On Instagram, #selfcare makes for good content. Users have tagged over 2.5 million posts—acai bowls, atmospheric candles, yoga mats, green juice—with the hashtag. Over 75,000 people are practicing it on #selfcaresunday, and more than 25,000 photos bear witness to the fact that #selfcarematters. And it does; marginalized populations have performed self-care for centuries in the face of systemic oppression. But the term, whether it refers to critical activist work or a kind of spiritual nourishment, suggests that it’s possible to practice care on our own. The truth is we exist in matrices of allies and friends who do this work for us. If we’re honest, it isn’t #selfcare. It’s #squadcare. This week, ELLE.com scholars at Wake Forest University go deep on just what that means.
Harriet’s Apothecary is a Brooklyn-based haven for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color, committed to forms of healing that counteract the impact of oppression. For the collective of transgender, queer, and cis women shamans and organizers, ancient traditions in medicine and wellness are a path to liberation.
Adaku Utah founded the collective, inspired by Harriet Tubman’s vision for Black freedom. She sees her work as a continuation of Tubman’s effort to uphold the dignity of oppressed people. These healers move beyond the rhetoric of “self-care,” exploring the links between recovery, spirituality, activism, and self-determination by administering traditional medicines, reconnecting with the practices of their ancestors, and confronting institutional, interpersonal, and internalized oppression.
During seasonal community healing villages, Utah and her fellow healers offer acupressure, Reiki, arts-based herbalism, plant-based medicine making, Thai yoga massage, essential oil therapy, Indigenous sound healing, embodied movement, bodywork, hair care, spiritual divinations, peer-to-peer counseling sessions, guided meditation, and healing justice workshops on a sliding payment scale. And because Harriet’s Apothecary is a deliberate response to violence, the spaces it creates are trauma-informed, rooted in anti-oppressive practices, and affirmative of all genders and body types. In a society that works overtime to sell women quick fixes, these healers are committed to self-care as a kind of generational, political resistance. We spoke to four members of Harriet’s Apothecary who reveal how offering compassion for their own pain and the pain that exists in marginalized communities translates into revolutionary healing for themselves and their communities.
Chronically ill as a child in Nigeria, Adaku Utah suffered severe bouts of pneumonia and malaria.
“Even though I was interfacing with the medical-industrial complex, my mom was like, ‘Let’s go into the bush and make this medicine,'” Utah says. “[She] was able to learn that herbal knowledge from her grandmother and she passed it on to me.”
A descendent of Marxist organizers, herbalists, and farmers who dealt in herbal treatments and ancient care to strengthen their communities, Utah, 33, is devoted to spreading the practices that healed her and her forbearers. After training with master herbalists in Nigeria, Jamaica, Haiti, and the United States, she founded Harriet’s Apothecary and BeatBox Botanicals in Brooklyn, and has organized within her various communities for more than a decade.
“I grew up in a household that had a lot of self-determined care,” Utah says. “I feel like there’s a lot of self-determination running through my veins in general. My whole life, healing as a political act has been such an infused part of my livelihood.”
Utah explains that she’s deeply committed to fighting oppression by reconnecting the most marginalized members of her community with the ancient healing practices of their ancestors and helping them seize their intrinsic, intuitive power. Somatics, craniosacral therapy, practicing collective ritual with family and friends, therapy, and dance have all been instrumental to Utah’s own restorative process.
“My healing starts with the recognition that I have pain and recognizing that my pain is sourced from either anti-Black racism, generational trauma or […] the way that I’ve been socially constructed to treat my body,” Utah says.
“And at the end of the day we are all contributing to either a system of domination or a system of liberation,”Utah continues. “If you are invested in a system of liberation, then your self-care won’t only end at yourself.”
Natalie Sablon always felt she was meant to be a healer, but her instincts were validated in college when she interviewed her grandmother for an assignment on how culture influences health practices and conceptions of health.
A Creole woman, her grandmother shared stories of how her own mother and grandmother had used ointments, liniments, and animal skins to heal what ailed them. The stories inspired Sablon and “expanded [her] horizon around healing.”
The 37-year-old Sablon manages a women’s health clinic in Brooklyn and has been a registered nurse for 12 years. When she felt drawn to experiment with methods outside of traditional Western medicine, she attended herbal workshops for nurses. In 2013, Utah and Sablon apprenticed for almost two years under Karen Rose, a Guyanese herbalist who owns Sacred Vibes Apothecary in Brooklyn.
