East St. Louis native is healing Minnesota’s Black community

On April 20, when former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on all counts for murdering George Floyd, Dr. Joi Lewis celebrated in the streets outside of the Hennepin County Courthouse, where the verdict was announced.

In a Facebook Live video she posted shortly after the verdict, you can hear several cars honking in solidarity with the outcome and people gracefully embracing each other as if a huge burden was lifted from their shoulders. Lewis, an East St. Louis native, is mainly quiet throughout the video. But her words,“may the revolution be healing,” are a poignant highlight.

Healing is Lewis’ life’s work. After an over 20-year career in higher education, she has dedicated her life to healing Black people from oppression-induced traumas. Through facilitating community healing circles, coaching programs and leading discussions on mindfulness, Lewis, who’s based in St. Paul, Minnesota, has become an advocate for Black liberation.

In 2013, she founded Joi Unlimited, a coaching and consulting firm that focuses on healing from oppressive systems. Dr. Lewis is also the author of “Healing: The Act of Radical Self-Care,” which was released in 2018.

Last year, shortly before COVID-19 became classified as a pandemic, she started the Healing Justice Foundation, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that provides healing support to Black communities. Since the deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright, who were killed not too far from her home, Dr. Lewis’ outreach efforts have amplified.

But her work is rooted in her East St. Louis upbringing. A graduate of East St. Louis Lincoln High School (currently East St. Louis High School), Lewis lived in the Parkside neighborhood of the city. She graduated from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville in 1993 and has been gone from the area since then, although she tries to visit her hometown at least twice a year.

The Belleville News-Democrat recently interviewed Dr. Lewis about how East St. Louis has informed her work in helping Black communities in Minnesota and abroad heal from the past year. Here are excerpts from the interview:

What does healing justice mean to you? How is it defined?

For Lewis, healing justice is a framework that explores the idea of healing through acknowledging the existence of historical trauma and its impact. Past and present traumas are intertwined. There is no binary.

“So it’s not just about what’s happening now in the present moment, but it’s also a reclaiming of those things that have happened before.”

“And I make sure that it is situated in this idea of justice, because oftentimes people are talking about healing, but it’s disconnected from the idea of justice that is about transforming systems. That’s why the justice piece is put out there because it’s about making sure that we are getting freed and liberated from the oppressive systems that keep us bound.”

How did you get involved in this work?

Shortly before police killed Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Lewis started facilitating healing circles in north Minneapolis. Her work became more popular and she made connections with the Minneapolis Police Department, local Black Lives Matter and NAACP chapters and the Minneapolis mayor’s office. She said they were afraid of becoming the next Ferguson.

“And I said OK, I don’t think that I can do that, but what I can do is make sure that people can build authentic relationships with each other, and when something might jump off that they will be reaching for each other because that is what I learned how to do growing up in East St. Louis. You called on each other, you reached for each other, you picked up the phone.”

“We began to build those relationships, and after about three months, after people started working with each other, they said hey we want to continue this work, and we’d like for Dr. Joi to be the person who leads these sessions.”

Jamar Clark, a Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police shortly after Lewis formed those relationships. Then, Philando Castile, another Black man, was killed by police in Minnesota, minutes away from Lewis’ home, in 2016. Another Black man, George Floyd, was killed by Minneapolis police in 2020. Daunte Wright, who’s also Black, was killed by police in Brooklyn Place, Minnesota, this year.

Lewis said those recent events have shaped her community engagement work in the state.

“Unfortunately, when Black and brown bodies are murdered all over this country, there’s no Red Cross that’s coming for us. They, in fact, send in the National Guard, and take resources out of our community instead of putting resources in, and so the Healing Justice Foundation, which I founded, is really about how do we build our own Red Cross, how do we make sure we have the resources that we need.’’

How has East St. Louis influenced those efforts?

“The way that I move through the world is really from my framework growing up in East St. Louis because the way I move through the world is coming from a community that was always connected to making sure that everybody was OK, that it is about how is your neighbor doing? Coming from a place where it was like not just to show material needs were taken care of but also about like how the mind was, how the policies were, how people were doing, so it was a matter of like you just couldn’t rest.

