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.

click to enlarge Paolo Flores Chico, a trans acupuncturist in Oakland, organizes acupuncture and sound healing events specifically for queer and trans people of color. - PHOTO BY LANCE YAMAMOTO
  • Photo by Lance Yamamoto
  • Paolo Flores Chico, a trans acupuncturist in Oakland, organizes acupuncture and sound healing events specifically for queer and trans people of color.

Chia pudding. Matcha bowls. Juice cleanses. If those offerings sound like the hallmarks of a business catering to a largely white clientele with disposable incomes and carefully curated Instagram accounts, you typically wouldn't be off-base. But to Emanne Desouky, co-owner of Super Juiced, that's a menu meant to nourish people fighting for social justice.

"I like using the word 'self-preservation' — it's more of a radical, Black-centered way of talking about self-care that doesn't make you think of trendy juice bars or a spa," said Desouky, as we sit in the patio outside her juice bar. (Let the irony and housemade golden milk sink in.) "We mean preserving ourselves so we can fight better, have more energy, focus, and stamina, and all these things that we need to grow our movements."

In 2012, Desouky and her partner, Rana Halpern, decided to pivot from activism to working in health food. Over the 10-plus years they spent organizing for communities of color in the Mission district, the couple became increasingly concerned about the health of friends and colleagues.

"I would watch every day as we were losing community members to chronic illnesses and things like heart attacks and pulmonary embolisms — health problems that if we spent more time caring for ourselves the way we care for our communities, they could be avoided," said Desouky. Staying healthy is also a priority for the couple because Desouky struggles with an autoimmune disease.

So, they started a juice pop-up and three years ago opened Super Juiced inside Swans Market in Old Oakland, threading their social values through their business model. It's a warm space with pink neon lettering on the wall and a Black Lives Matter sign hanging in the window. All their produce is organic and most of it comes from local farms, and they pay their staff of mostly queer youth of color above minimum wage.

They also try to keep their menu affordable, with smoothies priced between $8 and $9.50, which Desouky admits doesn't help make the business profitable. The juice bar also carries products from other queer and people of color-owned businesses. Ingredients like orange blossom were inspired by Desouky's Egyptian heritage. In January, the couple partnered with healers and a chef to offer what they hope will become a regular series of free workshops on "empowered health practices" for people of color activists and organizers.

Since the late 1980s, the concept of wellness has grown from a fringe hippie-ish idea into a symbol of luxury, now represented by an abundance of health, fitness, spiritual, and beauty products and services. Fueled by a growing global middle- and upper-class interested in all things health, the wellness industry is now estimated to be worth $3.7 trillion, with no signs of slowing down, according to a recent study by the Global Wellness Institute.

The irony is that many contemporary wellness trends, like practicing yoga or consuming turmeric, have their roots in ancient traditions from around the world — but are now appropriated and commodified at prices exclusively for an upper-income swath of Western customers. It's estimated that 44 percent of Americans who practice yoga earn $75,000 annually, according to surveys conducted by Statistic Brain Research Institute. And according to a 2008 study, yoga users are overwhelmingly white. Researchers from the Global Wellness Institute warn that rising income inequality is "widening the gap between the ever-expanding wellness lifestyles of the affluent and the minimal wellness amenities/services currently accessible to lower-income people."

But here in the East Bay, a group of women of color and queer people are making wellness financially accessible and culturally relevant to low-income neighborhoods, people of color, LGBTQI communities, and organizers working in social justice movements.

These acupuncturists, herbalists, and other wellness practitioners are offering free and sliding-scale services and programs specifically for identity-based groups. They're also drawing from their own ancestral medicinal and spiritual lineages to treat patients outside of the boundaries of Western medicine and the pharmaceutical industry. Many use modalities that specifically address mental and physical health problems that may stem from or can be exacerbated by systemic racism, discrimination, and historical trauma — something they say mainstream health care is, at best, late to acknowledge and, at worst, responsible for perpetuating.

While community-based wellness programs aren't new, practitioners say creative forms of health care are especially important in light of the current political climate. At the same time, social and environmental justice movements are increasingly institutionalizing self-care as a tool of resilience for individuals and a transformative asset for leaders.

For these practitioners and their patients, finding ways to care for themselves and each other is a political act.

When Rachel Bryant met Asara Tsehai, an African medicine woman, the words "I'm dying" jumped out of her mouth before she even said hello. Tsehai was offering her services at a health fair at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center that Bryant organized as part of her role as health ministry program coordinator. Even though she was "this huge face for health," Bryant was depressed and chain-smoking. Recently divorced, she was also a single parent, worried about money, and feeling like she was barely holding on.

Tsehai invited her to a healing retreat specifically for Black women. About 30 women attended, held hands in healing circles, shared stories and prayers, and ate healthy food.

"I understood afterwards how Black women's health can be impacted by isolation," said Bryant. "I was ill because I didn't have a community! I hadn't had the opportunity to share my story and be in a safe space where we could all have our stories told."


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