An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast
Makeba Boykins and Ashley Stewart discuss racial trauma and the compounding impact of chronic stress on people and programs.
September 19, 2022
Ashley Stewart, Host (00:05): Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Dr. Ashley Stewart, a director at C4 Innovations. Our topic today is a conversation on addressing racial trauma in practice. My guest is Dr. Makeba Boykin, calling in from Chicago. Dr. Boykin is our colleague at C4 Innovations in the role of health equity and housing subject matter expert. Makeba, thank you so much for joining us today.
Makeba Boykins, Guest (00:31): Of course. I’m excited to be here, excited to talk to you today, Ashley.
Ashley (00:34): Yes. And I’m really excited about this conversation we have for our listeners. So Makeba, when processing this podcast, we were talking through our experiences as Black women with PhDs who are clinicians in mental health or related fields. Our work as practitioners in this macrospace where we’re doing really dynamic racial equity and inclusion work. We thought it would be a great idea to talk about racial trauma and how we experience it dynamically through those roles, both as our experiences as clinicians, providers, consultants, and race equity subject matter experts.
Makeba (01:13): I think when we think about trauma in general, we often think of just the most horrible things possible, right? Like, it’s someone died; you experienced some sort of act of violence, something like that. We often don’t think of other things outside of those very catastrophic events being a part of trauma. And that includes racial trauma. I don’t think we think about the fact that the experience of racism is going to incur trauma. It’s going to be… It’s just hard. When we talk about trauma, it’s difficult for people. It causes psychological harm. Racial trauma is trauma. So when I think about racial trauma, it’s just that piece, that traumatic experience that relates to our racial identity and how the world sees us and how we experience the world.
Ashley (02:03): Yeah. Yeah. I also like to think about and bring to light, too, that sometimes the trauma is experienced as that one particular event, but we don’t often talk about how trauma can be experienced vicariously, or the sum of a bunch of small things that happen and compound, particularly when we’re leaning in and having the conversation about race or racism. It could be those day in, day out subtleties around experiencing race that could lead to trauma, the compounded impact of it.
Makeba (02:32): Absolutely. A lot of people are probably familiar with microaggressions. Microaggressions are really, if you’re not familiar, that daily onslaught of things that might seem like a compliment, but are enrooted in racism or things that question somebody’s authority, question somebody’s credentials, question whether or not somebody belongs in the space that they’re in, and it’s always rooted in racism or rooted in other parts of our identities that are vulnerable to systems or that are oppressed. That constant onslaught of dealing with those, the way that I like to say it is like death by paper cuts. You’re just constantly being pricked, dealing with things that make you question your identity, your self-worth. That causes trauma. It is an ongoing, never-ending trauma.
Makeba (03:17): Going kind of back to thinking about what I said in the beginning of trauma, when we think of it being this one time event. Well, I think that’s true. We do think of this one time event. But if you think of racial trauma and you understand that that is trauma, that’s ongoing, and there’s no end in sight. You’re not ever going to stop being Black. I love being Black. That’s not a problem. But what comes with that is the possibility and the probability of experiencing ongoing daily trauma related to it.
Ashley (03:44): Yes. There is no end date, it’s that weathering, that allostatic load, these are all terms that we use when we’re talking about the compounded impact of the daily chronic stress. I love that you bring in microaggressions, Makeba, because it also makes me think of the original definitions. I think sometimes when folks talk about microaggressions, they like to think about microaggressions as the experience for the person. Absolutely, that’s a huge part of it. Similarly, when we think about something like race-based traumatic stress, we think about the experiences, the symptoms experienced by the individual.
Ashley (04:22): But when we really look in and dive into the theories behind it and the work of the scholars, they are talking about the systems and the structures that are causing this weathering and this allostatic load and the compounded-ness of it, race-based traumatic stress puts the responsibility on the society, the systems, the structures, the institution that continue to cause the harm. Microaggression looks at these systems. When we go back to the original definition and look at what Chester Pierce was talking about when he was talking about microaggressions, he’s talking about the way that people were being treated in a specific context within society and how that leads to these symptoms. I think that’s a really important point that folks shouldn’t miss when we’re talking about racial trauma, is careful not to pathologize the individual, but really recognize and address the systemic-ness of the issue.
Makeba (05:14): Absolutely. When we think about systems, we always make it different from ourself. It’s a system out there. It’s those people or that thing. System, it’s like a floating sky cloud that is just separate from us, and we don’t have to touch it. But you’re so right, Ashley, that systems are us. We are those systems, and the personal responsibility of thinking about how we may be causing microaggressions, how we may be just possibly insensitive to microaggressions, even if we weren’t the person that caused it, how do we re-traumatize people? How do we trigger people? Absolutely. We are a part of that system and we cause those things, and we all have to work to be part of the solution.
