Healing justice group Healing By Choice! engages community in wellness activities

On an overcast Sunday in late October, a mixture of healers, activists, and community members, some of whom live with disabilities, gather at a senior apartment complex in Southwest Detroit to open up a space for healing, dialogue, and social change.


The get-together at Delray Senior Housing on West Grand Boulevard is part of a monthly series of Community Care Circles organized by the disability justice group Detroit Disability Power (DDP) in collaboration with an innovative wellness network known as Healing by Choice! (HbC).


Care Circles allow participants to engage in a multi-layered communal process of healing, sharing, listening, support, reflection, and transformation. At the October Circle, Carmen Malis King, a Detroit-based herbalist, doula, and HbC member, leads a hands-on discussion about the healing power of plants. During the presentation, she passes around a pouch of dried lavender and a spray bottle with a mixture including California sage and speaks about the sensory aspects of how plants can affect feelings and improve health.


“HbC is making healing justice more accessible,” says Will Copeland, a DDP member who attended the October event. “And I'm happy we are partnering with them.”

Community Care Circles


The circles take place at the apartment complex the third Sunday of each month from 2-4 p.m. At each event, two simultaneous circles are established, one for people who deal with disabilities or chronic illnesses and another for their caregivers. In addition to interactive conversations like King's, the circles typically feature treatments like massage, ear acupuncture, or reiki as well as support people from HbC offering emotional assistance to anyone who needs help processing trauma or challenges arising from the discussions.


Copeland believes the healing network's work has a beneficial impact for those who come.


“Each time HbC gives our participants something they can try at home, something they can take home, or items they can buy or make that will help them in relaxation or healing,” he says. “Participants always leave wanting more information, wanting to know how to get the refreshing items shared during the month, and how what we discuss with HbC connects with what they already do in their daily lives.”


Drawing the circle together


Impactful as the Community Care Circles series may be, it’s only one part of HbC’s larger mission, which is concerned with both how healing is practiced and how it is conceptualized.


At its most basic level, Healing By Choice! is a circle of women of color healers and health practitioners based in the City of Detroit and fiscally sponsored by Allied Media Projects.

Members of the group possess a broad set of skills in areas like herbal consultation, deep listening, meditation, natural health, reiki, massage, healing foods and nutrition, and somatic and therapeutic bodywork. The network's efforts are typically centered around putting together workshops and community healing events and providing healing and relaxation support at conferences.


While some members do practice what might be termed traditional medicine, the circle’s approach to healing is anything but conventional. They take an expansive view of healing that integrates individual health and well-being with ecological awareness and social transformation, operating under what's known as a Healing Justice Framework.


Healing Justice offers a holistic response to health challenges faced by communities faced with systemic oppression. It’s focused on wellness and doesn’t just focus on physical symptoms but also addresses issues that can manifest in emotional and spiritual ways like stress, trauma, or violence. The framework also involves honoring ancestral healing traditions, combining healing with movement work, and stressing the importance of individuals and communities taking an active role in their own uplifting transformations.


“It’s a political framework,” says HbC founder Adela Nieves Martinez, who is dedicated to spreading this vision of healing. “We can’t heal ourselves without paying attention to the earth, the climate, disabilities, and racial justice. … And it’s about relieving and healing in all the work we that we do, not just as an afterthought.”

Community Care Circles


Nieves Martinez, who’s lived in Detroit for 14 years, originally grew up in New York and New Jersey. She comes from a family with Taino (indigenous Caribbean) roots where traditional medicine was practiced. While her early professional life centered on journalism and communications, her experiences working as the national communications coordinator for the 2010 U.S. Social Forum in Detroit inspired her to begin thinking about the intersection of healing and movement organizing. During the forum, organizers put together a wellness team where people trained in Western medicine worked side by side with alternative medicine and traditional healing practitioners.


“What I witnessed at the Social Forum was these three different ways of working in health come together and work in cooperation to make sure that people were cared for,” she says, “and, for me, that’s what I wanted to be creating in the world.”


