One recent Monday, Britney Freeman’s back hurt. So did her muscles, her joints—everything in her body. The single mom and professional matchmaker didn’t know if she’d make it to The Self-i.s.h. Society, a hair salon and community space in East Oakland, where she’d been practicing vulnerability within a group of relative strangers all summer. But she did some stretching and deep breathing exercises at home, even danced a little, and showed up.
Freeman and other participants sat close together on plush couches and chairs, forming a healing circle as part of the nonprofit’s Get Self-ish Project. They surrounded a table offering an assortment of objects, including a turtle stuffie, to pick up whenever they wanted to talk. Co-facilitator Reuben Roberts led the group in a grounding exercise to start. Everyone closed their eyes and took three breaths in an effort to be present.
“Focus on what matters,” said Roberts, a restorative justice practitioner. “What matters is you. Get selfish.”
Tucked away on the corner of Seminary Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, absent of signage, The Self-i.s.h. Society can be easy to miss. Once inside the golden-hued space, however, it’s hard not to feel seen. Social worker and cosmetologist Jessica Scortt Bell founded the nonprofit to create a safe space for accessible, holistic self-care. She does this through programs and pop-up events with local partners, believing community transformation can happen when people take the time to focus on themselves. The i.s.h. stands for “identity, support, hope.”
“Healing is a lifelong journey and a lifelong commitment that has to be renewed, sometimes daily. Realistically we just can’t do that on our own,” Bell said. “Especially when systemic challenges like poverty or racism are stacked against us, healing can be very difficult to prioritize.”
The Get Self-ish Project came from a desire to give Oakland residents the opportunity to focus on healing in their community, without the weight of guilt or a hefty price tag. In February, the city of Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention awarded Bell a $15,000 grant to support free appointments for hair, nails, and massages as well as healing circles for 12 weeks. The circles incorporated art and music, with themes ranging from self-love to trauma responses to support systems.
“A healing circle is an Indigenous practice, something the ancestors did prior to colonization. It’s a way for people to get back to that sense of a village,” Roberts said. “The real magic is how contagious it is to practice vulnerability and share your story. Because the gift is being able to see yourself in somebody else’s shoes.”
The project ran May-July of this year. Participants could also access a case manager, financial literacy coach, and therapist as well as Caribbean dance classes. While Bell could accommodate 12 Oaklanders, six ended up participating. She sees it as a blueprint for more to come.
A proud East Oakland native, Bell grew up in Funktown and went to UPREP high school in Eastmont Mall. She learned how to braid at age 12, quickly becoming her friends’ go-to hair stylist. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in social work, and in her late 20s, also got her cosmetology license. Bell loved making people feel beautiful and had talent. For a while, she ran a successful home-based hair salon.
Hair stylists have long been seen as informal therapists, and Bell’s social-work training allowed her to go a step further with clients, helping them connect to resources like housing or childcare. Yet she felt frustrated at the obstacles the system often presented. There needed to be a way to streamline resources and, if she couldn’t find it, she’d cultivate it herself. So she went back to school to get her masters in social work at UC Berkeley and last year opened a brick-and-mortar that could bridge the gaps.
With the money she saved, she opted to lease a pricey space in a neighborhood she had roots in, despite the high crime. It was where she’d experienced “a lot of loss and a lot of gain” and she couldn’t see The Self-i.s.h. Society thriving anywhere else.
“The world doesn’t really give us permission to find out who we are. We’re told who we are and what we should be, and then our circumstances will do it for us, especially if something happened to you and you’re dealing with trauma,” Bell said. “I’m all about permission. A lot of times you just don’t know where to start.”
Freeman had already been on her own healing journey but joined the project because she was craving a community that made self-care a priority. Single motherhood was stressful, and assisting her eight-year-old daughter with remote schooling during the pandemic while juggling work had left her depleted.
