Mental Health Equity

Social Entrepreneur Spotlight: Farah Tanis of Black Women’s Blueprint

March 20, 2024

Black Women’s Blueprint, part of New Profit’s Mental Health Equity Catalyze Cohort of Social Entrepreneurs, provides health and holistic healing programs. These initiatives encourage individuals to heal within their historical, cultural, and political contexts, empowering them to embrace their full selves. They serve as a lifeline for survivors of gender-based violence and offer birth education and holistic care for maternal health needs.

To help us get closer to Black Women’s Blueprint’s work, CEO and Founder Farah Tanis took the time to share insights into the interconnectedness of mental health with issues of racial justice and land justice. Drawing from her own experiences with mental health, she sheds light on how these dynamics shape and inform her work.

Q: What is the one thing you wish more people knew about the issue your organization is working to solve?

A: I wish more people understood that the struggle to restore individual and communal mental health is intertwined with racial justice and land justice issues. For Black and Indigenous peoples, spiritual and sacred connection to the land is central to identity, wellness, and sense of belonging. 

As Black women connect with their roots and reclaim their legacy of labor, deep care, and love for their ancestral lands as well as the lands on which they plant their feet today, what resonates is the protective living relationship land provides— holistic food and herbal medicine which prevent, delay, deter and alleviate mental decline and even psychosis, as well as access to green and blue space.

Evidence connects access and engagement with nature to improved cognitive function and brain activity, mood and sleep, and the potentially long-term positive effects on depression, anxiety, and other chronic health and mental health issues. An investment in these types of interventions can solve all the societal problems that derive from people’s experiences of mental illness. We have to end our overreliance on medication and short-term solutions like psychiatric hospitalization and fund more long-term and more sustainable solutions linked to access to land-based interventions for those most impacted by mental illness.

Q: Can you reflect on a moment from your life that shaped who you are today? What about this moment brought about the most impact on your career?

A: My life has been shaped, of course, by my childhood. Both my parents struggled with mental illness (mother and father). There is of course the story of my mother’s suicidality which led me to my social work and post-graduate certification as a family therapist, however I have another experience that I have started to write about which led me to see land and nature and ancestral connection as the way forward for those of us who’ve experienced mental illness as well as those constantly pushed to the brink of mental break.

It was 2020, right before the pandemic shut-downs, that one day I looked in the mirror at my face, and I burst into tears.  I noticed for the first time I had begun to lose my hair from stress and did not realize it. My skin was blotchy, my nails were brittle, and my eyes were not as bright, I had changed. In the mirror that day, I saw myself for the first time in over a decade. I had neglected myself physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

I was recovering from a relationship with a covert narcissist whose love language was acts of service in public, so no one could see my suffering inside of that dynamic, and I was being drained of all of my essence and all my will for self-care to the point I almost became non-existent to me and completely dissociated. I was a shell of myself.  

This was superimposed on other suppressed trauma from violence I endured in my childhood and my youth, but I was at the helm of a badass survivor-led, survivor-organizing and mobilizing organization, I thought I could not appear weak and I could not appear like I was struggling myself. I thought I had to be healed already. 

For a few years now, I had already been pulling disappearing acts like taking the Amtrak cross country from New York to California and back. True story. I took the train 5 days to and from California and New York, just so I could have a moment to myself.  I believe I was careening towards death and what’s worse, I heard my story repeated back to me again and again, from the mouths of several leaders in my field, and it was their story, but it was also my story as well. I was not doing well. We were not doing well. My soul was the war-torn landscape that needed to recover. 

The road to recovering my whole self and summoning all parts of myself began with a journey to be in reconciliation with my ancestors. In February of 2020, I traveled to Benin, West Africa in search of the possibility of wholeness and I stepped into a moment we’ve all been yearning for— the moment when our hearts are so opened that humanity fills us; the moment when our eyes are so opened by love and suffering, that the heart of the world fills us. 

I was in Africa for ritual and for connection with the Earth which I believed could heal and restore me. Finally in ritual in Benin, as I stood at the edge of the ocean — never before had I been so in touch with my own skin. 

Bruised and battered, I realized that our work, our insecure partners, toxic friends, systemic oppression, violence, racism, and patriarchy, had been draining me/us. We were four years into a presidency that had torn the wool from our eyes and revealed the fissures in our so-called alliances. The world was at war. The world was on fire. The shutdown was imminent. Now more than ever, we needed an awakening. 

For me, before that night in Benin, whether I chose to acknowledge it or not, I knew that we as a people, as a movement, were estranged from ourselves and each other, as well as the communities we serve.

I went to Benin for a ritual to find myself and bury my wedding ring, which began simply enough. I had walked what seemed like four city blocks through Benin soil toward the ocean. I had flown even further, thousands of miles to be there. The mixture of heat and cool ocean spray hit my face and I was shaking, I was trembling, I was naked, with a young man in a white flowy dress digging a hole in the ground at my feet. 

I decided at that moment that I would step into the possibility of ritual and ceremony that reconciled me to my ancestral practices. I relaxed my shoulders. “hmmmmm” the elder at the edge of the ocean who would be my spiritual mother began to hum. I listened, and I did as she said. 

So in this ritual, she cracked an egg at the nape of my neck and rubbed the yolk all over my body, letting the shells run down to my feet and into the hole dug by the young man in the flowy white dress, he had dug this hole in which I was now standing almost knee deep, in the ground.

I was purposeful and acted of my own volition, as I stripped myself naked in ritual, physically and metaphorically. I had to set aside what I believed was the right way to do the work of liberation. A volitional move for me, as I was searching, realigning my energies, my intentions, my worldview, my disappointments, my struggles, my opinions about myself, about others and my relationships to them, about my wants, and facing the ocean, with-my-eyes-sealed-shut, I actually began to see everything I needed to see. In ritual, I began to see.

So there, on the shores of Benin, “hmmmm” this time it was me humming. I prayed, I sang, I swayed. I asked for the strength I needed to do what I knew had to be done, and then I felt it—my grandmother’s hand was heavy on my shoulder and she swayed with me, and behind her, my great-grandmother swayed with her, and behind her, my great great grandmother swayed with her. With her and with me. We swayed together as I imagined these foremothers reached as far back to where life began, before this life, before this time, before this day, and I was broken open by grief and the knowing that how I grieved right then! would foretell how I would relearn the world. 

I came back to the U.S. and led a group of women, my entire organization, and community to acquire and with our Indigenous sibling co-steward 300 acres of land.

Q: What has been the most fulfilling part of the work you do?

A: The most fulfilling part of the work for me has been seeing the most broken and symptomatic individuals return and restore themselves to states of peace and belonging and even hope and joy at our tiny farm, on the land. One particular young woman who spent several days with us in ‘intensive restorative intervention’ was able to articulate her trauma as something for which she was not to blame; able to demonstrate improved reality testing; suicidal ideation was eliminated and even her physical symptoms of chronic pain disappeared by the end of her stay with us.

Q: If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about your organization, what would it be?

A: Black Women’s Blueprint would have secured the funding and resources to ensure every suffering person has access to life-giving and healing land.