Ericka Jenkins’ life unravelled in 1969. She and her husband, John Huggins, were leaders of the Black Panther Party and under government surveillance. Huggins was assassinated that year, and Jenkins was jailed pending trial on charges that could keep her behind bars for decades. But she was acquitted of all charges in 1971 after two years in solitary confinement.

Jenkins, a lifetime social justice advocate who after the acquittal due to mistrial went on to be a professor and lecturer at universities and colleges, was among the speakers at an anti-racism workshop hosted by APHA’s Public Health Nursing Section and held in conjunction with APHA 2021. Now in its sixth year, the Section’s yearly anti-racism workshop, which took place yesterday, focused on “Anti-racism and Mental Health: Healing As an Act of Resistance.”

Having a well-adjusted inner life is important for everyone, including advocates of social justice and health equity. Advocates can experience burnout, stress, disillusion and even ancestral guilt in their pursuits. The workshop offered three approaches to self-care that may reduce the onset of negative feelings and emotions that hinder advocacy.

Jenkins had plenty of reasons to be despondent as she sat in solitary confinement. Her husband of two years was dead, she was separated from her daughter — whom she could see for only one hour each week — and she faced the possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison. Jenkins was also at the mercy of a legal system marred by systemic racism and hostile to the Black Panther Party.

On top of all that, Jenkins was still enduring psychological suffering from years of abuse growing up in a family that struggled with alcoholism. 

But one of her lawyers had given her a book on meditation and yoga. She practiced the instructions in her cell.

“This sadness that was overwhelming, the way I missed my baby daughter, it permeated everything,” Jenkins said at the virtual workshop. “I noticed that by sitting still and breathing that I was good. That I am whole. That I am not broken. I learned I could go in and visit my daughter for an hour and be fully present. Human beings are wired for harmony, and I was beginning to experience it.”

During the workshop, participants broke off into three groups to talk about inner self-care. While Jenkins led a breakout group on contemplative practices, Nikki Skies, a poet, playwright and social justice advocate, led a group on healing through the arts. Writing is a form of healing for Skies, and it has helped her be resilient in the face of racism.

“As a person of color, there are spaces I am expected to be silent,” she said. “But I make sure even if I don’t talk, I expand. You are going to feel me even if I don’t talk.”

Victor Schoenbach, a professor emeritus in the epidemiology department at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, led a breakout for racial justice allies. 

Schoenbach acknowledged that his academic career and other opportunities in his life were helped by virtue of him being a white man from a family of influence. Several people in the breakout group gave testimony of the guilt they feel over white privilege, one calling it “survivors’ guilt.”

Attendee Diedra “DD" Artis, who is Black and works in the entertainment industry, told them to let it go.

“The act of taking time out of life and looking at others’ plights and having empathy and wanting to make a difference is a beautiful thing,” Artis said. “So I just wanted to thank you all for your hard work and for being there.”

For more anti-racism tools, visit APHA’s pages on Racism and Health and Declarations of Racism as a Public Health Crisis.