I was very young when I started fearing my body and the pain it could hold. Often I would be at school, my parents would get the call that I’d fainted again, and have to take me to the hospital. A few months ago, I was curled up in fetal position in my bed, my head inclined at the exact angle to prevent a fainting spell, when I got a message from an aunt in Mexico. I had just shared a Facebook post about the frustrating reality of living with chronic pain that breaks you at every level. She had seen it, and asked me what was going on. I told her. It was the same story as always. I didn’t have to say much for her to understand. She suggested some herbal teas for the pain and reminded me to tend to my altar.
I was raised by circles of women committed to raising babies that are strong. Among them were my mother and my tías, resilient women who created sacred spaces where they could make their pain visible to each other, usually over a plate of food and often surrounded by the screams and laughter of their children. They would come together regularly when faced with heartbreak, domestic violence, crippling depression, but also at celebrations, rites of passage, birthdays.
These circles raised us–their little girls–to honor ritual, the land, our bodies, the cycles of joy and grief. When my family left México, it felt like my roots were ripped from my feet. The loss of the land, of these spaces, these mujeres that had taught me so much about coming closer to myself, their children who were also my family, broke something inside of me. As more years pass, and now that I have lived in this country twice as long as I ever did in México, I’ve found myself building community in a way that honors the teachings of these women. As we hear more and more conversations emerging in different spaces and in our movements around healing, I know from experience that each of us have different stories and traditions that connect us to our innate ability to heal and be whole.
So where do we begin?
What is really at stake?
What are we actually healing from?
It makes me think of that common saying: you have to know where you’ve been, to know where you’re going. For folks of color, immigrant populations and indigenous people living in this country and doing movement work, the histories and the legacies of violence we carry in our lines are not in isolation with the world we have inherited, and the world we are trying to build. This is deeply personal work. We are bringing our abuelitas, our nieces and nephews and visions of our descendents into the room.
I think of my own story of coming from survivors, women who have endured unimaginable violence, of a grandmother who made the choice to escape with her babies from a violence that could kill, in a land where she didn’t speak the language, and then had to work long days at a sweatshop to put food on the table. Though she left to join the ancestors earlier this year, she is with me every day. My grandmother, my mother, my cousins, they are why I fight and why I understand that my fight is wrapped up in my and our healing.
A mentor once told me, that if we are not diligent about doing our personal work of addressing our traumas, it will come out in our organizing. To be able to see what we are healing from, we have to unravel the ways our histories have been impacted by colonization, slavery, genocide, forced displacement. We also need to realize we bring those histories into a room when we organize and build with community. Healing within a backdrop of white supremacy means contending with its legacy of trauma and the different iterations it has and continues to hold through things like police violence, incarceration, deportation. We experience trauma within violently racialized systems born of historical oppression.
Honest conversations of what we are healing means bearing witness to all that was taken from us. It means contending with the trauma we have inherited in our DNA, but also forcing ourselves to recognize all that the violence was not able to kill. In a recent conversation with a community healer I was reminded that healing is not about pacifying or even necessarily diffusing conflict, it’s about breaking open and building the capacity to be able to confront that which is difficult, that which is painful. As an organization we’ve had to think deeply of what it means to be people with our trauma working with people with their own trauma. There are countless examples in movement work where people’s trauma shows up and replicates a model of violence against each other, similar to the violence created by whiteness towards people of color, but this time it’s within our own communities. These are the realities that have necessitated a healing justice framework at Voices. Through the process of recognizing that we do in fact inherit profound histories of trauma, we recognize we also inherit the strength and resilience to sustain and transform ourselves.
Our journey to Healing Justice at Voices has taken some time. When I joined the team four years ago, conversations had already begun around how we should be addressing trauma in our communities as part of the work. Alumni from our organizing training were expressing the need for spaces that held truthful and grounding conversations on how to be whole in movement work. Then, one year later in the first week of our first Youth Cultural Organizing Institute, our powerful cohort challenged us on what our stance on healing was. “You guys need to do better than what’s happening in the organizing community,” they told me. “You have to model something different.” It was a reminder that youth are used to being taken advantage of by organizations and movements, and that there needs to be a plan for supporting youth through their organizing journeys. We honor the powerful voices of the youth who pushed us to walk the talk. As a result of that first week with our first youth cohort, we began to dig deeper into conversations of trauma and healing at Voices.
