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Naj Austin    

Naj Austin

BY MEADOWLARK MONAGHAN

HI NAJ! FIRST OF ALL, AS SOMEONE WHO DEDICATES THEIR WORK TO CREATING WELLNESS SPACES FOR OTHERS, HOW ARE YOU DOING RIGHT NOW?

I’m taking it day by day. Some days are more difficult than others, but I remind myself that I have my health, my family is safe and I get to wake up everyday doing something I love while providing for my community. I have taken the last few months as an opportunity to try and focus on my mental health through creating intentional daily rituals that ground me.

YOU'RE CLEARLY PASSIONATE ABOUT CREATING SPACES AND COMMUNITIES WITH ETHEL'S CLUB. IT SEEMS TO ME LIKE ANYONE THAT GETS INTO WELLNESS OR COMMUNITY SPACES USUALLY DOES SO BECAUSE WE'RE COMING FROM A PLACE OF LIVED EXPERIENCE (TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE). WHAT HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH MENTAL HEALTH BEEN LIKE? WHAT EXPERIENCES BROUGHT YOU TO CARVE OUT AND CREATE YOUR OWN COMMUNITY?

Before I started Ethel’s Club I had so much trouble navigating the mental health and wellness world. It seemed mainly white, expensive, out of touch and not designed with me in mind. In late 2018, I started the journey of looking for a Black female therapist in NYC and it felt impossible. I wondered why there wasn’t a place you could go to connect with practitioners of color and learn more about wellness and mental health in group settings. Nine months later, that became Ethel’s Club, a social and wellness club designed to center and celebrate people of color. Our clubhouse in Brooklyn, New York (while currently closed due to COVID) is home to a library, podcast studio, lounge spaces, event spaces and a wellness studio.

HOW DO YOU KEEP YOURSELF MENTALLY HEALTHY AND ENGAGED SO THAT YOU HAVE THE ENERGY TO KEEP CREATING SPACES FOR OTHERS? WHAT DO YOUR WORK-LIFE BOUNDARIES LOOK LIKE?

I’ll be honest, it’s a bit blurred. I find myself at a lot of the wellness events that we have for our members, which helps but also means I’m always at work. It’s hard to quiet my brain and it often feels like there’s something else that I could always be working on. I’m learning (slowly) how to separate myself in the evenings and make room for the inspiration and creativity I don’t always get in my day-to-day.

I'VE HEARD YOU SAY, "CONSISTENCY AND CONNECTIVITY IS THE KEY TO KEEPING EACH OTHER UPLIFTED AND EMPOWERED THROUGH THIS INTENSE TIME" AND DOES THAT RING TRUE! WHAT SPECIFICALLY DOES THIS LOOK LIKE FOR YOU RIGHT NOW?

I think it’s critical that we still feel as if we are part of a community and a larger narrative. At Ethel’s Club we make it so that you hopefully never feel alone and that genuine community is a click away. There are sub-communities inside the online clubhouse centered around music, beauty, design, writing etc. - we want to make sure that everyone can find something they’re looking for. We all need that connection whether it’s to heal, laugh, grieve or just check in on one another.

SINCE ETHEL'S CLUB PIVOTED FROM BRICK AND MORTAR TO VIRTUAL IN RESPONSE TO THE PANDEMIC, HOW DO YOU ENVISION MOVING FORWARD IN A POST PANDEMIC WORLD? HOW DO YOU THINK WE'LL SEE ONLINE COMMUNITIES GROW AND DEVELOP? WHAT DO YOU ENVISION IS THE FUTURE FOR "COMMUNITY SPACES"?

I think people will be wary about physical spaces for a while, rightfully so, and online communities will continue to grow in different pockets of the internet. We are definitely focusing on using all of our learnings from operating a physical clubhouse to create more empathetic and purposeful social connections online. How do we capture those feelings and build it into an app? 

WHAT WORK STILL NEEDS TO BE DONE IN THE WELLNESS SPACE?

I think the wellness space could use more authenticity. A world where it’s not all matcha drinks and yoga in a field of grass. Wellness is anything that makes you feel grounded, centers you and  fills you with joy. It’s also important that wellness platforms reflect identities, body types, and curl patterns that include Black people and people of color. Representation is important and marginalized communities are often left out of that conversation. 

SWITCHING GEARS A LITTLE BIT, THIS MONTH WE ARE FOCUSING ON THE WORD "ANXIETY". WHAT IS A LESSON ABOUT ANXIETY YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE WITH OTHERS?

I know everyone's anxiety journey is different and individualized. When I'm overcome with it, I lean into it and let it pass through me. I spent a lot of time fighting the anxiety when it would come, and I would still feel agitated and usually worse off after. Now, when I feel it happening, I stop, close my eyes, breathe and focus and I don't work until it feels okay to do so again. It's helped me a little more in control.

AT MADHAPPY, WE ARE DIEHARD OPTIMISTS. WE FEEL LIKE IF WE DIDN'T BELIEVE IN A BETTER FUTURE, WE WOULDN'T BE WORKING SO HARD TO CHALLENGE THE CURRENT SYSTEMS THAT AREN'T WORKING FOR US NOW. SO WITH THAT IN MIND, WHAT ARE YOU FEELING OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

I’m optimistic about the proliferation of authentic community organizing I’m seeing in Brooklyn and within online communities. Powerful change starts at a grassroots level and it’s so inspiring to see folks educate and empower one another and rally behind causes they believe in.

SPEED ROUND

FAVORITE QUARANTINE ACTIVITY?

Nintendo Switch

IF YOU COULD GIFT EVERYONE IN THE WORLD ONE BOOK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison

LAST MEAL YOU COOKED AT HOME?

Honey chipotle chicken tacos

ADMIT A GUILTY PLEASURE.

Binge watching 90 Day Fiance

LAST THING YOU SAID YES TO?

Going on a socially distant walk with my friend

LAST THING YOU SAID NO TO?

A 9PM panel - I need my rest!