“My family owned The Crusader printing newspaper and my father was the election commissioner for 20-something years before he passed away, and he was always concerned about voting, voter suppression and what was happening, and people would get really upset about the politics in Illinois, so I think that it was always sort of a justice issue to me around why are things not fair, why is it that we’re located in East St. Louis and you’re looking at what the resources were in Belleville, what the resources were in Fairview Heights, what the resources were in St. Louis, and what the material resources were, but there was a kind of sense of connection and community that I feel like they didn’t have, but we had.”

Describe your upbringing in East St. Louis.

“It was the best. I was raised by my dad, Mr. James Lewis Sr. My mom actually passed away when I was seven months old, and so my dad raised us, but we had a strong network. We lived in Parkside, close to Frank Holten Park, but we spent most of our time in the south end where my grandmother and my aunts lived. My grandmother Trudy B. Lewis lived on Gay Avenue, so it was like my grandmother’s house, my aunt Marcella Lewis lived next door, my aunt Lillie B. Lewis Prude lived across the street, my other aunt Annie Lewis lived on Central Street, so that’s how we grew up. When my grandmother passed away, she had 33 grandchildren and 44 great-grand children. All of us grew up in the south end, and we had really strong extended family friends who were like family.

“We had all of these programs that we went to as young people in the summer and we would go to the Mary Brown Center and hang out. A lot of the sororities and fraternities would have after-school programs in the park. Jackie Joyner and all of those folks who were in the park, we played together, we did track, we did stuff, and that’s what our upbringing was like. Our teachers lived in our community, police lived in our community, so you’re at church, you’re at the grocery store and you see them.

“We didn’t always have the best resources in terms of material resources. And I can remember sometimes we had a lot of old textbooks… What people see when they drive through East St. Louis and certainly the economic development that needs to be there, the things that need to be pulled back into our city should be there, but I’ll tell you one thing, the social capital, the familiar capital, it cannot be matched, and I wouldn’t want to be from anywhere else.”

How long have you been engaged in this work, and are there any specific experiences that brought you to it?

“I had a career in higher education for almost 20 years, so working on college campuses mostly as a dean, as a vice president and chief diversity officer, so I realize in retrospect that that work was also like healing, but I didn’t have the language for it. I was on a trajectory to become a college president then I looked behind the curtain and said this is not what I’m going to do, and then there was a lot that was happening. I began to see my people really suffering and I began to do this work around trauma. And then there was the Trayvon Martin situation, then the Mike Brown situation happened, and then I was sort of doing these healing circles in the community and that in earnest is how the work began. And then I just really started feeling called to creating this process…and that work really just began to propel me to have a process where people could hold space that could be as accessible as possible.

“After the murder of George Floyd here, myself and my co-chair Dr. Brittany Lewis have been engaged in a process call Time of Reckoning. That work is looking at the criminal justice system and its collateral consequences on the Black family, and that has really provided an opportunity for us and 10 other Black leaders to really look at what are all of these things, whether it’s schools, whether it’s housing, all of these things that are sort of happening that are an effect of this….I’m in it for the long haul and just try to draw the attention as much as I can and to try to change the conditions for our people.”

What does healing justice look like for East St. Louis?

“Part of healing justice is the economic development piece, so it is also that because it’s an evolving political framework, but the liberation is also about economic development. Part of the liberation and justice piece is that, that they don’t want us to be free, they don’t want us to be economically free…and I think that’s what happened to East St. Louis, and I think that that’s part of the reason why that we are and have remained in an economic challenge because there has been a way that East St. Louis has not been willing to relent in this way of giving up a sense of self. We’re not about to get ready to give up that sense of pride and we’re not going to turn over.

“The location is right by the river, and that’s prime property, and so it’s like turn it over, turn it over. And when you think about gentrification that has happened across the country and it’s like starve em out, get them out of there, so we can just like take it over, but they have not been able to successfully do that. Because it’s like I’m not leaving.

