Black Advocates and Trauma-Informed Work | The Center for Victims of Torture

Black Advocates and Trauma-Informed Work

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

By Taneasha White-Gibson, contributing writer

Racism is a public health emergency, with discrimination negatively impacting the mental health of marginalized community members. Ultimately, this can lead to distrust in the medical community entirely, contributing to a lack of treatment.

Understanding race's role in mental health and society is vital to genuinely engaging in trauma-informed work with marginalized communities. CVT has chosen to highlight a small selection of Black experts and advocates that have dedicated their careers to supporting others by centering a trauma-informed perspective.

These individuals have endured their own set of traumas — whether it’s abuse, addiction or navigating daily discrimination. Through this, their careers center on acknowledging how Black people are forced to navigate systemic issues that stem from racism and pushing for better through advocacy, education, writing, public speaking or psychiatry practices.

Addressing Race and Identity

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, a former president of the HBCU Spelman college for 13 years, is an educator, author, clinical psychologist and public speaker focusing on racial identity and how it connects with the development of Black youth.

A renowned expert on race-focused discussions, Tatum is known for her collegiate diversity initiatives and intentional curriculum developments, including a course entitled Psychology of Racism. She’s also penned thought-provoking works focused on the effects of resegregation in schools and assimilation.

While retired from Spelman, Tatum was previously awarded the Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology by the American Psychological Association and continues to focus on speaking engagements and writing. 

Acknowledging Racial Trauma

Dr. E. Kitch Childs was a clinical psychologist, feminist, author, and activist for lesbian and sex worker rights. The first Black woman to earn her doctorate in Human Development at the University of Chicago, Childs was a founding member of the University of Chicago’s Gay Liberation Front in 1969.

Childs also helped found the Association for Women in Psychology in 1969 and worked to push the APA to change their stance towards “homosexuality.” Until 1973, Queerness was considered a mental health disorder.

Having lost two brothers to racial violence, Childs was no stranger to the role racism could have on health.

She believed in the link between racial trauma and physical health, utilizing her platform and practice to support marginalized communities, especially Black women who were subject to abuse and trauma, both interpersonally and through the justice and welfare system.

Before her passing in 1993, Childs was widely known for supporting the most marginalized of us through her practice, offering low-cost to free clinical sessions for Black and low-income people, sex workers and those dealing with HIV/AIDS during the height of the U.S. epidemic.

An advocate until the very end, Childs was posthumously recognized by the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame.

Also centering on those involved with the justice system is Dr. Tyffani Monford Dent.

Dent is a clinical psychologist and author who dedicates her practice to supporting Black women, girls and femmes. Because her expertise lies in the effects of the school-to-prison pipeline, Dent focuses on Black and brown girls and non-binary youth affected by trauma within systems connected to education, child welfare and juvenile justice.

In addition to psychological services and her work as an author, Dent facilitates workshops, trainings and speaking engagements, particularly for clinicians working with historically excluded communities. Dent centers a trauma-informed approach by acknowledging the impact of her clients’ life experiences and being honest about how larger systems impact marginalized communities, including healthcare.

Recognizing that trauma can be complex and not just a single event. Knowing that traumatic experiences influence the way we see ourselves, the world, our relationships, and engage with systems. In this, I work to make therapy a safe space for clients by acknowledging the harm that they have experienced, being transparent about my role,” Dent says. “If they are seeing me due to system requirements, I acknowledge that I am part of the system and what that means, listen to the client about what emotional health would look like to them, and empower them as the ‘leader’ of their treatment process.”

This intentional work led her to receive a previous Visionary Voice Award from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Dent was also twice recognized by Who’s Who In Black Cleveland, dubbed a Radical Truthteller by the Truth Telling Project in Ferguson, Missouri, and was a 2022 Career Mastered Emerging Leader Honoree.

Dent shared that while she receives positive feedback from those doing clinical and direct action work, she has also been accused of being divisive and over-political. But, this doesn’t stop the psychologist from serving the chronically ignored communities or being outspoken about the layers that contribute to poor mental health.

“As someone who works with often historically excluded populations, I also believe that one cannot serve such communities without doing social justice/advocacy work,” Dent says. “We cannot help them cope with traumas and all of the ‘isms’ and then send them back to the same world that harmed them in the first place. We also have to work to change systems and society to make it better for them.”

Surviving Abuse and Aiding Others

Jacki McKinney MSW, who passed in 2021, spent her life advocating for others after surviving several traumas of her own, including years of abuse, addiction, houselessness, and the carceral and psychiatric systems.

McKinney was a consultant and advisor to the Center for Mental Health Services, specializing in family advocacy. She focused on Black women and families, in addition to those navigating substance use, disabilities, and survivors of trauma. 

As a founding member of the National People of Color Consumer/Survivor Network, McKinney received the Clifford W. Beers and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration’s Voice Awards program for her lifetime of dedication.

Kiesha Nicole Preston, too, is a survivor of domestic violence and works to advocate for and support other survivors. Preston works as a consultant while advocating for policy changes, including a recent bill that shifted rental regulations for those who have endured abuse.

After leaving her abusive relationship, some lasting impacts included ruined credit and a house foreclosure. In hopes of better providing for her children, Preston was able to bounce back with a new job. But, despite meeting income requirements, rental properties denied her solely due to poor credit. This opened her eyes to some of the issues that survivors face when trying to start over and be independent.

“When I left my situation, I discovered a ton of flaws in the legal system that cause harm to victims and survivors that I wasn’t aware of until it happened to me,” Preston says. “I figured if I was oblivious to these problems, there was a good chance that our lawmakers were too. I felt a responsibility to do something to keep the things that I experienced from happening to anyone else.”

Preston worked alongside Virginia lawmaker Sam Rasoul who ultimately patroned the bill that changed local laws.

The law previously had a few provisions for preventing discrimination against victims of domestic violence, but there was absolutely nothing that acknowledged financial abuse — which happens to around 99% of victims,” Preston says. “The new law states that if a victim is otherwise qualified for housing, they can’t be denied approval simply based on their credit score.”

These five Black women are just a few of those who have made incredible strides in their field:

McKinney and Childs have made an unmistakable mark in trauma-informed advocacy and mental health work, leaving behind loving and thankful communities.

Preston, Dent and Tatum all center their work on improving the lives of the most marginalized, each continuing to make a noticeable impact.



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