Helping activists and the formerly incarcerated take care of their mental, physical and spiritual health

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When Devon Adams got out of a Washington State prison after 22 years, he hit the ground running.

Toward the end of his stint, he’d begun working with a local restorative justice group. When he got out, the organization offered him a full-time job as a grant manager, a role he took on despite having no previous experience. When he wasn’t playing catch-up at work, he spent his time trying to rebuild family relationships that had been shattered when he went to prison at the age of 20. Grappling with trauma he’d experienced as a child – and the toxic residue of two decades behind bars – took a back seat.

But every Friday between 9 and 10 a.m., Adams takes time to stop and look inward. Over Zoom, he meets with Emani Davis, founder and director of the Omowale Project, a new nonprofit that aims to support Black and brown activists who have been upended by incarceration, as Davis was throughout her father’s 24-year imprisonment.

Devon Adams spent 22 years in prison and when he got out, he went to work for movement organizations. Now, with help from Emani Davis, he is learning how to avoid burnout and care for himself. Photo courtesy Devon Adams.

“When I was in prison my main thing was survival. I had to guard myself from vulnerability and emotion,” Adams said. In his weekly sessions with Davis, he is able to let his guard down and grapple with issues that are often wrapped in silence – “shame, guilt, lack of confidence, and figuring out where do I fit in in this world?”

Davis helps Adams navigate the challenges of starting anew. She takes his calls when he’s had an argument with a family member. She also pushes him to take care of his mental, physical and spiritual health – something that does not come easily to activists who are focused on changing the world around them.

Adams is generally willing to go where Davis takes him, even when her advice feels unfamiliar. He has created an altar centered around photographs of family members, for example, and goes there each morning to meditate and breathe. 

“There have also been times when we’ve had conversations and she’s like, ‘You chose this life before you were born,’” he said, laughing affectionately, “and I’m like ‘What?!’”

“But I’d tried all these other things” without success, he said, “and I was just in that place where I was willing to try whatever.”

Emani Davis as a child with her mother, Elizabeth Gaynes, and father, Jomo Omowale. Photo courtesy Emani Davis.

Davis grew up at the nexus of activism and trauma. Her father, Jomo Omowale, was a Black Panther leader inside the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York during the 1971 uprising. Her mother, Elizabeth Gaynes, met her future husband when she was a law student assisting the Attica defendants. Gaynes went on to spend her career running the Osborne Association, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of people currently or formerly incarcerated.

Davis spent her teens and early twenties advocating for children of imprisoned parents, believing that work would help assuage her own pain. At 14, she was speaking around the country. By 18, she was leading parenting classes inside prisons. At 25, she and her mother were the first Americans to win the World’s Children’s Honorary Award for the Rights of the Child from the World’s Children’s Prize.

And by 26, she was done with public speaking – physically exhausted and emotionally depleted by reliving the most traumatic events of her life over and over at podiums around the world.

Born in the pandemic

Davis started the Omowale Project in the darkest days of 2020 as a way to offer respite and healing to activists. At the time, the COVID-19 pandemic had collided with a series of high-profile killings of Black people – Ahmaud Arbery in February; Breonna Taylor in March; George Floyd in May – and activists and others poured into the streets.

Protest in Minneapolis on May 26, 2020, the day following the murder of George Floyd. Photo: Justin Berken, Shutterstock.

“People were not sleeping, not hydrating, hypervigilant, running on cortisol poisoning,” Davis said. “We respond this way because we have to, but this time we were in a global pandemic.”

She watched people she had grown up with throw themselves into organizing even as COVID was killing their family members, and she “crumbled into grief” at the knowledge of the toll their work would take on them, Davis recalled. “What became very clear for me was how deeply traumatic this movement was to those who were called to serve.”

Healing, like trauma, is stored in the body, but for Black and brown people, the world has taught us that our bodies are not safe – from forced labor, from forced imprisonment, from brutality and murder.”

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Davis named the Omowale Project for her father, whose middle name is the Yoruban word for “the child has come home.” She offers individual sessions that introduce participants to personalized practices of self-nurturance and group gatherings that include ritual rest and access to healers of different sorts.

“For directly affected BIPOC leaders to lead, they must experience in real life what they are trying to create in the world,” Davis said. “I want everyone I know to embrace the idea that us caring for ourselves is part of us caring for this movement.”

While many of her clients refer to her as a healer, Davis is ambivalent about that designation. Instead, she sees her work as helping clients unlock their bodies’ own inherent healing powers.

Emani Davis speaks at an annual Galaxy Gives gathering in Miami Beach in July 2022. Photo courtesy Emani Davis

Trained as a massage therapist, health educator, and death doula who has guided dozens of terminally ill people through the end of their lives, Davis launched the Omowale Project as a means of encouraging other activists – particularly those who have experienced incarceration – to extend the same care to themselves that they do to others.

