Focusing on Wellness, Activist Helps Black People Deal with Stress and Racism amid the Pandemic
BY: S. RENEE MITCHELL
• CREATIVE REVOLUTIONIST, 2019 SPIRIT OF PORTLAND AWARD WINNER
Nearly every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., Oregon Black Student Success Community Network Member Bahia Overton and her mother, Dr. Joy DeGruy, can be found on Facebook laughing, testifying and signifying, if need be. The live streaming show, part of Dr. Joy’s “Be the Healing” consulting practice, discusses strategies and practices that can help Black people cope with depression, parenting, health, and the everyday social justice struggles of being Black in America.
The mother-daughter duo began their Wellness Wednesday online sessions after COVID-19 unveiled the depth and breadth of this country’s anti-Black sentiments. Fault-blaming rhetoric starting regularly repeating in media reports about the disproportionate number of Black people who have been diagnosed or have died after contracting the coronavirus. In an April 23, 2020 article in the national Children’s Institute website, Bahia noted that deeply engrained anti-Blackness plays a part in COVID-19’s impact on the Black community.
“Let’s not forget, along with our health implications, racism is a preexisting condition,” Bahia wrote in the Children’s Institute article. “The stress of walking through this life as a Black person contributes to stress-related illness. Racism compounds all other health vulnerabilities. But there is a bright side: Our strength and resilience will help us get through this. We have used joy and creativity and innovation because we have had to make a way out of no way — forever.”
The Wellness Wednesday series focuses on these and other Black-related issues, but is presented in a format that sounds like one is listening in on a loving, truth-talking and humor-filled family conversation. Technical difficulties and family member interruptions are part of the process. So are different head wraps, expert guest speakers and various calls to action for community members. Recordings of the sessions, which often get thousands of views, can be found on DeGruy’s YouTube page.
“It’s a lot of work, but, still, but because it is connected to service in some way, it brings me joy,” says Bahia, who is an active member of the Bahài’ Faith, which focuses on the oneness of humanity. “My mother would always say: ‘Work offered in the spirit of service is the highest form of worship.’ That’s always been in the back of my mind.”
Dr. Joy, who is an expert in the roots of violence in African American boys and author of the book “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” is an international celebrity because of her seminal research on American’s racist socialization of Black people. She had always “been a very intense, deeply spiritual and activist type person,” Bahia says. “I was definitely inspired and have been cultivated in a home that’s around service to my community, activism and justice.“
Bahia, who is completing her Ph.D. in social work research, is executive director of Black Parent Initiative, one of the 20 inaugural members of the Oregon Black Student Success Community Network (OBSSCN). This nonprofit was created to provide programming that helps Black and multi-racial families thrive. Bahia is unapologetic in her attention to create culturally appropriate processes that contribute to the spiritual and emotional well-being of Black people in each procedure and aspect of BPI programming.
For example, after social distancing was encouraged because of the pandemic, Bahia encouraged her employees and service providers to conduct culturally appropriate physical distancing, given that personal contact with people you know and trust is a key coping strategy for Black people. That meant BPI workers who needed to drop off diapers, food or job information to their clients, would do a “knock and run,” which involves knocking on the door, leaving the supplies and information and then standing six feet away to converse. Women helping new mothers breast feed are doing virtual consultations. And Bahia is offering free online fitness classes with West African, Caribbean, Hip Hop music.
Bahia is a married mother of three children, two biological and one adopted family member. Her view of Black children is always from a strength-based perspective and she wants her legacy to contribute to sustainable change that benefits Black children, particularly girls, and helps them feel good about the skin they’re in. Her quest to help her daughter with eczema, for example, led to her creating a made-to-order, skin and hair product company called Bahia Honey. Even her company’s mission, according to the website, has a social justice focus: “We believe that being comfortable in your own skin, literally and figuratively, while manifesting love, justice and unity is an act of counterterrorism…and that wellness is revolutionary.”
As an adult, Bahia spent many years as a community based social worker and child and family therapist. She was inspired to pursue a Ph.D. after her field work regularly exposed her to Black children being negatively labeled, pathologized and misdiagnosed with mental health issues because of a lack of awareness of how Black children in foster care – particularly those who reside in white cities – were being treated by others at home, school and in the community.
“So, I started to, kind of in a rogue, therapeutic way, approach things very differently with my clients,” Bahia noted during the Aug. 12 Wellness Wednesday session titled “The Importance of Black Research.” “That led me into researching more strategies for how to really strengthen, encourage, uplift and inspire Black girls in foster care.”
She also credits her mother with encouraging her to start a book series called, “Amina Brown Breaks it Down,” which features a resilient Black teenage girl navigating her way through the foster care system in the Pacific Northwest. You can also listen to her interview, titled “Revealing the Latent Potential of Children” on SoundCloud.
As activism can be draining, Bahia’s self-care ritual centers around meditation in one of her two prized sanctuaries: Her backyard garden, where she can smell her lavender plants or soaking in her oversized, jetted bathroom tub, with candles lit, sipping her favorite tea, listening to Miles Davis and reading passionate poetry translated from the Persian mystic and poet Rumi.
“I talk fast and my brain goes,” Bahia admits, “but sitting in a space like that reading mystical things that require me to unravel their mystery…Until I’m a full prune, I’m not getting out.”