Blog /African American Community
On Thursday October 25, 2012, the PEERS staff attended a conference titled, “The ISMS Collaborative,” with the intention of better understanding the African-American experience. This is so we could be even more culturally responsive as that is the target population we are presently reaching out to under the Social Inclusion campaign.
This conference was part two of the series “Building hope and change in our health organizations.” The series hopes to look at how we live in a distinguished society that has unequal relationships whether it is age, gender, class, sexual orientation, able-bodyness/disability and other isms. There were two featured speakers that hosted the conference. They were Prof. Ken Hardy of Drexel University and Nancy Kahn, a nonviolent communications and “Transforming Oppression” trainer.
For the most part, the conference as a whole provided me with a wealth of information. The forum in which this very important and knowledgeable discussion transpired allowed my level of consciousness to be heightened and my broadened view of choices to be confirmed. Moreover, the importance of stopping the silence was confirmed, as well as the significant power, transformation, and liberation that comes from speaking from the heart.
As a collective, there were challenging conversations about internalized oppression and privilege. In small groups, we participated in interactive dialogues about increasing our awareness and understanding about these complicated issues. The main objective that I got from the conference was that in order to increase one’s capacity to recognize, understand and address internalized privilege and oppression, whether it’s in personal relationships or in our work, there has to be some willingness from ALL parties involved to look at dynamics of power, as it is part of our relationships. Also, until those essential dynamics are recognized about power, it will be difficult for change to occur. Once there is an acknowledgement of the significance in addressing issues of power, the distinctions between those who are privileged and those who are not as fortunate can change, and then manifest.
I think that while both parties have responsibilities in relation to healing relationships, the tasks are not equal. Reason being, there are those individuals who are in privileged positions and others who are in less fortunate positions. Of course, I don’t think these categories of privilege and less fortunate are complete. However, I do believe that it is important to communicate what the different responsibilities might be for those in privileged positions and those in less fortunate positions so healing can authentically transpire.
With that said, I firmly believe that the first responsibilities for the privileged are to overcome mistaken notions about equality and inequality. Traditionally, I believe it’s been “normal” for the privileged to just assume that everyone and everything is equal. One of the privileges of the privileged is to be oblivious to the life experiences of oppressed populations. Not only must the privileged acknowledge the existence of marginalization, they must find some way to appreciate the inequality and the suffering of the less fortunate.
In turn, people of privilege cannot turn away at their first experience of rejection or hostility when reaching out to those who are less fortunate. If we, as members of marginalized groups, gave up when we experienced hostility, we would get nowhere in life. Again if relationships across difference are to be healed, then open honest communication is needed. Like the ideology taken from Mary Ellen Copeland’s Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) we should adhere to the principles and ethics of holding each person with the utmost high as human beings first who all have beating, pulsating hearts on the same side of their chest.
Moreover, each person knowing that the most important part of this process is that we recognize everyone's voices are important and valuable. Regardless of one’s background or experience, their speaking up and speaking out can break down barriers, eliminate stigma and discrimination of age, gender, class, sexual orientation, and mental health issues. Speaking up and speaking out embraces the idea that we are all one race, the human race.
At the same time, there are many ethnic groups in society that have experienced unjustifiable forms of racism and stigma. In particular, the ethnic group that I can identify with that has experienced serious subjugation against their will is the African American community. A group of people who unwillingly experienced brutal doings and heinous acts done onto them during the slave trade, as well as approximately 465 years of the atrocious and animalistic actions of slavery in the U.S. In turn, the result being tremendous on the psyche for African American people, especially being that Civil Rights is 48 years young.
Therefore, many African American people continue to have feelings and experiences of subjugation due to the occurrences of these colossal events in this country’s history. Nonetheless, it is often times seen by many in society that feelings of rage that do exist in the African American community are not justifiable. For me, rage is not anger which can be an immediate response to a particular situation. Rage is historical and it’s tied to our experiences of control and oppression. There is nothing episodic about the rage that is felt; it’s long term. But as African-Americans, we need to try to understand our rage and find ways to use it in ways that are constructive for us as individuals and for our communities.
