A Roadmap to Success

In January 2015, I attended Haymarket’s anti-racism event where I met the now Associate Director, Polly, who graduated from Smith School for Social Work. We connected about our mutual affiliation with the program and I followed up to keep in touch and was able to schedule an informational interview in March.

I took a picture in the lobby of the “Roadmap to Success” and was inspired by the organization’s mission and comprehensive approach to individual change.

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My own career took a detour in the Fall of 2016 and I ended up applying for two positions at Project Place. I spent this past year working there and am just beginning to make sense of my enriching and complicated experience as I go through the mundane motions of updating my resume. How can I express the significance of Project Place in the world and in my life? I was fortunate to work with resilience and inspiring clients: individuals in re-entry from incarceration, in recovery from addiction and trauma; those managing the stress of mental illness and employment; veterans and women in shelter with children in obtaining jobs and housing.

Each week, many Project Place clients and alumni attend enrichment workshops that I was responsible for coordinating, covering a broad range of topics. These workshops provide opportunity to practice interpersonal effectiveness, learn new skills, and share in thoughtful discussion and self-reflection, while providing a supportive community.
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17103355_10155010821466838_9140530622371148587_n.jpgI could tell you about our feel-good holiday party and the inspiring stories of clients who have transformed their lives. These stories are so important to share because change is happening thanks to organizations like Project Place. To learn more about homelessness, “The Chronicle has joined with more than 80 other news organizations to focus attention on the seemingly intractable problem of homelessness in the Bay Area. As part of the SF Homeless Project, The Chronicle’s Beyond Homelessness series explores possible solutions that might ease, if not end, the suffering of thousands of people living on our streets, and improve the quality of life for all residents. To date, the SF Homeless Project has been emulated in several U.S. cities where homelessness remains a humanitarian crisis.”

Though I largely worked with clients who were courageous and focused on making great change in their lives, today I feel unsettled, angry, resentful of our mental health system and how inaccessible it is. What does inaccessibility even mean? The more marginalized one is, the more invisible they are to those in power, and those with privilege to remain unaware of others’ suffering. A perfect illustration is the media coverage of how Our Opioid Crisis Reveals Deep Racial Bias In Addiction Treatment.

For many of my clients, mental health services are inaccessible to them in part because they have been betrayed and abandoned by the people and institutions that were meant to protect, educate, and care for them. Many of them would not choose to see a therapist because trauma makes it hard to trust that a stranger could care about you when again and again you have been made to feel invisible.

It wasn’t enough to listen, to care, to show up for my clients because there are powerful forces working against them succeeding in their quest for change. What does it mean to work IN the system and not be OF the system? Some days, I feel complicit and guilty that I’m not doing enough. I feel tired of working in the wake of trauma. Yes we need resources and services until they become obsolete, but I want to work towards the prevention of trauma, to promote wellness and equity by creating new paradigms. I want to practice social work in a society where therapists don’t have to make career choices based on financial necessity. Additionally, I see my colleagues struggling to stay in the field because of lack of structural supports. When the majority of social workers are propelled into the field in large part because of their own relationship to systemic oppression, there must be best practices to support them.

 

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My recent trip to SanFrancisco was a reminder of how most people see the homeless. I don’t live there and can only speak anecdotally and share my reactions because these are difficult conversations to have. I want to be effective in revealing the truth of what homelessness actually looks like and advocate for better services & policy to prevent homelessness. 

Beginning on the plane ride, I sat next to a 24-year-old, sensitive and caring White man. We spoke briefly about the news and a story of bullying that had upset him. Shortly after he warned me of all the homeless youth who choose the streets in the city. We had been talking for awhile and I felt comfortable sharing that I don’t believe anyone wakes up and prefers to be homeless without more complicated reasons. We had a great conversation about the nuances of mental health, trauma, addiction, etc. I was impressed with his curiosity and genuine interest.

The rest of my trip was marked by comments about fear of the homeless, cars being broken into by “junkies,” warnings for my safety when people were doing drugs on the street. I acknowledge that the homeless situation in SF was shockingly more visible than anything I’d experienced in Boston or New York, but still struggled in how to respond to the comments.