Sablon, who describes herself as a liberation-focused healer, combines Western scientific knowledge and the herbal practices of her ancestors to support her healing and to help other Black women.
“We are all our own best healers,” says Sablon, who founded her own apothecary, Wild Herban, in 2014. “The community I ride and die for is Black people. And I ride and die for Black women even more so because […] male privilege is a real thing.”
Sablon’s family and first line of defense is the circle of Black women healers at Harriet’s Apothecary. She was one of the apothecary’s first volunteers and watched the collective blossom.
“The beautiful thing about being within a growing healing collective is we don’t just talk the talk,” she says. “We do the work…. We call each other out. We have healing moments…. We have healing circles for healers.”
“There are things that we don’t need to go to the doctor for, that we have been tricked into thinking that we need to go to the doctor for,” Sablon says. “That’s one of the ways to disempower a community of people.”
Selome Araya is committed to ending cycles of illness and violence by reviving ancient holistic care practices and cultivating spaces for people of color to release trauma through community ritual.
A certified Reiki practitioner, counselor, doula, and health advocate, Araya also holds a master’s degree in public health in forced migration and health. Through years of humanitarian and emergency response work in Ethiopia, Haiti, Panama, and Zambia, she witnessed a variety of age-old healing methods, some of which her paternal Ethiopian ancestors practiced.
Political conflict forced many of those relatives to flee Ethiopia in the 1970s, which motivates Araya to offer support to forced migrants and survivors of torture. She recently co-founded Reiki for Refugees, an initiative that provides energy healing treatments to refugees with an ultimate vision of equipping them to do the same for others.
“I felt called to support the revival of ancient healing modalities within my [newest] community [in Brooklyn], increasing awareness of holistic healing modalities and natural health practices…reclaiming our ability to take control of our healing to transmute our pains and our traumas,” Araya says.
Araya, 37, also cherishes her fellow healers in Harriet’s Apothecary for holding space for her to be heard. “When I’m honest with other people I can be honest with myself [and] I’ve only recently been telling my story in its fullness,” says Araya. “When I speak my truth I feel whole.”
Harriet’s Apothecary offers Araya an affirming and consistent community in which to share her gifts, receive from others, and continue her own healing among a collective. “I realized my healing couldn’t happen in isolation,” she says.
It’s a process that she nurtures in her work as a doula, a practice guided by the principle that women should not give birth in isolation from community. Araya provides physical, emotional, and educational assistance to women during their childbirth and postpartum experiences.
For many women, it presents a vastly different alternative to the hospital birthing experience, especially for Black and brown women, who are less likely to be listened to or offered pain relief.
“Most of what the global medical-industrial complex offers is numbing, Band-Aid solutions, [but] a lot of illness that manifests is at the spiritual level, and that’s hard to heal,” she says. “Through pain we dig deep enough to find our essence, our wholeness. We have to heal at the root.”
The dynamic fusion of self- and group-care is instinctive to Taja Lindley. The women in her mother’s family have, for decades, been a source of support and artistic inspiration.
“There’re some connections between what I’ve learned from my mother, her girlfriends, and the other women in my family […] who are really claiming and taking up space in their bodies in particular ways,” she says, recalling her mother and the women in her life engaging in body adornment. “And that being a way of showing self-love and building community.”
Lindley, 31, who’s been mentored by celebrated burlesque artist Perle Noire, finds sensual freedom and healing in Brown Girls Burlesque, a liberatory troupe that performer Chicava Honeychild created for Black and brown women to reclaim their sexuality and their bodies.
“Being in consistent community with people who are in the integrity of themselves—specifically women of color, and specifically Black women inside of that, has been really important to me,” says Lindley, who is also a member of The Doula Project and Echoing Ida. “I’m really grateful for all the different configurations of sister friends that I have.”
For Lindley, who founded Colored Girls Hustle to redefine “the hustle” to align with women’s passion, purpose, and creative gifts, performance artistry is a form of healing that is inextricably intertwined with her spirituality.
“I do prayers before I go onstage and when I get off,” she says. “I’m a Reiki practitioner, so I do Reiki on myself and on the space and in the environment, and in my intentions, before using my body. I say prayers to let go of ego and perfectionism and fear.”
Lindley says these practices allow people to channel their most creative selves.
“I think that gets robbed of us when we live inside of scarcity,” Lindley says. “When we’re in survival mode […] constantly reactive and responsive to systems that don’t give a fuck about our lives…. Our capitalist economy does a lot to make people feel like you need to fit into a certain way of being, so that you can survive.”