The experience with the charity was painfully inspirational and set me up with a want to build a communal space for Black and Asian mental health professionals. Meeting Frank Lowe in the summer of 2019 moved the want aspect into a need. I will investigate what causes a need for a space that I and marginalised others could feel comfortable in below.
Kent prisons offered a useful sidestep from the set of challenges I contended with as a project manager at the charity. As the lead counsellor for the Kent cluster of prisons I held onto hope for a number of new experiences. Meeting the No. 1 governor at the beginning of my time at one of the six prisons I was to oversee, encouraged me to believe in change as a possibility. The number one governor appeared approachable, a good listener and socially aware of the setting of the jail and the over representation of young Black men detained at the prison. The governor was clear that the concerned focus on ne’er do well’s, sent to prison was a societal/political/educational issue if we widened the lens.
One Amongst Many
In the second year of managing 6 prisons, alongside 3 other Black and Asian staff, we started and implemented the Diversity Space. There was something I found hard to metabolise, voice, and process about being a Black male lead counsellor managing a mostly White staff team across 6 prisons. The diversity space gave me chance to lay down the shields, masks, double consciousness I walked along every corridor with, into every room carrying, all meetings attended, most telephone conversations and only a few counselling interactions. As Code Switch’s ‘This Racism Is Killing Me on The Inside’ link in last week’s post highlights, the effect of being discriminated against wears the recipient down.
I have previously highlighted that walking whilst Black in the 21st century is a different experience than living and walking whilst Black in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Working in prison as a person of proposed seniority, with legitimate reasons for being a key carrying member of staff offers a number of challenges for both uniform and detained persons in prison. There were concerned looks by prison staff as I appeared from behind a previous locked door. These concerned looks intensified from staff when I began walking the corridors with a cane to assist my slow MS labored progress. Persons in prison treated me as an anomaly. Visibly disabled and Black, not uniformed, hobbling about with a cane. ‘He must be one of us then’ seemed to be the consensus. I was once asked by a person in prison where he could get a cane like mine? He and I weeks later laughed once he realised that I was staff. I needed a space where I could process these mal formed moments, vent my frustrations amongst a room of people who yes resembled me in some way, but also understood what walking, breathing, living as an othered person was like.
Starting Diversity Space I wanted a safe space in a prison more than once a month! The irony is not lost. As a member of staff there was something either confusing, discombobulating and often discomforting about being a Black free person working in prison. The team that I supported did their best to accommodate and support me. The practicals of getting the computers to work, or using the telephone system, and finding various cell blocks or locations of colleagues the team excelled at. The deeper learning of moving amongst a populace of staff who had rarely interacted with a Black man, other than in prison was a gap perhaps too great to fathom.
I did not share my frequent observations, experiences and worrisome times of being treated as an other. For instance, my first day at one of the prisons, a member of the psychology team almost with eyes of unpleasant surprise wanted to loudly proclaim but stilled their tongue ‘you can’t come in here!’ as I entered the counselling and psychology office. The hastily dropped assessment may have been that a Black prisoner was entering a protected ‘White’ space. The topics of race, class and poverty were often left overlooked. They unspoken barbs of information perfuming an already laden atmosphere. An undercurrent of fear lurked in every corner. The social subjects of othering people too large to appropriately be dissolved in any singular discussion. I felt that my presence in prison was a question some could not find a fitting answer to. As a result I was often left reeling from acts from staff that limited the aim I had of wanting to improve circumstances for persons in prison and staff that cared for them. Diversity Space offered a balm. Similar to my experience to BAATN I felt appreciated, seen, heard and understood once the group began.
When a group of like-minded individuals begin a project that ultimately is used as a tool to hold themselves together within a hostile environment. Violent uprisings can be an outcome, however, the gatherings are usually fertile ground to develop ideas that disrupt and destroy the psychological hold power structures like White supremacy maintain. The aim – to move the needle – the axis of control – away from oppressors. Generally, the idea of coming together is to be of support, to listen, to share stories, to laugh uproariously and to find ways of managing an intolerable set of circumstances whilst not losing one’s mind. The empathic embodied understanding received by fellow colleagues, was one of the best and most fitting outcomes the group offered me, a Black member of staff working across 6 prisons in Kent. I no longer walked the corridors alone. There is an implicit confidence that a person with knowledge strides with. I walked the prisons, as if carried by an unseen army/team beside and around me. I had a special group of psychologically and sociologically trained Black and Asian professionals that were in the Strange Situation with me.
