As part of LGBTQ Health and Wellness Week, the Spectrum Center hosted keynote speaker Joy Saniyah, a mental health professional, at the School of Social Work on Monday night. 

Saniyah spoke to a crowd of about 25 regarding her experience as a therapist, registered yoga teacher and an energy healer, or reiki practitioner. Saniyah explained what freedom and self-expression means to her to address the guiding question “what is right with you?” at the event. 

As a therapist, Saniyah focuses on creating a space where any marginalized group or individual can feel supported. As a queer, woman of color, Saniyah emphasized the importance of feminist values, especially in the realm of healing. Seven years ago, Saniyah founded the Integrative Empowerment Group, a mental health and wellness group based in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. 

Saniyah said healing requires a multidisciplinary approach.

“We don’t just have therapy,” Saniyah said. “We have yoga, massage, energy work because we do believe that healing is an integrative journey.”

Saniyah exemplified the necessity of diverse healing approaches by leading the audience in a brief two-minute breathing exercise. She said with meditation, attendees have the opportunity to connect with their surroundings and with their breathing.

The event progressed to a larger discussion of identity and healing. Saniyah said when she was first invited to speak, she was unsure what she would share with the audience. What was most important to her was the idea of freedom and liberation in the world today, especially as someone who has been marginalized by society.  

“What does it mean to truly be free? How much agency do I have over what that looks like in my life?” Saniyah asked. “We can talk about freedom from structures and systems that seek to control us, or maybe it’s freedom from stories or narratives that have been projected onto us.”

In addressing these questions, Saniyah related back to the practice and importance of health in wellness in our communities. Therapy, as Saniyah described, provides the opportunity to share experiences and heal. Moreover, Saniyah said she focuses on the idea of resistance instead of resilience. 

“In my view, resilience highlights the ability for marginalized folks to be strong and overcome,” Saniyah said. “It’s our responsibility to be strong and resilient rather than the system’s responsibility to change? For me, I’m driven by the idea of resistance, not resilience. Through my actions, I want to inspire others to resist the narratives and systems that try to suffocate us and make us feel small.” 

The event then opened up to a Q&A segment. Neal Elkin, alum of the University of Michigan’s Medical School, asked the first question. He spoke about his experience marching in the 1973 gay pride parade in Ann Arbor. His question concerned the current political climate in the country. 

“I’m really worried about where our country is going right now, all of the benefits we’ve been able to achieve are under threat,” Elkin said. “I’m just wondering what you personally think about political activism and the role it will play in preserving where we’re at right now and making progress in the future.”

Saniyah responded by addressing how activism can create change. According to Saniyah, both activism and therapy have an equally significant role to play in making marginalized groups and individuals feel heard. 

“Political activism can be really helpful and empowering for folks and can effect change,” Saniyah said. “My hope and my dream is that we don’t have to change who we are. That’s why voting matters, supporting candidates who share our values matter and having conversations with people who don’t always share our views matter.” 

LSA freshman Lydia Stevens said a quote mentioned by feminist writer Audre Lorde about how self-care is a revolutionary act really resonated with her. 

“I really liked the quote from Audre Lorde,” Stevens said. “The best resistance is self-care and thriving. That’s really important to keep in mind, especially in today’s climate.”

Reporter Lily Gooding can be reached at

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