Recently I was listening to Kate Werning’s Healing Justice podcast featuring Francisca Porchas Coronado, an Arizona based anti-racist organizer and healer. In their conversation, Francisca articulated a tension that shows up all the time in movement spaces when trying to pair organizing with healing justice:
How is healing really challenging the culture in organizations and for people on the ground? There is a bridging that needs to happen to really integrate individual and collective transformation into the work of political and popular education, the work of organizing door to door, the work of campaign planning. Is this a tactic that we’re using?
This resonates with questions that as a team we’ve been grappling with:
- How can we authentically integrate healing justice in how we do this work and how we relate to each other and our communities in the process?
- What is our commitment to our individual healing journeys so that when we do show up to do that work collectively we are engaging in our best way?
As we work towards innovative approaches to engaging healing justice in life-giving ways in our movements, it’s important to remember that not only can it be done, but it has been done before. We have rich examples to draw from, not only from the present, but also from our cultural histories and ancestral knowledge.
Over the last year, through our strategic planning process to ground our mission and vision in nurturing the soil for racial justice organizing, healers from the People’s Movement Center have helped to guide us on what healing justice can look like at Voices. Through this, we have realized there is profound knowledge we can share and learn from each other that will help us in this time of transition and deepening of our work. We are learning as we go about what this will look like in the long run. We don’t have all the answers, but are committed to engaging in a healing justice framework that transforms.
Healing in its simplest sense is to become whole again after trauma. Susan Raffo and Ayo Clemons, local healing practitioners with the People’s Movement Center who have supported us in our own healing process at Voices, have described healing as supporting your body, heart and spirit. Resmaa Menakem framed trauma for us as “too much, too soon, too fast.” Healing Justice takes into account individual trauma we have lived and historical trauma we’ve inherited created by systems of oppression, to then build community strategies of resilience and transformation.
So what does that look like at Voices right now?
- Buddy system: Each staff is paired off and meet weekly over the course of 2-3 months to check in around their wellness and the things they are wrestling with that is impacting them personally and in their work.
- Wellness check-ins: Every meeting, gathering, and training starts with an opening circle where people share how they’re doing and what if anything is impacting the way they are in the space.
- Wellness program: Staff receive 2 hours/week of wellness time during the work day that can include but is not limited to walking or other forms of exercise, meditation, therapy; wellness dollars for each staff member include $50/month for gym or other health membership and $250/6 months for wellness related services or trainings. Unused dollars are used for collective wellness activities.
- Meditation practice with our weekly staff meetings.
- Ongoing work with community healers: We are in deep relationship with the People’s Movement Center and other community healers to continue to define and guide the ways we frame healing individually and collectively as we move through our work.
- Every gathering, event, and strategy has healing at its core. As an example, last year we held an event titled, “Breathe and Heal,” which was a gathering of organizers and advocates working for racial justice coming together for conversation and healing. In addition to holding a space where organizers and community members could have deep conversation about the impact of the session, we invited healing practitioners into the space to offer their care. As we were envisioning what this space should hold we were guided by the following questions: How do we reduce harm to our communities from the government while having enough time for joy and building with our people? How do we heal from the legislative session and remain resilient and healthy in the face of a political climate which is violent to indigenous communities and communities of color?
- Integrating Healing Justice across our trainings: We frame historical trauma as a way to understand systems of oppression and the need for healing, as well as share embodiment practices to ground participants.
The breadth of possibility of what we can build together when we ground healing in our lives and organizing is transformative. As a team over the last year, we had the chance to read adrienne maree brown’s “Emergent Strategy.” This book helped us find words for a more holistic approach to understanding the ways of trauma in movement but also our capacity to create new approaches that treat us individually and collectively as whole. One of the affirmations, prayers, that I hold close and go back to often from her book is the following:
I am living a life I don’t regret
A life that will resonate with my ancestors,
and with as many generations forward as I can
I am attending to the crises of my time with
my best self,
I am of communities that are doing our
to honor our ancestors and all humans to
Our next steps are to continue to move forward in this collective work of healing in racial justice organizing. This means moving past a healing justice that solely talks about self care, and honoring models of organizing that are healing rather than violent and depleting. We will continue to ask questions, to listen, to build with our communities to make visible that which we have inherited in order to transform our pain into something new, something whole, something resilient. We don’t have all the answers, nor do we claim to, but recognize that work informed by trauma and rooted in healing can no longer be treated as a luxury. Our lives and our movements depend on it.