“Healing, like trauma, is stored in the body, but for Black- and brown-bodied people, the world has taught us that our bodies are not safe – not safe from forced labor, not safe from forced imprisonment, not safe from brutality and murder,” Davis said. “In our commitment to restore the bodily integrity that we deserve, our work integrates the wisdom of our ancestors with practices that rewire our brains to foster sensation renewal – bringing feeling awareness back to the body.”

Because most participants have spent years or decades in prison, Davis adapts her practices to accommodate the lasting effects of that experience. Many of her clients are so accustomed to hypervigilance they are unable to close their eyes in the presence of other people. So she teaches walking meditation rather than the traditional seated style.

“Whether it’s somatics or cognitive behavioral therapy, I always ask myself how I need to modify this so it will feel safe for the people in my community,” she said. “How would I explain something to members of my family? How would I need to phrase it so they actually feel inspired and engaged – or at least like I’m not tripping?”

For clients like Adams, Davis’s proximity to the experience of incarceration is central to building trust.

Davis with her father as a young girl. Photo courtesy Emani Davis

Previous efforts to seek help dealing with trauma left him wary of traditional psychotherapy, Adams said. As a child, he was diagnosed with PTSD, given a prescription and sent on his way. When he sought therapy in prison, his request was denied. He searched for insight into his own motivations and actions through reading, “but that’s like taking a correspondence course,” he said. “You need to engage with another human being and figure out what works and what doesn’t work and get feedback in real time.”

Omowale’s work is built around 90 minute “shift sessions” intended to help participants develop personalized plans for self-nurturance and healing. Like much of Davis’s work, this practice is drawn from her own experience as the child of an incarcerated father whom she was able to see only within the confines of the prison visiting room.

“My life was created in visit moments and the click of the doors,” she said. “We learned to pull as much joy from one another as we could in short, controlled times.”

The promise and pitfalls of “lived experience”

Former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, whose parents were imprisoned throughout his childhood, met Davis when he was 14 years old and joined her in speaking out for the rights of children of incarcerated parents. His parent were members of the 1960s radical group the Weather Underground and served life sentences for their role in the attempted robbery of a Brinks truck that left two police officers and a security guard dead. Davis and Boudin often found themselves at conferences where they were the only voices of experience.

Chesa Boudin during a visit to his father, David Gilbert, in a New York state prison. Photo courtesy Chesa Boudin

Both of them recognized “an element of us being tokenized and exploited by different groups,” Boudin said, “but we were out there to fight for things that we really believed would improve the lives of other children. We came together around a common cause, which was this need to turn our trauma into something that could prevent it for others or help those who had experienced it to heal.”

“Even as we were partners in the process,” he added, Davis “always leaned into supporting me.”

When he and Davis began speaking publicly in the 1990s, Boudin said, the voices of people who were personally impacted were routinely ignored. Today, “lived experience” has gone from afterthought to buzzword.

“The movement has lionized ‘credible messengers’ and ‘directly impacted’ leaders, giving them microphones and access to resources,” Davis said. But people who are speaking from their trauma need support, not just a platform. This is where the Omowale Project comes in. Increasingly, nonprofits and foundations are engaging the organization to work with formerly incarcerated staff or grantees through workshops as well as one-on-one sessions.

Emani Davis and Chesa Boudin at one of their many public engagements, speaking up for the rights of children whose parents were incarcerated. Photo courtesy Chesa Boudin.

She’s creating a support system for people who are out there on the front lines, turning their experiences into positive policy yet often not taking care of themselves.”

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Boudin is grateful to see Davis offering others a version of the support she provided him as a teenager.

Emani Davis and Chesa Boudin. Photo courtesy Chesa Boudin.

While the newfound interest in lived experience represents progress, “we’ve done it in ways that often ignore the real of trauma of telling these very personal stories,” Boudin said. “You think ‘I can keep muscling through it.’ Some people can and other people can’t but most people shouldn’t even if they can. That’s what’s so critical about Emani’s work. She’s creating a support system for people who are out there on the front lines, turning their experiences into positive policy yet often not taking care of themselves.”

Hard-won lessons

From a quiet, clutter-free office in her Richmond, Calif. home, Davis works remotely with clients around the country. The room is filled with photos and talismans of her family history – a red and gold copy of her father’s Quran, a stuffed black panther wearing a wreath of beads that reads “OMOWALE,”  a hand-tooled leather wallet a friend made for her father in prison. Her 12-year-old daughter’s colorful clay pots share space with a jar of hand-picked cotton from the Davis family’s land in North Carolina.

In one framed photo, a 3-year-old Davis naps in her sleeping father’s embrace. In another, he hoists her in the air beside the low fence of the Virginia prison farm where he spent much of her childhood.

After 24 years in prison, Davis’s father was paroled in 2010. Before he died in 2017, Davis spent 18 months caring for him, an experience that inspired her to train as a death doula and today informs much of her work.

