"Making Space" as Strategy for Advancing a New Vision of Health for Black People

September 25, 2020

By Debi Chess, Megan A. Carney, and A.G. Steig


Success [of the Dunbar Wellness Project] will be creating and cultivating relationships within the Black community; creating a safe and culturally reflective space that allows people of color to nourish their authentic selves. That authenticity is fueled by knowledge and understanding of who we are as a people, acting and reacting within hostile environments that profoundly shape how we show up culturally, socially, emotionally, and politically in a larger culture that has systematically repressed our ability to thrive. What did our ancestors know that we need to return to in order to gain greater agency over our own wellness? Success looks like holding space to continue to explore and answer these questions.

--Debi Chess, Executive Director of the Dunbar Pavilion


For Black communities in the United States, health inequities are deeply intertwined with structural racism and the historical traumas of forced displacement as linked to slavery, dispossession, segregation, and gentrification (Bailey et al. 2017; Colen, Ramey, Cooksey, & Williams 2008; Versey 2019; Williams, Lawrence, & Davis 2019). Evidence from medical, public health, and social science research attests to the ways in which structural racism and displacement register at both the corporeal (e.g., racialized health disparities) and spatial scales (e.g., uneven resource distribution, degraded environments). Both structural racism and repeated displacement have also intersected with anti-Black discourse and historical narratives that seek to deny Black people spaces for belonging (Jackson 2011; Reese 2019). Working in tandem, structural racism and systematic displacement lead to patterns of disembodiment as both a necessary strategy for survival and a means to cope with trauma (Morse & Mitcham 1998; Ohito 2019). Community-based efforts that focus on making space for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) to reclaim connection to the body and connection to place – simultaneously attending to the “within and without” – may hold potential for addressing the underlying causes of health and race inequities (Penniman 2018; White 2019).

The Dunbar Wellness Project (DWP), a partnership between Tucson’s Dunbar Pavilion and the UA Center for Regional Food Studies, consists of workshops, lectures, and asset-mapping exercises that collectively promote ancestral and holistic approaches to health and wellness, alternative and complementary medicine, the connection of health to the environment and community, and nourishing diets. The decision to focus on health practices that draw from ancestral knowledge and utilize alternative and complementary medicine stemmed from an acknowledgement of negative experiences by BIPOC with biomedicine that have been extensively documented (Ben, Cormack, Harris, & Paradies 2017; Fiscella & Sanders 2016).  


History of the Project Site

Tucson's Dunbar School (now called the Dunbar Pavilion) was established in 1918 as a segregated school. When the State of Arizona overturned segregation in 1951, the school was opened to all children, yet it was never able to reach the desegregation threshold set by the Department of Health and Human Services; very few white students attended the predominantly Black, Indigenous, and Mexican American school. The school was closed in the 1970s. In the mid 90s, a coalition of stakeholders formed (made up of the Tucson Urban League, the Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood Association and the Dunbar Alumni Association) to purchase the property from Tucson Unified School District and revitalize it into a hub of social, cultural, and educational programing that centers the Black experience. The center now houses a private primary school, three nonprofit arts organizations, and a barber academy. The on-site garden is often the focal point of health and wellness programming, as it speaks directly to the need among people who have been displaced to feel connected and grounded.


Making Space

The Dunbar Pavilion and the UA Center for Regional Food Studies formed a partnership in 2018, and have since collaborated with El Rio Clinics, the African American Coalition for Health and Wellness, and the Juneteenth Committee in designing workshops and other programming for DWP. As of February 2020, the Dunbar Pavilion had hosted 10 BIPOC-led workshops over the previous five months with nearly 200 total participants focused on themes such as “Introduction to Mindfulness,” “Heart Medicine for People of Color,” “Spirituality and Medicine,” “Health, Wellness, and Nutrition,” “Get Connected: Body and Mind,” “Restore and Chillax,” “So You Wanna Go Vegan?” and “Working in Food Justice.” Workshops provided self-care skills that attended implicitly to several of the top causes of mortality and morbidity among Black people in Arizona: heart diseases, hypertension, and diabetes (Arizona Department of Health Services 2017; CDC 2019).


Karen Washington Workshop

We are working to 'make space' by offering workshops led by BIPOC such as the renowned food justice activist Karen Washington

Reflections on DWP workshops as documented in post-workshop surveys highlighted the importance of making space for prioritizing health in the broadest sense. One participant commented on the aura of the physical space in which the workshop was held and expressed her appreciation for: “the setting up of the space with intention and care. The air shifted, I could notice the difference between the outside and inside the room.” Another participant underscored the value of making space for personal reflection and care: “It gave me a chance to focus on myself and be in the present. It also allowed me to consider my challenges and strengths and how I can position myself better to overcome challenges and find my inner strengths.” A repeated theme in responses across workshop attendees was the idea of “safe” space and feeling free to engage in authentic expression. For instance, in responding to the question “What did you enjoy most about this workshop?” participants highlighted “Having a safe space among ‘us’ where we could speak freely about all the things”; “The space to be open without judgment. The beauty in connecting with other black people”; “Being myself and having confidence and sureness about myself. Being unapologetically black”; “It was great being in a POC space.” For some participants, the workshops also illuminated certain exclusions produced by other spaces ostensibly intended to support health and wellness, as reflected in one survey response, “[It made me think about] the healthcare system and blacks (and how it was never for us).”  


Implications of Making Space

Since its inception as an organization, the Dunbar has had to balance the intent of creating a community space open to all, while buffering itself from gentrification from within. Until the 1980s, when gentrification swept through the neighborhood that surrounds the Dunbar Pavilion and continues today, Black middle-class and blue-collar families were the lifeblood of the community. Today, this neighborhood is now predominantly white middle- to upper-middle-class families. This mismatch between Dunbar’s purpose to serve the roughly 6.2% of Tucson’s population who are Black (U.S. Census Bureau 2019), and the demographics of residents living near the Dunbar has proved a formidable challenge. As an example, in the early stages of revitalization, the Dunbar garden was maintained by neighborhood residents who saw that Dunbar's leadership did not have the capacity to maintain that part of the property. When Dunbar acquired resources to address many overlooked aspects of the center as part of the DWP, the garden became a priority once again, and Black members of the Dunbar community sought to reclaim a space that already belonged to them.       



While the Dunbar Wellness Project is ongoing, and we are continuing to work through its broader implications, our preliminary findings suggest that the act of making space -- and explicitly for self-identifying BIPOC -- as a focal point of health and wellness programming holds the potential to foster feelings of belonging and can provide a path to healing for communities that have endured structural racism and historical trauma. The Covid-19 pandemic has both presented a logistical challenge to DWP programming and further underscored the need for such work as Black people are disproportionately represented in infection and mortality rates, afflicted by the pandemic’s economic fallout, and subjected to the relentless brutality of structural racism and state-sanctioned police violence. The project of making space for BIPOC – though mostly in the virtual realm at present – reveals itself to be more important now than ever.


Debi Chess is the Executive Director of the Dunbar Pavilion. She has a masters in urban planning and policy (MUPP) from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a City of Tucson Planning Commissioner and member of the Tucson International Airport Authority. Her area of expertise is in community cultural development and place-keeping. 

Megan A. Carney is sociocultural and medical anthropologist in the School of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Regional Food Studies at the University of Arizona. 

A. G. Steig is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Arizona. They hold a BA in environmental studies from Yale University. Their interests include food sovereignty and the roles of non-governmental organizations in communities.


Works Cited

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