Michelle Saahene of Privilege to Progress on Wellness as Social Justice
A conversation with Michelle Saahene, co-founder of From Privilege to Progress, an organization dedicated to desegregating the public conversation around race and racism.
by Nina Westbrook
I’m thrilled to share my conversation with Michelle Saahene, co-founder of From Privilege to Progress, an organization dedicated to desegregating the public conversation around race and racism. Through global public speaking appearances and an active social media presence, Michelle builds awareness around racial injustice and inspires the world to take meaningful and lasting action. Today, she is sharing her insight around wellness as a social justice for women in the Black community, which is a crucial conversation at this time in our nation’s history, particularly as we celebrate the contributions and achievements of women across the nation throughout Women’s History Month.
Nina Westbrook — From Privilege to Progress is a national movement to desegregate the public conversation about race and racism. How did this movement begin? Can you tell us a little more about your story?
Michelle Saahene — Our story began in a Philadelphia Starbucks in April 2018. I was the only person to call out the injustice of two young Black men being arrested for not purchasing an item when half of the patrons there had not purchased anything. Another woman, Melissa DePino, posted the video on Twitter where it went viral. Within days, the world was talking about the incident. It set off an international dialogue surrounding what racism and privilege look like in our day. People wanted to know how to get involved and what they could do, so we created a movement for people to #ShowUp by educating themselves, speaking out in their everyday lives, and amplifying Black voices.
NW — For those who don't know, how does wellness play a major role in social justice? Can you explain why this is so important in the world today?
MS — Collective consciousness and collective energy are often ignored, but science proves the concepts are very real. We pick up the energy of people around us. Just think about walking into a fun party - suddenly you’re feeling a sense of “fun” before you even engage in any activities because you’re picking up on the energy around you. So, if there are entire communities of people experiencing pain and fear from social injustice, what does that do to the world? Everyone feels it. This was evident when countries around the world joined in the protests of the murder of George Floyd. If more of us felt safe, heard, loved, and included, more of us would feel all of those feelings as well. As we learn to take care of ourselves, we teach others how to take care of themselves also. Centering our own wellness is the energy the world needs right now. The world needs each of us to be well so that we are all well.
NW — The movement you created calls on all Americans to #ShowUp and join the path to antiracism. What are a few ways we can all #ShowUp?
MS — We give three simple steps: 1) educate yourself, 2) speak up in your everyday life, 3) amplify the voices of people who are marginalized. Pick a few movies, podcasts, or books on different topics to learn more. Speaking up every day means saying something when you see something. It’s not always easy or comfortable, but it’s the example the world needs to see. If you don’t know what to say, you can say simple phrases like, “That’s not okay with me.” “We don’t say things like that here.” “I didn’t realize you thought that way.” Or my favorite, “What do you mean by that?” Interrupting racism by asking questions gets the other person to think about their words and the meaning behind them. Amplifying voices means to “pass the mic” to those who have the experience, the voices who aren’t always heard, but need to be listened to. You can always share different accounts on your social media to desegregate your feed.
NW — Wellness can be a form of justice. Can you expand on the idea of mind-body health to treat race-based trauma?
MS— Humans, like many animals, are hardwired to want love and acceptance. Race-based trauma such as social exclusion can be as painful as breaking a leg because it actually follows the same neural pathways. Emotional harm, such as verbal racial insults, can lead to distrust, anxiety, depression, anger, shame, and low self-esteem just to name a few. When this goes unexamined, not only are we unable to heal between such traumatic events, but our mind also stays on alert waiting for the next thing to happen. Our mind wants to protect us and this can keep us in a state of stress. Over time, these feelings become our subconscious way of being, and stress as most people know affects our physical body - lack of proper sleep, cardiovascular and nervous system issues, decreased immune system, etc. All of this impacts our ability to function well in day-to-day life, dis-empowers us, and doesn’t allow self-love to be embodied. Mindfulness practices are crucial for us to recognize when we need to pause, and when and where we need to heal. It is important that we do things like make sure to have a supportive circle of influence and friends, eat well and exercise, seek out coaching or therapy, and try things like yoga and meditation to bring us back into the awareness of the body. This allows us to tap into where trauma is showing up so that we can address it head on, heal, and build resiliency.
NW — Why is it so important for Black women and other women of color to center their wellness?
MS — As Black women and women of color, we face unique challenges that directly impact our wellbeing. Black and Brown women often resort to high-effort coping (the endurance of misery), because of the prevalence of systemic oppression. From particularly extra toxic hair products, to food apartheid (strategic ways that limit access to healthy foods in Black and Brown neighborhoods), to blatant racial bias in healthcare, it’s absolutely crucial that we learn to take care of our own minds and bodies. As a Black woman, I am twice as likely to have infertility issues than white women, and three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recognizes more than half of premature deaths are related to social issues, such as racism. The current U.S. system especially was not built for us to flourish, but we do, we can, and we will continue anyway by learning to center our wellness.
Have a supportive group of Black and Brown friends who you can talk to, and if you’re seeking out therapy, try to find a Black or Brown therapist that can understand and empathize on a deeper level. Practice meditation, exercise, and recite affirmations for balanced emotions and positive body image. It’s important for the world to see us beyond the pain, struggle, and trauma, and it’s even more important that we see that for ourselves, and that younger Black and Brown women and girls see that, too.
NW — Injustice and trauma can take a clear toll on mental and emotional health. Do you have any suggestions for centering your well-being and taking back the control?
MS — Prioritizing doing the things you love to do is powerful. The more we get used to doing the things we enjoy doing, the easier it is to say “no” to the things that we do not align with. If you need to schedule “take a walk” in your calendar, do it! What we eat has a direct impact on our mood and brain function. Cut back on as much processed food as possible. Movement helps us stay connected to our body awareness, our thoughts and emotions. It helps us center and learn how to recognize what we need from moment to moment. Being outside in nature, taking walks, getting fresh air and sunlight is an immediate mood booster, especially in the morning. Journaling, physically writing, helps us slow down and process how we are feeling and set goals. Write the ways you want to feel, write down what you want to believe about yourself and the world, and write it as if it’s already true. Writing statements in, “I am” form helps us manifest what we want and who we want to be. Your wellness is a journey and it’s the ultimate justice.