Growing up in North Philadelphia I was never the one who was invited to social events, who wore the newest Jordans or updated fashions or was invited to cut classes to hang out at the Gallery Mall with friends. Though I was not seen by my peers in the way I dreamed to be, I was named “Most Likely to Succeed,” “Teacher’s Pet,” and class Valedictorian of my senior class. To the core, I am still that overachieving, insecure smart kid with big glasses who wanted to be noticed by his peers.
A Diamond in the Rough
I rarely discuss my childhood and upbringing in Philadelphia. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel real to me as my life now is vastly different from then. I am the eldest of four children; my biological father was absent from my life. We were raised by my mother and stepfather. Back then, North Philadelphia was not the safest place to live. My neighborhood on 28th Street was infested with drugs, gangs, prostitution, and violence. My childhood home was filled with yelling, screaming, crying, drinking, domestic violence, and emotional and physical abuse. My maternal grandmother’s house was where I found refuge and the most happiness. My grandmother loved me no matter what, and in her eyes, I could do no wrong. She provided and showed me the true meaning of unconditional love through her encouragement of being whomever and whatever I wanted in life.
My imagination was my safe place where I could escape the realities of my life. I would round up my siblings and cousins to force them to play school with me as the teacher. I watched music videos and learned the dance moves of Michael and Janet Jackson; pretending I was on their world tours. Beginning earlier in my life, my family called me “The Professor.” Everyone believed I would be the first in the family to make it out of North Philadelphia and become someone important and make an impact on lives. School, more specifically the classroom, was where I believed I excelled and felt safe. Teachers and other faculty noticed my intelligence and began to invest in my future.
In high school, I was “forced” by my teachers to join as many extracurricular activities as possible to prepare for college applications. My mother rarely had the financial means for me to participate in all these activities; so, the faculty would pay for my attendance and associated fees. Attending college was something I always wanted, but the process was unfamiliar to me and my family. Through the support and guidance of three teachers at Benjamin Franklin High School, I was able to apply and be accepted to most colleges. I was a straight-A student for as long as I could remember, but I was still shocked when I received the news from my principal that I was the Valedictorian of the Graduating Senior class of 2000. I had always wanted to be seen by my peers; now I was selected to provide 200 graduates with a send-off speech. I was placed on a stage at Temple University where I was finally seen and heard by those whom I sought the most validation from.
At the age of 17, I attended the Indiana University of Pennsylvania on a full scholarship majoring in Hotel, Restaurants, and Tourism to eventually become a chef. Coming from an urban, lower-income, predominantly black community, Indiana, PA was a culture shock. I had never been in a position where there were so many white people that I was in the minority. Being sheltered from the world as a child made this increasingly difficult for me to adjust. Not only was I in a place where I felt and looked different, but I was also dealing with the internal struggles of my sexuality. My experiences as a student while living in Indiana, PA were things I remember my grandparents explaining to us as children when they lived in the South. I remember being called a “Nigger” for the first time; being called a “porch monkey” and being told I stayed in the tanning bed too long and was overcooked. I eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Criminology. This was also the same year I lost my biggest supporter; my grandmother passed away from lung cancer the night of my last final.
I attended the graduate program at the University of Toledo, majoring in Criminal Justice. I received a Teaching Assistantship, where I had the opportunity to work alongside and be mentored by two of the department’s first black tenured professors: Dr. Jenkins and Dr. Baker. Growing up, I never had positive male role models, so having these two black, accomplished men taking me under their wings was impactful in my life. Though it was graduate school, the racism and prejudice continued, moreso with my cohort. As I continued to make achievements in the department, I was met with gossip and rumors targeting my sexuality and potential as a graduate student. At this time in my life, I had come out as gay, which was met with lots of resistance from family, friends, and colleagues. The most damaging rumor spread by my white colleagues in my cohort was that I was providing sexual favors to my professors and mentors (Dr. Jenkins and Dr. Baker) to receive preferential privileges in teaching certain classes, attending certain academic events, and participating in articles being worked on and published by the two professors.