A close friend brought up Dylan Roof and I could tell even though she doesn’t believe in the death penalty, she was pained by his lack of remorse for the crime he committed. How can we understand that nobody who is well commits murder? A 17-year old didn’t choose his upbringing. My response was that most people who suffer from mentally-illness are not violent, but often most vulnerable to being victims of violence. The media often perpetuates our fear and it leads to an adverse affect on how society views punishment and ultimately impacts access to mental health services. I don’t have answers, but I wish more people would take the young man on the plane’s approach and keep asking questions rather than accepting the face value of what you see on the streets or read in a news story.

My work at Project Place gave me an intimate understanding of how people’s mistakes impact their families and their lives. Obama’s sentencing reform speaks to the injustice of our criminal justice system and it’s time we address the racist policies that perpetuate the impact of trauma, mental health issues, and addiction. My clients care deeply about their children and communities. So many of them aspire to work in the field of recovery and to inspire youth to be leaders. 

The injustice in the world feels overwhelming and if I were full-time organizing or working on policy change, I’m sure I still would still feel like I was doing enough. There is so much suffering right now. To stay grounded in my relentless hope, I remind myself that the relationships I built with clients and in my community mattered. My efforts made a difference. In the years to come, I will feel more confident, but I feel less hopeful about retention in the field and the lack of attention to workers’ interests. We can only care for our clients as well as we care for ourselves. I am more committed than ever to develop and strength what we’ve coined “self-care” practices because at this point I realize most institutions are NOT  equipped to provide such support. I will keep being critical of the institution and work towards making them better, but refuse to burnout in the process.

As I get ready to return to Smith College and reflecting on how I feel about the field and re-entering the program, I think about how I’ll never know the reason why my friend and classmate graduated from social work school and took his life. I will let his legacy remind me that we can’t  continue to stigmatize social workers’ lived experiences and promote martyrdom. I am learning to set boundaries on my time at work and in my personal life, to know my limits and know that these changes in myself will ripple out and allows me to sustain myself and be even more present for my clients.

Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. -Anne Lammot

I vow to find ways to create systemic change and not be complacent with the status quo, while still honoring the tremendous value of bearing witness to suffering and helping others recognize their humanity.

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Phoenix Rising. Onbeing27.

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Writing is medicine and has always been the only way for me to reflect and understand the passage of time. This year, I am honoring many transitions and transformations. I know writing this letter will help navigate the tough feelings that accompany this birthday that I’ll celebrate without certain people. This letter is also a gift to myself.

I hold memories of the three of the biggest hearted individuals, men I deeply admired and who we lost this past Fall/Winter. Each of them brought healing to countless individuals and I will never forget what it was like to be in their presence. I know I will continue to learn from them. 

Dear 27 Year Old Me,

This year I know your birthday will remind you of the people who can’t be there to celebrate. You’re missing them. These memories are to remind you of the many gifts this year brought. This is the birthday card, only YOU could write yourself.

It’s time to celebrate your willingness to grow rather than shrink in the face of suffering. Sometimes you take the road less traveled and thought at times it’s easy to doubt yourself, try and remember how many have admired your commitment to yourself and your truth. Here’s to making the hard decision and for your ability to make meaning of life’s detours.

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Two years ago, my life brought me to Smith School for Social Work. The plan was to move across the country with my roommate and longtime love. We broke up the week of my 25th birthday, and a few days later I started my 2.5 year Masters program. I learned about Freud and Melancholia, counter-transference, and parallel process.  I met lots of inspiring friends. Connected with The Icarus Project. Then, I completed a rigorous and intense first year field placement working in community mental health (Shout out to any Waysiders reading this!). As a home-based worker, I faced the devastation of losing a client. He was only a child. I worked with his mother before, during, and after the tragedy. I will never forget her resiliency. I discovered what it means to bare witness and hold space for another’s suffering. I adored my clients and learned everything I need to know about building relationships from them.  I practice self-care like it was a part time job. I mastered the art of The Bubble Bath, healthy eating, afro flow yoga, cultivating community, and therapy (ice cream therapy, that is). I was awarded a JUNO retreat at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies to reflect, integrate, and reset for Year 2. It was an honor I’ll never forget.

