Elisa Shankle Is Encouraging Her Community To Be Brave And Heal

“Vulnerability is scary. I associate bravery with vulnerability because it takes bravery to be vulnerable,” the Brooklyn wellness expert says.
Melissa Falconer for HuffPost

Elisa Shankle has experienced the power of embedding herself within a community ― and working to heal it.

She usually starts small. Someone walks into HealHaus, a multifaceted wellness space Shankle co-founded in Brooklyn, to grab a smoothie. Once they ask what’s in it, Shankle educates them on the power of adaptogens before encouraging them to try one that tends to any ailment they may have (such as anxiety).

HealHaus aims to ease black people and other marginalized folks interested in improving their mental, emotional and physical health into the wellness world and help them feel at home. Shankle and co-founder Darian Hall want people — particularly wellness first-timers — to come into their space and try something new, learn about a number of healing practices and where they originated, and, perhaps most importantly, see themselves reflected within healing.

“A lot of [healing practices], if not all of them, are from indigenous traditions and cultures,” Shankle says. “I always had a problem with how those things were presented and very appropriated.”

Shankle told me that creating a holistic space where black folks feel welcomed and safe was a “natural inclination.” Like many black women, she is reaching in deep and pulling her community up to the surface. She is acutely aware of the immense power of collective mending and how easily change can diffuse through a group of people committed to transformation.

For Women’s History Month, Shankle and I spoke in-depth about healing, community and the courage it takes to be vulnerable.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe HealHaus?

We are a wellness space, but we focus on a lot of different things. We’re not your typical wellness space. We sell medicinal teas and elixir powders that I curate with our herbalist. We’re also a yoga/meditation studio. We hold workshops. We do donation-based programming every weekend. Our efforts are really about being able to have the community come in, and we give them what we have. We focus on newcomers and we also wanna be able to give options to people who have never done this stuff before.

What we’re doing is building community around healing. Our space is very community-oriented. It’s not the type of space where you know you come and you just wanna … you don’t have to leave, you know? It’s not a get-in-and-out type of place. You can connect with people. You can build with people or create a space that feels like home.

We have a big focus on mental health, which is not what a lot of traditional wellness spaces do. We actually have therapy services. And that’s become a big component of what we are and one of the most popular private services. We try to create, to build a lot of knowledge around mental health. We try to destigmatize healing and wellness and make it accessible, fun and cool. People come in and they feel like they can be a part of this and not feel intimidated.

To go back to what you were saying about a place where people feel welcome, I really want to talk about that — especially for black women. I’m in D.C. and when I go to yoga studios, I’m often the only black person in there unless I go to a space that is specifically for black people. Tell me about the desire to create a space for people of color, for black people, to have access to all of the healing tools that you just described.

It was a natural inclination. Literally, your experience has always been my experience. I’ve been in wellness for a while and I’ve explored different spaces, and every time I went into these spaces, I really didn’t see myself reflected on the practitioner end or the clientele end. And a big component of healing is community. Who are you healing in community with?

In our space, we play hip-hop music, we play R&B, we play a range of things that cater to the collective and the community that we’re trying to get into the space. That’s really close to my heart. The black community, all these things around mental health and physical health, even just going to the doctor, just bare-bones asking for help is something that we don’t do easily within our community.

“We try to destigmatize healing and wellness and make it accessible, fun and cool.”

Another big thing for us was creating a gender-neutral space. And creating a space for men as well. We created space where, especially a black man who is not necessarily doing this work, can come in and see the reflection of who the owners are and be like, “Wait, this could be a space for me as well.”

It wasn’t just creating a space for people of color, it was creating a space that reflects my community, and that happens to be people of color. Do you know what I’m saying? It wasn’t a forced thing. I’m creating something that’s a need, I’m creating a place for marginalized folk who don’t have this — and that’s across the board from POC to women to men to trans and queer people. A lot of wellness spaces can be intimidating in the way they present themselves. Really. Healing spaces are supposed to be open spaces where you feel like, “When I come here, I’m not judged.”

Yes! I’ve been on my own health and wellness journey for about two years and it took me a while to find places where I was comfortable [trying something new]. Like a friend got me into tea in college, but at first, I was like, “Oh my God, you’re drinking tea without putting any type of sugar, any type of sweetener in it? Why are you not sweetening your tea?” And I’m from North Carolina, so you know —

Oh my God, I’m from North Carolina!

I peeped the area code. I was going to ask you. Where are you from?

I grew up outside of Charlotte. You know what’s funny? My phone rang really quickly and I saw Lexington, North Carolina. I was like, “Did I just see Lexington, North Carolina?” I didn’t ask you but I thought I saw it pop up.

It’s a small world. But, to go off that, breaking ties with Southern food culture was really difficult but transformative — and it kind of seems like HealHaus is there to help facilitate that for people.

Abso-frickin’-lutely. It can be something simple. Some people come in and they have a smoothie and they ask what’s in the smoothie. I’m telling them about alternative ingredients or I’m educating them on CBD oil because they deal with anxiety and depression. Or I’m talking to them about our medicinal teas and things that they can do for different ailments. That alone, those small things just break people into it and then they come back and ask more.

We’re here to hold space with you and tell you that you’re not alone in this process. You can be open to it, you can ask questions, and we’re here to help you. That’s our approach, and it’s been really amazing.

We’ve had some really big press hits. And this one article with my partner [co-founder Darian Hall] about black men and mental health — it’s been wild how many black men are coming to the space and seeking help, calling and asking about therapy. Very much a testament to, if you hold space for it, people will come because it’s needed. People thank us every single day for what we created because people didn’t realize how much they needed it. You wouldn’t realize how estranged they felt until they were in a space where they felt comfortable.

This is more of a statement than it is a question, but I want your take on this: “Healing is brave.” It seems like that is something that HealHaus supports people through. Healing is scary, but it’s a very brave, courageous endeavor.

Vulnerability is scary. I associate bravery with vulnerability because it takes bravery to be vulnerable. It takes some sort of cautious confidence to be like, “I’m not OK” or to admit something that you’re afraid to acknowledge — first and foremost, to yourself, because saying it out loud means it’s real. Then saying it to somebody else means it’s even more real because then you’re held accountable for whatever it is.

“People thank us every single day for what we created because people didn’t realize how much they needed it. You wouldn’t realize how estranged they felt until they were in a space where they felt comfortable.”

I say all the time, the first step to healing is self-awareness. Just being self-aware is brave. To be able to say, “You know what, something is off. Something isn’t right. I’m curious about understanding what it is and how do I address this?”

Healing is super brave. I praise people for being self-aware because it’s hard enough to just become self-aware. People spend their whole lives in denial about certain things or living just to cope or to survive instead of healing and really living.

With that being said, what is the importance of having a community-oriented space like HealHaus?

We can’t do things alone, and a lot of us feel like we can, which, in my opinion, is not realistic. At some point, we have to ask for help. My mantra is that healing happens through community. When you’re learning about yourself through vulnerability and other people are vulnerable, it gives you that space to say, “me too.”

We do a monthly panel series called “Healthy Conversation” and we talk about different topics that have a stigma attached to them or are borderline controversial. It’s an experiential panel where there’s an open dialogue. People in the audience are speaking to their own experiences and they’re asking questions. We’re having a group conversation.

It’s been so powerful as a testament to community healing because people are sharing things there that they’ve never shared before. A lot of us don’t realize what we have buried just to cope. It takes seeing that reflection in somebody else to feel comfortable speaking up.

I don’t think wellness should be this type of thing where it’s get in and get out, and there’s no interaction. Healing happens through community and it’s necessary.