My Journey to Clinical Social Work | NASW Member Voices

Jan 18, 2023

Healing Justice Values Alongside Therapeutic Interventions

By Violeta A. Donawa, LMSW

In December 2015, I reconnected with a sister-teacher-friend, Adela Nieves Martinez, who had been asked to develop a healing justice curriculum to community organizers, residents, and activists in Waawiiyatanong (the land now known as Detroit, Mich.). In the spirit of collaboration, she invited a small group of facilitators, herbalists, health and healing activists to help dream up this offering together. Our priority was to address how racism, patriarchy and heteronormativity deeply harms Detroiters and the marginalized body’s ability to feel safe, secure, and have a right to exist.

We called ourselves HealingByChoice! We had a value to create space to learn from one another and others through listening. By doing so, we were able to equip ourselves with tools and techniques to support the disembodiment of varying levels of trauma that research shows hijacks our brains, bodies, and sense of self.

What was so exciting about envisioning and placing this work into practice locally is that we weren’t talking about helping people theoretically. We were talking about helping our neighbors, families, friends of friends and people in our network heal from systemic harms in an extremely pragmatic, hands-on way.

It’s the social work, so to speak, of our grandparents and ancestors who were deeply vigilant about taking care of the community with nourishing food, song, folk medicine, herbal blends from the garden in the back of the house, and just good ole fashion showing up for each other with integrity and intention. This was community care that in the field, we might call an “intervention” at the meso level. But for many of us, this was culture.

One might wonder, why and how I shifted from community care-based healing work to becoming a clinical social worker and psychotherapist. The reality is that I resisted this transition for a long time.

I’d gotten into community care-based work because there’s proven research that shows Black, Native, Latinx, and general working-class populations face bias from within the healthcare system, which included mental health care providers. I could not see myself being a part of that system. Not to mention, I had no desire to acquire anymore student loan debt. I told Spirit that I would apply, and if I applied, my tuition would need to be taken care of.

And, so it was.

I applied for as many scholarships as I could. I made appointments to meet Student Services staff in person so that I could ask unique questions to learn about other potential funding sources.

After being admitted, an enthusiastic advisor, Dr. Daicia Price, recommended that I consider applying for the Health Resources and Services Administration Substance Use Disorders (HRSA SUD) program, which provided funding from the federal government to students who’d specialize in substance use disorders. I had not imagined myself studying SUD, and hadn’t considered addiction a social justice issue. Thankfully, I was open-minded enough to hear her out.

Almost five years later, I am a clinical social worker offering holistic mental health services while working within a multicultural, community-based integrative behavioral health agency that is Native-centered and led. Each department, whether Facilities or Medical, believes in the importance of culture, equity, and putting clients first.

Since the 1970s, our agency has been rooted in traditional medicine and currently specializes in substance use disorders, issues of acculturation and cultural maintenance, and other common mental health concerns including, but not limited to, anxiety and depression.

Moral of the story?

Even I, as a clinician, had limiting beliefs about what care could look like. I’m proud to be a part of a field as expansive as social work, where I can blend my background as health and healing community organizer with the values and ethics of a fully licensed clinician.

Violeta DonawaClinical social worker Violeta A. Donawa, LMSW, specializes in holistically treating clients whose mental health has been impacted by various forms of systemic harm or discrimination, and its relationship to patterns of addiction and other forms of trauma. Visit her website: