Affirming the Power of URBAN Communities: Mental Healing Through Political Empowerment

By Princess G. Hoagland Posted on May 10, 2017

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. –Barack Obama

 Where We Are

Black and White CrowdThe sense of powerlessness is pervasive in urban communities where the majority of inhabitants are disenfranchised people of color. Being powerless adversely affects our mental health and impedes our ability to function normally within our communities. We are traumatized by the stigma of being viewed as less than. We are disheartened by being treated as though we are incapable of being valuable and important contributors to society. We are tired of being victimized, criminalized, denied basic human rights and relegated to second-class treatment by the police, lawmakers and society at large. We are condensed within poorly-run, resource-deprived, crime-ridden and segregated cities, where even the poor from neighboring affluent municipalities are sent to live. And, most damaging and inexplicable is the fact that we are ostracized and ridiculed by people who look like us and experience identical mistreatment! How do we escape from this paradoxical box, this incessant paradigm?

We are living in arguably one of the most divisive times in the 21st century where the United States is split along the prominent political lines of Democrat and Republican and further divided within party lines. We have become familiar with duplicitous terms like the Republican-Tea Party and the Democratic-Progressives.  But how do these labels translate to our ability to navigate the political waters, especially our ability to advocate for our rights as citizens on the local level? Understandably, these abstract concepts of party allegiance do not serve a population of historically disenfranchised citizenry. What these labels create are problems that divide, confuse, intimidate and alienate would-be participants from engaging in the entire process.

Many poor and lower middle-class urbanites, especially people of color, have been stripped of political power. We are discouraged from participating in the very process that would empower us to weigh in on decisions that directly affect our lives. Through institutionalized and systematic neglect, abuse, and mistreatment, many people of color living in urban areas have been mentally traumatized and politically and economically disenfranchised. So where do we go from here?

Politics and Empowerment

1234Let’s first ask and answer these important questions. What is politics? What does it mean to be political? And, what does it mean to be empowered?

Politics is the “activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.” (Oxford Dictionary.) To be political is to be involved in government policy making or to gain or keep power or an advantage (Merriam-Webster). It is “bridging power differences with society with those within the state; bridges that carry inputs both from society to the state and from the state to society.” (Amitai Etzioni, George Washington University.) To be empowered is “to have authority and power to do something.” (Oxford Dictionary.)

Therefore, for us to be politically empowered, we must exercise our right to participate in the creation and implementation of laws that shape our way of living and how we function within our communities. In addition, we must hold elected officials accountable for ensuring our equal protection under the law and for their compliance to upholding the laws.

A Call to Action

The way to transcend from historically, imposed handicaps is through civic participation. Civic participation is “individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern. It can include efforts to directly address an issue, work with others in a community to solve a problem or interact with the institutions of representative democracy.” (Michael Delli Carpini, Director, Public Policy, The Pew Charitable Trusts. American Psychological Association.) What this means in the context of the urban community is that each and every one of us has a right and a responsibility to engage fully in the political process, especially at the local levels. Politics affect every part of our lives. It is not a separate or distinct entity. Politics define how we live our lives, from the moment we are born until after our bodies are deposed, whether cremated or buried. Laws created, voted on, adopted and implemented will dictate our every movement. When we understand this fundamental truth and begin exercising our political power, our lives, communities and cities will be altered! We will be the change agents we once looked to others to be for us.

10 Steps to Affirm Political Power

This is how YOU become a civic participant:

  1. Register to vote. Research every candidate running for local election. Attend debates and forums to hear and evaluate what each candidate says she or he will do. Vote, stay engaged, and follow up to hold elected officials accountable!
  2. Know who your mayor is and when the next mayoral election is. Make an appointment to introduce yourself to the mayor. Attend the mayor’s State of the City Address.
  3. Know who your council person is for your district or ward and keep in touch. Know when the council meets and attend the meetings.
  4. Know the members of the board of education, when they meet and attend the meetings. Serve on the board.
  5. Know your neighbors! Form or join your neighborhood civic association and attend regular meetings.
  6. Evaluate your surroundings (neighborhood and city) and circumstances (e.g. employment opportunities or lack thereof), list what needs improvement and develop solutions based on your research of best practices. Implement your solutions if legally permissible; OR
  7. Ask for and follow the protocol for presenting your ideas to the mayor or at city council meetings. Respectfully present your solutions and help officials implement them.
  8. Get involved with local political organizations. Learn how they operate. Seek advice from political professionals and experts.
  9. Serve on a committee. Volunteer for organizations that resonate with you.
  10. Run for office! You qualify if you are an American citizen, 18 years or older.

