For me, the word evokes a vision of social justice and liberation. However, oftentimes, when we speak of justice, it only relates to social, economic and/or political institutions. We tend to think only of what’s “out there” in society rather than how it is connected to the state of our physical, mental and spiritual being. The irony of that is all social change begins within. When we shift our perspectives, values, and behaviors, we enact a chain of transformation that ripples out.
This is precisely what Zenyu Healing Center does. Zenyu started as a small community project in 2006, when co-founder Christine Cruz Guiao saw the lack of safe spaces for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Inquiring (LGBTQI) people of color to develop holistic leadership, spirituality and health. Since then, it has evolved into to a grassroots, multicultural organization that cultivates holistic well-being and leadership of queer people of color (QPOC).
Zenyu offers meditation classes, wilderness excursions, spiritual retreats and supports long-term social change by developing solution-centered leadership based on compassion, mindfulness and cooperation among marginalized communities. It creates opportunities to develop transformative connections with our inner selves, each other and the natural world through a spiritual, social justice lens.
Zenyu community members gather for one of their Northwest wilderness excursions to reconnect people of color to nature. Zenyu was co-founded by Christine Guiao Cruz (front row, far left) and is co-directed by her partner April Nishimura (front row, far right). Photo courtesy of Christine Guiao.
“I come to this work with a deep passion for the vision that all beings live peaceful, joyful and fulfilled lives, while developing a symbiotic relationship with the planet,” shares April Nishimura, Zenyu co-director and structural medicine practitioner. “Creating this reality requires that we transform our relationship with ourselves. This inner work must balance our external efforts for peace and justice. Without both of these in combination, we cannot be truly free.”
Zenyu is one of, if not the only QPOC-led space in the Seattle area that both acknowledges that spiritual spaces can be oppressive, and addresses the need for people of color-centered spaces and education that dismantle oppression through spiritual practice. What makes Zenyu even more unique is that its programming is developed by community organizers, so it offers a comprehensive and holistic approach to social justice.
Zenyu’s principles are also reflected in its organizational structure by integrating community building and fiscal transparency with its funders. Currently, the organization’s shoestring budget is entirely supported by donations, and they are developing a long-term, sustainable funding plan.
Finally, my own story: I began working with Zenyu co-founder and spiritual counselor Christine Guiao in the spring of 2011. Before that, I did not consider myself a spiritual person. My life was sprinkled with what some may refer to as “superstitions,” but my parents — both immigrants — did not instill the value of developing my spirituality. I did not practice yoga, meditate or even think my own spiritual well-being was connected to community work. I thought of myself as a poet and educator who taught storytelling as a way to enact social change. I learned when we share stories, we break silences and demand visibility. I believed this would lead to policy change. However, my train of thought stopped there. I always wondered: “What do I do now that I’ve shared my story?”
Like many of my colleagues and peers who work in social services, I practiced almost no self-care and burned out. Sure, I tried to eat well, sleep a decent amount and exercise, but something was missing.
The trauma was still there, and I did not seek out therapeutic services. I am the daughter of a registered nurse, and descend from a long line of herbalists and acupuncturists, so knowledge of various health practices and access to them was not the issue. The issue was that I was not sure of what I needed. I was not completely sure of what to expect at first, but when you are not in good health, you must be open to being uncomfortable and trying new things.
Only when I began working with Christine did I fully understand how my healing affected my work in social justice. My definition of that expanded to prioritize self-care, and that expanded to include how I treat myself. When I started recognizing how my personal behaviors were created to survive racism, heterosexism and other “-ism”s, I began to truly heal.
For if we cannot resolve conflicts within and value ourselves first, how can we do so in our communities?