A Berkeley-born spirit, I found the deepest healing in a McKees Rocks circle

April Jackson, a coach, consultant and educator, sits at the Father Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

I spent much of my life trying to share health and well-being. When my body faltered and my spirit sagged, the women I’d been trying to help, helped me in my greatest time of need.

First-person essay by April Jackson, For PublicSource

Once a week in a softly lit room, a circle of chairs awaits gathering souls, each one a beacon of solace in the dimness. This is a space we consider sacred. Tonight as we embark upon another Placed Based Healing Affinity Circle, the air carries a weight of shared sorrow and a lot of hope. The sorrow stems from the deepest and most sudden of losses: The deaths of children to gun violence. The hope comes from the community we’re working together to mend.

This sacred space is adorned with flickering candles, fragrant flowers, the gentle hum of a singing bowl and the fellowship that comes from sharing time with one another. Our community has agreed to hold space for each other, to respect one another and to avoid harming one another. We try as best as we can to allow freedom of thought, of emotions, of trust and a radical welcoming of all. 

To date, there have been more than a dozen circles like this in McKees Rocks, the South Side and Larimer and East Liberty. Though the groups come from different communities and bring different life experiences, the energy and spirituality are the same.

My upbringing was in California — born in Berkeley and raised in Los Angeles in a very health-conscious family. My mother kept me involved in dance, yoga and teaching. As a young adult it wasn’t long before I became aware of gatekeeping and the injustice of unequal distribution of resources for health in mind and body. This awareness grew as I migrated from California to Georgia to Pittsburgh. 

My journey from California to Pittsburgh has also been a migration through different forms of community and concepts of spirituality, with the one constant being a sense of common humanity. In the South Hills of Pittsburgh my family entered a nice community which lacks diversity yet offers stability. But some of my warmest embraces — including during my own times of greatest need — have come in places deemed less stable that are under-resourced and underserved.

An invitation to McKees Rocks

After I settled into Pittsburgh and my children grew older, I began teaching yoga, meditation and other forms of fitness. A client of mine connected me to efforts in the McKees Rocks and Stowe area.

I had never been to McKees Rocks before. But I had been in many areas throughout the country, especially South Central Los Angeles, that in some ways resembled McKees Rocks, so it felt familiar.

I met with the Grow Sto-Rox organization and Grounded Pittsburgh in 2017 to work on efforts to develop community green space where people could gather, enjoy gardening and have community meals, events and other opportunities together. The community work was valuable, but we seemed to be missing a forum for focusing on individuals prior to bringing the collective together. In spring 2022 we started that program, which we called Affinity Circles. 

For that first session, we were very much in the shadow of COVID, masking and sanitizing and — for some — taking first, tentative steps out of isolation after two years. Ten mothers gathered, and when the ice broke, the pain poured forth. One woman had lost six people within her family to COVID. For another, the loss of her mother had plunged her into a depression from which she was just beginning to emerge. She hadn’t been able to talk about it with anyone until that day.

So it began. Each circle meets weekly for six weeks, working through sessions on health and wellness, resilience, financial literacy and value and purposefulness, then bringing it all together in a conversation we call “integrated you,” and finally celebrating together.

Group of diverse women smiling and posing together in a brightly lit room during a social event.Sto-Rox area residents pose for a group picture during the first of the affinity circles rounds at the Father Ryan’s Arts Center in McKees Rocks, in April 2022. (Courtesy of April Jackson)


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