As part of the Black Women’s Project, The Maya Centre offers Emotional emancipation circles designed to explore and overcome the unique challenges Black women face
21 November 2023
By Hannah Uguru
An emotional emancipation circle (EEC) is a psychoeducational space for Black women to understand the role of cultural values specific to the Black diaspora in their emotional wellbeing and mental health. In January 2023, The Maya Centre launched a series of EECs as part of our expansion of the Black Women’s Project (BWP), which was formerly the Black Women’s Therapy Group. Our development of specialist mental health services for Black women comes thanks to funding from Cloudesly with the intention of addressing health inequalities for Black women in Islington by targeting women of Black African, Black Caribbean, and Black mixed descent in Islington seeking representative, trauma-informed support on issues including abuse and violence, racism, discrimination and misogynoir. We do this not just through group therapy but also via one-to-one counselling and psychoeducational workshops. So far, we’ve reached 82 women through the BWP, delivering two EECs in nine-week cycles to 14 women in the process.
The history of emotional emancipation circles
With the powerful affirmation of ‘Defy the lie. Embrace the truth,’ the first EECs were designed by the Community Healing Network (CHN), an American organisation founded in 2006 by Black activist Enola G. Aird, to reject dehumanising narratives regarding Black people through a global network of pan-African activists and mental health practitioners. The late Black feminist scholar Maya Angelou was also integral to CHN’s formation, having been its Founding Chair of CHN’s Board of Advisors. Developed in collaboration with the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi), an EEC is “an evidence informed, psychologically sound, culturally grounded, and community-defined process, designed to help heal, and end, the trauma caused by the centuries-old lie of white superiority and Black inferiority,” according to CHN.
On 17 March 2018, A UK Association of Black Psychologists (UKABPsi) was officially launched in Birmingham “to promote psychology based on African-centred thinking and wisdoms”, bringing with it the practice of EECs to Britain. At The Maya Centre, EECs are led by BWP Co-lead Ęse Agambi and drama therapist Koya Conteh, who use both their personal and professional experiences to shape and deliver the workshops. “In 2020 and 2021, I did an EEC myself. I met Ęse on a course that we were doing on Black psychology and African-centred therapy. After that, Ęse did the EEC before moving on to facilitator training,” explains Koya.
On the EEC programmes’s relevance to The Maya Centre, Ęse, who was the driving force behind its implementation here, says, “I felt that because of how many Black women come to The Maya Centre and some of the themes that have been explored in one-to-one therapy, it would be great for us to all come together and do the emotional emancipation circle. The premise of the emotional emancipation circle is about community, healing, coming and being with each other. It’s about coming together to explore how racism and sexism impact us.”
With this in mind, Ęse details the purpose of the emotional emancipation for Black women at The Maya Centre as an opportunity to understand how to “dismantle these structures and liberate ourselves”. With over half (58%) of Black and mixed-race women presenting to the BWP with cultural issues, 80% citing loneliness and isolation, and 86% feeling low self-esteem, the EEC was a necessary initiative to address Black women-specific issues outside of individual counselling.
The difference between an emotional emancipation circle and group therapy
“The term ‘psychotherapy’ can be daunting for minoritised women, as it sometimes arrives with a sense of over-medicalisation that can be particularly triggering for those who’ve had negative experiences with mental health services in the past,” explains Melanie, our Clinical Director who oversees the BWP. “So, we introduced the EEC to explore Black women’s mental health through a socio-cultural lens that relates to everyday experiences, stripping away the psychological jargon you may find in traditional group therapy,” she concludes.
Speaking with Ęse, she explains the opening and closing process of an EEC as one rooted in cultural history. “We start with an opening recitation, where we introduce ourselves, stating our name, who we’re honouring at this time — someone older, like a parent or caregiver, and someone younger, like a child or a niece,” she says. “This exercise is about locating ourselves through our cultural and familial legacy, focusing on where we’re from, who we are now, and where we’re going. It’s about affirming our sense of community, which is the foreground for self-probing,” Koya adds.
This approach differs from what’s seen in our group therapy sessions, which focus on individual traumas in a shared space. As a broader type of therapy that addresses diverse mental health concerns outside of the experience of racism and sexism, Black womanhood acts as a connecting thread rather than the foundation of psychological exploration. This subtle yet distinct difference offers us the flexibility to be dynamic and experimental in our approach to Black women’s mental health.
Common themes identified and grappled with during our EEC sessions have been:
- Shared experiences of microaggressions that sometimes have no language to fully convey but could be understood by naming the feeling.
- Shared experiences of being both Black and a woman in places of work, education, relationships, services and wider society, evoked by harmful and dominant presentations of Black women as ‘angry’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘hyper-sexual’.
- The burden of ‘representing’ Black culture as a monoculture, negating this by embracing the diversity of Black histories and realities.
- Intergenerational trauma: how parents internalised oppression affects self-concept, conflicts within parent-daughter relationships and how women desire to parent their own children.
But to understand the results of our EECs on an individual, let’s look at Client A as a case study, an early 30s woman of East African descent. During her initial assessment, she detailed a strained family dynamic caused by childhood abuse and bearing witness to substance abuse by an older family member. This problematic early start fed into her relationship dynamics in adulthood, where she described experiencing coercive control, physical violence and sexual abuse. She also cited having difficulties at work influenced by minoritisation. “I’ve experienced racial discrimination at work, and I’m finding it difficult to find support around that,” Client A expressed in her assessment. Her main goals of partaking in an EEC were to explore the nature and influence of these personal connections in the context of her cultural and upbringing and environment and to become more empowered when discussing her history.
“Client A started her first session of the EEC with feelings of shame in her self-expression, being reserved among the group of other Black women. With further meetings, the once shy woman who hid amongst the group began to make herself at home. Client A was generous in her sharing and receptive to words of encouragement. Her wisdom was invaluable to the group. Her experiences of challenge through the racial and inappropriate sexual comments she received at her previous place of employment were unsettling, and the group generously held space for, in which she expressed her gratitude,” explains Esé.
Highlighting how lessons from the EEC have supported Client A beyond emotional wellbeing, we find that Client A used this developed self-confidence to navigate an employment tribunal concerning racial discrimination (which had not been disclosed in the initial one-to-one or group assessment sessions). “The EEC supported me by giving my experiences a language. I was able to name my feelings, leading me to trust and ground myself in my truth when giving evidence.” Ultimately, Client A felt empowered to voice her experiences at the tribunal, move through her traumatic experiences, and reclaim her power while pursuing new employment – renewing her sense of pride, self-esteem and confidence.
Client A represents just one of the 14 women we’ve helped through EECs, of whom 60% showed an improvement in their mental health after nine weeks of sessions. With the next round of EECs in early 2024, we’ll be engaging more Black women in this imaginative work that centres on culture-based discussions and healing. Donations are integral to our ability to continue with these dynamic and explorative projects focused on minoritised experiences; consider donating to be a part of our transformative work.