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In search of Wholeness: How the Healing Garden Began

By Dr. Keitlyn Alcantara, Dept. of Anthropology, Indiana University-Bloomington

Seeds of the Garden

First carload of plants travelling from Nashville, TN to Bloomington, IN

One very hot, very sunny, very exhausting afternoon in July 2020, I maneuvered my 15-foot U-Haul into the driveway of my new rental home in Bloomington, IN, tree branches screeching along its sides. As I sat, sweaty and spent, my body was heavy with the heft of fears of the unknown. How could I pandemic-era grocery shop in this new neighborhood? When and how does the trash get picked up? Would I get to travel home to Mexico this year? Was my family safe and healthy? When would be the next time I heard Spanish? Did I even fit here? Wasn’t someone almost lynched near here?

These worries, so crushing at first, would turn into the very seeds that started the Healing Garden.

Over the next few weeks, I took on the role of silent observer. I noted the extensive patio gardens of Prospect Hill full of forgotten tomatoes, rotting on the vine; the impressive encampment of the unhoused community along the B-line, colorful tents like an Indiana Rivendell, peeking through the trees. I reflected on the abundant “Black Lives Matter” signs, which didn’t seem to correlate to actual Black residents in this neighborhood. Was anyone talking about these things?!?!?


Defining Healing

I went on a long walk every evening, the rhythmic slap, slap, slap of my sandals an attempt to stamp out all the worries. Would I lose myself in this sea of monoculturalism? I’d lost myself before, when I moved to the U.S. from Mexico at 5 years old. We moved a lot – Indiana, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Washington – and most of the places we moved were overwhelmingly white. For almost 15 years, I swallowed my Spanish, made self-deprecating jokes about my Mexicanness, all to avoid feeling left out of what my friends deemed “normal.”

In college, I reclaimed this part of myself, re-learning Spanish, taking classes on Latino history, and Critical Race Theory. In “Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope” by bell hooks, she quotes Parker Palmer as saying:

“Education, at its best…is about healing and wholeness. It is about empowerment, liberation, transcendence, about renewing the vitality of life. It is about finding and claiming ourselves and our place in the world” (p.43).

Bloomington felt like a trigger to my past self, a place where I could easily become complacent, and let huge swaths of who I am become dormant out of convenience – an option afforded me by my light skin, which could hide my cultural identity beneath its innocuous surface.


Sentipensante Takes Root

In my first semester as a professor, a couple of competing things happened. I let myself wallow. I let myself get scared into thinking I didn’t belong here, and overworked to the point of constant migraines and back spasms. The waves of COVID that filled the fall meant that I was also largely physically isolated as well, with days filled with Zoom screens, each square framing faces of exhaustion, stress, and anxiety.

Notes from Dr. Rendon’s presentation

It was from this space that I found the Graduate Mentoring Center’s work, and the brilliant workshops and conversations organized by Dr. Maria Hamilton Abegunde. In the fall of 2020, I attended a GMC workshop around Dr. Laura Rendón’s book, Sentipensante. In sum, Rendón draws from the work of earlier healers and knowledge holders to argue that a central factor of burnout and dissatisfaction among faculty, staff and students of color is a mismatch in value systems, which she defines as a set of “Agreements” that guide the structure of academic institutions.

These agreements are summarized in part below (Rendón p.26).

1. The Agreement to Privilege Intellectual/Rational Knowing

o With this agreement, institutions ignore memory, art, music, sensory experiences, storytelling and oral histories as valid knowledge, and discount the coexistence of multiple forms of intelligence (linguistic; mathematical; spatial; musical; kinesthetic; interpersonal; intrapersonal).

2. The Agreement of Separation

o Academic authority is given to a set group of knowledge holders (eg. professors, scientists), and transmitted to students in formal and linear ways. Teachers are considered superior, and separate from learners.

3. The Agreement of Competition

o The assumption that there are limited chances at success, and so you must look out for yourself, and yourself only.

4. The Agreement of Perfectionism

o The belief that there is no room for error in learning.

5. The Agreement of Monoculturalism

o The belief that Western frameworks of knowing are the only truth. All classes, administrative frameworks, value systems are based on this single way of existing in the world.

6. The Agreement to Privilege Outer Work

o Visible productivity (papers, presentations, books, etc.) is more important than inner reflection and self-care. Reflection is slow and unproductive.

7. The Agreement to Avoid Self Examination

o As academics, we normalize the belief that we are fully formed knowledge producers, and unbiased scientists.

