Since losing his stepfather to suicide last year and his brother to COVID-19 just a few months ago, Rameer Askew, a 16-year-old Glenville resident, has found solace in poetry.
“It’s like painting a sunny day, when in reality, it’s storming,” said Askew, reciting his poem called “A Cry for Help” last Wednesday, Nov. 17.
Askew performed that poem to some 30 Clevelanders at Feed the Soul’s Clubhouse, a nondescript strip-mall storefront off E. 55th St. in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood. Like Askew channeling his emotions into poetry, the crowd had gathered seeking mental and spiritual healing together, both for themselves and for their community as a whole.
The event was called “Ghetto Therapy,” a name coined by the organizers, lifelong Central residents and community leaders Walter Patton, of Free Thinker Since ‘87, and Cassandra Gordon, of BEU Sisters Foundation. They brought in local experts in different areas of health to guide conversations about the interactions between physical, mental, and spiritual wellness. They’re focused on helping Central’s mostly Black residents find community amid the ravages of the pandemic, and empower them to heal from the trauma many face in east side neighborhoods.
Patton started Ghetto Therapy in 2018 as a radio program on WOVU-95.9 FM, a Cleveland station, while Gordon and her organization just joined the project in November. They plan to continue hosting events every Wednesday from 6-8 p.m. at the Clubhouse located on 2765 E. 55th Ave.
“We know what we need”
“We always go through everything together,” Gordon said. “I want to start something where we can provide a safe space for all of us to heal together because a lot of us don’t know how to heal together, don’t know how to heal, period.”
According to the Center for Community Solutions, the median household income in Central, which houses about 11,689, is $10,440, roughly one-third of the median in Cleveland, which is $30,907. More than 80 percent of the neighborhood’s children live below the poverty line. Ghetto Therapy, Gordon said, allows attendees to talk about how living day-to-day in these conditions has impacted residents mentally and emotionally with neighbors who understand those experiences.
Rather than large healthcare institutions telling the community “what they think we need,” Gordon said, Ghetto Therapy is empowering “real, live, everyday people” to tell their own stories and address their own needs, she said.
Mistrust of large healthcare institutions isn’t uncommon in the Black community, said Amber Black, a clinical nurse at MetroHealth who spoke at Ghetto Therapy. In addition to the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments, healthcare institutions have subjected African Americans to pervasive abuses and numerous medical experiments throughout U.S. history that have contributed to that mistrust, she said.
Black has specialized in preventative medicine for years as a family nurse practitioner, a profession that was born amid a lack of primary care providers in both urban and rural communities throughout the United States in the 1960s. More than 50 years later, how to better serve communities of color remains a talking point for many large healthcare providers. Black said she’s usually the sole African American healthcare provider in those sorts of conversations trying to help her white colleagues understand how they can better serve patients of color.
Amid Cleveland Clinic’s sleek, new hospital buildings on the east side, Black said she understands the common sentiment that local healthcare institutions haven’t done enough to benefit the communities they inhabit.
“I feel like my neighborhood still is sick, and they’re just getting richer off of me getting sicker,” said one attendee when Black asked the audience to name barriers they face in seeking out medical attention. “It feels like, always, the solution is cutting something out or giving me a pill.”
It’s because of those negative experiences many African Americans have had in the healthcare system that Black has begun emphasizing that healthcare begins long before a visit to the doctor, through healthy lifestyle choices and habits. That’s what she shared with the other speakers at Ghetto Therapy: a holistic approach to medicine.
Whole health medicine
Whole health medicine, sometimes referred to as integrative or holistic medicine, is a medical approach underpinned by the idea that good medicine is understanding the relationships between all systems in the body, mind and spirit and using a variety of evidence-based tools to support health, said Dr. Francoise Adan, director of University Hospital’s Connor Whole Health center. To her, whole health means understanding that both prescription medication and other modalities such as meditation and acupuncture have a place in healthcare.
“Your emotions, your social interactions, your belief system, your behavior, your genetic predisposition, your physical health, all of it is connected and is influencing each other,” Adan said.
