I just returned home from an appointment at the Veterans Administration where I was able to reflect on my much improved life. Years ago, when I turned my life over the the VA, I was down on my luck. Today things are much better. I am feeling optimistic about life. I might be able to go to New Orleans next month for a conference. MC3, the mental health quality improvement board, sent me an email asking whether I would like to be a part of their steering committee. The Department of Health and Human Services for Milwaukee County is asking me to participate in an environmental scan to help them understand what is going on. And I am finishing a book Americanah about Nigerian refugees in America and Great Britain.
I am uncertain whether any of these things are related. I am a regular at the MC3 events and I am reasonably articulate. I participate in the small group discussions. MC3 is the group that recently nominated me for the Mental Health Board. It is possible that there is some connection between being on this steering committee and being on the board. My sister Chris would say that I am marketing myself. Let’s get this guy out there in the community.
There have been a few people who were marketed, awarded, publicized in the newspaper and magazines as knowing what there is to know about living with a mental illness and or helping those who have a mental illness. Suddenly, there might be an awareness that they need to have black men as part of these discussions. Too often, black men are the victims of the mental health system. There was a memorial recently regarding Dontre Hamilton a young black man with a mental illness who had fallen asleep in a downtown park and was killed by police. The first thing I would tell this Mental Health Board is to stop killing young black men.
When you check the staffs of agencies that are providing services such as case management you don’t find a lot of black men and yet the people who we have the most difficulty understanding are black men. Is that a surprise? So, hire some of them.
I asked a Milwaukee County worker, ask yourself, what can I do to help? She called my supervisor and told her she thought I was telling her how to do her job. Eventually, the county worker did what I was asking her to do.
The book Americanah tells about the differences between Africans in American and Britain and African-Americans. I have told my facebook friends about this and invited them to comment on the book. It was a very big seller not so long ago. The main character was a Nigerian woman who became a successful blogger. Maybe people will offer to sponsor my blog and I will not be working with people who are living with a mental illness? I seriously doubt that but perhaps something more interesting will happen. Stay tuned.
I am reading this book by Ngozi Adichie that was a major best seller. It is the second book I have been reading since buying new glasses last week. I had been struggling with reading previously often crying as I tried to read. I took off my glasses because apparently the part of the lens where one does close reading was too small. There was much about my eyes that was unknown to me. It seems that I am not very good in buying glasses, sometimes keeping them way past the time when they are to be discarded. Other times getting glasses that don’t fit and look ridiculous. Now I have good glasses, my eyes are dry and the streets are damp. Now to find out why everyone is reading this book.
My first Nigerian novelist was the much beloved Chinua Achebe who made me feel the struggle of Africa being ripped apart by colonizers. I read him when I was in college either running from the police or trying to find a girl friend. Now I have these new glasses which make me feel like reading and writing once more. The book puzzles me as it seems to make a lot of jumps in place and time. At first, the main character Ifemelu is a smart mouthed blogger in America getting ready to return home to rekindle an old relationship and being tortured by an African hair braider who seems to be having a mental breakdown. Then she is a child enduring her mother’s religious fantasies in Nigeria. I will see where this leads.
Nor was I cooked and eaten by hungry people. What I was asked how our Black lives matter meeting went, that was my response. One and one half days have passed and I am still alive. We have begun the trip and are fairly civilized. The group includes people who are fairly active in matters of racial justice and me. For me, racial justice lately has been the ability to earn a living without fear of eviction and having the same benefits as my co-workers. For people who don’t know, being a peer support specialist is my fourth or fifth career and it is the one the has lasted the longest. I have been a librarian, a cooperative developer, a grant writer and a day care worker. Since those other careers faded away, one can conclude that either I was not especially skilled or I am better suited for what I am doing now. These jobs sometimes paid decent money but unfortunately did not last more than a few years.
Peer support has often been a low paying career in which I had to fight to earn a living wage. I am wearing the first pair of glasses ever bought with company provided vision benefits. Either my previous jobs didn’t have vision benefits or I didn’t use them. Making my life matter meant a lot of pain and struggle to survive. There was also a lot of acting out and fairly embarrassing behavior that ruined relationships. My current life is the most stable I have felt for a long time.
I now feel as though I have something to offer such as the value of my experience. I know what it means to feel ashamed that you need to depend on your family for support well into adulthood. I know about having your payroll check bounce. I know what bad and good employers are like. These are all things I bring to the struggle to making black lives matter in Milwaukee. I was the only African-American at the table for our first meeting at the First Unitarian Society, a situation I hope to change. I hope to venture out and become a part of some of the struggles my fellow members have been involved with and make a difference. I will share my vision, now that it is clear what I can see.
