Black women laughed.
“It felt good if for nothing more than to turn off the news, dance to some Afro beats and allow our bodies to begin allowing the energy to flow in and out,” said Charity Faye, program manager for Sisters in Motion, a subset of Black Women for Wellness. “And for at least 35 to 45 minutes, Black women smiled, laughed and danced.”
Established in 1997, the California-based reproductive-rights nonprofit group operated under the protection of Roe v. Wade for 25 years. Although the recent Supreme Court decision won’t affect the organization’s state’s policies, the implications of it for millions of women across the country have broken the hearts of Faye’s colleagues, she said. But that’s why these types of organizations are created, she added — to lift Black women up in times of crisis, to become a space for Black women to lean on one another. To try to laugh again.
Organizations like Black Women for Wellness have been around for decades to try to fill a void in Black health care, and mental health care specifically: Black women are more likely to experience mental illnesses, and are less likely to be treated for them. These support groups provide a space for community, members say, for Black women to come together and feel heard without judgment. Some national organizations boast membership in the thousands, but other state-level groups, like Black Women for Wellness, exist, as do smaller local community groups. And informally, Black female support groups have existed in America for as long as Black women have.
In recent years, new and older groups have had to adapt to support their members through moments of national trauma that tend to unevenly affect Black women and their communities. The Dobbs decision is the latest example: Experts say that restricted access to abortion will disproportionately impact Black women, who have a higher rate of abortion than their White counterparts. Reproductive-rights organizations say the reasons for these higher rates are systemic, driven by a lack of access to and effective use of contraceptives.
The Loveland Foundation expects to see greater need in the wake of the Dobbs decision. Founded in 2018, the organization’s goal is to provide resources for Black women and girls to access therapy. Several other organizations, like Therapy for Black Girls and Free Black Therapy, provide similar services and have experienced an influx in media attention and donations after 2020, when George Floyd’s murder touched off racial justice protests.
“We don’t want to make them feel like they’re jumping through hurdles to access care, because society already provides enough hurdles for Black women,” said Sharlene Kemler, chief executive of the Loveland Foundation. “It’s really about making sure that we are de-stigmatizing mental wellness, creating generational change and allowing the community to heal.”
People who apply for the Loveland Foundation’s services can get access to one-on-one therapy, Kemler said, and they try to get people help within three months. In 2020, she added, the group had to increase the rate at which they accepted clients to manage the increased interest — and luckily, donations increased, too.
Kemler said that women trying to understand the impact of Dobbs will only need more support.
Support groups have different methods of serving their Black women members. Some have weekly drop-in group therapy sessions, while others, like Black Women for Wellness, host year-round services and events. For many, working for these organizations is their full-time job, but there are opportunities for volunteer work — and women usually do not have to commit to a financial membership, although some services may cost money.
Thérèse Cator, founder of Embodied Black Girl, an organization that creates trauma-informed spaces for Black women, centers her meetings on somatic breathing exercises. These practices, which help to increase bodily awareness, originated in practices created by Black people and other people of color, Cator said.
But, she said, her work isn’t the end-all-be-all for healing.
“In order to truly heal, the system has to be dismantled,” said Cator, who founded her organization in February 2020, one month before much of the country shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. “But [Black women] are still deserving of feeling joy. We’re still deserving of having the best life that we can in this lifetime.”
A few days before the Dobbs decision was handed down, Cator held a joy circle to help remind Black women “of who they are, not just the grief.”
“This joy circle helped me process the ruling,” Cator said.
Cator’s group has shifted since it first took shape — after all, the world changed drastically in just weeks after its debut. Originally titled Black Girls Breathe, the organization hosted its first Global Healing Day event in February 2020, which featured meditation, journaling and sharing personal reflections. Then, with pandemic stay-at-home orders and racial justice protests, more Black women expressed interest in the group. Suddenly Cator was leading hundreds of people through weekly somatic breathing exercises, holding joy circles over Zoom and trying to figure out how to prioritize her own self-care among it all, she said.
Other Black women support groups, like Our Resilience, take a more traditionally therapeutic approach. The 48-year-old nonprofit works with survivors of sexual violence to provide advocacy, trauma therapy and individual and group counseling. Its group for Black sexual assault survivors dissipated years ago due to a lack of funding but was brought back in the beginning of 2022. And their first meeting was scheduled for two weeks after the Dobbs decision.
“This overturn [of Roe] has added a whole new functionality for this group,” said Gaby Molden, a trauma therapist who spearheaded the reinstatement of the Black survivors group. “[The U.S. government] taking away our right to do what we need to do for our bodies is generational, and it can be very triggering for survivors of all sorts.”
Molden compared the impact of the ruling to reproductive labor forced upon enslaved Black people in the past. In the days after the recent court decision, the waiting list for her group doubled, she said. She’s now anticipating her group will shift from sharing past traumas to grappling with the ruling.
Black Women for Wellness predicts it will have to adapt in a post-Roe era by providing more support for its members with family in states with abortion restrictions. They are also planning on expanding their advocacy and education work, Faye said. But after contending with the uncertainty of the past two years, in particular, adaptation isn’t anything new for the organization.
“We look at something like the pandemic as an opportunity for us to show up and dive deeper into who we are: Here’s our mission, here’s what we do, no matter what the season or the state of the world,” Faye said. “This time isn’t different. We’ll figure it out.”
As motivated as these organizations’ leaders may be, having to consistently transition for their members takes a toll — especially as they grieve what’s going on in the news themselves, they said. When the Supreme Court news broke last Friday, Faye was between Zoom meetings with her colleagues. Suddenly their Slack channel was flooded with messages. Impromptu group chats popped up. Meetings shifted focus. Luckily, the pandemic taught them how to “slow down a bit and live in our humanity,” she said.
“We’re not a bunch of robots,” Faye added. “We do this work, but we’re people. And so on Friday, and we all just took a collective exhale. ... After we sat in it, we took a breath and we began talking and letting people know the impact this decision has on Black women.”
Striking the balance between supporting others and taking care of oneself is tricky — but leaders of these organizations have a few tools they recommend. For Faye, that means allowing yourself to take some time off work and process with other Black women.
Another important tip is remembering to breathe, said Cator: She recommends somatic exercises, which involve consciously taking in breath and noticing the space it takes up in your body. If someone finds themselves in a high-stress state, she recommends breathing in and then lengthening the exhale until it’s twice as long as the inhale.
“It’s important to recognize that our bodies are actually the portals to healing,” Cator said. “Systems of oppression disconnect us from our bodies. People understand that cognitively, but to actually go into the body and recognize how that is impacting your body, how that’s showing up in your nervous system, is completely different work.”
Molden also suggests setting boundaries. Especially in the wake of the Dobbs decision, it’s important to prioritize yourself, regardless of the demands of the outside world, she said.
“The biggest thing we can do is trust ourselves and lean on your support group in this very devastating time,” Molden said. “Remember to take care of yourself to the best of your abilities, because all of your strength is going to be needed to get through this one.”