Her interest sparked, Nieves Martinez began learning about a range of healing approaches that now includes restorative wellness, ear acupuncture, indigenous traditional medicine, cupping therapy, whole person natural care, and reiki for individuals and groups struggling with addiction, PTSD, stress, and trauma. Eventually, she would further her education at the Naturopathic Institute of Therapies & Education in Mt. Pleasant.


Healing by Choice! came to life in 2016, as a result of Nieves Martinez being brought in by the nonprofit Economic Justice Alliance of Michigan (EJAM) to work on a campaign connected to housing insecurity. People were dropping out of the program due to the emotional stress of having to talk about their struggles. EJAM wanted to know if Nieves Martinez's healing techniques could help address these issues. Knowing she couldn’t do it alone, she brought together the group that would become the original incarnation of Healing by Choice!: Marcia Lee, Violeta Donawa, Carmen Malis King, adrienne maree brown, Kezia Curtis, and Joya D’Cruz.


“I called in a team of folks who could do it together,” says Nieves Martinez. “And it was well-received. They wanted to hire us back. And, before we knew it, there were other organizations that were interested!”

Bodywork at Community Care Circles


Healing by Choice! established itself as a network and began to collaborate with different nonprofits groups like Detroit Justice Center and Grace In Action Church, doing things like setting up temporary healing spaces for communities dealing with gun violence and offering services at conferences. Very informal at first, HbC eventually settled on a model where much of the routine administration is handled by two co-madres, Nieves Martinez and Marcia Lee. Beyond that, the network also includes a circle of core collaborators as well as partners who are brought in to handle specific needs.


“We moved from this original group working together to make all decisions, to having the co-madres running the day to day decisions,” says Lee. “The larger vision around what direction we go in, our principles and what we do as a group is made by all the core collaborators.”


Originally from Mt. Pleasant, Lee is a tai chi instructor and acudetox specialist and has experience with conflict resolution and restorative justice work. A Detroit resident for 15 years, she worked for over a decade with the Capuchin Franciscans directing multiple programs and also co-founded the Taproot Sanctuary intentional community.


Asked what they most enjoy about working with HbC, Nieves Martinez says it’s working directly in the community where she lives, building relationships with those who work and reside there, and healing right alongside with them. Lee agrees, adding that she loves the process of internal and external revelation that manifests itself through their work.


“I’m continually learning about my own growing edges,” she says. “Then there’s the impact when people realize remember something about themselves that can really shift how they are in the world, that idea of accomplishment.”


Fostering healing relationships


Mothering Justice, a grassroots advocacy and leadership development organization of mothers that focuses on issues of financial stability, first became involved with HbC and later asked them to help out with their organizational work. Danielle Atkinson, the group’s founding director feels the healing and relaxation methods provided by the network helped people new to organizing handle the stressful process of learning about how to engage with systematic racism and oppression. And for a group like Mothering Justice that’s very important for developing leaders willing to stick with the project for the long-run.


“It makes it all more sustainable,” says Atkinson. “Now that you have these coping mechanisms and healing techniques, you’re able to stay in the work.”


Dessa Cosma, executive director of Detroit Disability Power, has enjoyed a long working relationship with HbC. Although the two groups have only been collaborating on Community Care Circles since this summer, she worked with them in their earliest days during her time as EJAM’s director.

Attendees take part in a healing justice workshop that involved members of Healing by Choice! at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at the WSU Law School in October.


“Having Healing by Choice! as part of our local social justice ecosystem is a Godsend,” she says. “They understand that those of us on the front lines of social change are stressed by this work and are also the ones most harmed by the systems of oppression we are fighting. It's a double whammy that can cause physical, mental, emotional and relational problems.”


What’s more, Cosma adds that the old-guard political groups who were scoffing at “self-care” a few years back are now incorporating healing justice practices into their own work.


Currently Healing by Choice! consists of Nieves Martinez, Lee, and 12 other members. In the next month or so, the network will take a big step forward adding two new members. Looking toward the future, HbC also does its best to set aside funds to cross-train members in one another’s modalities.


Beyond that, Nieves Martinez and Lee won't say a whole lot more — in large part because they want the people they work with to play a role in determining what's next.


“We have some ideas," says Lee, "but ultimately were relying on a combination of what we have to offer and what it is it that our community asks of us.”

The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.