Reclaiming Womxn's Wellness Spaces from a White-Dominated World

How The Villij built a collective that their community can connect to.

 minute read

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and the success of The Villij proves that few words are truer. Bred out of founders’ Kim Knight and Shanelle McKenzie’s mission to create wellness spaces for womxn of colour (something the wellness boom is noticeably lacking), the friends are seeking to expand representation and opportunities for POC by using an organic approach to community building; by diversifying a practice that’s still inherently white, and by ensuring the womxn who visit feel welcome, safe, and part of something bigger.

And understandably, since its launch in 2017, The Villij is thriving. Having expanded from Montreal into Toronto, Knight and McKenzie are only more determined to keep growing their vision; to prioritize healing and belonging, and to reclaim wellness from the jaws of capitalism.

We were lucky enough to speak with The Villij founders, who were generous enough to tell us more about their professional evolution, to give us insight into the way they’ve mobilized across two provinces, and to remind us that building a community means not going it all alone.

You’ve spoken before about The Villij being bred out of the absence of wellness-oriented spaces for womxn of colour. How did you begin to mobilize? And how has sustaining The Villij evolved since its inception?

The Villij came from us wanting more for ourselves and our community. At the time, we were both living in Montreal and realized that there was a void in the wellness community that needed to be filled. We began to have discussions about our wellness practices and how we felt at times when we were the only persons of colour in the room. So, we decided to change that through the power of creation. Together, we created something that our community could connect to, and built experiences that were true representations of ourselves and what we stand for.

We started small, pulling from resources we had: personal savings, decor from our homes, and help from family and friends. In June 2017, we hosted our first TrapSoul Yoga. We found a yoga teacher, rented a yoga studio, and invited every womxn of colour we knew. We ensured that the experience would make attendees feel like they belonged from the moment they walked in. It was magical and that same summer, we expanded to Toronto. Fast forward to today, [and] we now offer a wide range of experiences in wellness, which include a walking club, yoga, meditation, and conversations in both cities. This year, we’ll also host our very first retreat.

What do you consider to have been the most difficult challenges? And what do you see as the biggest challenge currently?

One of our biggest challenges is making sure we take care of ourselves. For the moment, we work on The Villij part-time. So, between having full-time jobs, completing a Masters, and having families, life can easily get a little crazy. And while we find joy in holding spaces for our community, we sometimes forget to do the same for ourselves. Now that our team is growing, we’re looking forward to creating a better balance.

We’re also working on expanding our networks. Starting out, we did not know people the wellness industry and that at times, felt very limiting. For a long time, we struggled with asking for help. We had great ideas but had no idea how to execute them. As of now, we’re much more confident and will continue to knock on doors.

"Our community deserves access to spaces and services that ameliorate their mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, and financial well-being. The wellness industry has a serious responsibility to uphold this for everyone"

The wellness industry boasts a legacy of being predominantly white-dominated, especially as “wellness” has morphed into a capitalist buzzword. What were some of the barriers you noticed within the wellness community? And how have those barriers prevented access to care?

Wellness is marketed as something expensive and out of reach for marginalized communities. In North America, the industry caters to the white, upper-class audience. And that doesn’t sit well with us. We can’t afford therapy at $200 a session or $300 monthly yoga memberships. In addition to this, no one in these spaces looks like us. Where are the POC facilitators and professionals? We know that they exist. But often, they aren’t awarded a seat at the table.

Our community deserves access to spaces and services that ameliorate their mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, and financial well-being. The wellness industry has a serious responsibility to uphold this for everyone. It takes allyship to change the narrative. We work with wonderful allies who believe in our vision and continuously open doors for us. Without this support and understanding, wellness for all cannot be achieved. 

Photo courtesy of TruCreates.

What do you see for the future of diversity within the wellness sphere? How do you think safe spaces will play a part in it?

We would love to see wellness practices completely normalized in POC communities. For now, this may be seen as a trend, but we know it’s so much more than that. Wellness has always played a massive role in our lineage as people of colour. We are only returning to our true selves. We believe that there will be many more healing spaces dedicated to us, which are necessary to help address the generational traumas in our community.

"We would love to see wellness practices completely normalized in POC communities. For now, this may be seen as a trend, but we know it’s so much more than that"

How do you define wellness?

For us, wellness is a journey to self-connection. We believe it is personal and intimate. It can be seen almost like a romantic relationship. It can be loving and nurturing, but it can also be exhausting while going through the process of discovery. Just like anything, it takes patience. We have to be willing to do the work to define what it means to us personally.

How has transparency played a part in creating and sustaining the community? What have you learned about yourself as people and as founders?

From day one, we have shown up as ourselves and this allows others to do the same. Like everyone else, we are figuring things out day by day. We’ve learned that being brave is one of our best attributes. Knowing that we don’t always have the answer, we ask for help. This reminds us that we need each other, and that nothing worth doing is achieved alone.

Photo courtesy of TruCreates. 

How has your approach to relationships within The Villij community grown since it began? How do you remain open to expanding and growing and learning? 

We stay close to our community, we ask them about their needs, and we nurture genuine relationships. Throughout this journey, we’ve fostered so many beautiful friendships with attendees from our experiences. As individuals and founders, we need that. We need to connect through shared experiences on a deep level. This is what inspires us to create and step back into our best selves. This year, we decided on the theme of expansion because it was time for us to grow and transform, with no holding back. This is our intention for the community and for ourselves.

You also recently won ByBlacks 2019 People’s Choice Award for Best Community Health Organization. Congrats! What’s surprised you most about the reception to The Villij? Or maybe more specifically: what’s surprised you most about what The Villij has become in general?

This is exactly what we created The Villij to be: a supportive community that encourages healing. We’ve had our fair share of experiences attending spaces meant to do the same, and realized that it actually did the opposite. The connection between organizers and attendees was missing. So, it’s really nice to see that after two years of service, our community stands behind us and values our authenticity. 

You’ve [also] cited 2020 as being the year of expansion. How are you planning to expand? And how important to wellness is the willingness to expand?

Expansion means everything to us, currently. It serves as a reminder to not only strive towards growth, but to do so without hesitation. We’re exploring what it means to fully experience joy, connection, and healing, while letting go of the self-doubt and the fear of being uncomfortable.

For us, wellness and expansion go hand-in-hand. The practice of being well requires us to do the work and show up for ourselves. Whether it be through therapy or physical activity, we know we can achieve our goals if we’re willing to go through those difficult days.


Header image courtesy of Kenya Meon.

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