I are doing this as spiritual practice. It’s deeply nourishing and it’s absolutely what I want to do, but that doesn’t mean that it’s comfortable or happy or pleasant all the time.
Do the homeless youth often push back against the spiritual and contemplative aspects of what you do? I mean, this is not necessarily normal stuff to any young person, homeless or not.
Yeah! They’ve never experienced anything like this and it’s something that they deeply crave. But there’s also a part of them that wants to run away. They know that what we expect from them is authenticity; we want them to show up exactly as they are, and we’re ready to welcome them and embrace them exactly as they are. That’s scary for a teenager or for a young adult.
No one’s ever said anything like that to them.
Right. They think, What if this group of people rejects me too? What if they don’t see my goodness? What if they don’t embrace who I really am?
How is it that homeless youth come to you? And how do they come to feel at home in the group?
We’re connected to shelters and caseworkers and social workers, so they refer them in. But then we have youth who basically say to peers in shelters, I really like you, and I want to show you a group of people that you should meet. Students often first visit our Thursday-night gatherings. We have a big meal, a guest speaker, a meditation. Students begin to feel, “Okay, I can trust this. There are some cool people here and they’re feeding me and it feels good.”
Or we schedule an intake with them. But instead of “Here’s a seven-page form, give us your sexual history, your medical history, your history of homelessness, your identification,” our approach is, “Yeah, we want some information from you but first, three questions: Who do you want to be in this world? Why are you really here as a homeless youth? Where do you need to go? We don’t offer housing, so we need to know what is it that we can really do to support your journey. There’s often tears because, literally, no one has asked them these questions before. Everything falls away and they’re just crying Thank you. Thank you for recognizing that I have a role to play even if I don’t know what it is yet.
That’s beautiful. What comes next?
Usually, individual counseling sessions at least once a week, participating on our Thursday nights, finding a mentor from our community to help them work on career or college aspirations and also how to bring together all the aspects of their beings. Yes, it’s nice to work toward having a great job and a sustainable wage, but you also need to know how to take care of your body, how to be in healthy relationships, how to make good choices, how to trust yourself and your intuition.
Do those working with you—not just youth and their families but local state government agencies and potential benefactors—see the spirituality of the Reciprocity Foundation as a red flag or an obstacle?
Well, Adam and I are really open. I’m a practicing Buddhist and he’s a practicing Christian, and there are no secrets in terms of how we identify. We make clear that our students need to make their own choices. We’re not here to do anything other than remind them that contemplation, wisdom, inner guidance, and spiritual practice are all fundamental ways of transforming your life, and to not give them credence is actually quite foolish. Do we have the best college and career coaching services available? Maybe. But I think the magic is that inner transformation is at the very core of everything we do.
What are some entry points to this inner transformation?
Every student’s different, but everyone needs to be able to breathe, let go, and connect to their potential through breath. So that’s the first thing we teach them. Grounding practices are the second. The third is just being in the body. Often, the youth who’ve experienced sexual abuse, who’ve engaged in sex work as part of their journey of homelessness, or those who’ve experienced a lot of gang violence or physical violence have left their body. The body work we do with them—massage, acupuncture, energy work, yoga—helps them reengage with and heal the body. I’m not interested in yoga for the sake of yoga, but as a part of a process that’s being coached and where there’s a real end? That’s profound. That’s where yoga can play a role in poverty alleviation.
It seems that confidence—that they have a place in this world, that they have a skill set, that the way they see the world isn’t at odds with the world itself—is key to your students.
I think about it as potential. If you’re connected with your potential, it’s so different, right? You’re not homeless because you have no potential, you’re homeless because you’re in the process of discovering your potential. So, if you frame homelessness in that way, it’s an opportunity to really discover through suffering, through challenge, your deeper potential. And the kids are like, “What? Really? This isn’t just the shittiest two years of my life?” [Laughter.] That’s really profound for them.