In honour of Black History Month, we are highlighting inspiring and transformational black-owned businesses in Toronto.
Meet Shanelle McKenzie, Co-Founder & Director of Community for The Villij. Shanelle and Kim Knight founded The Villij as a wellness community for womxn of colour to feel seen and heard. They created a space for womxn of colour to show up as their true selves. Shanelle continues to lead a new wave of wellness that fosters inclusion, health and well-being every day.
Read below for our full interview with Shanelle.
Tell us about The Villij and how the whole idea came to life?
I grew up in a small town and a lot of people didn’t look like me. Kim and I met working corporate jobs at the same company. We were the only womxn of colour in the corporate headquarters and we gravitated towards one another. Having a sense of community, well-being and self-love, especially coming from my Caribbean background, has always been important to me. Kim and I noticed there were a clear lack of these things within our community and we realized that together we could change the narrative.
In January of 2017, we held our first yoga class and it sold out. Sixty percent of the women that came had never practiced yoga or even thought about practicing yoga before. This is when we knew that we were doing the right thing for this community and the impact that we were going to have would make a difference. We were helping to change the way that womxn of colour saw themselves both in wellness spaces but also as a whole.
Have you found a shift in your community’s mental health since starting this initiative?
We knew that we were creating a braver space. No space is a safe space, but the beauty in all of this was that our community was willing to share and open up; they knew they could be vulnerable.
We had created a workshop (pre-covid) where everybody wrote what their insecurities were on a card and were asked to pass that card onto someone else anonymously. The second person then opened it and read it aloud while giving words of affirmation to the person who had initially wrote it. Throughout this workshop, we heard shocking statements and it was hard to comprehend that everyone was struggling in their own way. This room was full of powerful womxn hurting and admitting that was the first step. We’ve come so far since then.
When we pivoted during the pandemic, there was a state of mental unrest. We had a therapist come in and talk to us about coping with mental health and anxiety because of the pandemic and the issues that we were dealing with in March of 2020. This is when our Villij Talks started.
We learned how to navigate what we were going through. The BLM movement triggered a lot of our community. For myself, I was dealing with second hand trauma. People of colour who looked like me were bleeding, hurting and crying. I couldn’t turn on the news. I knew that now more than ever, our community needed support.
I found a psychotherapist in DC to speak to us about healing from racial trauma. It’s normal not to feel well, I personally deal with stress and anxiety, but it’s about finding the right the tools to help. I’ve found that the ability to connect with someone who has the expertise, knowledge and the vocabulary to support you and your extended community as a whole can be the help that people need to get through that trauma together.
With the pandemic, your community was able to move online, how has this changed things?
We felt a shift both within ourselves and within our team when we moved our platform online. We were doing something that we’ve never done before. Kim has a tech and communications background and I work as a translator. Through both of our skills, we were able to shift online successfully and the global impact has been so special. Our Villij is all throughout North America, The UK, The Virgin Islands and beyond.
We’ve been blessed to have multiple people tune in from all walks of life. The thing is – we all have this unique understanding and experience of life and it’s beautiful to see. It makes us realize that we’re on the right path here. It makes us dream bigger and bolder and create a community and an experience that is really pushing us further than we’ve ever gone before. What time is better than now? We have a place in the wellness industry and continue to support the community we’ve built to be bigger and braver every day.
Do you ever hear cannabis come up in the conversation about wellness?
I think of cannabis in my personal life. I look at my family members who struggle with anxiety, stress or depression and I urge them to find different ways to deal with their struggles. Although therapy is a great tool, I think of alternative ways for them to self soothe. I’m starting to look beyond the doctor and prescription model and instead find alternative solutions that are more natural and potentially healthier such as using CBD oils.
I actually really hope to work with companies like Cori to educate our community. This is something that is necessary and something that I find people don’t look towards enough within wellness. People tend to think there is a stigma. Our community would value learning from Cori especially since you’re owned by a family of colour and female-run.
Where do you see The Villij heading in the future?
This is a loaded question for us because Kim and I are dreamers. We dream big! We’re in talks about possibly creating an “Inner Villij” – a wellness platform for womxn of colour to expand their own knowledge of their own wellbeing on this wellness journey.
I want The Villij to take up space. I want to have physical space in North America, in the hills of Jamaica or in your own home, wherever in the world that might be. We want to take up space and make people feel like they’re at home whether it’s virtual or in person.
Right now, it’s about healing womxn of colour and shaping the way that they look and nurture their wellbeing. For me, it’s about recognizing generational traumas and how our ancestors have gone about it. It’s time for us to explore ourselves and what makes us happy. It’s time for us to help womxn of colour in their journey of wellbeing.
Interested in getting involved with The Villij? Learn more here!