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My second summer, I’ll remember as a celebration of a year’s hard work and bringing together Smith friends at my home in Northampton, as well as advocating for more support for students in the program. I was nominated and accepted a leadership position: Field Representative to serve as a liaison between students and the field office/administration.

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A short time later, our community was devastated by a tragedy when a friend and recent graduate died by suicide. My friend’s suicide proved to me just how serious the stigma of being in this field and struggling with one’s mental health can be. It can be even harder to ask for help when you are a professional or trainee with extensive knowledge of mental health issues. You might think you SHOULD know better or you SHOULD be able to figure it out. This is not the case. A study conducted by my classmates found how few students felt comfortable disclosing this personal information to supervisors, advisers, or even professors. This pervasive culture of other-izing and mental health stigma is hypocritical and students must demand change to receive the support and education needed to be effective and safe in this field. More on how this impacted me further down..img_5622.jpg

In the Fall, I journeyed to my second field placement. I was put in a situation that required me to perform far beyond the scope of a trainee. This was guised in a vague terms: a “hybrid” internship for a “highly independent” student. Despite, my confidence having worked in extremely stressful/high trauma situation, I felt physically and psychologically unsafe and unsupported. I can only imagine how I would have suffered remaining in my assigned field placement. The words of the student previously placed there still haunt me: “I prayed everyday for April to come.” My concerns were not taken seriously or acted on for me to maintain any hope that I could make it work despite my best efforts.  After a series of challenging events, I terminated my placement within the first 2 weeks. Months later, I am so grateful for my intuition , integrity, and proud of my courage to speak truth to power. The shame and despair I felt at the time cannot be put into words. I don’t regret my decision and I continue to feel disappointed by the institution for not supporting me. The school teaches trainees to advocate for clients and help empower themselves. I am left wondering how could the school support supports and help them figure out what they need to be successful? I hope that my experience will at the very least inform future decisions to place students at this field site. I will deeply miss spending the summer learning and celebrating together. I appreciate the support I received, especially those who shared their admiration for my taking care of myself inspite of the pressure to “suffer through.” Look forward to being at graduation and cheering on Carmen Leah together!!

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Last Spring I met a Smith alum at an anti racism event and this meeting helped lead me to the opportunity to work at Project Place. I love my new job where I  continue to work with a traumatized and marginalized community. I feel supported and engaged and humbled and inspired everyday. Many other unexpected opportunities have been offered that helped me make peace with the issues at school. I received scholarships that have afforded me the opportunity to study Play Therapy course at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute and at the ARC Training at the Trauma Center ( Fostering Resilience in Trauma-Impacted Youth and Families: The Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency (ARC) Treatment Framework). Lastly, I recently took Level 1 Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy training. In June, I will begin leading workshops for survivors at the Cambridge Women’s Center. I feel such gratitude to be connecting with so many influential leaders in the field.

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When I reflect back on the year I think about the fragility of our lives and the power we have and the power we don’t have to control our futures. Losing 3 friends/colleagues in the span of 3 months, I continue thinking about love and life. I wish I could have told my friend David I am here for you. I wish he could have told me how he was suffering. Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

Many people are reluctant to talk because they fear that what they will say will be misunderstood. There are people who suffer so much; they’re not capable of telling us about the suffering inside. And we have the impression that nothing is wrong-until it is too late.

I want to tell him: I want to understand his difficulties and his suffering. I want to listen to him because I want to love him. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, the language of love is asking a person whether you have understood the other person. I don’t want to wait until it’s too late to ask people I care about to share more about themselves. I wish I’d told him his presence was a gift to me and to the world. To love someone is to be there for them.

 

As I’m turning 27, I reflect on a long year! I learned to love again, to trust my intuition, to ask for what I need, to surround myself by people who support and inspire me, and to be grateful for so many blessings and  teachers (known & unknown). Thank you for reading and being part of my life (even if we haven’t spoken in years, I’d love to hear from you!)

 

A Favorite Quote by Mark Nepo

We waste so much energy trying to cover up who we are, when beneath every attitude is the want to be loved, and beneath every anger is a wound to be healed, and beneath every sadness is a fear that there will not be enough time.

