Healing Justice Collective Eliminates Barriers to Therapy for Y-WE Youth

Earlier this year, Y-WE launched the Healing Justice Collective, a new initiative that connects current and past Y-WE participants to values-aligned mental health practitioners and covers the cost of these resources. In part one of our series highlighting this work, Shaena Spoor, Y-WE’s Community Wellness & Mental Health Specialist, who created this collective, speaks to the genesis of the collective, what inspired her, and how we can make healing more accessible. 

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you feel young people are facing today?

A: I don’t think we ever have time to really answer this. Where to begin? Overall, when I’m working with these young people, the impact that the pandemic had on them is just outrageous. I think that we’re entering into completely uncharted territory as far as what that kind of social isolation and heightened level of crisis does to young people who are in developing stages. There’s just so many milestones that they missed out on, opportunities for social connection, relationship-building, and then – within that – how do you learn how to manage conflict, how to show up in a classroom, or figure out who you are? I also think there’s this other level of collective trauma because the pandemic made it so much harder for people to get support, and the way that it escalated violence in people’s homes. The isolation would further trap people into harmful situations because there was no place to go. 

Then there’s the trauma that happened during the racial uprisings in response to George Floyd and countless other Black Americans unfolding on TV, [while youth were] on screens all day every day. Now there’s residual trauma that just lives in these young people’s bodies moving forward. Then there was the whole period of time where Asian elders were being attacked on the street – being blamed for a virus that had nothing to do with them. And then people dying en mass … there’s all of this underneath that goes unspoken. No one really talks about how heavy the impact of these things was and still is. 

On top of that, the young people who are most impacted by the intersections of all of these things, have extreme mental health challenges. The levels of depression, anxiety, suicidality, and disordered eating, and self-harm, is wild. The young people who are most impacted don’t have access to healing because there are so many barriers. The opportunity for healing after unprecedented harm is not there. 

So what are they dealing with?? I don’t know … a lot. 

Q: What inspired you to create the Healing Justice Collective?

A: All of the above and more. It’s not like these barriers are new. They were just really glaring when I started doing this work. I offer free wellness to our participants and I sat with a lot of young people who were interested in finding therapists, so I did a lot of research on what was already available. [I looked for] databases that were helpful, beyond Psychology Today. For context, therapists have to pay, usually, to list themselves on these directories. So the therapists who are available and can afford to offer more sliding scale options are usually white. 

There really is a shortage of therapists who are BIPOC, queer, trans, who manage to get their license and still be able to offer affordable slots. So even though I collected these directories where maybe you can list for free, or are intentional about finding “inclusive therapists,” and even though there are some foundations that will help people pay for therapists, it still wasn’t enough. The enrollment periods are open, close, open, close, because they have cycles and the funds run out. It’s a whole thing. So I collected all this info and put it on a wellness hub, which seems to be helpful to some degree, but it still requires people to go through an outrageous amount of hoops to access a therapist that works for them and that they can afford. 

It also didn’t feel good to just send people out looking for therapists on their own, but I didn’t have the capacity to create curated lists for each person. There was only so much I could do. I like to feel good about the referrals I make – I think it’s really important that we make strong referrals especially given how harmful these institutions can be and are. The inspiration came out of seeing a high need and also experiencing a lot of frustration in what was available. I mean, I went to school for this, I’ve done years of direct service, I’m very well versed in what’s available, how to get it, and still I couldn’t find enough. 

When I talked to Black and brown youth, the consensus was that even if they’ve gone to therapy before, they felt wary about it because they’ve been actively harmed by white therapists in particular. They had to educate them about their experience, there’d be microaggressions, there’d be some gaslighting, and all in all there was no understanding, which ended up being traumatizing. You’re opening up and being really vulnerable with this stranger who does not hold your story with intentionality and care. 

So the inspiration was to try to minimize some of these barriers for Y-WE youth and alumni, while knowing that I couldn’t change the systems that were in place. Therapy is still going to be inaccessible because it’s inaccessible to be a therapist. Knowing that these things were not going to change overnight, I just wanted to see what we could do. Like what would it be like to personally vet and talk to therapists who are passionate about providing this kind of service? What would it be like to ensure that these therapists were adequately compensated for their work? How do we ensure that the therapists have space for Y-WE youth? How do I guarantee that a referral is going to be as streamlined as possible so that young people who are in survival mode, who are really busy, can trust that we are making a referral that’s a fit. 

I also think it’s special to be in a place that says that you have creative freedom and truly means that. [In the past,] I learned to manage my expectations in nonprofit spaces because of the bureaucracy and budgeting constraints and funder expectations or priorities. And so, I put out ideas while protecting myself from an answer that might be disappointing. It was actually really encouraging to hear “that’s a great idea, let’s talk about it.” Let’s try to see if we can secure funding for it. And then having the development team actually ask, “ok, how much would this cost? Can you give me an estimate of how much it would cost to serve X amount of young people over the course of a year?” So I put together that budget, and then there was a fundraising campaign for it. I was like, “what?” These things that were just ideas that I wished were possible actually felt tangible to do. 

So, that was the inspiration. The inspiration’s always there, but I think continuing the momentum of trying to dream up what this could look like also started with the encouragement that it was possible to actually do it.

Q: What does “healing justice” mean? Where does the term come from?

