Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

Healing Justice: Using Art and Spirituality to Make Social Justice

In this context, healing justice” is understood as a broader framework that aims to describe the relationship between social justice work and spirit by focusing both on the consequences of systemic oppression on the hope and agency of community members as well as how communities can heal and be restored to vibrant ways of living (Ginwright 2015). In this way, “healing justice organizers” are acutely aware of the ways in which stress, lack of resources, failing educational systems, violence, and prolonged exposure to trauma all diminish the capacity to foster optimism, empowerment, and social change. In addition, healing justice organizers are critical of public policies that create more violence, stress, hopelessness and lack of opportunities in schools and communities and treat these policies as harmful to the individual and collective, social, spiritual and emotional well-being of community members. Rather than viewing healing as simply an individual act of self-care, healing justice organizers view the act of healing as a political act that makes communities more whole while empowering people to bring about changes in the system. (Ginwright 2015). Healing Justice: A Conceptual Mapping of Healing Centered Youth Organizing

Editor: I have discovered a new trend in social justice organizing called “healing justice.” Only it’s not new: Indigenous Nations on Turtle Island (North America) have always done social justice this way. The Black Civil Rights Movement in the US has done this for hundreds of years. Black organizers in Oakland California have been doing ‘healing justice’ for many years as part of their Urban Peace Movement, organizing to end violent racism, police brutality and racist policies in education, prisons and urban communities. The following are selections from a paper by the Urban Peace Movement in Oakland on ‘healing justice’. Authors are M. Chavez-Diaz and N. Lee (Shawn Ginwright, Ph.D., Advisor). The full paper can be accessed here: http://www.urbanpeacemovement.org/HealingMapping_FINALVERSION.pdf

The ‘healing justice’ approach combines social justice organizing with healing circles, spirituality, and the arts for individual and community healing, expression and empowerment. The reason why this approach appeals to me is because this is what queer communities have done for a hundred years in the creation of queer culture. It also speaks to me very much as an artist and as a Buddhist who is interested in healing and cultural transformation. For years, these two parts of myself—the artist-spiritualist and the social justice organizer—have seemed so separate and antithetical to each other. This model brings both together into an integrated approach to social justice and well-being.

I have wholeheartedly adopted the ‘healing justice’ approach going forward in all my writing and organizing efforts. Engage! is about Buddhism as a humanist spirituality that promotes healing justice.

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A Conceptual Mapping of Healing Centered Youth Organizing Authors: M. Chavez-Diaz, N. Lee (Shawn Ginwright, Ph.D., Advisor) For Urban Peace Movement (2015)

Over the past three decades, low-income communities of color have been negatively impacted by a series of social and economic policies that have resulted in disparate outcomes for people of color. During the 1980s and 1990s California experienced the rise of mass incarceration and the criminalization of youth and men of color, the enactment of anti-immigrant policies, the war on drugs, and the crack epidemic. In this same time period, California saw the rise of a politically conservative, “tough-on-crime” climate that carried with it the portrayal of young people of color in the media as dangerous criminals and “super-predators” who needed to be locked up in order to protect the “good and the innocent.” The result was a host of tough-on-crime laws passed in subsequent years, which targeted and criminalized youth of color, such as the Gun-Free Schools act in 1994. That same year, the mainstream perception of immigrants as “dangerous” and a drain on the economy would fuel a growing national anti-immigrant sentiment that would result in Californians voting into law Proposition 187. Although never enacted, Proposition 187 would have denied public services, including public education and non-emergency health care, to immigrants and their children living in the state “illegally.”

