Dr. Joi Lewis explores the radical power of self-care

Dr. Joi Lewis // Photo Credit: Stephenetta Harmon

Self-care in communities of color has often been seen as selfish. This is especially true for Black women who are expected to be superheroes that push past, instead of addressing, trauma. That includes not just physical health, but also mental and emotional issues stemming from the effects of such oppressive forces as racism, sexism and classism.

“That’s why healing ourselves is so radical,” said Dr. Joi Lewis, life coach, self-care expert and author of Healing, The Act of Radical Self-Care. “It’s put out there in a commercial way like self-care is something that is for people who have means, who have money, as an extra thing that you do. Or it seems like something that’s selfish.

“No, we get to breathe,” continued the East St. Louis, Il. native. “We get to stop. We get to take care of ourselves.”

For those wanting a more concretized response, she said, “It’s really the intentional practice of attending to your mind, body and soul in ways that oppose the forces of oppression that want you to be exhausted and sick.” That healing, she added, is “connected to really interrupting and dismantling the system of oppression. And then, I think in a much more sort of simplistic way, because there is everything that tells us to put everybody else first, for us to start with ourselves is a radical act.”

Lewis honed in on specific consequences of oppression like addiction, violence, and historical trauma that often affect Black and Brown and working-class communities.

“Addiction is often talked about in a way that is very individualized, but it’s actually very systemic,” she said. “People are trying to cope with heartbreak around things that are happening to [them] every day,” she added, listing additional issues like police brutality, job insecurities, sickness, death and lack of income.

“Many of the conditions are also connected to historical trauma [such as chattel slavery] that has been passed down. These are really horrific things that happened to us, happened to our people. That really is in our DNA and there hasn’t been a way to heal from that or to release any of that.”

She also noted programs that are doing all this work “but people’s lives are not improving.” All these things add up, and not recognizing their effects “is a way of dehumanizing us,” she said.

“And you’re like, ‘Why am I drinking?’ Or it might be drugs,” she said, while also revealing her own battle with food addiction. “How do you deal with it? I needed a process for getting free in my own life, as well as helping others.”

Her new book is a collection of these stories, some personal, mixed with images and anecdotes from her work spanning three decades to help “activists, artists, everyday folks” find their own language for dealing with and breaking free of trauma.

“Even when I was on campus, I was doing healing work,” said Lewis, referring to her 25-year career on college campuses as a dean, a vice president, and a chief diversity officer. “I was doing a lot of work around social justice and liberation work and connecting to the community. I just didn’t have the language for it.”

She went from administrative work to healing circles for students to leading groups at her Frogtown home in St. Paul and North Minneapolis’ Living Room. After the 2014 police shooting death of Mike Brown in Missouri, her healing circles grew from 20 to 30 people to hundreds.

Lewis soon received a call from the Minneapolis Foundation to serve as a lead facilitator between the mayor’s office, local NAACP, Black Lives Matter and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.

“They said, ‘We don’t want to be the next Ferguson. Well, I can’t really prevent a civic uprising, and if I could, I wouldn’t anyway. But, I can help people build authentic relationships across differences.”

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After three months, she said members petitioned to continue the group and even requested Lewis host an overnight retreat. “And then, three days later, Jamar Clark was murdered. Then there was the occupation of the Fourth Precinct and then this work.”

Lewis also created the Orange Method, a four-stage process to help break the cycles of oppression one person at a time, including “meditation to get grounded; mindfulness for getting present; emotional liberation, which is about getting free; and then conscious movement, which is about getting going,” said Lewis, explaining it’s both an individual and collective practice.

She named it orange, in part, to reference to the color of the energy chakra point located below the abdomen. “It’s really the center by which everything moves and transforms in our body. I really consider my work to be a body, [and] I am a bodyworker for the system.”

She’s led major corporations, city offices, universities, and community groups through the process. “It’s really about reconnecting to our own humanity,” she said. “How do we find the places where there’s tension and shift and move where we can actually change systems?

“It can be as simple as starting a meeting with meditation or two minutes of silence. It shifts the atmosphere, because everybody comes in with their agenda.”

This language of healing, though, isn’t new, she said. It’s just a reclamation of generations of family members, grandmothers, and aunties who passed down their wisdom.

“Our grandparents had their morning rituals. They had their nightly rituals. If they were in a spiritual community, they came together, gathered, went to the wall, wailed, and you got that stuff out. This is a reclaiming of that.”

Instead of running from the pain, her book’s goal is to help center and heal.

“It’s an opportunity, it’s a tool and the practice for us to be able to hold the contradiction of… joy and pain and the heartbreak that we have,” said Lewis. “It’s a reminder that joy and pain do in fact run from the same faucet. You can turn [pain] off, but you’re going to miss out on the joy, too.”

For more info on Dr. Joi Lewis or her new book, Healing, The Act of Radical Self-Care, visit joiunlimited.com.

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