When we hesitate in being direct, we unknowingly slip something on, some added layer of protection that keeps us from feeling the world, and often that thin covering is the beginning of a loneliness which, if not put down, diminishes our chances for joy.
It’s like wearing gloves every time we touch something, and then, forgetting that we chose to put them on, we complain that nothing feels quite real. In this way, our challenge each day is not to get dressed to face the world, but to unglove ourselves so that the doorknob feels cold, and the car handle feels wet, and the kiss goodbye feels like the lips of another being soft and unrepeatable.

Define Life on Your Terms

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The only definition of success that matters is your own. Your worth is not based on what you do or look like or accomplish, but it is inherent to who you are. Your crown cannot be removed. When we realize that we don’t have to prove ourselves because we are already enough, we can embrace the opportunity to define life on our terms.

My vision for life is about appreciating beauty, being present to the experience of being alive, connecting with people, living my calling to spread love and building a more just, loving world. What matters most to you? Beyond our society’s definition of success, what do you want to live for? how will you live this one precious life on your terms? I’m always rooting for you.

~ Annie Escobar

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The Power of Small Beginnings.

“Start where you are. This is very important…What you do for yourself, any gesture of kindness, any gesture of gentleness, any gesture of honesty and clear seeing towards yourself, will affect how you experience your world. In fact, it will transform how you see your world. What you do for yourself, you are doing for others, and what you do for others, you are doing for yourself.” -Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, who writes about mindfulness reminds us of the power of small beginnings.pemachodronquote

“Every woman was said to have her own Juno; seek its council, and live up to its sacred destiny.”

Dear Sisters,

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I arrive at Omega for a JUNO Retreat Residency. While I have the courage to apply, there was a part of me that didn’t believe I deserve it. Once on campus, I am greeted by Lys and am thrilled to also see Sarah, Michelle, and Jill. They welcome me home and my sense of not belonging begins to dissipate. By the end of dinner with Lys, I begin to remember why I’m here. When Lys asks me about my future, with calm and certainty, I explain that I no longer pretend to know. Instead, I tell her about the journey I’ve been on this year and how I’m focused on integration and process. I’m allowing myself to be fully immersed in my graduate studies. I tear up explaining to her how much it means to me to come home to Omega–a place I once came when I didn’t feel like going to my family’s home was an option. Omega–a community that held me when I needed to be still. Omega–a place where I found a springboard made up of women who I would look to for inspiration in the years to come. This place means so much to me, and each visit, I am amazed by the magical encounters and wisdom it cultivates. I came searching for some time to focus on myself. Instead, I have found so much more.

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A highlight of the residency is the connection to the residents who came before me. There is a journal that a resident named Brenda left behind for women to leave their reflections before leaving the retreat: “To help weave together our stories and experiences in a tapestry of hope, reciprocity, resilience, rest, gratitude.” Reading their reflections at the start of my weekend feels like I’m painting a beautiful foundation for what’s about to come. I see Nina’s note, and I imagine her sitting on the JUNO cottage porch, just a few days before I arrive. I feel so honored. The beautiful cottage is almost as empowering as the words these women left behind. Part of the JUNO experience is leaving behind questions for the next resident. I feel like I know the woman who stayed before me–her questions, so deeply personal and compelling, help shape the rest of my time at Omega. They make me feel wise just reading them. My curiosity and hunger for truth is endless, how will I pick only 3 to leave behind?

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Although I had spent a season volunteering at Omega prior to the Women’s Leadership Intensive in 2013, my experience returning to campus always reminds me of our week together. At the lake, I think about our water ceremony, and I feel connected to each of you, as I remember our collective blessings to the Earth. At the Pavilion, I remember tracing our bodies onto maps, sharing our visions. I remember our laughter. As I’m dancing before lunch with the Journey Dance teacher, I am not surprised at all when she asks if I know Tara, who she dances with regularly in Rhode Island. Goddesses attract. I feel your energy in the room! I remember dancing together and feeling a sense of protection and belonging that I had never experienced, while simultaneously feeling the power of my independence and power. Because I am so inspired by the way each of you “Do Power Differently,” I want to focus my masters thesis on women’s leadership and our relationship to power. I’m thrilled to spend the next year focusing on our stories of overcoming adversity and stepping into power. Stay tuned….