She was hesitant at first, scared of the honesty it would require to express her truth. But the first healing circle she attended—where group members practiced affirmations of themselves and each other—made her feel less alone. She then got her nails painted the color of a sunset, yellow and orange with glitter, and her hair done with Bell. She also surrendered to the massage therapist.
“This is a reminder to myself that I’m worthy. I’m worthy because I’m living and breathing. I’m worthy because I’m a mother, I’m hard-working, and I pour into other people,” she said. “I deserve to feel better about myself.”
Freeman has also brought some of what she’s learned from the healing circle home to her daughter. At night, if her daughter has had a bad day or is scared, Freeman will lead her in a visualization meditation and imagine the beach, their favorite place. They’ll summon the sensation of the hot sun on their skin and the joy of finding seashells and the sweetness of eating popsicles. Together, they’ll arrive at a place of calm.
Bell hopes everyone feels this way when they walk through the doors of The Self-i.s.h. Society. Using her savvy Craigslist bargain-hunting skills, she and her friends decorated the space with earthy tones and lush plants to create a warm and welcoming vibe. There are signs everywhere (“Look Good – Feel Good – Live Good” says a neon one) and a crystal chandelier adds a little flash. Business cards from local entrepreneurs cover the welcome desk. A dimly lit space in the back with three private rooms, one for a part-time therapist who started in February, encourages reflection.
“A lot of times in the salon chair, you start crying and you’re just trying to hurry up and dry your eyes,” Bell said. “And it’s like, no, I want you to be able to feel that.”
Milisa Gordon has been crying—a lot. She was drawn to The Get Self-ish project because, like Freeman, she wanted a community to hold her accountable on her healing journey. Gordon is a shy cosmetologist-turned-tech worker who identifies with the turtle stuffie because she usually wants to crawl into her shell. Being emotional was modeled as a bad thing when she was growing up and, throughout her life, she’s struggled with boundaries and healthy conversations, especially in times of conflict.
The healing circle has helped her become more comfortable asserting her needs in relationships and at work. She also sees the therapist, something she’d wanted to try but hadn’t always been easily accessible, and plans on continuing as long as she can. It’s rare for Gordon to walk out of The Self-i.s.h. Society with dry eyes, but she’s learning to embrace the messiness.
“Living in Oakland and being Black, it’s hard for us to be our authentic selves, especially as Black women. We’re told we can’t be too aggressive or too emotional,” she said. “Being okay with our authentic selves and knowing people are going to have to accept it or not…that’s really resonated with me.”
Bell hopes to continue to offer more formal opportunities for healing—like having a massage therapist on site regularly—but funding to make it sustainable is a challenge. Nonprofit politics have also been frustrating, she said, and partnerships have been slower to materialize than she’d like, although there have been a handful so far. She’s also still waiting for the right entrepreneurial barber to take over an empty chair.
Currently, she’s the only employee. But Bell is a natural connector and her whole business model is built upon collaboration. She’ll host events proposed by local entrepreneurs and organizations for free if it aligns with her mission of community self-care.
The space will transform on any given day, depending on the partner. This could look like a family-friendly dance party with glow sticks and confetti; wrapped gifts piled high on tables for the CORE reentry program’s holiday party; or brightly colored blazers and champagne flutes for a Women’s Symposium.
Most recently, the Black Cultural Zone’s Healing Hub held a free “Wellness Wednesday” event at The Self-i.s.h. Society. The sounds of a brass Tibetan singing bowl reverberated throughout the space as people indulged in massages, reiki, and chakra healing in the back rooms. Others in the front sipped on green smoothies to neo-soul music while a spa vendor talked about the benefits of soursop leaves for women’s health. A yoga instructor demonstrated poses next to blow dryers.
Freeman took her daughter to the event. They gravitated towards the yoga mats and, at first, her daughter was feeling shy about doing yoga in public. Then Bell sat down on one mat, confessing she wished she hadn’t worn tight jeans. A woman from their healing circle joined them. Freeman’s daughter relaxed. The group outstretched their arms, and breathed in and out, together.