Mental Health Awareness month created an opportunity for companies to refocus their attention on employee well-being. Yet, burnout continues to rise and employees are reluctant to return to business as usual, particularly Black workers in the U.S. The performative nature of companies’ racial justice effort, ongoing killings of Black people by police, and White supremacist violence targeting Black communities exacerbate Black people’s distress and poor mental health. As we shift our attention to celebrating Black liberation and pride this month, it is critical to identify practices and norms that can promote wellness and real freedom for Black people.
Rachel Johnson, LMSW, MFT, believes that holistic health is necessary to counteract the multiple systemic forms of oppression that affect Black people. Rachel is the founder of Half Hood Half Holistic—a holistic wellness business that curates and centers Black individuals, families and couples based in Syracuse, New York. In our conversation, we explored how our current form of work is not ‘working’ for the betterment of Black people, and why a holistic health approach is vital to create thriving and joy in Black communities.
Rachel Johnson, LMSW, MFT. Founderof Half Hood Half Holistic
Courtney L. McCluney: How do you define ‘holistic health’?
Rachel Johnson: Holistic means tackling all the pieces, parts, and versions that show up for us including the mind, body, and spirit. It also means embracing the Cardi B side and the Solange side of ourselves! Talking about sex, money, and drugs and stepping into all the things that make you authentic, aligned, and whole. Holistic is all the things that make you make up who you are, all of the pieces of yourself. The things we love, things you don’t love [about ourselves]. It’s the people in our lives, what we do, and how we present ourselves in the world. For most people that comes down to your mind, body, and spirit.
By the time people get to me, they want to know “what does this [holistic health] involve?” Because the term, commodification and holistic health trends have [only] been seen in a specific way, and its usually influenced by spirituality and spiritual practices. Many people, particularly those that are strongly rooted in a religion, are very standoffish and resistant to holistic wellness because there are things that could challenge their beliefs like reiki, energy work or yoga.
McCluney: The resistance is interesting, especially because a lot of people of color have been indoctrinated to resist what are often seen as indigenous spiritual and healing practices through centuries of White religious colonialism and imperialism. Yet, the face of holistic wellness is typically wealthy White women who have traveled to our countries of origin and embraced these alternative ways of living. It seems that holistic wellness is only reserved for only the elite and privileged.
Johnson: I think that so many holistic healing spaces have not been traditionally protected. As an example, yoga has become so mainstream and trendy people forget it is a spiritual practice. I say that I stretch and I breathe because those are the pieces of yoga that I’m taking for me. We have to understand that this is someone’s spiritual practice. People don’t just go in a Baptist Church and say “I do praise and worship” and start playing the tambourine if you don’t know what that means. It’s both a religious and cultural practice.
Although we can learn from many different cultural and spiritual practices, when White folks don’t have a sense of culture, they feel entitled to others’ culture even if its sacred. I’m not saying that if you’re White that you can’t do yoga, but it’s so important to to watch how we are either commodifying or gatekeeping these practices. If you go to a yoga studio, who is the teacher and who’s taking the class? Probably not Black folks or Indian and South Asian people. At some point in time, White and western society in general took pieces of holistic wellness, commodified it and made it mainstream, and said we are the experts, the masters and gatekeepers of who has access to these spaces.
I think this is another reason why Black people are not always eager to explore holistic wellness because you do not see Black people in these spaces. Concepts like being a “yogi” or “vegan chic” feel like identities instead of practices, and there is a danger in that. If we don’t see ourselves represented in these spaces, we might think this type of healing is not for me. That’s what Half Hood Half Holistic was born out of. It catches all those people who don’t see themselves healing or see themselves in healing spaces and letting them know that this healing is meant for you.
McCluney: Our mainstream white gaze has distorted the hood to mean this negative space filled with violence or a space that we’re trying to escape from. At the same time, there is this exploitation of hood aesthetics and I think that it has always been part of what we consider Black culture. How do you see the hood as capturing all the folks who don’t necessarily see holistic healing as a space for them?
Johnson: I chose hood because it makes sense to the people who know what the hood is and means. It’s kind of like the idea of dog whistling in reverse. If you don’t see yourself in Half Hood Half Holistic, then it’s not for you. Hood is cultural. Most people in the Black community have an understanding of what the Hood is, not as a geographical space but as a culture. A shared language, where you’re challenged and grow, that feels familiar. There’s community and camaraderie. Holistic health are the practices and the space we do these practices are in the hood. To me it says you can embrace duality and all the pieces of yourself including these aspects of our culture.
McCluney: Why might a holistic health approach be more effective for Black people instead of traditional forms of therapy?
Johnson: There are a lot of contexts and history that informs the experiences of Black folks. I knew early on that Black people needed a little more than therapy to grapple with these contexts. The most important thing to know is Black people deserve healing! It’s something that’s owed to us, something we have to get to. And because the things that Black people need to heal are not one dimensional, the processes to heal them should also not be one dimensional.
The couch in a room with four walls will be beneficial, it’s a good place to start, but there is a lot to unpack. Intergenerational traumas, body stuff, our relationship with food and spirituality. If we only see these issues from a specific, mental health lens, we may only focus on one set of tools or therapies and miss other things.
