Gail Rosenblum
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Years ago, when the medical community asked why so many Black babies were dying, Atum Azzahir asked a different question: Why are some babies living, even thriving, despite poverty, health care disparities and other challenges? Azzahir already knew the answer but she set forth to prove it. For nearly 25 years, Azzahir, lovingly called Elder Atum, has been executive director of the Cultural Wellness Center. The Minneapolis center partners with counties and health care providers to tap into the resiliency of the Black community to improve health and financial stability. In 2021, the center will launch a new collaboration drawing on the wisdom of community elders, known as “soul medicine.”

Q: Soul medicine: How do you describe it?

A: In short, soul medicine is reconnection to the wisdom of Black culture and thought. It’s rooted in African ways of thinking and being. In African tradition, many people studied the journey of the soul. Take soul food; you immediately think about Black people. Soul music? You know when you put it on, no one can sit still. Soul mates are people you connect with at such a deep level. That’s what soul medicine is like.

Q: And its efficacy is backed up by research.

A: Our research shows that the more social cohesion and social support a person has, the healthier they are. You must have community to be healthy and well. Every area of development, from health care to economics, will be richer with the inclusion of soul medicine. We see soul medicine as an extension of our work with entrepreneurs as co-owners of the Midtown Global Market.

Q: How might soul medicine look in practice?

A: Let’s go back to 1994 when, with funding from Medica and Allina Health Foundation, we researched why a number of babies lived. We found that babies born in ways that honored African cultural traditions, such as doulas, birthing teams, elder guides and breastfeeding, thrived.

Q: So, it’s the antidote to what you call the “People’s Theory of Sickness”?

A: We believe that individualism, the loss of culture and community, makes us sick. We’re seeing it in the Black community in increasing rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, food insecurity, homelessness, drug addiction, domestic violence. On top of that, we’re dealing with COVID-19 and George Floyd’s killing. We are grieving, mourning and looking for ways to heal. Reclaiming culture through soul medicine is a path to health and healing.

Q: There is healing for the healers as well, I’m guessing.

A: We see soul medicine as an example of mutual aid in community health promotion. While our elders and community healers provide much-needed guidance and support, they also find purpose in their work.

Q: You’ll be partnering with Allina Health and Medica Foundation on this project for about one year. What do you hope to accomplish?

A: We’re documenting now what soul medicine looks like and specifically how our soul medics will provide guidance and support. This is largely experientially based. Elders will be called upon to listen to community members without judgment, hold people’s hands; in some cases, you may hear an elder teaching something that sounds like Black history, but it’s really the story of the elder showing an example of resiliency. If people are in mourning, we make it clear there is a place and space to cry it out. We listen and set the tone. When we’re not in a global pandemic, we’ll be hugging, too.

Q: Will the elders be paid?

A: Currently, our work as soul medics is uncompensated as it lies outside of traditional medicine. The Medica Foundation gave us a grant to develop curriculum and training, and to expand our circle of elders. The purpose of the grant is to position us to secure reimbursement to provide income to Black elders and healers.

Q: How did you find your way to this work?

A: Being 77 years old gives me a lot to try to remember. I grew up in the Jim Crow South. How was it possible for both my mother and my father to be so happy, to have so much energy and spirit, despite the atrocities leveled at them and others? Despite a legal and judicial and even media system that denied their humanity so vehemently? How did they have such strong faith in survival and in making it through? The Cultural Wellness Center is my dedication to a life that really started in the Mississippi Delta where there was just so much to try to understand.

Q: What do you hope to be able to say about this effort a year from now?

A: Looking back on 2020, there has been so much to occupy our minds. What’s soul medicine a year from now? I would like to have a space — physical, psychological and spiritual — where people will come with intention to understand and learn the wisdom of the soul. We will have classes filled with parents, teens and elders. We will have doctors and nurses and therapists wanting to come to our classes. I’m grateful that many people are looking at racism and white supremacy as a health crisis, but I’m even more grateful that there are so many people who now can claim their own cultural identity and way of being. Culture matters — over time and across generations.