Opening Our Eyes to Opportunities for Change

September 2, 2021

Colorful Legacy by Willis “Nomo” Humphrey & Keir Johnston. Photo by Steve Weinik for Mural Arts Philadelphia

Sitting in my office at 40th and Chestnut Streets, I often look east and admire the beautiful mural of a young Black man, titled “Colorful Legacy,” by Willis “Nomo” Humphrey and Keir Johnston. As I gaze at the image, I sometimes shake my head when reflecting on my initial misunderstanding of the artists’ message; I had no idea that the mural is about mental health.

In 2017, my eyes were opened to that message when I attended a presentation by Arthur Evans, then commissioner of Philadelphia’s DBHIDs and now CEO of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Evans shared that the work was a collaboration between DBHIDs and Mural Arts. The mural is about mental health, he said, designed to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in the Black community and increase support for individual and community wellness.

How did I miss this? As the CEO of Council for Relationships (CFR), an organization annually providing more than 35,000 hours of therapy to about 5,000 people in our region, I probably should have picked up on the theme. After more than a year of the pandemic and the racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd, our eyes have been opened to critical facets of our lives and our society that we may not have noticed. The mural represents two of them well.

The first is mental health. As I described, the mural was right in front of me, but I didn’t realize it was sending a message about mental health. Similarly, the pandemic has opened people’s eyes to the need for mental health care, appropriately reducing the associated stigma. Many who were naysayers about the need for mental health services have become believers. Like the mural’s message, mental health – including the need to care for it – has always been there, we just might not have realized it.

Second, the mural can represent how the past year’s racial reckoning has opened the eyes of many white people to systemic racism. While many of us have worked for racial justice for years, we naively may not have understood the full extent of racism’s impact and insidiousness.

While CFR has many ways to address mental health needs, I want to share what we are doing, on our small scale, to contribute to the fight against systemic racism. As a predominantly white organization, we hope that our efforts – which are just a beginning of the work that needs to be done – may provide an example of what other mostly-white organizations might do.

Although I’m not a therapist, I know they recommend self-reflection when addressing a newly identified challenge. I’m proud to say that staff-wide there was a desire to individually and organizationally commit to this self-reflection in the fight against systemic racism.

On the individual level, fighting racism began with each staff member participating in book groups to discuss the literature and each participant’s journey toward greater anti-racism. Book groups read Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad or My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem.

On the organizational level, CFR began both internal and external work. Internally, we formed a Racial Equity Working Group, to reflect on and change any of CFR’s practices that may lead to unequitable outcomes, and hired Ann Colley, an accomplished Black alumna of our Post Graduate Certificate Program, to facilitate regular all-staff discussions about racial equity.

Externally, CFR launched the Racial Equity in Therapy Initiative, which includes training for mental health care professionals to effectively meet the needs of clients of color. The initiative also supports clients of color accessing counseling from clinicians of color at a rate that is fair to both parties, seeking to minimize the compounding negative economic impact of systemic racism.

We are proud of what we have accomplished on these individual and organizational fronts, but we know this is ongoing work and there is so much more that needs to be done.

We were reminded of this last October with the death of Walter Wallace, Jr. just blocks from our office. Wallace had a mental health emergency but was not tended to by mental health professionals. Following this tragedy, we are pleased that Philly will soon send specialists alongside officers to some mental health calls. CFR will continue to support these types of reforms.

Our eyes have been opened. Let’s take this opportunity to address our mental health needs and to work to undo the injustices of systemic racism for the good of all of us individually and societally.

Chief Clinical Officer Emma Steiner and Marketing Director Jessica Willingham contributed to this blog post.