As she argues, these agreements lead to overwork, constant fear and self-consciousness, and an inability to slow down, self-reflect, and prioritize work that is defined by each individual’s unique emotional and spiritual needs. She counters these agreements with a set of her own:

1. The agreement to work with diverse ways of knowing in the classroom (p.32)

2. The agreement to embrace connectedness, collaboration, and interdisciplinarity (p.36).

3. The agreement to engage diverse learning strategies in the classroom (p. 39).

4. The agreement to be open and flexible about being grounded in knowing and not knowing (p. 41).

5. The agreement of multiculturalism and respect for diverse cultures (p.44).

6. The agreement to balance our professional lives with work, rest, and replenishment (p.47).

7. The agreement to take time for self-reflexivity (p.48).

With support from Dr. Abegunde’s discussion groups, I began to reflect, to take ownership of the things I COULD shape, and that I would not let shape me. I took time to journal, to slow down and pay attention to what was good, and what was not. What left me feeling used up and flat, and what sparked a fire inside of me. I came up with the following agreements for myself:

Some of my agreements...

I began to reflect on the ways that many of my own identity politics were about the broad ways in which white supremacy is woven into our day-to-day lives. Moving beyond the caricature of Nazis and the KKK, I started to face my own internalized beliefs that there was a single “right” way to exist, modeled on white culture. I constantly felt like I fell short, the adult version of that very “normal” that I so ached to be as a kid.

The abnormality of the pandemic only emphasized how unattainable this “normal” was. How impossible it was for our bodies, EVERYONE’S bodies, to keep up with a rhythm that punished us for falling short instead of recognizing the power in what we already were.


The Healing Garden is Born

Towards the end of my first semester, I spent a couple afternoons journaling and doodling, letting my subconscious mind help to identify the tools I would need to feel satisfied in my new academic role.

Keitlyn’s doodles and brainstorming pre-garden

Bit by bit, I started to piece together the components of the Healing Garden.

At first I was hard on myself, frustrated that it wasn’t immediately a horizontally-organized, deeply inclusive, BI POC space that addresses all the issues I first saw when I arrived in Bloomington. But one of the things I am learning and I hope to model is that deep, lasting, intentional change takes time. Performativity is quick and snazzy. But deep connection takes relationship building, vulnerability, messing up, accepting that you need to shift. The Healing Garden became an embodied practice of learning how to create an engaged pedagogy of my own.

“Everything else in nature produces what it produces – why shouldn’t we?”

– Alice Walker, Reaping What We Sow, a conversation with Pulitzer Prize Winner Alice Walker (2021)

In it’s fourth month as of June 2021, the Healing Garden is currently a space of learning and growing. It is not fully formed, nor perfect, but serves as an experiment to see what we can create, with starts and stops, realignment, and mistakes. In its current iteration, we are a group of people who came together to find space for connection, to get away from computer screens, to challenge ourselves to imagine a different way of interacting, being curious about each other’s stories, and sharing knowledge in all its forms. Our Summer 2021 team has jumped in to tend to the garden and our small community with enthusiasm and creativity, and I am so very grateful to them and anyone who stops by to see what we are about.

I end this introduction by putting out into the world the directions that we want this project to continue to grow.

· Building deeper multicultural community and dialogues, particularly in support of Indigenous and Black interests and needs surrounding space for reflection, reconnection with self and community building.

· Decentralizing English as the only and dominant language (want to bring a group here and host a workshop in your language? Write a blog or instagram post? Reach out and we will work with you to see how we can make it happen!)

· Intergenerational learning (elders, children, teens).

· Increasing accessibility to the space and learning materials.

We are small but steady, and always welcome additional support, particularly in alignment with these visions.


Works Cited:

hooks, bell. Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. Vol. 36. Psychology Press, 2003.

Rendón, Laura I. Sentipensante (sensing/thinking) pedagogy: Educating for wholeness, social justice and liberation. Stylus Publishing, LLC, 2012.

The Academy as Contemplative Practice. Uploaded by the Institute for Advanced Study at IU. November 4, 2020.

Reaping What We Sow, a conversation with Pulitzer Prize Winner Alice Walker. Uploaded by UC Berkeley Events, February 15, 2021.

People/resources that have deeply influenced my work:

Begin with Wholeness, End with Joy. Presented by Dr. Maria Hamilton Abegunde. Uploaded by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, Dec. 4th, 2018.

Reciprocity in Native American Traditions with Dawn Knickerbocker. Uploaded by Community Solutions, Dec. 3, 2020.

hooks, bell. Teaching to transgress. Routledge, 2014.

Penniman, Leah. Farming while black: Soul fire farm's practical guide to liberation on the land. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018.

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