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Self-Care as a Political Act

In the East Bay, women of color and queer people are making alternative health-care practices accessible and culturally relevant to their communities — as well as a key part of their activism.



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Bryant said it was the first time she looked at health through a holistic lens, and it changed the way she ate and cared for herself, in addition to pushing her into a different career path.

For Tsehai, who uses African culture as a foundation for her work, paying attention to spiritual and emotional well-being in addition to nutrition is necessary to heal the communities she works with. She has a private practice, offers intergenerational healing circles specifically for women of color leaders and professionals, and offers trainings for organizations that serve the Black diaspora. Although she's been doing this work for almost 30 years, she said her services are more in demand from conventional health institutions lately than ever before. (She was recently hired by Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services to lead a training for staff of community organizations serving Black constituents.)

Like other practitioners of color, Tsehai said that a holistic approach to wellness is important because Western medicine is failing to address the disproportionate health problems affecting the Black community.

"We feel the numbers rising — diabetes, obesity, infant mortality," she said, referring to common indicators of health inequities in the U.S. that persist between ethnic and racial groups. "The numbers are rising and the Western approach is not working."

The infant mortality rate is more than twice as high for African American babies compared to white babies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the risk of having a diabetes diagnosis is 77 percent higher among African Americans and 66 percent higher among Latinx/Hispanics compared with white adults. While obesity rates have increased across the country overall, they're substantially higher for Black and Latinx populations.

Patients are gravitating toward complementary or holistic health services, Tsehai explained, because Western doctors are focused on treating symptoms and don't address the root causes of health problems particular to their patients' experiences as people of color.

"You cannot pop a pill that's going to take care of you not feeling protected," she said. "The pain lives in our consciousness, our hearts, and our minds. A pharmaceutical product is not going to heal that."

A growing amount of research ties racism to well-being, suggesting that discrimination experienced on a day-to-day basis and through societal systems can negatively impact one's health. Discrimination has been associated with an increase in the risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, breast cancer, stress, depression, and other mental and physical health issues. It's a dangerous cycle: The stress from experiencing racism can contribute to poor mental and physical health, while the very conditions of racism can prevent individuals from accessing the health resources they need — for example, the lack of places to buy healthy food options in low-income neighborhoods where people of color live.

Practitioners interviewed for this story frequently talked about trauma and its associated health effects, specifically in communities they work with.

"Trauma looks like engaging in different patterns that aren't conducive to lifelong happiness and health," said Daisy Ozim, executive director of Resilient Wellness, a West Oakland-based nonprofit that addresses multigenerational trauma in marginalized communities through direct service, health education, and policy advocacy.

"Here in West Oakland, we have a high rate for almost everything," she said. "High school dropouts, homelessness, substance abuse, and all of that is related to trauma and lack of appropriate services that help individuals to pull themselves out of that trauma cycle."

Trauma is defined as an emotional response to a terrible event, and Ozim explained that there are many types of trauma: Multi-generational trauma is passed down from one generation to another, while intergenerational trauma refers to different generations experiencing and exchanging their traumas simultaneously. Groups like Resilient Wellness believe that historical trauma — caused by events like slavery or displacement — needs to be included in conversations about healing.

Research shows that trauma impacts stress hormones and immune system functioning, with long-term consequences for physical and mental health. Practices such as meditation and yoga are increasingly being recognized — even by mainstream medicine — for their ability to change the way we respond to and cope with stress. Studies also show a link between a healthy diet and decreased levels of anxiety and depression.

Resilient Wellness is located on San Pablo Ave. next to the California Hotel, a restored 1920s historical landmark that now provides affordable housing. The health center hosts regular nutritious brunches for Black women and community listening sessions about the relationship between nutrition and mental health or economics and health. They also bring in practitioners of color to host workshops on topics such as wealth-building and dream interpretations. Since opening in 2014, Resilient Wellness has served more than 1,000 people.

Ozim, who has a background in public health policy, founded the organization after becoming frustrated with mainstream health care and public health systems for having a limited understanding of the ways in which intergenerational trauma impacts the "whole person and outer community."

She said a community-lead effort "about promoting resiliency" is what will address intergenerational trauma, and not the medical system, which has historically created trauma for communities of color.

"Often with trauma we think about the individual and the interpersonal — a person's experience and what was done to them, like domestic violence — but not how systems and institutions perpetuate trauma," Ozim said. "Not to be hyper-critical, but the same system that created the issue is not going to be the one to solve it."


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