Thursday, October 15, 2015

Racial Justice in Memphis: Be an Alternative to Business as Usual

Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane. 
-- Martin Luther King Jr.

In announcing our eAlternative to "The Alternatives" conference that is now happening in  Memphis, we've received feedback that our original message was too subtle.  We have been ask to make clear the important racial and social justice concerns we hope will be addressed over the next few days - both at our eAlternative (more info at eAltCon15, ) and at the actual SAMHSA-funded event for the national mental health community.

The theme of the eAlternatives (AltCon15) is "Marching Out Voices Out of Memphis" (conference details here:  This theme was intentionally chosen to raise consciousness about pressing racial and social justice concerns. These are not minority concerns impacting a few individuals or interest groups.  They go to the heart of the quality of human relationships - and therefore the health and well being -- of communities and community members across the United States.

Suffice it to say, we are saddened and concerned that the organizers of Alternatives 2015 in Memphis did not take the lead in addressing these issues. Alternatives 2015 is - and remains - a historic opportunity to connect with the people of Memphis and build relationships around intersectional social justice concerns.

We also are saddened and concerned that the organizers inadvertently have - as so many of us inadvertently do - exercised their power of voice to exclude other voices that rightly deserve their place at the table. It smacks strongly of colonialism - as well as bad mental and community health practice - to come into a community, appropriate its resources for your purposes, conduct your business without a thought to the people who live there - and then go on your way knowing nothing and having learned nothing about those who offered their hospitality.

It also smacks of cultural incompetence to go in to city like Memphis, with its known connection to the assassination of Dr. King - at a time in history when racial tensions are extremely high - and hold a 5 day conference on mental health - everyone's mental health - that barely mentions racial justice concerns.

Add to this that Memphis is replete with stories - the very kinds of stories - both told and untold - that peer specialists practicing peer support disciplines consider it a matter of pride to be interested in and attend to.  This is not - like clinicians to tend to think - simply because we have nothing better to do. It is because learning to listen for these stories - often buried in years of community and cultural denial - has everything to with only with both social justice and mental health.  

And not just individual social justice, or individual mental health. But the fundamental fairness and well-being of an entire society.

To be specific: The kind of attuned listening that mental health peer worldwide are learning to do is about way more than individual recovery and individual mental health.  It is what fosters the very kinds of relationships, neighborhoods and communities in which well being and recovery are possible, meaningful and actually accessible:

The message that this kind of wellness and recovery is possible - and for individuals, families, organizations and nations - is the gift of our movement to share with the world. 

Developing our capacity to embody this message - and to reliably offer the principled peer-to-peer relationships that can make it possible - is very thing the Alternatives conference is supposed to be about. 
Suffice it to say: 

The organizers of Alternatives 2015 thus had - and still have a tremendous opportunity. They can choose right now not to continue with business as usual. They can choose right now to wake up to the pressing and powerful stories that are happening right under the nose of every dish being served and every bed being made - every 'Yes Maam' and "No Sir' - during their stay as guests of the people of Memphis. They can embrace this crisis of conscience as opportunity -- and begin the difficult work that recovery is supposed to be all about:

  • Recognizing you were got off on the wrong foot, 
  • Recognizing that you've taken a path that's leading to nowhere
  • Recognizing that it's time to self-correct before it's too late. 
Before the hurt runs too deep - and the price paid is unbearably high.   So unbearably high that someone checks out, acts out, shoots up -- or shoots you.  

These may be harsh words.  - But unless some of us start to voice them that is the price we can are paying every day for continuing on with business as usual.  

In a word:

This is not an opportunity that any of us can afford to miss - as individuals, organizers, advocates, neighbors, friends, communities, citizens - and members of a human family. 

The good news is that we still have time. We are barely starting our conferences - and, if we all sincerely make the effort and draw on the wealth of lived experience in our midst - there are a zillion ways to invite a meaningful conversation. With that in mind, we urge everyone to do their part in what ever role we play.  As participants, presenters, organizers, concerned observers, boycotters, whatever....  As human 'peers' in a world community where there is no role more important that any of us can play in each others lives as members of a human family.  

Let's not let this opportunity pass us by!