Y-WE’s Wellness Programming Meets Urgent Need for Youth Healing

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 two of our series highlighting this work, Shaena Spoor, Y-WE’s Community Wellness & Mental Health Specialist, who created this collective, speaks to hope-tending, the power of healing in community, and why you can’t “therapy your way out of oppression.” Click here to read part one of this series, which describes how the HJC came to be.

Q: In the first few months since we’ve launched, what are the impacts of the Healing Justice Collective that you’ve noticed at Y-WE?

A: I want to acknowledge that wellness is already incorporated into so much of Y-WE programming, and this is just an extension of that. We have wellness and health days, there was social work support at summer camps even prior to my hire, there’s been BIPOC wellness drop-ins…there’s regular incorporation of everyday healing, relationship building, and play, infused into all programming, which is instrumental in creating resilience and supporting mental health as a whole. I think it makes this job so much easier. 

One of the first things I noticed about doing social work in this capacity was how much more supported it feels to do, even though I’m the only social worker on staff. All of the young people that come to me already have systems of support through their Y-WE program. There’s a community of support that already exists. If there’s one thing that a provider cannot provide, it’s community. I’ve noticed over years and years of crisis work, people reach out to anonymous hotlines because they feel isolated. Once they’re able to renvision the community that is there to support them, that’s the thing that gets them out of crisis and helps them build healthy relationships. That’s the thing that helps them cultivate hope for their futures. So, I think that programming like this is important but also a little null if community isn’t a part of that. 

I think overall what I’m noticing [at Y-WE] is that young people are learning that what they have to say matters. And that adults will listen to them. In a society that normalizes that young people are not to be heard. We’re just creating more spaces for affirmation and validation and to feel seen. 

Not to mention young people are feeling like they don’t have much autonomy – just being young is enough to feel like, “I don’t have any control or autonomy in my life.” But then this added layer of like “I’m actually really hurting and I can’t tell anyone about it, and my family will not support me in getting the care that I need.” Being able to just offer this, no questions asked, no “how do I pay for this?, no “how do I hide this if it’s on my parent’s insurance?” – that’s significant. 

Q: What do you hope this work will change or shift for young people in the future? 

A: I’m thinking a lot about hope tending, and how so many of the young people that I’ve talked to in wellness work are still not open to the idea of therapy, even after working with me. Being able to not just say, “there are therapists out there who are a match” and “it’s not all the experiences that you’ve had” and “you do have access to these things,” but being able to, even if for a small group to start with, actualize that promise. 

I just think a lot of people are convinced that something like therapy is not for them, that wellness isn’t for them, that those things are for people who have access to it, the means to pay for it, and the spaciousness to slow down and participate in it. My hope is that this creates a sense of hopefulness and reassurance that there are people who are looking out for these young people

I’m seeing a lot of youth who, I’m sure for a lot of reasons, have been failed by the adults in their lives, the administrators at their schools, and they’re reminded over and over, even after being promised “I’m here for you, I can help you do XYZ,” how those promises are often broken. I’m hoping that this could be at least one area that creates an intentional space that is accountable to these young people. We’re not just offering platitudes, we’re tangibly offering resources and creating pathways to healing.

Q: How do you see the Healing Justice Collective growing? Is there anything you hope to add to Y-WE’s offerings?

A: We know that you can’t therapy your way out of oppression. Therapy is not supposed to be designed to help you manage the impacts of the traumatic experience of just living in this society. I want to be intentional that I’m not saying therapy is the way to heal. One of the intentions of this is not only to provide therapy, but that we make accessible wellness opportunities – like reiki, financial coaching that’s

trauma informed, somatic bodywork – those things are healing too. Part of this collective and hoping to get abundant funding for it is to provide many modalities of healing, that include access to more traditional areas of therapy if that’s what folks are wanting, but that it expands beyond that. Just making possible things that people thought weren’t for them, and increasing perceived possibilities and giving people more access to the healing that they deserve.