Similar attacks were made in education. Two years after Proposition 187 was passed, voters approved Proposition 209, which barred affirmative action for college admissions and public hiring decisions. In 1998, the passage of Proposition 227 effectively banned bilingual education in public schools. Moreover, following the aftermath of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, there was a rise in the use of zero tolerance policies across our nation. Research has pointed to the ways in which zero tolerance policies punish the students who have the greatest academic, social, economic, and emotional needs, and students of color are overrepresented when it comes to being suspended and expelled (Noguera 2003; Gregory et al. 2010; Kang-Brown et al. 2013). The over reliance on suspensions and expulsions as forms of school discipline has led to many students being pushed out of school as well as to an increase in the likelihood of their incarceration, a process commonly referred to as “the school-to-prison pipeline.”

All of this set the stage for California’s Proposition 21, a ballot measure that passed in 2000, which, among many things, made it easier for minors to be tried as adults (even for minor offenses). These tough-on-crime policies ushered in an era of mass incarceration as the prison population in California and across the country skyrocketed. The school-to-prison pipeline rapidly expanded at the same time that there was a decrease in funding for education and public services.

However, it is important to note that the consequences of these laws did not only occur at the level of public systems and public policy. These policies have left devastating, deeply traumatic, and in many cases deeply personal impacts on families and communities, such as the trauma of having an incarcerated parent or the trauma of having a family member deported. And these policies have had disproportionately negative impacts on communities of color and on young males of color in particular. This is compounded by the fact that these same youth who have been unfairly impacted often have few opportunities and little support to address the psychosocial harm resulting from persistent exposure to an ecosystem of systemic violence, harm, and trauma.

In this context, healing justice” is understood as a broader framework that aims to describe the relationship between social justice work and spirit by focusing both on the consequences of systemic oppression on the hope and agency of community members as well as how communities can heal and be restored to vibrant ways of living (Ginwright 2015). In this way, “healing justice organizers” are acutely aware of the ways in which stress, lack of resources, failing educational systems, violence, and prolonged exposure to trauma all diminish the capacity to foster optimism, empowerment, and social change. In addition, healing justice organizers are critical of public policies that create more violence, stress, hopelessness and lack of opportunities in schools and communities and treat these policies as harmful to the individual and collective, social, spiritual and emotional well-being of community members. Rather than viewing healing as simply an individual act of self-care, healing justice organizers view the act of healing as a political act that makes communities more whole while empowering people to bring about changes in the system. (Ginwright 2015).

Principle #2: Healing is political 

The second principle of healing centered organizing is that healing is a political act. From a social justice perspective, healing justice organizers understand that their approach to social justice work must contend with both 1) systemic inequality and oppression, and 2) the trauma (that is the emotional, spiritual, and psychological harm) caused by oppression. Trauma is a both a byproduct of systemic oppression as well as a barrier to achieving just, equitable, and thriving communities. Consequently, the act of helping communities to heal from the trauma of systemic oppression and inequality is a political act. In this context, healing justice organizers understand the importance of healing work and they understand that the healing of both individuals and groups of people is tied to the collective struggle for liberation for entire communities. This collective way of understanding healing departs from conventional modalities of well-being and mental health, which have tended to focus on individuals. Additionally, through adding the dimension of healing, healing justice organizers transcend conventional approaches to systems-change work, which tend to focus only on policy change, direct action, and the like. Nicole Lee, Executive Director of Urban Peace Movement (UPM), an organization that fosters youth leadership in Oakland to transform the culture and the conditions that lead to urban violence, shared, “If trauma and harm are the manifestations of our oppression, then healing is part of our liberation.”

For Jackie Byers, from BOP, healing necessitates a commitment to addressing and responding to the needs of your staff and members: “We have members who are formerly incarcerated, who have been through foster care systems, and who have been through systems, and who are deeply traumatized.” Similarly, for George Galvis, Founding Executive Director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), an organization dedicated to interrupting the cycles of violence and poverty through community healing and developing youth leadership to transform criminal justice policy, it is important to not ignore the need to create healing spaces to address the collective trauma that activists bring with them:

You know 80% of the movement is us fighting among ourselves because a lot of people bring all their “carga” all their baggage into the circles. So there are a lot of wounded people in the social justice movement. That’s why they are passionate about justice because they have been wounded. They are trying to stand up for justice but they still haven’t healed up and they are bringing it and they are projecting it and there is a lot of internal division.