Mentally exhausted, I became extremely overwhelmed and depressed. On paper, my life was soaring in the right direction, but internally I was struggling with identity, rejection, abandonment, and self-hate. In the African-American community, seeking mental health services was not discussed or accepted, so I buried these dark feelings and continued with the mission. Upon graduating from the University of Toledo, I secured a job at Treatment Alternative Systems (TASC); where I worked within Toledo Correctional Institution. I provided psychoeducation classes to male offenders and created a reintegration program. The reintegration program allowed identified offenders to begin the process of family reunification prior to their release. The program was designed to have the offender’s family (children, partners, etc.) visit the prison once a week for a family dinner and programming and provided outside case management support to the families.
In 2008, I moved to Chicago to attend Argosy University to receive my Masters in Community Counseling. While working at Toledo Correctional Institution, I realized how much mental health affected and played a role in most of the offenders’ incarceration. There were predominantly people of color incarcerated and most of them suffered from a mental health diagnosis and were not receiving the proper treatment from the corrections systems.
As the years passed by; my career continued to flourish. I continued to work in the corrections and court systems as I went through graduate school. My mission at the time was to advocate and provide adequate and fair treatment to marginalized communities in these systems.
During this time, I continued to struggle with my own mental health, and finally decided to seek treatment. With the support and help from my sister, I admitted myself into an inpatient mental health program. Though my focus was to get my mental health stable; I couldn’t help noticing the lack of representation amongst staff at the facility. This made it difficult to trust and open up to the providers without feeling judged and misunderstood. After a few days at the facility, a BIPOC psychiatrist came into my room and spoke to me. I remember feeling heard, validated, and safe in his presence, which in turn allowed me to begin my process of healing.
After graduating and obtaining my license, I was hired as a substance abuse counselor at Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (Kenmore Center); where I also completed my internship as the first male to work in the female halfway house. I had the opportunity to be mentored and supervised by Director Frank Harris, who was another black male role model placed in my life. Throughout my time at Kenmore, I was able to provide treatment services that were reflective of the populations being served in treatment. Many of the clients being served were BIPOC, LGBTQIA, low-income men and women struggling with substance addiction.
Frank Harris had seen something in me and invested whatever resources at his disposal to invest in my professional career. Within the four years at LSSI Kenmore I had been promoted as a Clinical Supervisor, Program Supervisor, and finally Assistant Director. I made the decision to leave LSSI and work for Healthcare Alternative Systems (H.A.S.) as the Program Administrator for the Outpatient Programs. H.A.S. is a predominantly Hispanic organization providing services for the Hispanic/Latinx communities. Being hired at H.A.S. was a first for the organization as I was the first black, openly gay male in administration.
The Liberal Façade
In 2016, my husband and I moved to Madison. Initially, I was concerned about moving to a smaller city, but we were often told how liberal and welcoming Madison is to diverse populations. To be completely honest, since moving to Madison, I have experienced the most trauma in my professional career. A combination of systemic/structural racism, institutional racism, and oppression has caused me to experience racial trauma and interpersonal racism.
My professional journey in Madison started at ARC Community Services Outpatient Program. I was hired as the Program Supervisor of the Court Diversion Program. Unknown to me prior to accepting the position, I was the first black, gay male hired in this position. After a few months when my license transferred from Illinois, I accepted a position at Tellurion as the Program Supervisor of ARP (Inpatient Substance Abuse Program). Again, I was the first black, gay male hired in this position as well. For a few months, I was employed at Journey Mental Health as a Clinician, followed by a position at Sacred Hearts as the Clinical Supervisor. At Sacred Hearts, I was also the first black, gay male hired.
My traumatic experiences during my professional career in Madison is what led to my decision to become self-employed. My mental health had become increasingly unmanageable, as I would have panic attacks about attending work every day. I began isolating myself out of fear and distrust that someone would hurt me.