I also believe that if we can find ways to move through the feelings of rage and issues of oppression, we can continue to excel. Otherwise, we will only remain scared or be victims who are destructive to their own plight.
During the conference, Ken Hardy offered a framework to bring this into context by suggesting that we apply what he calls the “VCR” concept to our interactions with one another as people first. VCR stands for Validate, Challenge and Request. The “VCR” concept basically encourages that we each be the expert of our own experience, NOT anyone else’s. And we each create the space for the telling of one’s story by actively listening, not reacting quickly. Lastly the "VCR "concept suggests we make space for both thoughts and feelings to be expressed. The “VCR” concept was not presented as something easy to do, but basically something that we each must consciously make an effort to do in order for this process to take place.
I would only add that as we each boldly and courageously speak our own truth, we also take personal responsibility for the way we think, feel, and act.
As we at P.E.E.R.S. continue to focus on the African American community, I look forward to the next steps after our participation in this conference, which set the foundation for us understanding the “isms” that do exist. That being, learning more about the impact slavery has had, continues to hold, and is reflected in the thought processes and behaviors of the African American culture today. All of this information we are continuing to learn is so our intent as an organization, who cares about being all inclusive, can have meaning and value to the work we do.
"You can never lose a thing, if it belongs to you," sings Branice McKenize.
I let the words linger and try to really hear them. It's Friday night and I'm waiting for Iyanla Vanzant, the incomparable inspirational speaker to take the stage. Iyanla is a frequent guest teacher for the OWN show (Oprah Winfrey Network) Oprah's Life Class. Sitting in the Scottish Rite auditorium in the company of hundreds of women and three guys, I try to soak up her words for my starving soul.
The theme for the night, "Breaking Through to Boldness," means empowering yourself to be the strongest version of you possible. It is not for the faint of heart, because when you break through to boldness you are accountable for your life and the choices you have made.
When Iyanla steps on stage, her words are so powerful I feel like she is speaking directly to me.
Impromptu Fake One-on-One with Iyanla Vanzant:
K: Things have just been really difficult lately. I’m so tired, there should be a new word for it. I feel like there are so many things I want to do, like grad school, and I don’t know if I have the resources, time, and patience.
Iyanla: Start looking back at what you’ve learned and what you've mastered. Match where you've been with the skills you have acquired and wear them well. Just because you haven’t done it, doesn’t mean you won't.
K: Sometimes, I just want to give up! I mean if you only knew my story. I have been through so much. I just want to know why bad things always happen to me?
Iyanla: Breaking through to boldness means the elimination of all whining! No whining. Breathe, when you feel the whine coming on. Breaking through to boldness means that you take absolute, total, and complete responsibility for every condition in your life.
K: I feel like I keep losing really close friends to me. We just don't see eye to eye anymore. Honestly, the healthier I get the more people I lose. Why does this keep happening? These are people I thought would be in my life forever.
Iyanla: I think our parents did us a disservice when they said play with everyone. You don’t have to play with everyone. Just because you shift doesn’t mean they gonna shift.
K: I'm trying to work hard on my wellness, but I get busy sometimes. There isn't always time to do breathing exercises, yoga, or go to support groups. Sometimes, I just feel so busy taking care of other people, but I will get to myself eventually. I just don't understand why when I am doing those things it isn't enough.
Iyanla: We keep thinking we will get full time awards for part-time devotion. You can't break through to boldness being nice. You wanna break through to boldness? You better get a growl. How often to we crawl on all fours because we are trying to be nice?
K: Sometimes I want to be positive, but my thoughts can be so negative. My thoughts are a like skipping CD telling me a bad phrase over and over again. I don’t know how to shut it off.
Iyanla: Don't stay in your head alone without adult supervision!
K: Wait, say what?
Iyanla: Overthinking can be hazardous to your health. Learn to trust your heart and gut. Don't stay in your head alone without adult supervision!
K: I want to connect with the right people in the right way, but I often find my kindness being taken advantage of. I don't know how to find a balance, because I honestly don’t want to be alone.
Iyanla: Allowing people to show up and behave badly is a misappropriation of power. You are the one who gets to say what goes on in your life.