Ashley (05:54): Yep. Yep. Absolutely. The day to day stress of it, leading to trauma, impacting a person’s ability to cope.
So, when you were doing direct service or clinical supervision, in my case, mental health consulting, how did this show up in your work?
Makeba (06:12): Oh, it showed up in all the ways, Ashley. It showed up in all the various ways. Again, we are the things, right? We are the people. We can’t separate ourselves from the experience of microaggression, from perpetrating microaggressions. It shows up in a variety of ways.
Makeba (06:27): When I think about doing clinical supervision, I’ve done clinical supervision with a variety of students and supervisees from a variety of different backgrounds. The two things that jump out at me is it shows up both in my interaction with people who are in the quote, unquote, same group as me, so other Black women and our interactions. It also shows up when I’m working with people who are White or connected to whiteness, who aren’t Black. The ways in which that shows up are when I’m working with people who aren’t Black, it’s the more of the typical way of you would think of microaggressions. Even if I’m supervising them, it’s sometimes the, “Oh, are you a student? Or are you actually my supervisor? Are you sure that you have enough experience to do this? Tell me about your background.” These are people who I am supervising, not just in a clinical capacity, but sometimes people who I’m supervising as I’m their work supervisor. I’m providing that sort of support.
Makeba (07:28): So, it’s just interesting. People can be very bold in their questioning your right to be in a space. I’ve had that happen to me numerous times on multiple occasions. I don’t foresee, again, there being an end in sight. It’s a thing that is reoccurring.
Makeba (07:43): How it shows up when I’m working with people, other Black women, I identify as a Black woman and other people who identify the same, can be, in all honesty, just me being mindful of not triggering them, us being mindful of being in the space together where we’re working through the microaggressions that maybe they’re experiencing, or me not inserting… They tell me about a microaggression that they’ve experienced during their internship, and I’m like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe that happened.” And I want to put on that face. But I have to be like, “Okay, I need to be supportive. I need to remove myself from this situation. I don’t need to talk through this or get upset for them. I need to let them have their own feelings and things like that.” And so it shows up in both spaces and really in all the places, and anybody that I supervise, I’m bringing myself with me. So it shows up repeatedly and constantly.
Ashley (08:33): Repeatedly and constantly, and I think the duality of it that is just like, I’m really sitting on the edge of my seat with is that in addition to trying to help people be more aware, inclusive, and anti-oppressive through examining racial trauma in the clinical space. You’re also experiencing it.
Makeba (08:55): Absolutely.
Ashley (08:56): It’s actually showing up for you as an individual. I think that that’s such an important dynamic that we want to lean into, that we want to begin to address. I think about it a lot when I’m working with folks who I have the pleasure to serve, and we’re talking about just the overwhelming-ness, the hypervigilance, I feel like people are watching me all the time. I just feel like every move I make is being criticized. And then there’s like the family component. There’s like the family trauma part of it. There’s the recovery component of it, where people are going through recovery. There’s a housing component. You have all these different things that people are experiencing in their lives that are stressful.
Ashley (09:32): What typically we don’t acknowledge is the fact that racism is playing a huge role in that as well. Most of the folks that I have the wonderful opportunity to serve are folks of color, mostly Black women. Part of the work is to help folks see the expectations in society, the disparaging comments that they’ve received, that they’re trying to refocus in their minds as a result of living in a society that minimizes their lived experience, is also a part of what that overload is on the day to day, the hypervigilance, the activated central nervous system. It’s all part of it.
Makeba (10:11): Absolutely. I want to go back and say everything that you’re saying right now, Ashley, really resonates with me. Part of that is just affirming for people, it is okay. Whatever initial response that you have to experiencing microaggressions are okay.
Makeba (10:26): So, when I talked about working with and supervising other Black women and being able to check myself, that’s important so that I am not dominating the space, and so that the clinical supervision space is about them. But it’s also normal and natural for me to have a reaction to hearing them experience racism. That is normal. And that is, for me, to take into my own supervision or my own support spaces. But you’ve talked about pathologizing people and their experience of racial trauma. Just everything that you’re saying, again, is really resonating because we often make ourselves feel bad. Like, “Oh, I shouldn’t react that way.” Or, “Oh, I should have handled this better.” But how do you handle racism better? We’re all just doing the best we can with it.
