Will I be appointed to the Milwaukee Mental Health Board?

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This picture includes people from the Milwaukee County Committee I co-chair.

 

These are facts that might have been omitted from the application I submitted to County Executive Chris Abele to serve on the Milwaukee Mental Health Board. I was nominated for the Milwaukee Mental Health Board this spring and it was a top 10 experience. Up there with my prom date, receiving my draft number and going to New York to become a hippie. Many of these are things that might not have shown up if someone was doing a thorough background check on me. I have attended one of these Mental Health Board meetings and I said I was in favor of creating a peer run respite in Milwaukee. Which I still am. I have a number of other names by which I have been known, what you might call aliases. In the 7th grade I was known as that black bastard by an asshole I had to fight with. By high school I was a traitor because I refused to stand up for the pledge of allegiance. I was living in a racist city where the school board operated two separate school districts, and there was nothing separate but equal about them. And I was quite certain I was not going to be just a number.

I was very radical in my youth because I was excited about the people of Africa regaining their freedom. I wanted to see Portuguese troops leaving Africa by whatever means necessary. I was a little too young to understand what had happened to Patrice Lumumba. I was a baseball fan but I did not live and die on whatever Willie Mays had done. The song Young Gifted and Black helped define me and my generation. We were poetin.

But times have changed and so have I. My lovely brown hair has turned gray. Some of the heroes I admired have been killed. Counterrevolution has killed many of our African freedom fighters. After protesting the US military, I allowed myself to be drafted. As a man of 66 years I have a long career behind me and a relatively short career ahead of me. A lot of this depends on which of my 93 year old mother’s genes win out and whether I am found guilty of driving while black (or brown, which technically, I still am). I am working my 40 hour shift at the agency you help to pay for. I co-chair a Milwaukee County committee. And I write about things in my blog that appeal to me. I have never been rich. I have outlived my father many years and I stand for black lives matter. If those are the kind of traits you want represented on a body that helps make mental health decisions in Milwaukee County, then by all means go ahead and pick me. If not, I will always be Kenyatta.

 

My first GA

 

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In June, I went to my first General Assembly, which is the annual membership meeting o the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was a electric experience. I thought to myself, after so many years of identifying as an atheist, I really am part of a religion. A very particular type of religion with certain basic tenets and and a wide amount of choice. This revelation comes after meeting with a dear friend recently who discovered the very same thing. The Unitarian Universalists lack a lot of things tat hold churches together. There is no fear of going to hell. In fact that was one of the things that drew the Universalists together. If there is no fear of eternal damnation, how do you hold people together?

I found in this gathering a lot of what holds us together. It is love. We have people who pray. We have people who are recovering from traditional Christianity. My friend is healing herself after having been part of a very strict cult similar to the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And, as the joke goes, “there are a lot of atheists who haven’t kicked the religion habit.”

One of my favorite hymns includes a line “even to question, truly, is an answer.” Going to General Assembly exposed me to a wide variety of African-Americans. I saw people who were part of a walkout many years ago when the church lost thousands of African-American members over its failure to follow through on a commitment it had made to them. I saw people the the Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists and the Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Ministries. In my upcoming blogs I will describe some of these experiences in great detail. There is always more to the story.

Those old sexist ads

I just saw pictures of old sexist newspaper ads on the Buffalo News website. The ads included the usual hair, appliances, men’s shirts and men are so much smarter than women. What I found was that no one looked like me or anyone in my family. Back in those days, African-Americans didn’t buy shoes, have children, wear clothes or eat. So no one thought to market anything to us. It was as if we didn’t exist. I am part of the first generation of African-Americans who appeared in ads for the general public. In the black media, we existed. I remember seeing OJ Simpson running through airports. I remember the Miller Lite All Star ads with retired players.  Now there are ads featuring us all over the place. There are gay and lesbian themed African-American ads.  There are interracial couples with their little beige children.

This is the new America. The one that some people find threatening.  Father knows best is gone but somehow those old guys from the sexist ads have reappeared.

Some assembly required for leadership

Some assembly required, indeed. Some people are looking at this title and wondering, what are you building, Kenyatta? A robot? So, today, I answered the call for the Milwaukee County Mental Health Board. When I had received an earlier invitation from the Mental Health Task Force, I put it away, and probably even deleted the email. I strongly considered myself a grassroots worker who was not concerned with systemic change. But several factors suggest that is not entirely true.

I was part of several quality improvement groups that Milwaukee county had created. Many of us who were peer support specialists said that we were undervalued and often told to perform menial tasks. I remember a woman who worked at the crisis resource center bragged about her expertise as a dishwasher. No amount of dishpan hands will make you a peer support specialist.

One of my big moments was addressing the Grassroots Empowerment Project during one of their Empowerment Days. I remember advocating for higher reimbursements for dentists who care for people who are living on Medicaid. The empty mouths of young people who were on SSI informed my plea. The medications people take may damage their teeth and their behavior, getting into fights, may damage or even destroy their teeth and people simply neglect themselves and their bodies as I discovered before I sought help.

A sustained effort was chairing the City County Supportive Housing Commission which approved several projects. However, there was a contradiction for me. Even while sitting up there with all these highly paid specialists, I was at great risk of being evicted due in large part to my low wages as a peer specialist.

As a system, we need to ensure that Milwaukee County employees and people working for agencies contracted by the county are paid living wages. In the past, use of restraints was a major problem in the mental health complex. It was discussed at the Mental Health Board meeting that I attended. So that is one thing to pay close attention to as we transition from the mental health complex to the smaller community facilities that will replace it. The other thing that advocates should pay attention to is what Milwaukee County does with the money that taxpayers will be saving as the system moves towards more community services. What community services will we be paying for and what is the quality of those services? Forward.

Drawn to Secularism

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.

Time and again

I just finished reading a pamphlet about the difficulties faced by people on probation or parole who are re-incarcerated without committing any new offense. This is a serious problem in Wisconsin. There are thousands of people behind bars who don’t belong there.  Wisconsin is known for many negative statistics concerning African American men and these are especially glaring when it comes to criminal justice. Black men are over represented in the prison system as inmates both for people who committed crime and for those who whose probation was revoked.

We are the poster child for the problem of mass incarceration. Instead of seeking alternatives to incarceration we have a system which rewards probation and parole officers who use technical violations as excuses to send people back to prison. We have people who went back to school and began earning college credits winding up in prison. We have a system which does not offer due process, and offers incentives for people to make false accusations to send their former friends or spouses back to prison. There are bout 3,000 people sent to our state prisons every year because of “revocations” and I would bet that the vast majority are black or brown. We also have the problem of Truth of In Sentencing a horrendous law that was passed several years ago in fit of “tough on crime” which ended ended probation and parole for new people who are being convicted of crimes.  Truth in Sentencing is applied to  11 crimes that apply to the majority of prison inmates. When you examine charts you find a tremendous increase in the number of inmates Wisconsin due almost entirely to truth in sentencing. which increases the length of prison sentences.

These issues need to be discussed to look at the cost to society, the failure to reward people who are truly attempting to turn their lives around and the stress that it puts on people who are caught up in the system and whose technical violations could be resolved in alternative means.

I recommend becoming involved in groups like WISDOM a statewide network with EXPO an organization of former prisoners who have direct experience. You can call 414-831-2070 to find out how you can help.

Shot while in the hospital

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?