What Does Wellness Look Like for Black Penn?

By Toni Walker

In alignment with Penn’s expressed commitment to wellness within the Penn community, President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett announced via email the official launch of the Wellness at Penn website this past Tuesday. The ways in which Penn has traditionally handled tragedy and approached the importance of wellness has been deservedly critiqued by many communities on this campus. Throughout my experience at Penn, news of sensitive information and/or tragedy has typically been delivered in the form of cold emails briefly describing such events with a list of campus resources in conclusion. I have often found that conversations surrounding such topics would begin and end with these emails, without tangible opportunities to extend the conversation and address overarching themes reflected in both the type of tragedies that occur as well as the delivery of such information.

The Wellness at Penn website attempts to continue this awareness as it not only explores the multidimensionality of what wellness looks like but it also helps to unpack the multitude of opportunities available through the resources at Penn, beyond the commonly listed resources at the end of all emails from President Gutmann. The categories which frame the website include emotional, physical, mental, social, sexual, spiritual, financial and occupational wellness. Though initially fairly impressed by the website, I was disappointed to find that missing from the extensive list of resources are the Black organizations and resources that also exist on this campus. Most surprisingly, Makuu was not included in the list of available resources to access for social wellness despite the presence of other cultural centers such as La Casa and PAACH. Whether this was an honest mistake or careless ignorance, this exclusion reflects a larger issue of the danger of structuring such critical conversations in a way that excludes, diminishes, or overlooks marginalized groups. Countless initiatives could be launched in support of wellness but without any real commitment to the marginalized and more frequently silenced voices on Penn’s campus, these initiatives will not properly serve all of the students.

The launching of the Wellness at Penn website came just one day after the “We ALL Need to Talk” event in which student organizations specifically within Penn’s minority community came together to discuss topics of consent, accountability, and bystandership. Through a series of scenarios presented to the group, students were able to unpack the normalized ways in which rape culture manifests in daily interactions specifically within the Black community. Valuable points were made about the role of privilege, assumptions, and power (both physical and social) in moments that both lead up to sexual assault and the processing of assault in the aftermath. While wellness is of importance across all student populations, events like this reinforce the importance of acknowledging and actively addressing the unique ways in which wellness is achieved and challenged across and within marginalized communities. Even as I engaged in the dialogue that developed throughout the event, I couldn’t help but notice the ways in which such discussions have the potential to both trigger and overpower voices of marginalized communities whose experiences and thoughts are essential in order to gain a more profound understanding of wellness in Penn’s community.

Through recent initiatives, it seems that Penn is attempting to develop an innovative approach to get students to rethink the way wellness is conceptualized. However, if this approach doesn’t actively support wellness through an explicitly intersectional lens, it’s virtually impossible to get students to truly rethink wellness. As far as restructuring the way we address wellness within smaller marginalized communities, it is our responsibility to recognize and condemn the ills of dangerously structured conversations. While there isn’t any one simple answer to achieving widespread wellness, strategies should be explored in a way that prioritizes accountability and the uplifts the voices that are traditionally silenced.

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