By Damia S. Causey
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Malia Chow starts her Monday morning by hosting a virtual healing circle via Facebook Live. She holds an abalone shell to represent water, visibly smudges her screen space with sage, representing earth, and touches the screen with a feather to represent air.
She honors each viewer as they enter. The melodic sound of a ukulele can lightly be heard in the background. Her calm, steady voice is a balm for those tuned in.
Chow, 39, is a community healer with the HIR Wellness Institute. Healing Intergenerational Roots, or HIR, is a culturally focused organization that provides trauma-related care for victims of domestic violence and sexual trafficking. The center focuses on women who are First Nations (Indigenous) people.
A time of transition
A Native Hawaiian, Chow is the founder of Na Hale studios, home to Na Hale Cultural Arts Center, a nonprofit that focuses on dance, culture, music, wellness, art and community.
The center teaches traditional Polynesian dance, including hula, and other cultural offerings. The parent company has been around for 25 years, but COVID-19 has created challenges.
Like many business owners, Chow needed to find a different income stream. That’s where Lea Denny, founder of the HIR Wellness Institute, comes in. The two have been friends for over a decade.
Denny told Chow she viewed her as a community healer.
“Initially Malia didn’t see it in herself,” Denny said.
However, Chow’s background in teaching hula, a dance focused on the mind/body connection, for over two decades allowed her to easily pivot into her new role at HIR.
“Malia is out there doing beautiful, healing work,” Denny said. “She’s a beautiful entertainer and teacher.”
‘It shouldn’t cost you to heal’
The wellness institute started in 2017. The brainchild of Denny, it began in her van. She’d travel to different organizations and offer services. Her goal: “to provide free mental health and wellness services and make it accessible.”
“I truly believe it shouldn’t cost you to heal. I didn’t want to participate in that,” she said.
In 2020, the center won a grant through the U.S. Department of Justice that allowed the organization to expand its outreach and to have a building.
Denny is a native Pacific Islander, her husband, Oneida. She opened her organization to serve Native women, a population she feels is often overlooked in plain sight.
Chow was raised in Menomonee Falls, an area where she experienced racism. Her family members were some of the darkest-skinned people living in her neighborhood.
Denny said Native people are the most invisible population in the country, especially as victims of domestic or sexual violence. Of the 4 million-plus Natives in the United States, Wisconsin has almost 100,000, and 12 nations or tribal communities call the state home. Nationwide, two-thirds of Natives live off a reservation. Yet, they are seldom included in community conversations.
HIR Wellness provides the space for those groups to be served in culturally rooted practices. Those seeking services are called “relatives” instead of “clients.”
“The word ‘client’ is associated with consumerism and commodities,” Denny said. “You change the energy of the exchange when you view people as relatives, because we are all connected.“
Chow relates to the mission of the center through her own tragedy. Her twin sister was a victim of sex trafficking during her 20s. Unfortunately before her sister was able to get out safely, she was murdered in 2004 in Las Vegas. As painful as losing her sister has been, Chow’s work with victims of domestic and sexual violence now brings everything full circle.
Chow leads a Facebook Live session called “Reflections and Resilience” at 8 a.m. every Monday through Friday.
During these sessions, relatives are able to ask questions in real time of counselors and clinicians like social workers and occupational therapists who are on the Facebook Live.
And they can share how they are feeling and ask for emotional support.
“We really make sure that our relatives understand that everything they do is their choice,” Chow said. “It is their right to self-determine their own path of healing. You can choose whether to walk that path, crawl or sprint that path. We are here for them.”
For more information:
•Na Hale https://www.nahalestudios.com/
Virtual dance classes will be offered starting in February. Click the link for more information on classes and event scheduling.
•Facebook Live page https://www.facebook.com/nahalestudios/
•HIR Wellness Institute https://www.hirwellness.org/
CARES (Community Advocate Resource and Emotional Support) warm line: 414-748-2592