The Healing

Michelle B QuoteIt is easy to resign ourselves to the status quo of political bystanders, to remain in the box. We are accustomed to that designation and coaxed to maintain that relegated status by institutional beliefs that have historically oppressed people of color. But now we must motivate ourselves to become active participants in this democratic experiment called the United States of America. It is an imperfect experiment but one with the potential of having a meaningful outcome. Each of us, in our endeavor to be our best, must commit to becoming empowered and politically involved. Only then can we move forward in our effort to heal from centuries of physical and mental traumatization and political and economic disenfranchisement and take back our power.

We have been awaken and let out of the box. We will no longer be contained and content with being ignorant. We will no longer allow ourselves to be taken for granted, abused, misused, ignored, mistreated, neglected and exploited by people and entities and systems that feed off and thrive on our impoverished, down-trodden and miseducated selves. We are awake. We see the illness of the current system and are tugging hard at its weakest link. Our eyes are open and we see the evil for what it is. The camouflage has been removed and the ugliness is revealed. The culprits are exposed. As with all things, the old must die and make way for the new. And new life will come out of the decomposed and corrupt system to form the new. And that new system, the one created by our enlightened selves, will devour all things unsavory. And we will never again make the mistake of compliancy. Our eyes will remain open, forever watchful. Forever free of the box.

–Princess G. Hoagland (Credo, 2017)

Question:

What impact have movements like Black Lives Matter, The Million Men’s March, The Women’s March on Washington, or documentaries like 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, and Incarcerating Us, or books like Just Mercy, The New Jim Crow, and Between the World and Me or the Presidential election of Donald J. Trump had on you to inspire, motivate, or incite you politically?

Exercise:

Make a list of the steps you will take to become a civic participant.

References, Suggested Books and Media

Movements

Black Lives Matter. (2013)

The Million Men’s March. (October 16, 1995; October 10, 2015)

The Women’s March on Washington. (January 21, 2017)

Documentaries

DuVernay, Ava (Producer & Director). (2016). 13th. United States: Forward Movement

Grellety, Remi; Peck, Hebert; Peck, Raoul (Producers), & Peck, Raoul (Director). (2016). I Am Not Your Negro. United States: Velvet Film; Artemis Productions; Close Up Films

Vittorio, Vincent (Producer), & Hines, Regan (Director). (2016). Incarcerating Us. United States: LifeIsMyMovie Entertainment

Books

Stevenson, Brian. (2014). Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. New York, New York: Penguin Random House Publish Group/Spiegel & Grau.

Alexander, Michelle. (2010). The New Jim Crow. New York, New York: The New Press.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. (2015). Between the World and Me. New York, New York: Spiegel & Grau.

 

What Would Chappelle Say: Your message of unification by “moving on” is not healing, it is harmful.

“The worst thing to call somebody is crazy, it’s dismissive”.

In 2006, the Emmy Award-nominated series Inside the Actors Studio offered viewers an opportunity to ask why a comedian decline a $50 million dollar television contract.  Dave Chappelle, who had become arguably the most popular comedians of recent history, answered this and many other questions associated with the struggles of balancing art and business.

What resonates from this ten-year-old segment is not when Chappelle discusses his own struggles in Hollywood, but when he defends other artists who faced the same fierce public scrutiny.  After listing multiple entertainers whose mental and emotional health was being publicly audited, Chappelle made an insightful statement. “The worst thing to call somebody is crazy, it’s dismissive”  stated the actor, “I don’t understand this person, so they’re crazy.  That’s bulls**t”.