“My dad taught me the hard way what it’s like after you’ve been in prison,” she said. Once, she woke him from a nightmare and he reflexively kicked her across the room. After a quarter century of being conditioned to see “lights out” as a time of danger, it wasn’t easy to unlearn his hypervigilance. In the meantime, he handed her a broom and instructed her to poke him from a safe distance the next time she needed to wake him.

Today, she incorporates workshops on rest and sleep into her work with formerly incarcerated activists.

For some social justice organizations, Davis organizes “rest events,” like this one in New York in June, 2022. She directs people to lie down and rest for 60 to 90 minutes. The idea was adapted from the practice of ritual napping, drawn from the work of Tricia Hersey, founder of The Nap Ministry. It especially helps people who emerge from prison and join the movement to end mass incarceration – “potentially the most exhausted group of humans on earth,” Davis says. Photos courtesy Emani Davis

She adapted the practice of ritual napping, drawn from the work of Tricia Hersey, founder of The Nap Ministry, to the needs of people who emerge from prison and join the movement to end mass incarceration – “potentially the most exhausted group of humans on earth,” Davis said.

During the pandemic, Davis would get on FaceTime with an insomniac client and have them secure their house so they were certain no one could enter. Then she’d position the phone so that she could watch over them and take them through a guided meditation. Many would ask her to stay on the phone until they fell asleep.

“Can I tell you how fast they were snoring?” she asked with visible affection. “Like 35 seconds.”

This movement should be led by the most healed among us, not just the most harmed.”

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At a recent in-person workshop hosted by the Ford Foundation’s Art for Justice Fund, which supports Davis’s work, a man who was sentenced as a teenager and spent 20 years in prison told her that he never slept and never felt tired. She had him lie down on a mat in a room full of other nappers and placed her hand behind his neck. He was asleep within a minute, until she woke him up 30 minutes later.,“People were hungry for it,” said Helena Huang, project director for the Art for Justice Fund. “Some were crying and having this kind of cathartic release. It was very powerful.”

Healing-centered work like Davis’s is valuable to anyone involved in movement work, said Huang, but is essential for those who have spent years or decades in prison and are now finding themselves in leadership positions.

The Omowale Project comes at a moment when “there’s finally an acknowledgment that untreated trauma limits people’s potential to take care of themselves and each other and build healthy, effective and sustainable movements,” Huang said.  “Emani, because of her life experience, is at the center of this growing consciousness.”

Holding hope

Conversations with Davis are interrupted by emergency calls and texts from clients. Sometimes it is Adams, asking how he can help a colleague understand that he is “more than my lived experience.” Sometimes it is a parent who has recently lost a child to violence. Sometimes it is civil rights attorney Jill Collen Jefferson.

Davis on a visit with her father in prison in 2007. Photo courtesy Emani Davis

Jefferson is engaged in one of the most emotionally draining tasks imaginable: investigating modern day lynchings in her home state of Mississippi. Julian, the organization she founded and named for her mentor, civil rights leader Julian Bond, draws its inspiration from Jefferson’s own experience growing up in Jones County, Mississippi, a historic epicenter for the Ku Klux Klan.

For years, she said, “I saw myself as not even being in this life for myself, but that I’m alive because I am supposed to do this work. My own feelings, my own well-being came second.”

At the same time, she acknowledged, “The work is traumatic. You have to hold hope in situations where people don’t have hope. You have to read autopsy reports and police reports and constantly see the worst of humanity. That takes a toll.”

Before a funder connected her with Davis, Jefferson said, she put her health and well-being last so she could focus on her work.

“My thing was ‘Show this family love, show this family dignity, solve this case, do the best work possible.’” Jefferson says. “I knew that I was emotionally invested in the cases, but I didn’t know that those emotions were causing a lot of the trauma that I was feeling.”

For Jefferson, learning to prioritize her own needs is still a work-in-process. She goes to the doctor now. She drinks more water. And thanks to Davis, she’s learning to see her body as something more than a “machine” whose function is to support her work.

“I don’t see her as a therapist,” she said. “She comes from an emotional level, a spiritual level, that connects with a really deep part of my being.” Davis understands her clients. “What I know about this movement is that we’ve decided that we don’t have time to rest, we don’t have time to care for ourselves,” she said. “There’s this sense of urgency and nobody slows down.”

But Davis preaches rest, not acquiescence. She is shoring up her comrades to continue the fight

“Of course, I want to get to the end result, which is that folks are fully free. But we have the right and the responsibility to serve from our overflow and not from our traumas.”

“This movement should be led by the most healed among us,” Davis said, “not just the most harmed.”

Support for this story and the Solutions Lab was provided by the National Institute for Health Care Management.

Correction: This story has been updated to note, in the 10th paragraph, that Emani Davis was the first American, not the youngest person, to be honored by the World’s Children’s Prize.

Type of work:

Berkeley-based journalist Nell Bernstein is the author of “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison.” She is working on a new book about the movement to close youth prisons.