Humans of the Institute - Alexa
Alexa, our Wellness and Reconciliation coordinator, leads our wellness initiatives here at the Nonviolence Institute. This is no small feat considering the nature of our work and the toll it can take on our staff and clients alike. Alexa is a champion of community based care, and this makes her an essential member of our team as we think critically about how our work can potentially help close disparities in education, employment, housing and other Wellness Indicators in the long term. Learn more about Alexa, her background, and the future of Wellness at the Nonviolence Institute in her Humans of the Institute interview below.
A.B. = Alexa Barriga, Wellness and Reconciliation coordinator
A.T. = Abigail Terry, Development VISTA
A.T.: You’ve mentioned before that you come from a large family. How did growing up with many siblings inform your perspectives about individuality?
A.B.: I do come from a large family! I was raised by two queer, first generation, Latinx, women and I am the eldest of 9. I have adopted siblings, half siblings, step siblings and among us, we share different identities- different ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religious/ spiritual beliefs, and politics. I was very lucky to grow up in a family that embraced and celebrated difference. My mother gave me and my siblings the freedom to explore and be creative with our self-expression, and pursue our interests and the things that brought us joy. That's really the type of individuality I embrace- the freedom to take pleasure in your authentic self; The ability to follow your curiosities, pursue your interests, be yourself without pressure to conform or fear of disapproval, discrimination, or harm.
I think individualism becomes toxic when we start assigning less or more value to different kinds of people and when we use it as a reason to distance ourselves from others, the community, and the environment. We are all very interrelated- we are constantly being influenced and shaped by each other, by systems and arrangements, by the environment all the time. I think our ability to not just survive, but to thrive really depends on how we can care for each other.
Community and family are two of the most important things to me and what I am learning now, is that when we are able to be present as our true selves, and are able to celebrate, trust and commit to each other despite differences, we are better able to serve and build a community that can in turn serve and more fully hold us.
A.T.: Your bio on the website mentions your “mother’s and grandmother’s history of community engagement”, could you talk a little more about that?
A.B.: My grandmother on my mom's side came to the U.S from Colombia when she was 19. For the past 40 years she has been doing immigration work in New York City- supporting asylum seekers, protecting the rights of Latino immigrants, and assisting them in getting their citizenship and ensuring they have access to benefits they need to survive. I grew up watching my grandmother fight for and support many victims of violence, single moms, and families.
My mother was also very engaged in her community. When we were young, our family found a home at a Gay Affirming Christian church in Los Angeles, California where I grew up. My family was very involved with the church and our church was very active in our community- especially in fighting for gay rights and marriage equality in the early 2000s. I remember my mom attending protests and rallies sometimes bringing us along, sometimes not. This definitely shaped my commitment to community.
A.T.: There are so many awesome organizations doing great work in RI. What about the Nonviolence Institute stood out to you when you first moved out here?
A.B.: I knew that I wanted to be organizing and supporting communities of color seeking to build more equitable, healthier, and safer conditions for Black and brown folks. When I was in High school I did this really amazing immersion course that took me to Homeboy Industries - which is an organization in East LA that provides hope and training to formerly incarcerated people and folks involved in gang violence, and supports them on their healing journeys. The work at the Nonviolence Institute is very similar and I was inspired by NVI’s vision of compassion and transformation. One of the things that sets The Nonviolence Institute apart from other organizations, is our lived experiences and our diversity. Most of our staff have intimate knowledge and experience with street violence and the criminal justice system. It is a different kind of work to be building solutions with those most impacted in our community as opposed to for those in the community.
A.T.: How has your academic knowledge about the ways social and economic status shape physical and psychological health informed your goals for the future of Wellness at the Nonviolence Institute?
A.B.: The short answer is that we all deserve the right to live healthy, safe, dignified and fulfilling lives. Everyone should have access to health and healing, regardless of who you are. Unfortunately we live in a country where white supremacy, patriarchy, and other systems of oppression shape what we do and do not have access to, as well as assumptions we have about each other. We can see evidence of this in disparities in healthcare, education, income & employment, housing and other areas that are important indicators of Wellness. Things like shame and “othering” result in isolation- which is a real problem for people.
For Wellness at the Institute, I try to offer opportunities and practices that promote solidarity by deepening our relationships to each other- with staff, clients, and the larger community. Ensuring that staff is being nourished and practicing compassion towards themselves so that they can continue nourishing and showing compassion towards the community, is critical to the sustainability of this work. One specific thing I am excited about is developing a Trauma Informed Care (TIC) approach to how we do service work and integrating TIC principles into the Institute's practices. This means boosting our organizational understanding of how Trauma affects our bodies, minds, and ways of relating and integrating that knowledge into how we do the work.
A.T.: Do you believe people hold any misconceptions about wellness? If so, what?
A.B.: Yes, and for good reason. I think for the most part, the Wellness and commercial self-care industry has done a good job of being pretty inaccessible and not altogether helpful. For one- it’s expensive. How many people can just decide, let alone afford, to go on vacation whenever they feel stressed or overwhelmed? Or go out and get a massage? Buy something nice that makes them feel good? Drop all of their responsibilities for a few days? A lot of the Wellness work I see is so individualized and often expensive. It involves separating from the community, recharging, coming back and doing it all over again. But that doesn’t seem very sustainable to me. When Wellness has the goal of maintaining conditions that lead to burn-out, it's not really working in the interests of workers and actual people. There is an image that comes up for people when they hear Wellness in the workplace and a common response is like- that's not for me, that can’t address what I’m struggling with. There is also a lot of appropriation that stops people from accessing healing and wellness spaces that I could go into, but won’t right now.
The kind of Wellness work I’ve been taught and that I hope to bring to people is really rooted in community care, in the histories of where we come from, in our capacities to love each other, and in creating conditions for transformation.
A.T.: Do you think the different genders have different relationships with wellness? Is the journey universal? Or do you think each is unique?
A.B.: Feeling safe, feeling like you belong, living a dignified life, being able to access pleasure and fulfillment, having agency- these are all things we need to feel well. I’m really interested in Health equity which is about ensuring that all people have access to the tools, strategies and support they need to obtain Health and Wellness. We are all at different places and I think each person has their own, unique relationship and needs regarding their wellness. When it comes to gender specifically, Trans and gender non-conforming people face a specific kind of oppression that makes it harder to access the tools and resources they need to support their health and wellbeing. There is certainly a need for better and more providers, educators, and support systems for Trans and gender non conforming folks.
A.T.: What advice do you have for people who struggle with finding time for- or even finding value in- being Mindful?
A.B.: Being mindful (in how we practice it in the US and at The Nonviolence Institute) is just the practice of being with the present moment without judgment, a kind of attention training that strengthens our awareness and that has a ton of health benefits. But Mindfulness practices are not for everyone. What's more important, I think, is that people prioritize and find ways to practice self-compassion, develop routines of slowing down, checking in with themselves, showing themselves kindness, investing in their own healing. I hear a lot of people say (including my own family) that they don’t have time, think it’s a waste of time, and/or feel guilty about practicing self-care. But like Nonviolence teaches us, building the Healthy Beloved Community starts with the self. We have to commit to personal transformation so that we can do the work with others, and so that the work is done collectively.