Naj Austin founded Ethel’s Club, a social and wellness club for Black individuals and POC exclusively, in Brooklyn in November 2019 after an exhaustive search for a Black mental health professional for her own therapy sessions. She was inspired to build a gathering place to collaborate, mingle, and tackle issues beyond the professional sphere. Today, two membership tiers offer various perks in Ethel’s Club’s physical space (which remains temporarily closed) and a $17 monthly digital membership aims to bring those same benefits home—including access to their retained therapists and meditation experts.
“The reason we created a physical space is that there were none in New York. Online, you can kind of find your community or pods—whether it’s a Slack group or a Twitter DM group, you can sort of find it—but in real life, it’s just much more difficult. And we felt that we could make a difference,” Austin tells CH. “People of color are looking for spaces that center them—no matter what that space looks like.”
From the moment Ethel’s Club opened, Austin offered members moments to focus solely on mental health and wellbeing. “Consultations, workshops and group sessions with practitioners of color” were promised in signing up for an in-person membership. When forced to transition online, Austin accelerated an extension of the program scheduled for later this year.
“The very first time we did it, [in Ethel’s Club], was when Kobe Bryant died,” Austin tells CH. Following, she gauged demand for similar events. “Our members were clearly affected. We could see it in the clubhouse. Everyone was talking about it. And it seemed like there wasn’t a space that was making space for the potential mental health toll it was taking on folks.”
This session was made available to members and non-members alike. And, Austin says, the therapist took 30-minute sessions from early in the morning until well into the night. “That was our first foray into free mental healthcare for the community at large and it went really, really well,” she says. “We were working on a plan to launch [the program] and then COVID-19 happened—which derailed a couple of our plans,” she says. “Then, when all of these deaths started to occur within the Black community, we thought it was a really important time to step up and provide that space for people.”
Via Instagram, Ethel’s Club announced two free one-hour-long virtual group healing and grieving sessions, hosted by licensed Black therapists and open to Black people all over, set for 9 and 23 June. All 1,000 spaces were filled—by members and non-members, US-based and beyond—within hours. “It sort of proves that even I, someone who is embedded in the community, didn’t even realize how big the need was,” Austin says. “I don’t think I was expecting that,” she says of the sessions filling so fast. “We told the therapists we were working with that it would be a group of about 60 people. We had to quickly get them back on the phone and be like, ‘Hey, is it OK if it’s 500?'”
Offering sessions remotely may not have been Austin or Ethel’s Club’s initial mission, but they’ve succeeded in offering mental healthcare to many when it’s needed most. “I think tele-health makes it much more accessible for a lot more people,” she says. “I think it makes it easier to fit it into your day versus having to get on the train or go to a place or go to a meeting. But I think that people having been looking for it, whether it be IRL or online—it’s just that everyone has different needs.” In these sessions, all kinds of issues, aggravations and disturbances can be worked through, and addressed with a professional.
Ethel’s Club also offers three events per weekday in their digital clubhouse. Austin is mindful of creating a balance, “I want to make sure that my team is not getting burnt out from it. In the immediate future, it’s just figuring out the frequency… People are looking for it, so how can we continue to provide it?””
Images courtesy of Ethel’s Club