Why Healing Affinity Spaces Are Necessary for Black Women Educators

Research Commentary | Mental Health

Why Healing Affinity Spaces Are Necessary for Black Women Educators

Angela was our facilitator for our Voices of Change research project on Black women teachers' classroom experiences. She shares how healing in community helps her and other Black women educators process ongoing racial trauma at work.

By Angela Harris and Mi Aniefuna     May 20, 2024

Why Healing Affinity Spaces Are Necessary for Black Women Educators

This article is part of the guide: Exploring the Classroom Experiences of Black Women Educators.

Throughout this article, we use the terms “women” and “womxn" to recognize the diversity of gender identities and appropriately reflect the gender diversity of the educators who participated in this research project. Additionally, all first-person accounts in this article belong to Angela Harris and the participants of this study, with research support from Mi Aniefuna.

As Black womxn educators, we have a connection with education that is ancestral. Even before enslavement, teaching and learning existed in Africa. African communities built cities, states and kingdoms. Africans were skilled laborers, mathematicians and astronomers. Creativity, learning and innovation flourished in African communities, and that heritage lives in African descendants, especially apparent in the way we teach and radically care for our students.

A question Black womxn educators must ask themselves when centering their healing is who you are and where you come from? It’s important to consider how who we are and where we come intersect with how we show up in the classroom. The period of enslavement in our nation highlights Black people’s determination to learn and actualize the opportunities education provides.

This is still a prevalent theme for Black womxn in education. How we care for our students is inextricably linked with how our ancestors cared for others, the children who were theirs and those who weren’t. Healing affinity spaces for Black women teachers are necessary for us to not only honor our ancestors but also honor ourselves and carry on this important tradition of education and learning.

With EdSurge Research and the Abolitionist Teaching Network, we piloted a model for healing affinity spaces centering Black women’s healing while being in community with one another. As the facilitator of those spaces, I will share what I felt and heard from my peers within the healing circles and how impactful this experience was for everyone involved.

We learned that healing is relational, communal, values-aligned, intersectional, restoration, and necessary for Black women educators. The resounding consensus from these 30 Black women teachers and school leaders is that they need affinity group spaces for respite, to connect with one another, and to relinquish the burdens of trauma in an affirming and empathetic environment.

What Research Says About Black Women Teachers and Healing

In a study examining the effects of trauma on Black women educators, researchers Abiola Farinde Wu, Adam Alvarez and Nina Kunimoto uncovered ancestral connections embedded in Black women’s teaching styles. They assert that the “lifeline” of Black women’s conscious and subconscious practices is rooted in African spirituality – that is, Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa and other African ethnic groups trafficked from Africa to American shores during the Middle Passage.

The idea of healing circles is not new. As Jennifer Richardson describes in her research on the nexus between Black women educators’ self-care and transformational learning for students, Black women have organized healing circles in various forms.

In “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women”, clinical psychologist Inger Burnett-Ziegler uncovers an alarming estimation: 80 percent of Black women have experienced trauma in their lifetime. This includes several forms of trauma, like intergenerational, childhood, abusive relationships and pregnancy trauma.

In her book, “The Spirit of Our Work: Black Women Teachers (Re)member”, Cynthia Dillard explains how the legacy of imperialism and the enslavement of our ancestors endures in teaching and learning; yet, it’s presumed that Black folks “just happened to be here,” to be enslaved.

This residue was apparent in our healing circles—few participants elaborated on what Dillard calls “unmentionable and multiple oppressions.” But they didn’t need to. Instead, they bonded around what Dillard names the “spirit of Black women teachers.”

Healing Is Communal

bell hooks reminds us in “All About Love” that rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Teaching is a profession that, for Black womxn educators, can feel particularly isolating. With roughly 79% of teachers in the United States being white, Black womxn educators are more often than not the only Black teacher in their school and, for some, their entire district:

"I feel like the community has gotten lost because of COVID, and you can see the behaviors have become more extreme in the classroom, and kids seem more disconnected from their families in a way that I haven't seen before. And it's not just because we are overworked. I think that is the case, too. I just try very hard in my center of control. I can make my classroom feel like a community. And now that I'm a vice principal, I can work really hard to make my school feel like a community. I can't really impact what's happening in the district yet, but I can do what I can in my little nucleus."

Healing affinity spaces allow Black womxn teachers to break down those silos and build community with other Black educators, and in turn, build community in their schools. An affinity space like this can be the first time that some Black womxn teachers get to experience acceptance, care, shared knowledge and affirmation.

For some of us, just knowing that we have a community of Black womxn who will listen and support us is healing. Understanding that the turnover rate is higher for Black teachers for reasons like stress, burnout and racial politics. Knowing that you are not alone is necessary to build a sustainable career in teaching, especially as a Black womxn. Healing affinity spaces offer that opportunity.

Healing Is Values-Aligned

Researchers have connected the knowledge and values of Black feminism with culturally congruent mental health resources for Black women. It is known that “traditional healers have laid the foundation for how Black women engage in a process of healing that intentionally centers the whole person.”

Our values are the things, the ideals that we hold most important. We carry the values we have everywhere we go, including our classrooms, schools, and districts. We do not hold separate values for work and home — we are who we are, and we bring our whole person everywhere we show up.

