Cultural Humility and Black Lives Matter

By Adam Holt, Assistant Director of the Metro Boston Recovery Learning Community. Links added for additional resources.

Last week, staff of the MBRLC recently gathered for a cultural humility training.  Cultural humility is a new concept, at least new to me, that re-frames cultural competency.  Competency can imply that you might learn all there is to know about another culture, and then you are competent.  Humility focuses on an ongoing learning process, one that counters ideas of cultural supremacy, and listens to everyone, especially the voices that have been silenced or suppressed, inviting their voice and wisdom. 

It feels especially relevant in this time to work through the ways we can be more culturally humble.  How can we listen to, learn from, and amplify voices talking about racial injustice in our country and in our community?  We have heard about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner and others.  But what about our own community?

One case of police brutality that local activists are calling to re-open is the case of Terrence Coleman, who was a black Bostonian and paranoid schizophrenic, who was shot by police in 2016.  The night he died, his mother called 911 to try and get him help during a difficult episode.  Police claimed that he was brandishing a kitchen knife at them, and they shot him twice.  However, the kitchen knife later turned in as evidence was taken from the kitchen, and Mr Coleman was shot in the foyer.  No one should lose their life because of racism or mental health stigma.  I would hope that the police department and the police men involved are held responsible, so Mr Coleman’s mother and community can start to heal.  Incidents like this threaten our community as peers and need to be stopped.  The thought that one of our community members could be killed because police aren’t adequately trained to understand their mental health isn’t something I can live with.     The thought, too, that black Bostonians live in fear is impossible to bear.

I am encouraged to hear the plans to expand the clinician co-responder program, which means that more clinicians will ride along with police and help respond to behavioral health issues that they encounter.  I think this will go a long way to help deescalate potentially violent incidents, and clinicians should be able to help police understand the mental health aspects that might be at work. I am also cognizant of critiques from our community that argue that increasing the presence of mental health professionals in crisis response might lead to more institutionalization and over-medication.  I would hope that a crisis response can be created that would respect the dignity and autonomy of peers.  We need less violence, more understanding, and more cultural humility as we work on changing the system. 

I would hope, too, that black Bostonians feel that our services are places available to them for support.  I ask myself, how can I, as a white person, interrogate the beliefs I hold that buy into the system of racism in our country, and what can I do to make a positive impact?  Author and historian Dr Ibram X. Kendi has made the point that it is not enough for us to be “not racist,” we should seek to be anti-racist.  How can the MBRLC be anti-racist?  I hope this starts a dialogue in our community about the ways in which we can learn and amplify the voices of those who have not been heard.