It’s 6:30 am when my alarm goes off. I get up to enjoy the morning quiet and play out the day ahead. This morning, I reflect on the upcoming senior leadership meeting. As I consider those I’ll see around the table, I am once again drawn to the fact that I will be the only black man. While this is no different from last week, I am regularly reminded of how few of “me” there are.
I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist and program manager at Navos Mental Health Solutions, where I work with children. I am also one of only two black men in Washington state with my qualifications. The unique experience of being one of only two brings up a number of questions: Why are there not more black male therapists? Why aren’t there more black men in behavioral health leadership roles? Why was I chosen for my role? Is it because of my skin color or is it because of my ability?
As a minority in a leadership role, I often question my place. Intellectually, I know I belong. I have all the qualifications, the drive, the skills. But my vulnerable side sometimes wonders, “Do I belong here?”
I am fortunate that I have employers that support growth and development, offering me advancement opportunities at the ready, like participation in our field’s esteemed Middle Management Academy and Addressing Health Disparities Leadership Program. I know that being on the Navos leadership team would be a more difficult accomplishment without the chance to learn the leadership skills and expertise earned through those programs. I also I am aware that I can still “move up the ladder” further. But when I think that, those old nagging questions come back to me, asking, “Do I belong here?”
It can feel lonely. But I am empowered to share the deep-rooted doubts that come with being a minority leader so I can help raise awareness in our field about why diversity is so important. It’s not only for other minority professionals, but it’s for the people we treat. As a community mental health agency serving a culturally diverse area, it is imperative that we acknowledge racial disparities.
As a therapist who works with children and families of color, I regularly hear stories about how they don’t feel safe expressing themselves or fear they’re not being heard. They tell me about going to appointments with academic, legal, child protective services, mental health professionals and others and feel threatened by the folks they meet with—the opposite of our good-natured intentions. It’s not lost on me that the individuals they feel threatened by are more than likely not their race. I wonder, “What would their experience be like if the composition in those meetings was different?”
As an administrator, I wonder how Navos’ policies and procedures would look if a diverse group of professionals contributed to their development and implementation. Would that help clients feel safer and, therefore, more empowered to engage in their care? Creating an organization that recognizes the impact of racial disparities takes not only time, but an explicit and intentional commitment. When we commit to equity and inclusion work we acknowledge that we do not live in an equitable society; that those with privilege make decisions that affect the lives of those less privileged. Equity and inclusion work draws our attention to this simple fact.
It’s my experience that even well-intentioned people can struggle with understanding what it’s like for cultural minorities to access and engage in services, as well as to work within our service systems. And while our field increasingly focuses on improving diversity and cultural competence, we are missing the mark. We aren’t developing cultures where people, both staff and clients, from underrepresented communities feel included, supported and comfortable.
It’s a big responsibility to bring culture to the table. But on those quiet mornings when I am alone with my thoughts, I think about the families who share their stories with me, who open up to me, who I can make feel more comfortable. I think about possibilities for change and I wonder, “If not me, then who?” I know I’m contributing to a bigger picture of change.
I am honored to be asked for my perspective…as a leader, and regardless of my color.
As I continue to reflect on my nagging questions and wrestle with the answers, I find comfort in considering the African Proverb: Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. And I recognize that the questions aren’t as important as the telling of the tale.Tags: Behavioral Health Care, Health Disparities, Legislation, Mental Health First Aid