Lastly,  I let go of memories, experiences, and attachments to people that no longer serve me. I invite myself to stretch as I dance and release. I identify areas and skills I wish to develop. I celebrate the young girls I see on campus, I eat lunch with them, watch them play at the beach, and dance with them. As I marvel at their authenticity, fearlessness, and playfulness, I honor the little girl in me who sometimes still yearns to be seen and to feel loved. I discover I am not afraid of my power, my sexuality, my desires. I am learning to love ALL of me. I am learning to give myself permission to be selfish.

Thank You for continuing to remind me that I deserve and am worthy of the JUNO namesake: prosperity; a whole, integral, empowered woman, whose influence was called on in politics, money, management, business, marriage, and motherhood.

May we continue to ask Juno to help us lead with a fair and protective spirit, and to make creative, bold, and wise decisions. May we use Juno’s benevolent authority to empower and protect others. May we examine our leadership nature and where we may want to grow and change. May we ask difficult questions, and be gentle and kind to ourselves and others as we find the answers. We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for. 

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How Spending a Week Training with Police Officers Changed Me

My Reflection On the Need to Unite the Police Departments and Communities in Preventing Further Tragedies Throughout the Country

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Over the past 9 months, I volunteered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Criminal Justice Diversion Project (CJDP). The focus is on preventing the unnecessary arrest, detention and incarceration of persons living with mental illness. This project aims to develop a statewide strategy to make high quality training on mental illness accessible to police departments in all 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts. The ultimate goal is to put in place a sustainable approach to diverting individuals with mental illness from the criminal justice system. Below is my reflection on the April 2015 Community Intervention Teams (CIT) training spearheaded by CJDP.
These were my highlights:
  •  Renewed hope in officers who took part in the training, the skills they gained, and their commitment to learning in order to better serve communities.
  • An opportunity to learn about the limitations, frustrations, and culture of police departments.
  • A sense of what policies must change for greater safety for officers and communities alike
  • An understanding of the unmet and significant mental health needs within police departments
    • i.e There’s a risk of losing their jobs if an officer reveals his/her own mental health struggles.
  • Uniting people with mental illness in the community with officers for an honest and open dialogue centered on our shared humanity

As a White woman with considerable privilege and absolutely no real danger, I began the week feeling truly unsafe in a room with armed male officers (there were 3-4 female-bodied officers present). Feeling tremendous despair about the recent deaths of individuals, as well as officers, I feared what I might discover at the training. Instead, I developed compassion and hope for the incredibly difficult work of police officers. I recognize that the sampling size might influence my positive impressions, but perhaps, this reflection will expand your perspective and help us find an end to the tragedies happening across our country.

Nothing will change until police officers and communities come together and listen to each other’s experiences, frustrations, and shared hopes for a world free from violence. For instance, at the training, one officer expressed frustrations that after she helps a person with mental illness get to the hospital, she she’s the same person on the street a few days later. The social worker at the training respond to this officer’s point of exasperation by providing context for the limitations of mental health treatment in our country. Few people stand by the impossibly short mental health treatments that hospitals and mental heath services currently provide: this must change if we are to halt the revolving doors of hospitals and more importantly, prisons where more people with mental illness end up (Read more about failures of the “de-institutionalization” of the mentally ill after the Community Mental Health Centers Act). We live in an era where the average psychiatric stay is about five days and most people who are psychotic never get a bed at all.

May we create more spaces that bring us together for conversations to open our hearts to each other’s suffering.

One component of the CIT Training was to introduce members of the community and their families and listen to their their experiences with mental illness and experiences with police departments. In small groups, individuals joined the police officers in sharing about their recovery and lives with mental illness. After, officers thanked the presenters and much to my surprise, they responded by sharing their own experiences with family members and major mental illness, as well as addiction. One officer turned to the presenter and asked, “What would you recommend I do for a family member who is in need of help but in complete denial about the seriousness of her symptoms?” The presenter responded by telling her to be their friend and listen. Additionally, anyone can contact the NAMI helpline at 800-370-9085 during the hours of 9:00 am and 5:00 pm ET, Monday through Friday.

Read Julia Blount’s letter to her White Facebook friends. Remember, “Continue the conversation, ask questions, learn as much as you can, and choose to engage. Only by listening and engaging can we move forward.”

Watch this short documentary, Mental Illness on Trial, on the criminalization of mental illness.