*These quotes were taken directly from Iyanla Vanzant’s Breakthrough to Boldness presentation at the Heart and Soul Center of Light on September 21, 2012.
Our community lost three strong, courageous and powerful voices, embodied in DeWitt Buckingham, Darnell Levingston and Michael Bell. All three passed away within several months of each other.
The family and friends of Darnell Levingston alongside 55 individuals from the Pool of Consumer Champions (P.O.C.C.), Alameda County Network of Mental Health Clients, Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services (A.C.B.H.C.S.) and Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services (P.E.E.R.S.) gathered on Saturday, October 20th to come together and celebrate their extraordinary accomplishments.
“This is a great day that we can come together to honor these fallen soldiers, mentors and comrades,” minister Dr. Jasper Lowery said to the attendees.
“It is a wonderful celebration to speak their names and speak their truths,” said attendee Nancy Thomas.
Among DeWitt and Darnell's many undertakings, they were instrumental as the founding members of Black Men Speak. Black Men Speak (BMS) is a group of African-American men who outreach to the general public, sharing their struggles and triumphs with mental health and substance abuse challenges. Roscoe Moseby, a member of BMS, said, “They were colorful, marvelous, spirited men who were wonderful guys”.
About eight members of BMS wore their t-shirts in solidarity to affirm and acknowledge how influential DeWitt and Darnell were “in bringing Black men to the table, [which is why] we have Black men at the table to make decisions for us,” said Dawud Turner. He co-facilitated a W.R.A.P. Group with DeWitt at the Claridge (Ridge) Hotel, a low income housing facility.
While reflecting on Michael, Nancy described him as a “gentle giant who was very quiet but knew how to effectively represent and advocate for others really well."
DeWitt, Darnell and Michael were community advocates on all levels, whether it was at mental health conferences throughout the country, in Sacramento, with the Board of Supervisors in Oakland, or on dangerous street corners throughout East Oakland. They spoke to programs and organizations that serve the African-American community and held them accountable in providing services that were culturally sensitive and socially responsible.
They “opened up community funds and services because they knew how to keep shaking the trees until something fell out,” said mental health activist Sally Zinman.
In remembering Darnell, PEERS Program Manager Sharon Kuehn shared, “Darnell was sweet, kind and complex. He was a diamond in the rough, but he knew how to speak his truth clearly, concisely and with force. He helped pave the way for many African-American men with HIV-AIDS to seek the services they needed.”
Lift Every Voice and Speak member Charlene Jimerson knew Darnell from the days of Howie the Harp and remembered him as someone “interested in everyone having equal rights”.
Tamara Childs, who helped plan the event, presented A Proclamation of Appreciation plaque to Lillydell Levingston, the mother of Darnell, with these words:
“Mr. Darnell Larry Levingston, Community Leader
…You have consistently showed yourself as an out spoken leader for the African American Community and a self-made strong Black Man.
…We thank you for your contributions to the African-American Community, for raising awareness of HIV, as a Community Advocate to Stop the Violence, as a P.O.C.C. Leader, for outreach to Spiritual Communities for mental health awareness, and being a Founder of the African-American Issues Committee and Co-Founder of Black Men Speak.
Your dedication for your work has shown courage, insight, dedication and leadership.”
Another Proclamation of Appreciation plaque was read aloud in honor of DeWitt Buckingham with these words:
“Mr. DeWitt Buckingham, Community Leader…Your Strength, Leadership and Mentoring has opened doors that have never been opened before.We thank you for your contributions as Co-Founder of the African-American Issues Committee, Founder of Black Men Speak and CEO/Founder of your very own Non-Profit New Dynamic/Hope Project.Your dedication and hard work shows the kind of leadership you proclaim.Your legacy and memories will be carried on and continued through all of us.”
DeWitt, Darnell and Michael individually and collectively championed the values of volunteerism, social and political activism, and being voices for the disenfranchised in our community. They were men who “exemplify and model Black Manhood”, said PEERS Web Content and PR Specialist Jenee Darden.
PEERS Executive Director Khatera Aslami-Tamplen added, “My son can learn from their wisdom and how to give back to the community."