Also, traditional coaching and therapy furthers the narrative that we must perform or show in certain spaces (e.g., therapist’s office) to receive the safety and comfort that comes from healing. It also furthers the narrative that healing is an event that can be done one hour a week instead of a holistic practice and lifestyle. If someone commits to the idea that therapy is the way to heal, but is not thinking about moving their body or drinking more water, they may come up short. There are plenty of reasons why traditional therapy and coaching is limited and it’s supposed to be because therapist are specialized in this area. But that also limits the healing I can offer.
Looking from a holistic lens allows us to widen our perspective of what might be going on. For example, a Black woman’s anxiety could be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, or it could be related to her birth control and food she’s eating. Having a holistic approach allows us to strengthen our cure.
Rachel Johnson, LMSW, MFT, Founder of Half Hood Half Holistic
McCluney: As you pointed out, any sort of traditional method that is applied in a society is not going to benefit the most marginalized and vulnerable because their unique needs are rarely if ever taken into account. Could you share what you all offer to consider their unique needs?
Johnson: I break down holistic wellness into tangible areas: physical, mental, spiritual, sexual/reproductive, social, and financial wellness. I want people who come into holistic health to realize that there is something for everyone. We offer direct services (coaching/therapy, maternal health support, reproductive wellness support), community engagement (community-based workshops, retreats and social wellness events), consultation (DEI, mental health in the workplace, community-based mental health) and community trainings/certifications (doula trainings, mental health first aid, mental wellness coach certifications).
We also find that healing in community is something Black people have always done. This is why our spiritual practices include fellowship and our cultural practices including gatherings like at cookouts and funerals. Social wellness is an opportunity to reduce isolation and build community, especially because there is a limit to the amount of work you can do as an individual. To that end, we host tribe check-ins to foster that social wellness. It’s a monthly open no cost space to discuss topics that may not come up in individual therapy sessions. It is an opportunity to discuss different aspects of holistic healing like imposter syndrome, sex and intimacy, and a money mindset. This is a great option for people who cannot access therapy yet. It helps people realize, too, that you’re healing does not have to wait for a therapist appointment. Too often Black folks spend time searching for a therapist who understands them and our culture. Tribe check-ins are meant to be accessible. We are not gatekeeping healing around here. It is designed for people to see yourself in healing and being with like minded people. It’s for us, by us.
McCluney: Social isolation has been on the rise in our country, and work is contributing to some of that. From your purview, how does work–either the type of work or the various forms of work we engage in (i.e., childcare) – negatively contributing to Black people’s mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health?
Johnson: Sometimes the issue is not the work itself, but how we’ve tied our worth and value to the concepts of work. This leads to that rise & grind mentality that justifies our dehumanization. We have confused self-sacrifice and being busy with productivity and purpose. If I believe that I have to do these things to be inherently worthy, then I have less of a say on whether my needs are met and take time for myself.
Part of the issue, too, is we don’t view humanity and work together. Black people have to work really hard to bring our humanity into our work experiences and that we deserve to be treated as humans. We’ve internalized some of the historical narratives that we are not human, and that our ability to work is tied to our value. If we have these beliefs, we may feel that we have less autonomy and power to set boundaries, creating a toxic relationship with work. If we view work as a relationship and keep our humanity in mind, we can see all forms of work differently including caregiving and household labor.
McCluney: What can organizations and society do to contribute to Black people’s holistic health and well-being?
Johnson: We all need to assess and address the cycles of burnout and scarcity in our workplaces. Companies that overwork their employees, resources, and assets to push forward their mission reinforce perceptions of scarcity. Expecting workers to produce at a high level consistently is not sustainable. Supervisors may pass these expectations on to their staff, which could create high turnover and low retention. Remaining employees feel pressure to pick up the slack generating more burnout. A lot of nonprofit and human service organizations operate from burnout and scarcity mindsets because we believe the money is not there or no one wants to work. Senior leaders will, in turn, create policies that limit PTO if they have a scarcity mindset, which dictates workplace culture and norms from the top down.
Embracing a different mindset will change our relationship with work. The opposite of a scarcity mindset is an abundance mindset, and the opposite of burnout is fulfillment. In my consulting I advise nonprofits not to overwork their staff, but instead focus on serving a smaller group or writing grants to fulfill a need. These serve as examples of working with an abundance mindset, and reimagines work as a space where we experience flow while serving people and being productive.
McCluney: What’s next for Half Hood Half Holistic?
Johnson: We will host a series of low to no cost virtual and in-person social wellness events… providing postpartum support and couples retreats that are hopefully accessible under our community-based arm. We are pouring a lot into our consulting and technical assistance arm to help organizations understand racial trauma, youth racial trauma, and mental health in the workplace. We are also focusing on capacity building particularly for nonprofits that are operating from grant to grant or paycheck-to-paycheck, and don’t know if they’re going to be able to keep their doors open. Our goal is to really attack this so that workplaces can be full of joy and rest. Then the clients we serve the community will be better off. We also have some products coming out including apparel and various meditations and affirmations journals and workbooks. Again, if our goal is accessible healing we want to make sure that everyone can come and get this healing!
Follow Half Hood Half Holistic on Instagram and Facebook @halfhoodhalfholistic.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
‘This too shall pass away’ this famous Persian adage seems to be defeating us again and again in the case of COVID-19. Despite every effort