“If we can’t have proper food and nutrition, that kills people. We’re dying from those kinds of things, so you starve people out in that kind of way and (people) have to leave the community to be able to get (good food), and so all of that is by design, and that’s a justice issue….We don’t have to accept the way in which these things are really killing us and killing our communities and that whole communities, places like East St. Louis, places where Black people are mostly concentrated, what are these things that are actually killing us?

“As I think about what is the verdict that’s coming down with George Floyd, the Healing Justice Foundation…we do things in the community to try to bring down those stress levels. We do community healing circles. We have it both virtual and in real time. We offer all kinds of things for people. There’s a community healing calendar that has a variety of things for people to get involved with, not just here locally, people can get involved wherever they are. We have a call-in line for healing sessions.

What motivated you to start the Healing Justice Foundation?

“My intention when I started it was that it was going to be more of a legacy project. I have been doing this work around healing just since around 2014. I’m 51 years old and I was thinking, ‘Oh you know I’ll probably do this for a few more years, then it’d be time for me to retire in my head.’”

“I really also think of myself as a philanthropist. I want to see this as being a way to give out of my abundance, something to just give to, so I thought I was more thinking about it as something I’ll give to as a kind of philanthropy project on a small scale. Obviously, I did not know that COVID was coming and I certainly did not know George Floyd was going to be murdered, and this small foundation was going to become this big huge thing and that the need was going to be so great. But it did. Now, we have moved forward with this project…..We’re having these policy forums over this year. We’ve also done a ton of work to get mutual aid and to get lots of resource out into the community, and I’m thrilled that we did move forward with it and it was not what I was expecting to happen in such a short period of time, but I’m glad that I’m able to show up and be of service. We’re gonna just keep moving.’’

What was your reaction to the Derek Chauvin verdict?

“I was elated and in the streets with everybody and was like I’m going to take my moment, and there was that part of me that pulled with that but, but, but, but for today, I’m gonna take it, and I’m gonna feel it. Like let us feel it. Then I heard about our young sister in Ohio and it was like dang, but you know for that hour, I felt it. Then, we fight and we go, but we gotta take both things, and that’s where we’re at.’’

What does healing look like for Black people at this time? Is it attainable, given that it seems like we’re in this constant state of never catching a break?

“Joy and pain run from the same faucet. Part of the work of healing justice is we having to be able to hold both heartbreak and joy and that it’s a practice. It is also sort of the condition of life because if we’re not doing that it’s almost, in a way, like we’re not living. My grandmother used to say if you’re experiencing great joy, that’s awesome. Take it in. Enjoy all of it. That’s great because it’s going to change. That joy that you’re experiencing is gonna change because heartbreak is gonna come. And if that’s not happening, then you’re probably not living anymore.

“Black folk, sometimes ,we get an unfair amount of heartbreak. And one of my favorite philosophers, Rumi, says perhaps our heart keeps breaking so it can just stay open. We sometimes will be experiencing joy and feel like I’m not even going to go there because I know heartbreak will come, and I’m like no, full-out experience all of that joy. When it comes, just revel in it because that heartbreak might come, but we get to revel in that joy as well. And we’re going to take both things.

“I believe that that’s why it’s important for us to do these other practices, our meditation, our mindfulness, spending time with loved ones, taking care of ourselves, eating well, doing the things that are going to build up ourselves…just doing those things, spending that time embracing Black joy, because we’re going to need it.

“And speaking up and saying stop killing us. That we’re not going to take this and stopping the policies and saying nope, that’s actually not OK. And that we’re not going to accept these condition that are not ok, so I don’t believe that we have to say that this is just how it is.

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Help us cover East St. Louis, Cahokia, Centreville and surrounding communities by sharing your tips, questions and ideas. What issues are affecting your community? What stories would you like us to tell? What’s important to you? Please share your thoughts with DeAsia Paige at [email protected] or 239-2500.

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DeAsia Paige joined the Belleville News-Democrat as a Report for America corps member in 2020. She’s a community reporter covering East St. Louis and surrounding areas. DeAsia previously interned with VICE and The Detroit Free Press. She graduated from The University of Kansas in 2020.

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