Several days after George Floyd’s death, a group of strangers gathered on a grassy patch at 41st Street and Minnehaha Avenue S. in Minneapolis. The spot was equidistant from two sites marked by devastating loss: one where the 46-year-old black man was killed by police, the other the epicenter of widespread rioting.
More than 50 people spread out on the grass at a social distance. But for a moment, they were connected as they hummed in unison, directed by the event’s co-host, Jamil Stamschror-Lott.
The humming lasted only a minute and was muffled by passing traffic. But at a time when big issues are weighing on so many minds, such a small act of unity and hope seemed to help.
Just two days earlier, Jamil and his wife, Sara, two self-professed “out of the box” therapists, had decided to help assuage the city’s collective grief by hosting a series of free community healing sessions. Their aim with the weekly events is to bring people together to share their perspectives and listen to one another, while incorporating exercises to calm the body and mind.
At the session, Jamil described how the burning buildings and chaos surrounding the protests were, in some ways, a physical manifestation of the way racial injustice and lack of recognition feels to the black community. “Now you’re seeing the external reality of what’s been going on internally,” he said.
Floyd’s death and the subsequent unrest triggered those who have endured a lifetime of racism and jolted white people to confront their racial privilege. The events spurred something of a collective mental health crisis for the Twin Cities: a mix of rage, sadness, frustration and guilt.
Jamil and Sara began to realize how much communal pain Floyd’s death had inflicted as they met with private therapy clients.
“There are so many people hurting — we have to reach further,” Sara recalled telling Jamil. “We thought, ‘Let’s bring people together and validate people’s feelings and affirm our neighbors of color,’ ” she said. “Let’s try to build a bridge.”
A shared mission
Jamil’s career in mental health is rooted in his personal experience. He spent most of his childhood in the Twin Cities, raised by a single mother. As an African-American male who would grow to reach 6 feet 7, Jamil often felt like an “alien” among his peers. As one of the few black kids in his Advanced Placement classes, he struggled with impostor syndrome and feeling isolated.
“It was like the black kids didn’t really accept you, the white kids didn’t accept you, and all the other ethnic groups had their own pockets, so I often ended up feeling alone,” he said.
Jamil’s interactions with African-American men mostly hinged on his height, and those hoping to catapult him to the NBA often seemed to look at the youngster more as a dollar sign than a person.
“There was always a black male to do coaching for sports,” Jamil said. “But there wasn’t a black male to coach you through, ‘What do you do when you’re interested in a girl?’ ‘What do you do when you’re reaching puberty?’ ‘How do you tie your tie?,’ all the basic day-to-day life things that matter way more than sports.”
So Jamil set out to become the mentor he’d always desired, focusing on underprivileged youths, “trying to reach that kid that can’t fit in.”
He’s played that role with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, as a youth probation officer and with Community Ambassadors Initiative, which works in partnership with the St. Paul Police Department to defuse tensions and reduce juvenile arrests.
After working in the St. Paul Public Schools, Jamil earned a master’s degree to better understand the roots of behavior issues. He passed his social worker licensing exam the day after Philando Castile died; instead of celebrating his achievement, he took to the streets with the ambassadors.
Sara grew up on a farm near Wabasha, Minn., where she learned to milk cows, butcher deer and immersed herself in choir, band, dance and theater. “I dressed my own way and went to the beat of my own drummer,” she recalled.
But family relationships were challenging. After her parents divorced when she was very young, Sara started seeing a school-based therapist, which led her to provide mental health services to adolescents and young adults at Minneapolis schools, a teen-focused clinic, and in-home and residential treatment settings.
Jamil and Sara first met while training for their careers, in a class on aggression replacement techniques. Three years later, Jamil spotted Sara at the Roseville Target store, said hello and asked if she remembered him. Sara thought he looked familiar but couldn’t quite place him. Was he one of the players from the semipro Minnesota Ripknees basketball team, where she’d been on the dance team a few years back?
“He said, ‘What, because I’m tall and black I have to be a basketball player?’ And I was so mortified,” Sara recalled.
In fact, Jamil had played Division 1 basketball at Marquette University and on one of their early dates, she watched one of his games with a local men’s league. “I don’t know the rules of basketball,” Sara admitted. “I am not an athlete. I am an artist through and through. But he slam-dunked the ball so many times that I was like, ‘Whoa!’ ”
In contrast to college professors and classmates who Jamil felt were more focused on his athletic role than his academic one, the artsy therapist was refreshingly ignorant of the team’s impressive reputation.
“When he told me he played basketball at Marquette, I was like, ‘What’s Marquette?’ ” she said.
“That’s when I knew she was the one,” Jamil joked.
A creative, communal approach
The couple now have a 2-year-old daughter, Zola, and a 2-year-old therapy practice, called Creative Kuponya (the Swahili word for “healing”), with a nontraditional approach.
During sessions, Sara expands on talk therapy, including movement, music and art, sometimes walking with her clients, shooting hoops, doing yoga or painting. “I try to meet people where they’re at,” she said.
Though the couple lost their office space near Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue in the May 29 fires, they are working to expand their reach. Aside from the healing sessions, they’re raising funds to provide free individual and family therapy sessions to people of color in need.
While community healing might seem unconventional, it’s actually an age-old tradition deeply rooted in Indigenous cultures, said Mary Jo Kreitzer, director of the Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota. The practice of connecting with other community members to deal with trauma and loss is now used for everything from coping with cancer and widowhood to repairing harm through restorative justice.
“There’s a real benefit to being in a group and being able to share experiences and tap into one’s own wisdom but also tap into the wisdom of others,” Kreitzer said. “Sharing pain and sharing loss is a way to work through pain and loss.”
Suzanne Koepplinger, who supports healers from within communities of color as the director of the Catalyst Initiative at the Minneapolis Foundation, said the Western-based medical model isn’t good at understanding the damage that toxic stress inflicts on communities, not just individuals.
While clinical mental health care is absolutely vital and necessary, she said, it’s important to offer other options for those who face taboos surrounding therapy, mistrust the medical system or don’t have insurance.
“Communal healing needs to take place because in many cases, particularly in brown and black communities, and indigenous communities, the trauma is communal,” she said. “Now, especially, the need for healing in community goes deep.”
‘We see you ... ’
Creative Kuponya’s first healing session drew a majority white, but racially mixed crowd.
Sara asked the group to begin by resting their bare feet or palms on the grass to connect their bodies to the Earth. Then she led a vision exercise. Jamil followed by asking the question: “What have you been doing to get through these days?”
People of color were asked to speak first. A middle-age man said he had been reflecting on his experience as a 3-year-old, when his family participated in the Poor People’s March on Washington, organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In addition to his memories of barking dogs and the smell of tear gas, he said he also felt a profound sense of hope.
Another speaker said she has been doing social justice work for a decade, but living it her whole life: “This is my skin, and this is what life has blessed me with,” she said. She noted how black women are conditioned to “give, give, give” and said she was trying to care for herself, too, so she could better help her community.
After the mic was offered to white allies, a woman who said she lived a few blocks from the 38th and Chicago protest site told of how she’s been listening to the sound of people rising up. “I can hear the chanting, I can hear the music, I can hear the power,” she said.
When the woman finished, Jamil led the group in a response he’d used to affirm each speaker.
“We see you. We appreciate you. And we love you.”
They were simple words, not said nearly enough. And they held even more power voiced by a group.