Jackie Byers and George Galvis’ comments suggest that creating spaces to heal the collective and generational trauma that exists within communities of color and that is held within activist circles is, itself, a political act. This is especially important when one considers the ways in which many people of color have internalized racism and self-hate as a consequence of living in an unequal society. Ultimately, the activists with whom we spoke aim to disrupt cycles of violence and pain by healing themselves and by creating spaces to facilitate healing for others with the hope that this healing will have a ripple effect on generations to come. To this point, Mario Ozuña, a Senior Program and Training Specialist at the National Compadres Network shared:

My healing is never going to stop; it’s my journey for the rest of my life. My hope is that my kids don’t have the same pain I had because that’s where the true healing happens […] when you don’t pass it to the next generations.

By explicitly positing healing as political, these healing justice organizers make a departure from conventional political change methodologies that typically measure and define change only in terms of political or material gain. Instead, healing justice organizers acknowledge the harm that has been caused by political and economic inequality and they, consequently, emphasize the importance of healing in their strategies to bring about a more just and more whole society.

Principle #3: Healing and organizing intersect 

The third principle guiding healing centered organizing is that healing and organizing are interconnected.

For healing justice organizers this interconnectedness is key to promoting alternative approaches and models that work to create the structural changes needed to achieve social justice and also promote the healing and social well-being of individuals, families, and communities. By combining healing and organizing strategies, healing centered organizing offers room for innovation and new possibilities that transcend what each of these approaches could achieve on its own. For the most part, conventional social justice organizing models have tended to focus solely on strategies and outcomes related to creating institutional or policy change while healing informed approaches, such as in the mental health field, have mostly concentrated on restoring the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of individuals. Given the devastating ways that systemic inequality can erode hope and possibility for entire communities, the combined approach to healing and organizing is a much-needed marriage. This approach also makes it possible to sustain collective efforts for justice in more effective and holistic ways that attend to people’s whole selves. For Nicole Lee from UPM:

[Organizing and healing] are not separate or competing things. They are intricately bound together. For me, this means that healing can increase a person’s sense of hope and agency to do social change work. But the reverse is also true. 

Similarly, for Alejandra Gutierrez, Program Manager and youth organizer at Fathers and Families of San Joaquin (FFSJ), a community based organization dedicated to promoting strong and healthy families and communities in Stockton and the greater San Joaquin Valley, healing and social justice go hand and in hand. For Alejandra merging healing and organizing is more than just an approach, it’s “a life journey.” She shared, “It’s not like it begins with the healing, and then you go to the organizing, healing is a life journey and organizing to me is also healing. It’s liberating and they converge together, merge together.” For both Nicole and Alejandra, the lines between healing and organizing can be blurred when there is room for marrying the two. For other practitioners, the approach begins with healing and “healing is interwoven throughout process.” George Galvis argues that healing is a critical first step and platform from which to build collective organizing. He shared:

I was organizing them [gang members] and I wanted to give them voice, and agency but I realized that we needed to help them move beyond trauma. So we started with ceremonies like healing circles, and building relationships and trust with each other. We did this before we got into all the politics and social justice framework. For us the framework begins with healing. It is an integral part and ongoing part. We never stop healing until we catch our last breath. We have to constantly be growing. So ceremony, spirituality, and healing have always been an integral part of it. It’s a first stepping-stone. 