The emotional and spiritual pieces are what Shannon Yarbrough, an occupational therapist and holistic practitioner at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center, focused on during her time speaking at Ghetto Therapy. But she did more than speak. Yarbrough played a series of sound bowls, tools commonly used in meditation for the unique, stimulating, and soothing frequencies they produce when struck. Children playing in the room immediately fell silent the moment Yarbrough started playing a bowl.
Yarbrough got her license in Reiki, a form of energy healing that originated in Japan about a century ago, from Ursuline College about four years ago. While taking holistic healing classes for that license, which cost her thousands of dollars, she often found she was one of few Black students.
“I wanted to take what I learned from these places, and take them back to my community, and show people basic energy stuff,” she said. “You should know your energy just as much as you know your name and your blood type.”
Reiki involves a practitioner using focused touching, which proponents say helps guide streams of energy through the body. Although some cast doubt on the validity of Reiki, some studies have shown it can help induce relaxation, in some cases helping alleviate pain and anxiety, among many other anecdotal physical mental and spiritual benefits.
“The power within yourself”
Like Yarbrough, Christin Farmer, another speaker at Ghetto Therapy, finds herself in a field dominated by people that don’t look like her. She considers herself a “new age thought leader,” in an industry she said is dominated mostly by white thinkers such as Napoleon Hill and Eckhart Tolle.
Farmer is focused on personal empowerment and spirituality. After studying Black scholars and historians and many white new age philosophers, she said she feels like her calling could be to understand and explain how the history and lived experience of racism impacts African Americans on a mental and spiritual level, beyond the material world on what she called a five-dimensional plane.
“We have subjected ourselves to another person’s reality because we don’t feel that we have the power to create our own,” Farmer said. “We do have the power to create our own. We just don’t believe in ourselves because we’ve been told that being Black is ugly, is dirty. It’s all these negative words, right?”
Farmer is something of a local nonprofit legend, founding Birthing Beautiful Communities, a nonprofit that trains birth workers, called doulas, and offers their services for free to expectant mothers. She resigned from the organization earlier this year, and after taking a step back from the nonprofit world, she has reframed her perspective on how best to empower her community.
“We always say like, ‘Oh, well, we suppressing our trauma,’” Farmer said. “No we not. We living through our trauma and our pain every single day. So the next time you go to your therapist, instead of talking about all of your problems, talk about all your joys and all your happiness and all your accomplishments and all your success and all of the things that actually make you feel good.”
That line of thinking aligns neatly with the whole health medicine approach to wellness. Especially with regard to spirituality, Adan said the impetus for whole health medicine is to dig deeper than the problems a patient may be experiencing at the moment and ask them instead big questions about what they want out of life. And it’s not just her beliefs, she said there’s a lot of research to back up this approach.
“What matters to you?” Adan said. “Instead of: ‘What is the matter with you?’
“It’s important to know and spend some time in reflection and encourage people to think about it at a very early age, again, what matters to them and having a sense of belonging, having a sense of purpose, because that is going to influence, again, our physical and emotional health.”
“You are not alone”
Askew, the young poet who opened up the Ghetto Therapy session, wrote his poem “A Cry for Help” not only to express his own emotions, but to let others know it’s OK to express theirs, too.
“I want to uplift people and let them know that you are not alone,” he said. “I’m here to help you mentally and emotionally the best way I can.”
That’s why Ghetto Therapy plans to keep hosting sessions every Wednesday, to offer people a safe space in the same way Askew does through his poems. That is needed in Central and in the Black community in general, said Tanisha Jordan, one of the session’s attendees.
“Coming up in a Black family and you say, ‘Oh I want to see a therapist,’ they’ll look at you like you crazy,” Jordan said.
Not only is Ghetto Therapy helping break down that taboo and equipping residents with tools to heal themselves, but it’s also helping connect residents to trustworthy medical professionals and healers who understand their lived experiences better than many other doctors.
“I would love to invite my other colleagues because we would love to pour into this,” Black said. “These big, large organizations do have committees and liaisons and ombudsman in place to work for the patient, to work for the community at large, but they’re twiddling they thumbs waiting for the phone to ring.”
Michael Indriolo is a reporting fellow at The Land
This project is part of Connecting the Dots between Race and Health, a project of Ideastream Public Media funded by The Dr. Donald J. Goodman and Ruth Weber Goodman Philanthropic Fund of The Cleveland Foundation.
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