I met Frank Lowe as he delivered training on Decolonizing Psychotherapy in Bexley, South East London. The event changed something in me. I felt Frank largely presented his truth as a catalyst for change to be made amongst attendant staff groups. Frank highlighted the need for change fundamentally within the NHS and specifically within psychological professions. Last weeks blog pointed at the ‘over and under representation’ aspect that engulfs the delivery and receipt of care in the National Health Service. During the training, I boiled over when a senior (PMSF) psychologist suggested that we are all racist. In essence they were correct. Growing up in a racist, financially oppressive, sexist, classist, homophobic, ableist society is going to have a deleterious effect. My position was that the likelihood of being stopped searched and unlawlfully killed by police was less likely for them and unfortunately more an eventuality for me. This the summer before the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Before Corona Virus Disease 2019 permanently rearranged our planet. Frank during the lunch break pulled me to one side and offered his wise understanding. His advice ‘Do something that changes the dynamic for you and those who look like you. Don’t stop until the environment, your environment, that you work in feels good with you in it.’ He thanked me for my honesty and challenging what was left ‘unsaid’ to be heard. I exited the training with the germ of a concept burning away until we turned DS into a reality. I was only too happy to share with a few others and start something called the Diversity Space in October 2019. I would like to also thank my then manager who recognised a need for Black and Asian professionals to meet outside of the ‘White gaze’. There is a history of health services taking time, energy, health, family, money, opportunity, choice, friendships, promotions away from those who toil endlessly within it’s substrate structures as ‘othered’ people, and offer little to compensate for multiple losses. The idea was to find a community within a community and our way to health.
A part two will follow taking in the steps of how we developed a singular focus – focus group. An impossibility as there are too many foci…
I came across the Mary D Ainsworth Strange Situation whilst attending my counselling training. I use the term strange situation to show how being in a prison as a Black civilian was seen as strange. Often by those who looked upon me and by my awareness of those who looked at me – askance. Double consciousness 101.
Robert Glasper’s Got Over artfully uses the voice of Harry Belafonte to resonantly express the arc of his career and his lived experience of being an outsider and othered. The request is to recognise achievement no matter the obstacle.
Gabor Maté and Resmaa Manekem share a beautiful conversation. These two pioneers at the top of their fields having an equally empowering conversation about Race, difference and learning to survive the discomfort. Thank you Kwame Opoku for the share!
The Unlocking us Podcast with Brené Brown and Esther Perel, two women at the height of their respective powers – highlight the need for all of us to be aware of Thanatos and Eros. What we lose by not being aware of the death of the other both actual and metaphorical. What can be gained as we dance, play and experience the erotic is also wonderfully unpacked.
Rohan Thompson of Breakthrough Counselling and Wellness talks with Isaac Callan about a report that impacts staff in the district of Peel Ontario. Rohan discusses the beyond intimate labor from a Black union that caused the report to make a significant impact. The link for me in relation to the podcast and the NHS is how a minority group observing and experiencing a racist system leans into their own discomfort and articulates what steps are to be taken to bring about necessary changes.
The Am I Going Mad series of YouTube documentaries invites us to observe the challenge of being Black in the world, contending with racist thought belief and actions from the societies we live in.
With This American Life I felt the title was a useful frame to begin looking at what has been built within a system of hate and what else could exist once the towering edifice cracks, crumbles and falls into dust?
Got Over Robert Glasper and Harry Belafonte
The Wisdom of Trauma with Gabor Maté and Resmaa Manekem
Unlocking Us podcast Brené Brown and Esther Perel
What’s The Point Management of child welfare in turmoil
Am I Going Mad Are All Men Created Equal
This American Life Made To Be Broken
Cover photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash
We Welcome photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash
Survive Hoodie photo by sham abdo on Unsplash
Young Men Laughing photo by Siviwe Kapteyn on Unsplash