In another step towards changing over from being an ad hoc “cabal” to a formal committee I asked for and received the names and contact information of the people who have been a part of the group. I was pleasantly surprised that there were about a dozen people. This is a testimony to Mary’s organizational skills. While she may seem like one of those flaky white liberals just running around doing thins, the fact is she helped create some pretty impressive events. The question is, what to do with all of the energy that she has helped create? Where does it go?
I will be busy sending out an email informing people of the changeover and and finding a date for our first meeting. Next week I will be attending the my first meeting of the social justice council as the chair of the new black lives committee. Once more into the breach.
This post is to announce that I am returning to leadership within Unitarian Universalism. Many years ago I chaired the racial justice committee. That committee promoted diversity, organized a Kwanzaa event, organized a drum circle and tried to change the church culture. Unfortunately, the committee seemed to attract the same core group of people. I underwent a personal transformation that led to a divorce, and the development of a whole new career as a certified peer specialist. There were years in which I was barely active.
The committee was dissolved but in recent years new people have entered the church with a different set of ideas. One person in particular Mary Devitt has been a catalyst under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Mary has involved the First Unitarians in several events, most recently organizing a showing of a film about the 53206 neighborhood, which focused on the impact of mass incarceration on the low income community. She was also in the campaigns to change police practices after the killings of black men by police in Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. Her most recent accomplishment was a workshop on racial justice at Alverno College that featured Chris Crass, a speaker from Kentucky. Over 350 people attended the event which was organized with a remarkable coalition.
Mary has been a sort of one woman committee within the church which lead to her being given a designation as a change agent. At the same time Mary recognized that it was problematic for her to be in charge of black lives matter. She has what she calls her “cabal” that she can pull together on an ad hoc basis to achieve goals. However, that could easily lead to burn out. So we began a conversation this week about my leading a transformation of the black lives matter cabal into a committee to carry on the things she has started.
I have agreed to take this on at a time of turmoil within the Unitarian Universalist movement. There is more happening every day and it demands that someone from Milwaukee help give direction. The UU is a place where I feel comfortable sometimes. When my allies aren’t present and people ask me, where have I been, I feel like becoming invisible. That needs to change. A lot needs to change. Let the drum speak.
I have been a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee since the 1990s. Like many people, I was drawn to the many progressive things that the church members did. They were affirming the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry and have children. They supported the right of women to control their own bodies and led a clinic protection coalition when right wing anti abortionists threatened to close down clinics. They marched against American interventions in the affairs of other nations. And I was also drawn to what the Unitarian Universalists did not have, which was a religious creed. No one was forced to believe in the existence of god, which I never have. I have never read more than a few pages of the bible and don’t believe in any form of supreme being.
I also joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation a few years ago because I found that public officials routinely brought their religious views into the lives as mayors, senators and other forms of elected office. They violated the separation of church and state. In that way I felt that they violated my rights.. I am excited when I read of ordinary heroism done not in the praise of some being I consider imaginary. I am able to nourish my friendships and work on doing good for its own sake. I am part of a struggle to help transform the Unitarians from a largely white middle class denomination to a one which welcomes people of color and affirms that my life as an African-American matters. I want to know that these are people who will have my back. That is what I believe.
I just listened to a story on This American Life about Alan Pean, a young African-American man who experienced a severe psychiatric breakdown while living in Houston, Texas. Alan was a college student who had previously survived a couple of episodes of manic depressive disorder. Alan came from a high achieving family with doctors including his father.
Alan found that his mind was overpowered by a delusion that caused him to jump off the balcony of his third story apartment, make his way to his car and crash through the gates. He drove toward St. Joseph Hospital, a major medical facility in downtown Houston. He crashed and totaled his car into the hospital and somehow told the emergency room staff he was having a manic episode. But he was never treated for his mental disorder. His father who is of Haitian descent arrived a few hours later and also told the staff that his son was having mental problems and yet Alan was still not evaluated by a psychiatrist.
His father left to try to arrange getting Alan help for his mental illness and shortly afterwards the staff had trouble with Alan and called for security. This turned out to be Houston police with guns who were not trained in dealing with psychiatric patients. Alan was tasered, then shot and almost killed and later charged with assault. Although the charges were later dropped there is a disturbing pattern of mental patients being shot or tasered by police who have little or no training in dealing with them.
There is a New York Times article about the incident involving Alan Pean. People need to be aware of these kinds of incidents and understand that psychiatric patients need help, not bullets. They need people trained to deescalate and force is the last thing you would ever want to use to help someone recover his or her mind.
This story raises other questions, such as what if Alan and his father had been white? Would the outcome be different? Would the hospital staff you turn to for help be able to recognize that when a white person says he needs mental help, they would hear the person and attempt to provide help? What prevents them from hearing the same statements from people of color? What information is available about the hospital you use and their policy about the use of force? How equipped are they to handle people with a mental illness? Is the person the staff calls for help going to be an armed police officer? And finally, what safe alternatives are there to hospitals for people with mental illness and how widely known are these alternatives?