A: Healing justice as I understand it is a term that was coined by the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective. They describe themselves as a “network of grassroots energy, body, and earth based healers and health practitioners seeking to create mechanisms for wellness and safety that respond, intervene, and transform conditions of generational trauma and violence in our communities and movements.” So, I appreciate healing justice as a framework because it makes the explicit connection to healing being something that’s a deeply political thing. Understanding that the root conditions of so much trauma and health inequity and inequity to mental health care and pathways to healing are systemically created by violent structures that are governed by white supremacy and capitalism.

In creating this collective I found it important to make the distinction that I’m not wanting this just to be some direct service initiative that upholds the nonprofit industrial complex. If I’m going to be community centered, I’m really thinking about the long-term. I’m wanting collective healing, and access to that to be something that you don’t have to go through organizations to get. With the broader goal that we are investing so deeply in communities that healing is something that is abundant for everybody. And not just this transactional approach where funders give you money, and donors give you money, and that money goes into program development, and that program offers 12 short sessions of therapy, most of the time underpaying practitioners who are there to get their hours, and sometimes hiring interns who are only there for a short time because they need to fulfill requirements. This is a very western framework that lends itself to so much burnout and does not honor the reality that the conditions that create all of this need is beyond what traditional mental health systems can respond to. 

I’m thinking about how API Chaya intertwines their advocacy work with community organizing, [recognizing] that violence is something that is structurally made possible, and that it’s not enough to just respond to the need, it’s required of us to respond to the conditions that make that need possible. I think healing justice really embodies that. I also want to spotlight Powerful Voices who has robust programming dedicated to Healing Justice – the offerings they’re able to provide to their youth participants and families seem beautiful, transformative. I’d love to deepen a connection between our efforts and theirs to bolster work that’s already being done in community.

I also want to honor who leads this work and who created this work. It is my intention to use the platform and resources that are made available through being at Y-WE, and helping to formulate that container, but hopefully at some point having the resources to take a step back and make space for leadership that is reflective of the communities that built and sustain this work. And in doing so, building partnerships who are invested in that long term movement building. 

Q: Can you tell me a bit about the partners of the HJC?

A: The first place that I reached out to was Whole Valley Therapy. Elle [the founder], and I worked together on creating the initial MOU (memorandum of understanding) so a lot of the MOU was guided by our conversations. I asked questions like, “what would you really feel good about paying your therapists, your supervisors, and what kind of commitment feels doable?” We had a ton of conversations over the course of a few months to be intentional about how to create this partnership and that kind of laid the skeleton for the way that I would reach out to other partners and propose the agreements. We have two therapists, Akshita (they/she) and Israt (they/them), at Whole Valley who each have two slots for Y-WE clients. 

It was really important for me that I was first looking for collectives that were queer centered, because so many of our youth are queer and gender expansive, and it’s also hard to find therapists who not only provide “inclusive” therapy, but reflect those identities so that there’s a real intimate understanding. A lot of the young people we work with are not out to their families, but feel like they can be themselves at Y-WE. So I really wanted to find partnerships that were an extension of that safety

The second partner is Claudia (she/her/ella), who has her own private practice, Girasol Counseling. Our partnership also built over some consistent conversations. I was really drawn to her work because her approach is really relational, it’s trauma focused, it’s somatic. She can support folks who are first generation, which a lot of Y-WE youth are, and can provide therapy in Spanish should the need arise. She also works with church and spiritual trauma which I also see a lot, and there’s also probably a pretty strong connect between religious trauma and having to hide who you are at home. I also appreciate that she works to rediscover indigenous ways of healing. And again, this person is queer and BIPOC focused as well. She holds slots for five Y-WE participants.

The last partner is Deconstructing the Mental Health System (DMHS). They are not a therapy practice, they’re a nonprofit that [along with other services], offers the opportunity for BIPOC practitioners to list on there for free. Initially, I got connected because I resonated with the work being done and later followed back up to pursue partnership because I saw that they were also building out a free therapy program. I’ve been working with Makinie (she/her) who has been an incredible thought partner. They’re holding six slots for Y-WE across different providers. To be considered for the youth-centered therapy provision, [providers] have to apply online and there’s a bunch of questions that were crafted in partnership with Powerful Voices (also offering free wellness to young people through their programming) that include “What is your experience with anti-adultism and power sharing.” So we’re prioritizing therapists who have a sense of what it looks like to address and level out, as much as possible, power dynamics in the therapeutic space with young people. There’s also questions like “what is your experience with queer and trans youth who are first generation immigrants” – so really tailoring into the specific need that comes up over and over with Y-WE youth. 

Also, we have a lot of Black youth who specifically want to work with Black therapists and that’s been really challenging to find. Either the practice is full, the cost is not accessible, a lot of reasons that can’t be put on the fault of the therapists themselves. Practitioners are all just trying to do their work and make a living too in a field that, again, is white dominated and very hard to thrive in especially if you, on top of that, are someone who does not hold significant class privilege. The majority of the wellness practitioners and therapists who are a part of [DMHS] are Black women, and this is a Black-led organization – something critical to uplift and resource.

Y-WE’s mission is to cultivate the power of diverse young women to be creative leaders and courageous changemakers, through transformative programs within a collaborative community of belonging. Click here to learn more about the Healing Justice Collective and how you can support this work.

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