Principle #4: Healing is found in culture and spirituality 

The fourth principle of healing centered organizing entails a commitment to harness the power of culture and spiritual healing that already exists within communities of color. For many people of color in the U.S., learning that their own history is much more vast and expansive than just the history that has happened in the past 500 years on the North American continent can be part of a critical healing process and a process of empowerment, self-discovery, and self-love. Moreover, despite systematic attempts to misinterpret, distort, and in many instances suppress or co-opt non- western forms of cultural and spiritual traditions, these alternative ways of being and knowing continue to be embraced and practiced to varying degrees in struggles for liberation of peoples of color. For example, for Chicano-a communities in California, Indigenous earth-based traditions have been key to facilitating the power of culture and spirituality to bring about healing, health, and well- being to people and communities (Acosta 2007).

Drawing on more than 30 years of experience with youth and families, Maestro Jerry Tello, Co-founder of the National Compadres Network and internationally recognized author, trainer, and community healer, weaves his own life experiences, his research-based knowledge, and Indigenous culturally-based teachings in his work. He provides capacity building and training to public systems and community based organizations and facilitates healing among families and communities in Chicano/Latino communities and other communities of color. Jerry Tello shared, “Healing really has to do with you, first of all, being rooted in a spiritual way. It has to be you having a philosophy of life that is interconnected with your own sacredness and the sacredness of all things.” Through the healing informed model of the “La Cultural Cura,” (transformational living and healing) Maestro Tello makes the case that the knowledge and medicine needed to heal from trauma lives within individuals and families, and already exists within the community. He shared:

In essence what it means is the healing starts inside that individual’s sense of sacred purpose. Within every culture, within every family, within every individual, is everything necessary. All you need is right there. It’s in you. And some people take that individually but I don’t mean it that way. In your authentic self, you are connected to ancestral wisdom, rooted values, cultural traditions – the channel of your roots. Within that is everything necessary for you to find balance and harmony. 

Moreover, through the curriculum of “El Joven Noble1,” Tello offers the premise that strength, harmony, and balance in families and communities are rooted in instilling cultural resiliency through spiritual and traditional rites of passage. He emphasizes the importance of providing guidance from community elders to assist youth in navigating the passage to manhood and beyond. (Tello et al. 2010; National Latino Fatherhood and Family Institute 2012).

Similarly for many African Americans, spiritual healing has been a site for profound transformation and possibilities for change. In particular, Black churches have historically played a prominent role in facilitating spaces for healing and establishing social and political power bases for African American communities. In addition, many progressive African American circles are increasingly drawing from African-centered approaches to well-being and the sacred in order to deploy culturally relevant healing modalities that connect individuals to a greater sense of purpose rooted in African ancestral practices and ways of being. These approaches may include a commitment to learning and teaching Black youth about their African ancestry that includes but is not limited to the history of ancient Kemet and the history of other regions of the African continent. In addition, many have found indigenous, earth centered African spiritual traditions such as Ifa, which comes from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, West Africa, as a source of healing and spiritual empowerment and an affirmation of cultural identity. Speaking on the role of spiritual healing in relation to struggles of liberation, Jackie Byers from BOP shared:

As long as we didn’t know who we were and as long as we stayed hopeless we were controlled. But as we began to break that bond, we were moving more than just what was physical, we were moving something spiritual. And there was a spiritual reaction. We have to look at things not just as what’s the material reaction but also that we are fighting something that’s deeper than that. Because there has been such an attack on our sense of ourselves. I think for Black people, spirit, and healing, and prayer, and all of the manifestations of that have been part of what we have always brought into our liberation and our survival. 

In addition to the use of traditional and ancient cultural and spiritual healing modalities, many urban youth as well as social justice youth organizations have also used contemporary urban youth culture, especially hip-hop culture, as a source of healing, inspiration, and self-expression. Since its inception in the early 1970’s hip-hop has given urban youth of color a platform and an avenue for expression that allows them to reflect on the harsh realities of growing up in the inner city. In the 1980’s and 1990’s hip-hop helped to politicize an entire generation of urban dwelling young people of color. Today, healing justice organizers continue to draw on hip-hop culture to create spaces for young people to articulate their struggles and to create a point of entry to engage youth in addressing the issues that are relevant to their lives.

