Inside the SASHA Center. Credit: Rachel Elise Thomas
When Kalimah Johnson, 52, worked at the Detroit Police Department counseling rape survivors from 1995-2005, she was constantly confronted with the disparity in how white and Black victims were treated.
“I could tell if it were a white woman or a Black woman based on the urgency to come interview them,” Johnson said. “If it were a Black woman I was told to take my time, but if it were a white woman or even a woman from a prominent family or she had a prominent position they would tell me to ‘get down here now.’”
That experience was one of many that underscored to Johnson that Black women need their own healing spaces and spurred her to found Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing and Awareness, or the SASHA Center, 10 years ago.
“We’ve been told so long that our emotions and our feelings don’t matter,” said Johnson, a licensed social worker who specializes in mental health and community organizing.
That pattern is perpetuated in the courts and doctors offices, from the systemic dismissal of Black women’s medical issues to the denial of justice for Black women, a pattern punctuated with moments of dashed hope, like on Sept. 23 last year when a grand jury declined to indict the two Louisville police officers who shot Breonna Taylor to death at her apartment.
Black women are familiar with this refrain of dashed hope. They have heard it in the 1944 gang rape of Recy Taylor in rural Alabama, in the unprocessed rape kits in police storage for decades in Detroit and in the lives of mothers who die after giving birth because their complaints are unheeded. The refrain rings with uncounted lives devalued and overlooked. Statistics show what black women have always known: their lives are dealt with differently, irreverently.
That knowledge, let alone experience, takes a toll on Black women’s mental health that can be exacerbated when seeing clinicians who perpetuate this practice. Incidents like Taylor’s death and the effects of isolation and grief during the pandemic continue to make the work of the SASHA Center and similar practices urgent.
Healing for the whole person
Johnson, also an anti-Blackness trainer and league consultant on relationship and management with the National Basketball Association, knew she had to design the SASHA Center to compensate for others’ biases.
SASHA Center’s weekly Healing is Possible series, now exclusively virtual, is a group gathering that explores a topic presented in a culturally relevant way and provides space for members to help in each other’s healing process. “The SASHA Center gives them the opportunity to explore the value and importance of culture, their stories,” Johnson told Detour. “They are given the opportunity to lower any type of isolation, to learn and create tools to use that we’ve had since we’ve been here.”
Those tools include humor, irony and satire, long-time African American weapons for mental survival. “Most therapeutic settings don’t let us participate in them,” or use those tools, Johnson said. “We integrate the whole person.”
Whole person integration was what drew Precious Jennings, 25, to the SASHA Center about a year ago; it has been integral in her healing. “Before the SASHA Center I didn’t have luck with counselors or therapists or groups,” said Jennings, who was sexually assaulted on her college campus. She said when she reported her assault, officials discouraged her from pressing charges against her attacker because “they told me it will just be my word against his.”
“I had a really hard time about being open about what I was going through,” Jennings said. “I’m a very shy, introverted individual, but the SASHA Center was a huge help in my healing journey.”
Jennings said a pivotal moment in her transformation was the SASHA Center’s A Culture Cures, History Heals Tour, which brought participants to New Orleans to learn about their culture.
The SASHA Center had arranged for New Orleans musicians to host The Black Girl Magic parade, a second line band, in honor of SASHA Center members. Jennings was given the chance to lead the traditional parade of celebration.
“That was so huge for me because even though I’m anxious, it was still very freeing,” Jennings said. “It felt really nice to be heard and to have everyone say, ‘I’m going to get you out of your shell.’ I have a keychain of the second line band as a reminder of that moment. Being around those women has been good.”
Designing mental health services that speak to Black women’s needs
The desire to better service black women led Detroit-born-and-raised licensed clinical psychologist Rose Moten, 49, to move her practice, BLOOM Transformation Center, from Farmington Hills to Detroit two years ago.
Moten, who has practiced psychology for 22 years, continues to provide one-on-one counseling sessions, but she added sound therapy, specifically gong therapy, as a healing modality after her first session that calmed her like nothing else had. She figured the same would be the case for her clients, 95% of whom are black women.
“Traditional therapy, while it was helpful, just wasn’t enough,” Moten told Detour. “Gong therapy accelerates the healing. I created a space where people could come and experience this.”
Though gong therapy is an ancient Eastern meditation method using the sound from gongs, Black women can relate because “sound has been such a huge part of our culture,” said Moten, specifically noting the use of drums throughout African cultures. “That whole aspect of women groups is important for women’s mental health.”
Moten said people are accustomed to taking an action, including for their healing, but with gong therapy, which Moten offers virtually and in person, “I just tell them to sit there. That’s all they have to do. It’s passive healing.” She likened the ability of sound therapy to heal with the mood-altering effect of music and a procedure where sound waves used to treat kidney stones. “It’s the vibration that’s healing.”
Moten said people have reported their hypertension dropping and other positive health changes. Such was the case for Meg Watt, 35, who told Detour that gong therapy relieved her anxiety.
“I am cured. The thoughts and feelings I used to have, I don’t have any more,” said Watt, who had her first gong session in 2019 and became certified as a gong practitioner in 2020. “I think a lot of women feel alone. You have the pandemic and then you add on the racial aspects; it’s heavy.”
“When I go into this place, it’s like all my aunties,” Watt said. “There is all this energy that is contagious. Wherever you are on the journey you are welcome. There is a summons of responsibility and accountability. When you show up you see so many people who are taking control of their healing. There is no competition. It’s more like, ‘Come on, sister, you can do it.’ It’s a different layer of healing.”
Correction: This story was updated to correct details of Rose Moten’s professional background.
This article was produced in partnership with the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.