For all my accomplishments and accolades, I was made to feel unworthy, stupid, tokenized, humiliated, and unsafe in predominantly white spaces. I’ve been falsely accused and investigated for drug use and intimidation brought on by employees. I’ve been harassed about my sexuality and race by my subordinates. Once I was told, “I am on colored people time” by a white employee. I’ve been scrutinized for my attire, stating my clothes are “too tight.” I’ve had my white supervisor’s son rub my skin during a meeting amongst all-white staff. Then to be told by my supervisor that her son is infatuated with black skin because his nanny was black. I’ve had a fully grown Rottweiler bought into my office by my white supervisor after submitting my resignation.
Reclaiming My Power
In 2017, I decided to start New Beginnings Counseling Center, LLC. After moving to Madison and working at several agencies as an administrator and therapist, and my own personal experiences as a person represented in marginalized communities, I noticed a lack of diverse providers, which became a barrier to adequate treatment for the individuals within the marginalized communities. Many agencies were ethnocentric in their services to culturally diverse populations, which resulted in treatment approaches that were color-blind.
New Beginnings Counseling Center, LLC addresses the underutilization of mental health services by minorities, which continues to be an ongoing issue in the behavioral health field. In the beginning, I was a single practitioner offering low-cost, self-pay therapeutic services to children, adults, and families of marginalized communities. New Beginnings Counseling Center, LLC empowers patients in a safe and non-criticizing environment and develops skills to promote the healing of the wounds that have become a barrier for them to move forward in their lives. We encourage a transition from “Existing in Life” and to start “Living Life!”
In addressing the barriers associated with mental health and marginalized communities, New Beginnings Counseling Center provides culturally specific services and broaches dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, and culture during the counseling process. Also, by giving attention to these identities and the intersectionality of clients, NBCC addresses the barrier to receiving culturally competent care in hopes that the clients feel validated and affirmed.
Since opening, New Beginnings Counseling Center has not only grown into a behavioral health outpatient clinic but has seen a substantial increase in referrals for historically underserved populations. We have obtained several contracts with insurance companies, including Medicaid and Medicare. In 2018 New Beginnings Counseling Center, LLC joined the platform Open Path Psychotherapy Collective, providing affordable, in-office, and online psychotherapy sessions for individuals, couples, and families for between $30.00 and $80.00 per session. In 2020, New Beginnings Counseling Center, LLC received a contract with RISE in Dane County. In 2021, New Beginnings Counseling Center, LLC received a contract with the Oregon School District to provide behavioral health services to the students, families, and staff at the elementary, middle, and high schools.
Overall, New Beginnings Counseling Center, LLC practices a person-centered therapy approach that involves treating the person, not the problem. Staff displays unconditional positive regard for clients and utilizes a non-directive and empathic approach, which ultimately empowers clients to achieve their treatment goals.
I believe that one single approach does not work for every individual. Individuals and families representing the marginalized communities we serve at the clinic have experienced transgenerational and intergenerational trauma. The reported trauma experiences correlate to issues such as transracial adoption, racial trauma, and various forms of racism (i.e., systematic/structural, institutional, interpersonal, internalized, reverse, and oppression). They experience overt racism and bigotry far too often, which leads to a mental health burden that is deeper than what others may face. Racism is a mental health issue because racism causes trauma, and trauma directly leads to mental illnesses that need to be taken seriously.
My New Beginning
Founding New Beginnings Counseling Center, LLC saved my life and gave me the motivation and resilience to provide a space for others who have been through what I’ve experienced. I gained renewed confidence and perspective on my purpose in life. It has been a long, hard journey, and at times I thought about giving up. Instead, I made the decision to stop giving my power away to others and allowing them to place their expectations, insecurities, and judgments upon me to keep me from succeeding. Right now, I am still that overachieving, insecure smart kid with big glasses who wanted to be noticed by his peers, but I have realized my strengths and abilities and have taken my power back.
I am grateful for what has transpired in my life. I have unconditional love and support from my sister, my husband, my in-laws, and my closest friends. Through my healing journey, I can sit back and watch others experience something special, and most importantly transition from “Existing in Life” to starting to “Living Life!”