Black therapists in Arizona address critical race theory in ways schools won’t

As chief of Arizona public schools, Tom Horne is pursuing racist education policies that threaten to undo decades of progress.

He campaigned on a pledge to oppose critical race theory, marching in lockstep with national conservative efforts to create a boogeyman out of common-sense efforts to teach history accurately and show how inequalities in the past still harm Black, Native American, Asian and Latino people today.

It’s gotten worse since he took office.

Horne wants to eradicate helpful tools

Horne now supports a zero-tolerance policy against unruly students, a callback to hardline education standards that created a school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately harmed children of color.

And he’s looking to eradicate social and emotional learning, tools that educators say help children process, regulate and express the damage of traumatic experiences that stunt cognition.

Somewhere, Donald Trump must be slow clapping and hoping Horne’s efforts help turn a newly progressive Arizona back into a conservative stronghold ahead of the 2024 elections.

But for every action, there’s a reaction.

These conservative planks are galvanizing a grassroots push connecting critical race theory to mental health awareness, which promises to help children fight a battle that threatens to keep them trapped in a cycle of generational dysfunction.

What Black therapists know about trauma

“Meet the Black Therapists,” held recently in South Phoenix to recognize July as Minority Mental Health Month, introduced community members to resources including psychologists, psychiatrists, life coaches, an autism support network, women’s groups and health care providers.

Sharli Berry organized the event as part of her work as the founder and executive director of the nonprofit group Black Therapists in AZ. She wants to make it an annual gathering.

Her event had nothing to do with Tom Horne, Donald Trump or the legislatures in 44 states across the nation, including Arizona, according to watchdog group Education Week, that have advanced measures to ban critical race theory, playing to white conservatives tricked into thinking they’re being blamed for racist practices that they had nothing to do with.

(“CRT does not attribute racism to white people as individuals” or as a group, according to a working definition from the Brookings Institute. “Simply put, critical race theory states that U.S. social institutions — e.g., the criminal justice system, education system, labor market, housing market, and health care system — are laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules and procedures that led to differential outcomes by laws.”)

“We’re focused on our people,” Berry said. “There’s a stigma in the Black community about mental health. What goes on in our homes stays in our homes, right? But we’re showing it’s not weak to seek therapy. There’s nothing weak about seeking help.”

Generations of oppression take a toll

A panel discussion featuring “The Unicorns,” a trio of Black male therapists so nicknamed because of a scarcity of people who look like them in the field, addressed topics that could get a big boost from public schools, starting with racial trauma.

A legacy of discrimination and oppression has led Black parents to teach their children that “we have to work twice as hard to get half as much,” said Anthony Thompson, who provides culturally sensitive care for clients who suffer from depression, anxiety, trauma and substance abuse disorders.

“We’ve been taught that we’ve got to be better,” he said. “Over the generations, that’s taken a toll on us. We may not realize it. We may have been told that’s a sign of weakness to acknowledge that all of this pressure to perform has taken a toll on us, but racial trauma … is complex trauma for the rest of your life.”

“You’re dealing with racism, prejudice, getting passed over for promotions, not getting a loan for your home when you know you had the right credit score. That just takes an emotional toll on us. Consider that, in addition to whatever else you may have going on, and it’s basically a perfect storm.”

People suffering from this need to understand it to reach their potential.

How to handle collective grief

Da’mond Gadson, meanwhile, explained how the Great Migration left Black people untethered in densely packed urban environments where they went to find work.

“Now, there wasn’t a chance for you to go to Big Mama’s house and get patched up and let her know everything that was going on when you left the acres of land that you had,” said Gadson, who provides Christian-centered care that includes body positivity and motivational interviewing techniques.

“There was no reprieve in the city … you were dependent on the system that was created in order to live,” he said. “When you become dependent on a certain system, things change.”

Mike Johnson, a psychologist who helps clients find freedom and optimism by finding the roots of their problems, talked about collective grief.

“We think of grief as an individual’s experience,” Johnson said.

“That, unfortunately, is a very limited definition, especially when it comes to being African American. We experience grief collectively. When something happens in our community, when we have a Mike Brown, an Eric Garner, a Sandra Bland, persons who died by the hands of police, that affects us as a community because each of us can see ourselves as potentially that person … that brings us in close proximity to our own mortality.

“We also know, because of the history in our country, what it means to be Black, we know that this has happened for centuries, and it’s going to continue to happen. So we come to anticipate that pain and trauma.”

Students should learn this in school

Teaching these sorts of lessons in schools would help children in immeasurable ways.  

“The main reason why they need to understand it is to get past it,” Berry said. “If they don’t understand, then they’re not going to be able to grow. The reasons why so many of our communities (across the nation) look the way they do is because of the generational trauma that’s been passed down. … It’s about learning.

“Right now, (Black children) don’t even have the information. Once you learn better, you do better. That’s an old saying, but if they don’t know better, then they don’t know to do better. Exposing them to different ideas, and different ways of thinking, can help improve a neighborhood, a generation.”

Seems easy enough to understand.

Then again, maybe people like Tom Horne don’t want to.  

Reach Moore at gmoore@azcentral.com or 602-444-2236. Follow him on Twitter @SayingMoore.

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