Outside the centuries of violence Black people have faced simply for existing, on a more local level, the past 100-plus days of protests have exacted an undeniable mental and emotional toll on BIPOC individuals and the allies who support them. Without an immediate end in sight, the need for mental health maintenance is becoming even more crucial, especially to keep the fight for justice alive.
Anita Randolph saw that need immediately. Along with mayoral hopeful and activist Teressa Raiford, Randolph—a neuroscientist originally from Atlanta who's now doing medical research into addiction—have teamed up to start the Safer Space program, a peer-to-peer mental health support group for the BIPOC community and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement.
It's volunteer-run, with professional mental health providers offering their services to fill the gap between the specific support people of color often need and the lack of quality care they actually receive. Randolph spoke to WW about how Safer Space will operate, and the challenges such a program faces operating in a city with Portland's demographic makeup.
WW: Why is something like Safer Space important?
Anita Randolph: We know that we have this gap not only in the BIPOC community, where access to mental health support is an issue, but there are so many issues we're facing right now that we just don't have the support for. I also identify as African American and I work in mental health, so I understand the difficulties, stereotypes and stigmas that go along with no-call support in my own community. There's just this huge outcry for mental support, and I see people getting braver at the center of everything. In phase one, we've been collecting volunteers who are licensed clinicians. They could be psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, or social workers who specialize in counseling and mental health. We've got about 100 clinicians who signed up in less than a week, and we're still hoping for more to sign up. They're getting thoroughly vetted, because it's extremely important for me to not perpetuate a broken system where we have individuals going in for mental health support and coming out more traumatized. We're checking everyone's licenses, as well as asking them a series of questions regarding their history with volunteering and working with the BIPOC community. They'll also go through our anti-racist and trauma-informed training as well.
As a member of the BIPOC community myself, I know I've been resistant to seeking the help I need because of the lack of counselors of color, especially who accept the Oregon Health Plan. Have protesters and other BIPOC citizens expressed similar concern about not wanting help from someone they can't relate to?
That is a huge problem. Even with me being in the mental health field, this is the first state I've lived in where even I haven't explored getting peer-to-peer or mental health support myself because I see how bad discrimination is in the Pacific Northwest. I see how badly I've been treated at hospitals I've worked at, and I'm like, "Wow, this is really an issue. I wouldn't want to be your client." I'm just really glad that we have individuals who are willing to take the leap and provide some type of service for everybody. We don't care if you have insurance or not—our services are free. We won't turn you away.
Have most of the people who have signed up so far been white? I understand that especially in Portland and especially during a time right now that considering white people as your peers is very dependent on how they present their allyship. Might that be another hurdle for people who need that type of support but don't consider white people to necessarily be their peers?
It's definitely a hurdle. I'm from Atlanta, and if this were in Atlanta, there wouldn't be an issue. There would be so many Black and Brown people signing up. But this is the Pacific Northwest, and there aren't many BIPOC individuals in the field out here, which is really difficult. In order for us to do this, all volunteers must go through the anti-racist and trauma-informed training. I don't care how high of a position they have at their hospital or practice. They won't be able to offer support until we can ensure that all of their interactions will be appropriate. People are going to have to be very humble through this process. They're going to have to do a lot of legwork.
Just looking at the typical BLM protest out here, I feel like there may be more non-BIPOC than BIPOC participants. Is there a hierarchy of who can receive support first based on their identity, or is it on a first come, first served basis?
We've got a lot of volunteers so far, so I'm hoping this won't be an issue. It'll be first come, first served, with priority obviously given to BIPOC individuals. When someone in need comes to us, they'll be able to look at a picture of the clinicians and read biographies and choose who they want help from. I don't want to take anyone's power away from them—I want them to feel empowered by the process and to feel like they're in control.
And can people who don't protest for whatever reason, but who still support the movement, come and get help?
Of course. There are many reasons why people don't or can't protest, like health issues or regarding COVID, and there are so many different ways to push the movement other than protesting. That's why we just left it very general, to just be a supporter. That could be somebody who is working on policies, someone like you who is interviewing people and spreading the word, or someone who comes to the protest and is organizing stuff. We understand that there are so many pieces of the puzzle and we need everybody to fill in their piece. In order to do that, everybody has to be mentally charged and ready.
Since there is a more loose definition of support, how will Safer Space approach the people who "support" the movement just because it's a trend to do so, who maybe post a photo or two on Instagram with a hashtag, but their support doesn't go beyond that?
That's a big problem, too. It really sucks. We're going to try our best to come up with some type of system where the clinician can flag someone and then we go and follow up with them. Because the service is free, we don't want people out here trying to take advantage of this system we're trying to get off the ground. There are so many negative people out there, but we have to try. I'm not saying I have all the answers, but I have to try.
For more information about Safer Space, see dontshootpdx.org/safer-space-for-black-lives-matter.