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.
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.
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.
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.
A few years ago the Republican controlled state legislature passed a law taking decision-making authority for mental health away from the elected county supervisors and replaced them with a group of volunteers from the community. The board includes mental health consumers, attorneys, advocates and mental health professionals. There are a lot of big decisions to be made regarding Milwaukee County mental health. The county is moving away from the model of maintaining a large mental health facility which they have been downsizing over the years by closing wards and shifting the people who lived there to community based facilities. Case management, which helps people live in the community, has already been contracted out to various agencies. These agencies help engage with consumers and connect them to services with the aim of reducing their dependence on in patient treatment, which is expensive and often very traumatic.
However, there are no guarantees in this system. We all know people in community programs who died but we can try to reduce the number of preventable deaths. We can ensure that case management provides necessary services. We can increase the number of affordable housing units. We can offer physical and mental health in a coordinated fashion and make certain that people are getting regular check ups. We can have clinics where we would want to be treated. These are very easy steps we can take in our own agencies
But what we do to guide the process of system wide reform? One way is by joining the mental health board. Imagine my surprise when a former co-worker asked me to apply to join the board, which is appointed by the county executive. I will be tossing my hat into the ring tonight to see if I can add my experience to this group. I am excited, interested and curious all at the same time. I will post some more as the process goes along.