Post-Election Depression and the Problem with Simply “Getting Over It”.

I rewatched this interview because part of the message seems pertinent after the election of United States President Donald Trump.  Some members of our networks are still wrestling with complex emotions triggered by his victory.  Frequent are the social media posts expressing anger, confusion, and trepidation surrounding what this administration represents, or, of larger concern, who this administration will not represent.  Many writers have explored the phenomenon of post-election trauma sweeping our communities and how the consequences have divided homes and sabotaged holidays.

A common response launched by both sides of the aisle is that people suffering from post-election trauma should get over it.  Groups supporting the new administration have attempted to code this message under the guise of a call for reunification of the country.  Opposition groups have used this messaging to push people into a state of action, encouraging the pursuit of increased civic participation.  Regardless of who used the messaging, the fundamental message remains the same: those feeling hopeless are acting irrationally.

The problem with this messaging is that it de-legitimizes the suffering of those we love.  Much like the public criticism of the entertainers Chappelle was defending, flippant responses to a person suffering are dangerous.  For these individuals, “getting over it” communicates that we see their problem as trivial.  The result is that we unknowingly shame people into longer, and more recurrent, depressive states.

“Listening non-judgmentally is important at this stage as it can help the person to feel heard and understood while not feeling judged in any way”.

~ Mental Health First Aid, First Edition.

So what should we be telling these individuals?  Our organization uses a national program known as Mental Health First Aid USA.  We sponsor certification courses in Mental Health First Aid for individuals who want to know how to identify and respond to signs of mental illness.  When it comes to conversations with those in pain, the MHFA Manual’s recommendation is less about talking, and more focused on non-judgemental listening and emotional support.

MHFA describes active listening as an opportunity to “help the person feel heard and understood while not being judged in any way” (Mental Health First Aid USA, p. 26).   Active listening lowers defense mechanisms by creating a safe space, this permits a person to talk freely about their problems or ask for help.  These actions also inform the speaker that you intend to treat the conversation with the level of sensitivity and respect it deserves.  Active listening skills include removing all devices that may detract from the conversation, facing the speaker, and using physical and verbal nods.

Additionally, a listener must provide emotional support during, and after, the conversation.  During the conversation, a listener should convey empathy and genuineness when listening.  This is reinforced through the use of the active listening skills and verbal skills such as tone, use of probing questions, and restating feelings or facts for clarification (p. 27-29).  Emotional support after a conversation can take many forms, and much of its structure depends on how an initial conversation concludes.  One basic example of emotional support is scheduling regular coffee and/or brunch dates.  These meetings can become a regular opportunity to offer emotional support and resources.

Everyone may not be comfortable offering advanced levels of support when someone is in crisis, and that’s okay.  However, we should all feel a sense of responsibility to not promote messages that inflict further harm.  If you know someone who has expressed feelings of anger or helplessness because of our current political climate, do not promote damaging messages.  Listen.  Offer support and, if possible, the appropriate resources that can lead to a path of wellness.  These people are not irrational.  These people are not melodramatic. These people are not crazy.  These are human beings having difficulty processing a distressing event.  Let’s treat their responses with the dignity, respect, and genuine concern they deserve.

Questions:

  1. What messages have you heard promoted in your network been surrounding the current political climate? Do you consider them encouraging or discouraging?
  2. What forms of self care practices have you implemented to take care of yourself in this climate?

Exercise: 

  1. Take 10 minutes and draft an action plan you would use to assist someone who has expressed struggles dealing with post-election trauma.

Works Cited

Beck, J. (2016, November 10). How to Cope With Post-Election Stress. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/11/how-to-cope-with-post-election-stress/507296/

Mental Health Association of Maryland, Missouri Department of Mental Health, and National Council of Behavioral Health (2013) Mental Health First Aid USA© , Revised First Edition

Tavernise, S., & Seelye, K. Q. (2016, November 15). Political Divide Splits Relationships – and Thanksgiving, Too. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/16/us/political-divide-splits-relationships-and-thanksgiving-too.html?_r=0