The organization Beats, Rhymes, and Life in Oakland has developed a methodology called “Hip-Hop Therapy” through which they use hip-hop as a way to help young people embark on a healing and self-discovery process. Another project called Turf Unity (which was collaboratively run in a partnership between the United Roots Center and Urban Peace Movement) used hip-hop music as a way to build unity amongst young people from neighborhoods with historic rivalries. Additionally, many social justice youth organizations around California incorporate hip-hop culture in their workshops, rallies, direct actions, and other campaign activities – using hip-hop as a tool for social change.

These are all diverse and important modalities of healing that allow for culture to be enacted and allow for youth to express themselves creatively and authentically, emphasizing the individual’s connection to the community.

RECOMMENDATIONS: A Healing Centered Approach to Social Justice Change 

We have presented numerous examples of how social justice organizers are integrating healing and organizing work to implement more holistic practices that attend to the needs of individuals and communities. Acknowledging harm and developing a vision for well-being are necessary, but without implementation no healing will occur. Thus, this paper calls upon social justice leaders to contemplate the possibility that healing can facilitate the building of a healthier and more sustainable movement, and ultimately more just and equitable communities. We invite practitioners to be open to the radical proposition that healing centered organizing can help build the transformation needed to cultivate stronger coalitions across difference when mobilizing for racial and economic justice. Merging healing and organizing is one of the many ways to engage young people and communities of color in transformative change. Drawing from the insights of social justice practitioners who understand the significance of healing centered organizing, we offer the following key recommendations to help shift the ways in which we imagine and engage in the work of social justice: 

1) Embed and Institutionalize Healing Practices into Social Justice Organizations 

Increase organizational support for the integration of healing practices into the day-to-day work of social justice organizations and collectives. This involves a collective reimagining of our understanding of the core work of social justice organizations to being not only about carrying out our external political and programmatic work but also about attending to the emotional and spiritual well-being of our members, our leaders, and our staff. As an example, some organizations lead weekly healing circles for staff and members to participate in and other organizations weave yoga, meditation, and other contemplative practices into their weekly work plans and organizational calendars. Many youth organizations have begun to include healing practices in their leadership development trainings.

2) Build the Capacity of Social Justice Leaders to Foster Healing 

The day-to-day challenges of engaging in social justice work often leaves its leaders overwhelmed, exhausted, and with little tools to work through these issues without the danger of burn-out. To bring healing centered organizing to scale, we recommend building the capacity of social justice leaders to do the following: 

• Facilitate and be intentional about their own healing and “self-care” Leaders are more effective and more likely to stay in the movement over time if they are able to see healing as part of the role of a social justice leader, as opposed to the view that healing is something that is competing with their social justice work or that it is a “hobby.”

• Support and help facilitate the healing of others in the movement (members, staff, peers, etc.) Train staff and leaders on the need for healing centered organizing and how to recognize the triggers among youth and organizers, who are carrying trauma, in order to be more responsive to the needs of the members and colleagues with whom they work. This entails focusing on facilitating collective healing spaces and increasing education among practitioners who are working with communities that have been exposed to trauma.

3) Develop Key Partnerships Between Community Healers and Social Justice Leaders 

Both Community Healers and Community Organizers carry specialized knowledge bases that can serve as valuable assets to build more comprehensive models of community engagement and social change work. In order to foster partnerships between healers and social justice organizers, we must support the current kinship networks that exist among community healers and among organizers and find ways to promote cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary exchanges with the goal of identifying and further developing best practices to create more holistic and comprehensive models of organizing and social change work.



Ginwright, S. (2015). Hope and Healing in Urban Education: How Teachers and Activists Are Reclaiming Matters of the Heart. Routledge.

Ginwright, S. (2009). Black Youth Rising: Activism and Radical Healing in Urban America. New York: Teacher College Press.

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This entry was posted on 2016/06/01 by and tagged .


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