When asked to identify your values, you may begin to list a core set of values or beliefs you hold. As Black womxn educators, it is important for us to identify our core values. Those values guide our actions, behaviors, and our decisions. When we live in our core values as Black womxn educators, it becomes more than just an individual investment. We influence our classrooms, schools, and districts. This integrity moves us from individual to collective or communal healing.

A middle school teacher shared how her values compete with her capacity to care for her own mental well-being while caring for her students from underserved communities in Georgia:

"My values are advocacy and mental health. And when you spend a lot of your time and your energy advocating for others, it sometimes completely smashes your mental health."

This same teacher described how she prioritized time to attend the healing circle because “she needed it.” These spaces offered both a place to reflect on how their values mirror the multi-dimensional humans they are while sharing reciprocal affirmation with one another.

Healing spaces allow Black womxn teachers to identify the core values that guide their decisions, actions, and behaviors inside and outside the classroom. When we recognize our core values, we align with Black feminist strategies for healing by defining ourselves. Patricia Hill Collins states that a “self-defined Black women’s consciousness” is a hidden space in Black women that allows them to affirm, cope, and “transcend the confines of intersecting oppressions.” As Black womxn educators, coming together to define our values allows us to name for ourselves who we are and who we want to be in our classrooms, schools and districts.

Healing Is Intersectional

When we approach the idea of healing, we must examine it through a racial, gendered and pedagogical lens. Our intersecting identities contribute to our teaching, learning, and how we show up in the classroom and our healing. Using an intersectional lens allows us to understand how race, gender, sexuality, and class play out in our role as teachers and in our healing.

This intersectional approach is necessary to combat the matrix of domination Black women educators exist within, particularly those who teach in historically excluded communities with predominantly Black and Brown students.

For many Black womxn educators, the reality is that they don’t feel respected or empowered in their school communities. Our participants’ sentiments around trauma echo that. Healing affinity spaces represent safety for Black womxn educators to emote about their experiences with racism, whiteness, and white privilege.

Safe Spaces

The idea of creating “safe spaces” is well-intentioned but sometimes becomes a dystopian anomaly lacking capacity for multiple truths and ways of being, especially for people with multiple marginalized identities. Hence, the birth and life of Black feminism — nuanced and distinct from feminism and groups like the Combahee River Collective. That’s why we were excited to receive feedback from some participants that they genuinely felt seen and heard:

“It was a safe space.”

"It was a space for real and raw conversations.”

These were two of several responses to our discussions around our intersectional identities in a predominantly white profession. We drew connections between unhealthy narratives we were taught about being a Black womxn in predominantly white spaces.

Teaching is an already stressful job, and when we combine the intersectional identities that Black womxn teachers hold, it can become unbearable. Identifying and healing the wounds of intersectional oppression allows Black womxn educators to begin then to work to dismantle those same oppressions for their students.

Healing Is Restoration

Education is a field that barely allows time to do the essentials related to the job, let alone time for Black womxn teachers to restore their minds and bodies. Self-care is nothing more than a buzzword when used by our districts. Caring for yourself in the space that is causing you harm is impossible. My facilitation of this space came at a time when I had experienced physical harm at my previous school. I was keenly aware of how meaningful this restoration was for me and the students, staff and teachers directly impacted by the participants in this affinity space. When we heal ourselves and restore ourselves, it widens our capacity to give compassion to others, especially our students.

Black womxn often put everyone above themselves, and the role of teacher is no different. Researchers have distinguished an ethic of care associated with Black women’s motherwork. Black womxn teachers exhibit this style of “othermothering.” We take on the role of othermothers, similarly to our ancestral mothers for our students as a survival mechanism. It is imperative to not just their survival, but to ours, as well. It is easy to forget to practice self-love and rest as we take on these multiple responsibilities.

There were many reflections by participants on rest and relationships with rest. One participant, a new teacher from Texas, said the inspiration to teach came from her Black seventh grade teacher, who studied computer science at an HBCU. Like her teacher, she returned to her neighborhood to teach in her community and hopefully make a similar impact on her students. Amidst her passion, she shared how she the tension between her values around family and the energy she puts into her work, especially because of the connection to the community she teaches in:

"Restoring ourselves means we must prioritize rest, and healing spaces remind us to do just that."

Restoring ourselves means we must prioritize rest, and healing spaces remind us to do just that.

Healing Is Necessary

When we asked for anonymous feedback after each session, we received overwhelming consensus from our participants that the 90 minutes they spent in community with other Black women educators felt restorative, affirming and necessary.

"It was EXACTLY what I needed. I listen to and support other people all day, every day, and the only support I get comes from me. I understand that others may not have the capacity to support me but it's just nice to experience it every now and again."

Imagine providing healing affinity spaces to early-career Black women teachers, instilling them with tools to create sustainable healing practices during their time as an education professional. I would argue that if school districts are genuine in their desire to recruit Black teachers, they also need to be genuine in their efforts to retain Black educators by creating affinity spaces where they feel safe, build relationships and community, address intersecting identities, and ultimately, heal.

Education is a service to the community — a service I know many Black womxn teachers take seriously. During these sessions, I witnessed compassion. bell hooks tells us that “compassion opens the way for individuals to feel empathy for others without judgment.” Healing opens the door to compassion for our students and their families. Healing for Black womxn educators who take on the role as othermothers for their students is necessary for their retention in the classroom.

For a selected list of peer-reviewed articles, research and data studies referenced in this story, click here.

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