Community Healing is the Systemic Change People of Color Need

By Dr. Wenimo Okoya, Assistant Vice President, Healthy and Ready to Learn Initiative, Children’s Health Fund

In the last two months, conversations that I never thought would make it to the mainstream are suddenly circulating through social media graphics, news pieces, and corporate messaging.

America is finally admitting that inequities stemming from white supremacy and racism have systematically cut off Black and Brown people from resources and political power, creating conditions that make them more susceptible to violence, harm, poor health, and trauma.

I have long hoped that our country would reach a moment like this. But in the journey to repair the damage created by hundreds of years of racialized violence and oppression, I hope that what we create is restorative and reimagined. On the other side of our dismantling of white supremacist structures must be rebuilding and healing for communities of color.

Trauma from racism has devastated Black and Brown communities for far too long. Regardless of race, over 38 percent of children have experienced some form of trauma, but that number increases for Black and Brown children. And if not intervened early, exposure to trauma — from things like racial discrimination, abuse, neglect, and homelessness — can have long-lasting impacts on the brain. Children are particularly vulnerable, and particularly harmed, by this reality, which continues every day. Even now, children of color are experiencing the trauma of witnessing Black and Brown death from racialized violence and COVID-19.

This trauma will remain in our communities and in our bodies unless we respond urgently to heal and repair it from its roots so that the stress and violence of systemic racism are not maintained and passed down. Healing must be built into the structure of our communities, institutions, and systems.

Recently, mental health and healing has gained traction through the cultural rise of self-care. Self-care emphasizes personal actions and habits to nurture one’s own mental and emotional needs. Recognition of our individual power to care for ourselves and cope with trauma and hardship is important, especially for people with marginalized identities who are often socialized to devalue their self-worth. But self-care places the onus of healing on the individual: it encourages us to cope with the impact of our circumstances. It does little to challenge the societal circumstances and structures that cause the stress and trauma in the first place.

To truly dismantle these structures, we must work hard to shift from a society that aims to fix people to one that engages with communities to embed justice and equity into the fabric of our institutions. Communities of color are traditionally community-centered, and truly restorative, systemic healing involves communities of people taking care of one another.

COVID-19 has been a real-world case-study in the value of community for both individual and collective health and wellbeing, while the crusade against mask-wearing is evidence of the harm embedded in the ethos of prioritizing individual preferences over community needs.

The idea of healing being structured into societal institutions may seem far-fetched or impossible, but it aligns with many of the same demands being made in the current movement for racial and social justice. Community healing calls for a restructuring of our priorities, resources, and investment to enrich the conditions that create wellness and health in communities of color, a few being safe and affordable housing, food security, livable wages, clean air and water, affordable and high-quality healthcare, and schools centered on healing over punishment. Through a coordinated, people-centered response from government and public policy, moving into schools and educational culture, and finally into individual families and children, this shift is possible. It is about creating environments of collective care, where systems do not manufacture trauma and where wellbeing is the default priority.

Schools give us an example of how a community healing model could be implemented. In many schools in Black and Brown neighborhoods, punitive policies often focus on discipline and order as a response to student behavior. These structures often facilitate practices like using silence as a weapon and allowing law enforcement presence in schools — practices that are most heavily used against students of color. The root causes of students’ behavior is not considered, and neither is an honest evaluation of racial bias in how children are disciplined.

Through a community healing model in schools, we would shift the ruler in how we are measuring children’s value away from being focused on discipline and corrective behaviors. We would approach children as human beings first, honor their voices, nurture their talents, and create environments where belonging and safety are at the forefront. Accountability for creating trauma-sensitive and healing-focused environments would be operationalized into school policies so that practices and cultures would shift.

Many interventions in schools are focused on getting children to stay alive, not to thrive, not to live fulfilling, happy lives. Just to survive. The same can be said for how Black, Indigenous, and people of color have been regarded in most interventions on the societal level in this country. For communities that have been systematically deprived, simple access to resources will never be not enough.

As we move our society towards transformation, our ultimate focus must be on individual and collective happiness — in building a society where all people can thrive. We have to move past the status quo and heal together.

Through advocacy, a national network of health centers & a school-based program, we work towards a future where all children get the care & support they need