I’m also hoping that in funding this collective, beyond wellness practitioners, I would love to see support groups being offered. So that people can have, in supplement to their therapy or wellness, opportunities to connect with other young people who might be in a similar position. I would also love to get support for caregivers, because I can work with young people all day on boundaries, for example, but then they have to go home to a place where people have not tended to their wounds. And it’s no guarantee that those same people will access therapy or wellness or group work, but I think it’s an incredible option to provide.

I would also love to bring back direct aid. There’s a reality that you can’t even think about doing your mental health work if you are living in a space of survival every day. It feels almost superfluous to access therapy when you’re concerned about your family not being able to make rent, and you’re facing eviction, or you have an abusive landlord, or you can’t pay for tuition, all of these things. I’m hoping that being able to bring back direct aid would fill that gap so that people could actually slow down enough to engage in something like wellness practices. I think people don’t make the connection that people just need money, and before they can think about “getting help” they need to be able to live. A lot of programs that have traditional financial aid are burdened with narrow eligibility criteria, really long applications, and gatekeeping. Being able to offer money to families and Y-WE participants with minimal intrusion would be huge, and is huge. 

Just in the last couple months, I’ve been working with young people who are facing eviction, an outrageous amount of debt, are supporting their whole families with their paychecks, and/or are stuck in abusive situations because they don’t have money to go somewhere else. In fact, I think that having the mutual aid fund [we had in 2020] was one of the only reasons that one of our alumni was able to exit an abusive situation, because we were able to offer the money that was needed to break the lease and move, to get out immediately. 

So I think that another hope is that on top of being able to increase pathways to avenues of healing, offering some type of financial safety net to ensure that families are not just surviving, but are able to live sustainably and not worry about where rent might come from next month. That we can do what we can to minimize those burdens as well.

Q: How can people support this work?

A: If you have financial or class privilege, donating is super helpful. We have had donors recently who want to support families and offer monthly support to those who need it for a year. It’s so simple and really helpful to have sustainable income in that way, with no intrusion, minimal barriers, being able to redistribute that expendable income and not waiting for a crisis to pull up some money that may or may not be enough to help someone in that crisis. More broadly, outside of Y-WE, donating to mutual aid funds and following the people who are organizing around that. There’s a lot to be said about peer-to-peer support. A lot of people come into wellness needing really basic things. Things that feel pretty intuitive. 

I think that if we took the time to skill ourselves up on mental health first aid, and what it means to have healthy relationships, what boundaries mean … all these things are pretty simple – not easy – but things that we could do in practice, in our communities, every day, all the time. You could spread the word about the work, you could support groups that have been organizing around this for ages and learning about what’s happening locally in your area. 

Q: Is there anything else you want to share?

A: I want social workers to consider looking into anti carceral social work approaches. Mandated reporting is really harmful the way that’s currently practiced and it keeps a lot of people from sharing what they need to share and then accessing the support that they need. It’s really easy for people in the “helping professions” to fall into dominant frameworks and just autodrive into them where we’re investing too much in punishment, where we’re doing a lot of power over the people that we’re supporting. We’re not slowing down enough to really incorporate more just practices into our work. 

I also think there’s a lot of internal healing that youth workers need to be doing. It’s so wild to me the disconnect between theory and values and putting that into practice. What’s disconnecting those is actually doing that internal healing and investing in that self-care and having your own boundaries that then bleed into your work and bleed in your relationships and young people are watching you. So, I guess something else is also not abandoning yourself and thinking that that doesn’t have an impact on everybody. 

Social work as a field was created by and for white women so that they could go to work. They professionalized the field so that they could have access to a job and their own financial stability and be legitimized in that work. That pushed a lot of people organizing in a grassroots way out. And then we had an over-reliance on systems that were really harmful – with law enforcement, with CPS, with lawyers and people who put too much emphasis on administrative and development work. All of that really happened at the expense of community leaders and the people who are most impacted by the issues they were organizing around. I think what’s underneath all of this conversation is that. I want people who are doing that work to be a little more critical about how they’ve internalized that and perpetuated these systems. 

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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