Heart-Centered Practice: Embodying a Racial Justice Framework

By Lili Farhang

By centering the heart we open up new ways of being together — and new, more powerful strategies to build racial justice.

We lead with our humanity and the centrality of our relationships, making space to acknowledge how our bodies and hearts feel. We seek to build a sense of belonging and heal from the traumas of living in systems of advantage and oppression.

— on Centering the Heart, from HIP’s Strategic Plan

When we talk about the heart, yes, we’re talking about a vital organ. But we’re really using the heart as a metaphor for making space for all of our feelings, encompassing physical sensations and emotions, that inevitably arise when confronting the reality of racial inequities and unjust power imbalances — both in the policies and systems we want to shift, and in our own organizational culture.

Analysis alone will not suffice to create a just society. If we cannot feel the pain of racism and inequity, we cannot heal from and overcome it.

As one of our colleagues, Nashira Baril often describes, public health has been acculturated to approach health equity work with a primary focus on policy change, planning, analyzing, and producing data — and other activities primarily “of the brain.” We have tended to suppress and erase the shared pain and trauma of living through, witnessing, and perpetuating systems of oppression and advantage.

Indeed, the structures of White supremacy and western capitalism have long functioned to suppress our innate knowledge of the body and the heart, to divorce feeling and emotion — which are in turn gendered and racialized — from the supposed primacy of “reason” and “logic.” To build toward racial justice then, we must break down this false dichotomy between thinking and feeling.

This means making space to acknowledge and process the impact of this pain. It means slowing down. It means thinking about efficiency in an entirely different way, paying attention to how our bodies feel, and developing a vocabulary to express what’s happening in our bodies. It means experiencing a collective felt sense of our successes and our challenges.

Ultimately, we need to normalize creating space in our work and movements to feel and heal in order to shape a new liberation culture that acknowledges and welcomes our whole selves.

My Own Experience with Integrating the Head and the Heart

Admittedly, a holistic integration of the head and heart has been something of a stretch for me. I grew up in an intellectual family, where arguing one’s perspective with evidence, and challenging other perspectives was central to every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This experience was crucial to developing my sense of self, my confidence, and shaped what I valued in others.

That upbringing and family culture has infused my leadership style today. I often think about efficiency, getting to the point, identifying a solution and moving it forward. I tend to ask questions like: Why are we doing this? How is it making people’s lives better? What are our wins? How can we be most effective?

If I reflect on these questions, in truth, I have not heeded the value of slowing down to be and feel. When pain has arisen for me, my tendency is to react by doing — to be responsive, to take action. Not to pay attention to the quickened heart rate, the sense of overwhelm, the heartbrokenness. And also to miss how other people might be reacting, and what their experience might be.

But there is deep knowledge in those feelings. There is learning and meaning in those feelings — that make me stronger, more connected, and ultimately, more effective at making change alongside others.

As a leader, there are a number of questions that arise for me around tactics and behaviors that might be considered professional in a work environment — and that relate in particular to integrating the head and the heart. If a team meeting is making space for body- and heart-centered data, how comfortable and proficient will everyone be with that? How can team members’ varied strategies on how to be with our pain come together as a whole? If comfort and proficiency vary depending on personal temperaments and experience, how do we as a team navigate and hold these differences? These are ongoing questions that we must grapple with together and be comfortable with no known conclusion.

Engaging an integrated approach is complex and requires practice, as well as discussion. Not to mention, everyone experiences pain differently. We are talking about broadening our strategy to make ample room for emotional and physical reactions and the deep wisdom of our bodies and spirits, which is often denigrated in favor of ideas and tactics.

Shifting into an Acknowledgment of the Heart

The truth is, we can present as much convincing and unassailable data as we want, but if we do not tap into the emotional core of the current national discourse — which includes deep and often unarticulated feelings — we will not experience or enact the transformation we know is necessary for a more just and equitable world. There cannot be any lasting or meaningful systemic change if we aren’t making room to feel and heal.

At HIP, this has meant integrating “Centering the Heart” as one of our core organizational values. It has meant:

  • Developing an ever-evolving vocabulary and collective analysis about what it means to be heart-centered
  • Norming the practice of talking about how emotionally regulated we are individually
  • Making space for shared reflection about how a body of work affects us as people
  • Listening deeply to those who have been most impacted
  • Breathing together more, paying attention to how our bodies feel, and articulating that to one another

Ultimately, it has meant leading with our humanity and the centrality of our relationships.

Centering the heart has particularly informed and deepened our Capacity Building practice. When it comes to addressing racism, organizations we work with often enter with a head-only analysis of power and structural inequity, and devise strategies from there. But by centering the heart, we open up new ways of being in the work together — and new, more powerfully integrated strategies to dismantle inequities.

Rather than falling back on outdated or unspoken ideas or prescriptions for operating as an organization, we offer ourselves space to both consider default patterns and habits, and make more intentional, liberating choices.

The purpose of HIP embodying our values and making room for our felt experiences is not easy, but we are attempting to find a way to create an environment in which people can bring their full selves to the work. We do this so that we are not simply stuck in pain — but so that it gives us the impetus we need to move ever forward in the quest for equity and justice.

Lili Farhang is Co-Director at Human Impact Partners. Along with Solange Gould, she’s responsible for advancing the mission and strategic direction of the organization. For nearly 20 years, she has visioned, developed, and implemented policy and systems change to advance health equity in the government and nonprofit sectors, and she’s feeling energized by people’s willingness to talk about race, power and the other root drivers of health.

📌 Did you know? Human Impact Partners provides health equity capacity building to public health organizations. Contact us to learn more about our offerings at info[at]humanimpact.org.

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