Creating a wellness community that is inclusive furthers IIN’s mission of transforming health and happiness around the globe. It starts by celebrating our diverse community members and amplifying their stories. In this blog series, you’ll hear from IIN graduates and employees about their health and wellness experiences and why we must focus on not just inclusion and diversity, but also equity, when addressing the well-being of Black people.
William Smith is a video producer for the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City, where he works within the media and education teams. He holds a bachelor’s degree in video communication and is an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. For William, inner peace is the goal and lens through which he sees the world. Native to Jamaica, Queens, he has come full circle to live in Astoria, Queens, after living throughout the NYC boroughs; Westchester, New York; Philadelphia; and Los Angeles.
The year 2020 was hard. Reflecting on the year and how it’s personally impacted me, I became aware of a broader context I am a part of. Black history around food and health is influenced by a web of factors, including social, political, cultural, economic, and medical circumstances. What started as a simple observation and question – “Why is COVID-19 hitting the Black community so hard?” – opened me up to a story I eventually found myself within.
Exploring Black history while going through a pandemic
The history of Black health in the United States is filled with obstacles, broken promises, and abuses of trust. Many racist practices have impacted and impaired Black Americans from accessing quality healthcare. They have been let down by our healthcare system from the earliest days.
After Emancipation, there were few hospitals that would treat freedmen, and only two universities Black people could attend to study medicine. For over 100 years, this left the Black community vulnerable with limited access to healthcare. Early government initiatives to expand affordable healthcare to Black sharecroppers included the infamous Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. In the 40-year experiment, hundreds of Black men with syphilis were left untreated in order to study the progression of the disease. This study caused a breach of trust between the Black and medical communities, which may have literally lowered the life expectancy of the Black community for generations.
Racist practices like redlining forced Blacks to relocate to cities where health was challenged by pollution, overpopulation, and lack of access to fresh foods (a problem that has become increasingly pronounced). There’s still a chilling mortality rate for Black women during childbirth that is nearly three times that of white women.
With these structural challenges as the backdrop of a deadly pandemic, it was hard to endure the relentless nature of COVID-19. The sound of my mother crying almost every morning the first week of April 2020 is a memory I will unfortunately hold with me for a long time. The early wave of COVID-19 hitting New York City came with heavy losses I’m not yet sure we’ve begun to recover from. New York City became the global epicenter for the disease, and my mother was hit hard by personal losses. Many friends and family from her childhood neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens, fell ill and lost their lives. Some of my mother’s closest friends work in the healthcare system and would describe the horrors of overcrowded hospitals, a lack of supplies, and weakened infrastructure to handle the pandemic.
It got to the point where we had to, at some level, accept that some of her oldest friends might not make it through the pandemic. My mother’s concern for her own health, in addition to her susceptibility to the disease, forced a normally outgoing and adventurous woman to become reclusive. It must have appeared to her that the world she knew was crumbling before her very eyes. New York City eventually took control of the spread of the virus, and the intensity of the pandemic subsided, but none of us are leaving that experience unchallenged or unchanged.
My health journey as a lifelong journey
I have been on a personal health journey since 2012. I had struggled with mental health challenges around anxiety and depression most of my life, and it was then that I set my mind on taking care of myself. I hadn’t yet considered my full picture of health, but I knew I needed help with how my thoughts and behaviors reflected the state of my well-being.
I researched and studied articles and videos around mental health and found resources in the nascent Black mental-health movement that was building around the same time. I became employed at IIN in 2014, and though I was competent in the language and ideology of functional health practices, I still had a lot to learn about cultivating wellness. I made a breakthrough in my understanding once I encountered the framing of primary and secondary food. IIN expressed these concepts in such a way that I was able to complete the puzzle of wellness in my mind!
It wasn’t just my mental health I had to take care of – there are a host of primary food areas that all contribute to the interconnectedness of holistic health and well-being. Taking care of primary food – the areas of our lives that feed us off the plate – lends itself to taking care of secondary food – the food on our plates. As you learn that the energy you absorb from people you spend time with, news you consume, and stress you take in can all change you on the inside, so, too, do the foods and nutrients you take in. This is probably more obvious to some people when explained in reverse, but for me the simple idea that “what you consume impacts your health” was more understandable from this lens.
My first step toward addressing my health regarding secondary food was adding more water into my diet. I learned about the concept of crowding out – taking in more of what is good for me and leaving less room for what isn’t. Crowding out sodas, lemonades, and iced teas with water was a simple change in my secondary-food consumption that showed immediate benefits. Now I’m exploring more ways to better align my food consumption with my vision of wellness.
Working at IIN has afforded me a closer look into the ever-developing world of health and wellness, and that work has become a large part of my life. I graduated from the Health Coach Training Program in July 2016, coming away with a better understanding of the health and wellness world and continuing to catch up on the resources I’d been missing up to that point. Learning is a lifelong journey, and I am thankful to have had this background going into the volatility of 2020. It truly gave me the foundation I needed to endure the pandemic and come out with a clear vision and mission.
Sharing my health journey while helping others on theirs
It’s scary to think about how the challenges of 2020 might have gotten the best of me had I not been as far along in my health journey as I was. Part of my reason for sharing this health reflection is to contribute more directly to the health journey of others. There is a lot of personal and community work we all need to do around health and wellness, and today I feel motivated to participate in a course correction for a community that has been historically underserved in health and wellness.
It’s now 2021. Moving forward with the pain and lessons of 2020, I have found strength in the work of Leah Penniman, co-director of Soul Fire Farm and author of the book Farming While Black. Leah’s work involves rebuilding the relationship between BIPOC and land stewardship. Beginning with my grandmother, my immediate family was part of the Great Migration, a movement of Blacks from the south to the north, between the 1960s and 1980s.
I’ve come to realize I’ve developed blockages and uncomfortable feelings around the imagery of Black people working the land in this country. I myself am the great-grandson of a sharecropper, John Henry Brown, who was only slightly removed from the legacy of slavery. Part of my work now is to face that head-on as I rediscover my relationship to this country's land. The trauma of slavery still impacts us in a lot of ways that are difficult to discern. But I believe part of reclaiming our health in a holistic way comes from building a more reliable and self-sufficient relationship to the foods we consume and directly addressing the traumas and anxieties that impact our mental health.
Moving forward to be a part of history
I don’t expect everyone to want to become a farmer or gardener overnight, but for me, the idea of becoming part of the Good Food Movement, helping to provide for communities that would otherwise lack access to good food, and contextualizing our health legacy, are steps forward.
Black history is still being written. I feel inspired to make my contribution in the ways I can, through the life I’ve been given. Armed with IIN’s tools and modalities, like the Circle of Life, and Soul Fire Farm’s model of using the farm as not just a business to secure your financial health but a way to build community, practice spirituality, grow relationships, generate joy, encourage creativity, get physical activity, and better control your home environment, I feel equipped to move forward in the wake of 2020.
I am hopeful the next chapter in Black history will tell a story of how we reclaimed control of our health as we continued in the tradition of liberation.