A poignant and tender moment came when Darnell's niece spoke on behalf of the family.
“I honestly didn’t know how many lives he touched and how much of an impact he had on others until 15 minutes ago,” she said.
"These men are not gone because their work lives on in the lives they touched," Sally Zinman reminded the crowd. "We need to continue to stand up for all the one’s that go unnoticed. We have a social responsibility to inspire and sow the seeds of inspiration in others.”
The Barbecue Celebration was about celebrating life, strengthening our community and our bonds with one another.
A warm and heartfelt Thank You goes out to: Lillydell Levingston and the family of Darnell Levingston for attending the Barbecue and allowing us the privilege of honoring their son, father and uncle; Kenneth Davis and Lindsey Hart, our Barbecue Pit Masters, for a phenomenal job grilling the hotdogs and hamburgers; our volunteers from Black Men Speak: Roscoe Moseby, Harry Caldwell, Kenneth Davis, Lindsey Hart-- who all worked so hard and tirelessly throughout the day; the Barbecue Planning Committee: Tamara Childs, Jaleah Winn, Joe Anderson, Dr. Jasper Lowery, Sharon Kuehn, Mary Hogden, Katrina Killian and Tando Goduka; Sherman Park for creating the moving and touching videography of DeWitt Buckingham and Darnell Levingston; Barry Hall for the large posters of DeWitt Buckingham and Darnell Levingston that were hung at Kennedy Park; P.O.C.C., P.E.E.R.S., and Alameda County Network of Mental Health Clients for generously providing the funds and support to make the Barbecue into a reality.
I wonder if Yasmeen Vaughan and I ever crossed paths. We're both about the same age and build. We're black women from Oakland. She graduated from Mills College and I grew up near there. Judging by her photos we have similar taste in fashion. Maybe we passed each other in a clothing store or at a flea market.
According to the Oakland Tribune, Yasmeen went missing a few weeks before Christmas of last year. Reports from her family claim she lived with untreated mental health problems. Relatives said that was the reason why Yasmeen isolated herself from them. So having no contact with her for a length of time wasn't new. When I first heard this story in January, I became worried for Yasmeen. When Africans Americans go missing, often the media passes us by. The U.K.'s Daily Mail reports that black people make up 40% of suspicious disappearances, but missing white women get the most media coverage. Which is why black cable network TV One created the new series "Find Our Missing."
Yasmeen's mental health problems caused my concerns to grew even more. I thought about Mitrice Richardson, a young black woman from South Los Angeles with bipolar disorder who disappeared a few years ago. She drove to an expensive Malibu restaurant that she couldn't afford and was acting odd. Some in the restaurant described her as behaving like she was on drugs. The staff called the police. Richardson was taken into custody by the Malibu Sheriff Dept., but released late night/early morning by herself. No family members were contacted to pick her up. If you've never been to Malibu, it's mostly beach, windy roads and cliffs. One year later, she was found dead in a deserted Malibu area.
Unfortunately, Yasmeen's story has a similar ending to Mitrice's. In mid-December, a security guard found her alive, clinging to rocks at the Oakland Estuary. Who knows how long she had been in those frigid waters. She died at a hospital a few hours later. The body was recently identified about one week ago. Yasmeen reportedly had no wallet or identification on her. What really pained me reading this story in the Oakland Tribune was a quote from her mother.
"'(Yasmeen) had cut herself off from all her friends and family. Part of the problem (with getting help for mental health issues) is the stigma that people of color have for reaching out for help.' Deborah Vaughan said she had not spoken to her daughter for weeks before she was found."
Another life loss because of mental health stigma. If only she knew good help was out there and having a mental health issue does not make her inferior. I wish she would have known that she could have a mental health issue and still live a quality life. I see testaments of this everyday at my job. Stories like Yasmeen and Mitrice's are another reminder of why what we do at PEERS is critical. Stopping stigma literally saves lives. I don't want Yasmeen Vaughan to have died in vain. Her death fuels my drive to inform the community about mental health. If she was anything like me, I think Yasmeen would want me to do just that.