Chicago mothers find healing and community
(Photo by Mari Jane Wemken)
By Hannah Kucharzak
Read Time 7 minutes
January 25, 2024
Sonja Henderson and the Mothers Healing Circle
In Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood, there is a network of mothers who have lost their children to street- and state-violence. In an organic way, through shared grief and community gathering, these mothers found each other. Sonja Henderson, a Chicago-based sculptor, visual artist, and long-time partner of Illinois Humanities’ Envisioning Justice program, recognized a need to form a space for these mothers to explore their trauma and heal in the safety of community—finding the ways that their stories and experiences overlap, discovering the ways in which their grief connects each other, and regaining stability in their lives.
So, Henderson founded the Mothers Healing Circle (MHC), which just celebrated its fourth anniversary. Illinois Humanities has been thankful to witness the community’s growth and support its projects through Envisioning Justice Grants. In 2022, Sonja, the mothers, and collaborator Janice Bond used an Envisioning Justice commission to create a beautiful expression of their mission: Recipes for Life: A Legacy Cookbook Cherishing Those No Longer at the Table. One of 14 projects featured in the Envisioning Justice RE:ACTION exhibition, the cookbook is a compilation of mothers’ grounding, healing family recipes, with prompts for participants to share their own stories of care and community that transpire over the kitchen table.
Mothers Healing Circle aims “to disrupt the cycle of pain and suffering” through rejuvenating visual arts workshops, storytelling, singing, yoga, meditation, and mutual aid. As a Black, woman-led space, MHC’s work is informed by ancestral wisdom and teachings, and centers emotional and physical relief for mothers who have limited resources. In addition to its workshops, it provides self-care packages, fresh produce box deliveries to food deserts, water purification and filtration systems, emergency COVID-19 supplies, and transportation services, being mindful of the reality that some mothers are recovering from severe illness directly attributed to the loss of their child.
In the group’s start during the pandemic, Henderson and Peace Circle leader Zahra Baker provided virtual environments for these resources, and now also facilitates weekly in-person gatherings at Nichols Tower in Lawndale where mothers can decompress, move, breathe, create, grieve, play, and heal together through the arts and humanities.
“We are fed a construct or belief system of exclusivity, competition, otherness, or Us vs Them in order to feel better about ourselves, when in fact the opposite is true—we feel and do better as an inclusive community,” Henderson says.
“When we are hurt or in need, we want someone to hold us, to care for us, and help if possible. I saw a need to care for and pour love into the most important people on the planet, our mothers. By healing our mothers, we heal the children, family, and greater community. It is that simple.”
The driving force behind MHC is rooted in Henderson’s personal journey with the intense and sudden passing of three family members, changing the shape of her life and her art practice. “In May of 2019 while creating ‘Harbor for Mending Hearts’ during my Illinois Humanities Envisioning Justice residency, I unexpectedly lost my brother, father, then grandmother in one month,” she says. Before that time, her artwork had always been shaped by her personal values of care and service to others, but her loss affirmed and strengthened her mission, providing clearer language and meaning to her approach.
“I now know exactly who I am as a sculptor and visual artist who uses restorative and healing justice praxis to strengthen and rejuvenate vulnerable communities. It is said that trauma can amplify or exaggerate the qualities within you; after my tremendous loss, I found clarity and agency in daily life through that series of events.”
In Summer 2023, Illinois Humanities awarded Sonja Henderson an Envisioning Justice grant for supporting the Mothers Healing Circle’s work. The grant funding assisted MHC in producing an art installation at the Sears Sunken Garden in Lawndale, titled “We Are Made From Stars,” A Flying Quilt Monument, unveiled on September 23, 2023. The piece was created by the mothers in the group, Henderson, and visiting artists—they stitched and appliqued quilt tops that told the aspirational stories of the mothers’ deceased children, which were then photographed, digitized, and printed onto flags.
“It was a joyful and heart-wrenching endeavor that brought us all to a new level of camaraderie, wellness, and communion with our loved ones,” Henderson says. “These quilts are an emblem of love, devotion, storytelling, and communal healing.” MHC hopes to further exhibit the work both locally and afar.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Sonja more about the impact of the Mothers Healing Circle. Read our conversation below.
Tell me about a time when you realized that the Mothers Healing Circle was making a difference. What do you attribute that success to?
I knew the Mothers Healing Circle was making a profound difference in the mothers’ lives when they literally told me “MHC saved my life.” I still have their texts and letters.
It was during the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd protests that the mothers were not able to travel their neighborhood, or more importantly cross neighboring “boundaries.” Tensions were high and many parts of Lawndale and Little Village were on fire and experiencing unrest. I had a private donor give MHC enough funding that I was able to put gravity-fed water filtration systems in each mother’s apartment, contract a Black farm to set up weekly produce and food delivery, and created MHC Self Care Packages with COVID supplies. I delivered all of the packages to St. Anthony’s Clinic and the mothers helped distribute them. We set up a group text thread, then a virtual (Zoom) meeting space. MHC gave $100 “Love Offerings” to each mother for medication and childcare.
These were life-saving actions that I owe a debt of gratitude to Janice Bond, who helped project manage at the time, and my childhood friend who had the capital and vision to donate to my fledgling Circle. Four years later, we are still here, thriving and on the very same text thread wishing each other well, good morning, and good night.
What is your vision for the future of your organization? What’s next for MHC?
My ultimate vision for the Mothers Healing Circle is that there is no MHC anymore. MHC fills a need to help mothers and families, first, to survive the trauma of a violent or horrific loss of a child—these mothers’ last vision of their beloved child is of callus brutality and most often in public. Secondly, MHC helps to heal the traumatic wound by grounding the mind, body, and spirit and stabilizing the nervous system. Third, to heal the body and bring the surviving children and family into the healing space. Fourth, to reclaim joy, restore, rest, and break from said trauma.
Our future is very bright because the mothers who have been putting in the “work,” are now incredibly vocal, stable, and acting with agency. The mothers want to create their own healing bath and body product line. MHC is creating our Bath Line right now as an entrepreneurial exploration and an income-generating project to sell locally and on my website.
The mothers dream about retreats in nature and traveling together, so MHC is working toward that as a short-term goal. MHC’s longer-term goal is to have land and a built environment to heal the mind, body, and spirit; to farm and to grow as healthy whole people. I personally would love for us to grow our own food and plants, and to have an apothecary and a store with all our families working, playing, and resting together.
About Sonja Henderson
Sonja Henderson is a sculptor, mixed-media artist, teacher, collaborator, and innovator based in Chicago, Illinois.
Sonja received her B.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she concentrated in painting and drawing; and received her M.F.A. from the University of California at Berkeley, where she concentrated in sculpture and installation. Sonja’s sculptures and installations challenge socio-political constructs through the manipulation of media, scale, and re-contextualization of form.
Sonja's current work explores the organic nature of spirit, joy, and grounded connection through Restorative Justice practices. She teaches and works directly with communities using restorative and social justice practices centering equity, healing, and human rights.
Follow @SonjaHenderson at sonja-henderson.format.com.