Makeba (11:08): As you said, when you’re in the workspace, when you are having to perform and you often feel like, and sometimes it’s true, let’s be real, that you have to perform at a higher level than your colleagues, particularly your white colleagues, to feel the same level of respect when you are dealing with all of that in the workspace, and you already have that stress, and then you’re dealing with microaggressions on top of it. However you react is normal. That’s okay. Allowing ourselves the space to do that is critical and key, but it’s a luxury that, unfortunately, a lot of people don’t have.
Ashley (11:42): A lot of telling people how they should feel. So Makeba, what I love about this conversation is that we’ve had this experience in the clinical setting. But in the capacity that we’re working right now, we’re doing really large opportunities for training, curriculum development, serving as subject matter experts in pretty significant roles, doing some transformative culture shift, community-based participatory work, working with boards and directors in really at a more macro capacity than what our initial work started out as.
Ashley (12:17): I’m wondering, for you, what does that look like in terms of the application of it, the, oh, critical overlap from what you’re doing in the clinical space to how you utilize and mobilize that experience in this more macrospace?
Makeba (12:36): Yeah. I think for me, it started with when I got my bachelor’s in psych, in school, looking around and everybody’s dream being owning a private practice. I was like, “Wait? But who’s going to work with everybody else. Who’s going to do that?” And so starting from that place, just at the beginning of my education in mental health of knowing like, oh, there is some disparities in how clinicians even see the work and who they should be working with. And there’s no problem with having a private practice. I want to stress that. Have your private practice. Live your best life. The point, though, is that if all of us are having a private practice, or if all of us are doing just one thing, then there is a gap in services. There’s a disparity in who can access services because not every private practice is going to be on a sliding scale. Not everybody has private practice money.
Makeba (13:24): So starting from that place, then working with clinicians, working in community mental health, and just seeing the amount of support that clinicians, both White, Black, and every other race needed around working with a lens that included cultural humility, how much support clinicians needed in order to do that as I saw that in real time, being out and doing direct service, being out and working in the field. It was really the itch for me, of like, oh, okay, this is a gap. So not only is there a gap in who people are providing services to, but there’s also a gap in the kind of training clinicians are receiving to provide those services, and maybe that’s a huge piece in why people don’t want to do it, is because they’re just not getting the training and support to be able to be racially trauma-informed in the services that they provide.
Makeba (14:18): So that kind of wiggled me into the space of, okay, well, I want to do this on a bigger level. I want to do this on a macro level and provide training to clinicians, to service providers, to all the people who are in roles that I have had or who I have worked with and help them build the skills to be able to do this work again through a racially trauma-informed lens.
Makeba (14:39): Now that I’m doing that, this is the most fulfilling part of my career thus far. Being able to work with people and, again, really help them. There’s a gap. And oftentimes, you get into trainings where you’re providing information on cultural humility and racial equity, health equity, disparities in housing, et cetera, and people say, “Thank you. I can’t believe that this is a service that I’m getting because I’ve never gotten it before.” And that is just really cool to me. That’s a space that I really enjoy existing in and want to see myself existing in the near future. It’s how I got to meet you, Ashley. So it’s just fun and great work to do.
Ashley (15:18): Listen. I’m over here just glowing because all I can think of is I’m just so grateful that you’re doing this work, and I’m so grateful that you’re in this space. This is a absolutely necessary space to occupy. One of the things that stands out to me, thinking about moving and transitioning into the macro aspect of it, is it’s about that culture shift. It’s about recognizing that people and systems don’t change unless we begin to confront it. We cannot challenge. We cannot acknowledge. And the reality of it, people do not know how to talk about race, racism, racial equity, equity inclusion. The conversations we’ve been having, particularly the increase, still have been at a information level. But let’s get to the emotional component of people who are leading these organizations and help folks realize the ingrained nature of racism within all of the systems that inevitably are impacting individuals.
Ashley (16:11): So, a lot of times people will ask me, like, “Well, what keeps you going? This work is heavy.” I think it is that interwoven-ness of my clinical work and my macro work. That is what keeps me going. It’s not only seeing the folks who I have the opportunity to work with in the spaces that they’re occupying in the world, but also going into those spaces and informing it through changes so that folks don’t have to work so hard to be so…
Ashley (16:39): This idea around resilience, people are being stressed, stressed, stressed. They don’t need to be. We need to be addressing the work culture. We need to be addressing the institutions, the policies, the practices, the procedures in the overall, again, culture of organization that’s causing the harm. So it’s healing from both sides. I absolutely love that. It’s inspiring.
Ashley (16:58): I have to agree with you. This has been the most profound and influential thing that I can imagine, having these conversations in all of these different spaces, from a way that’s not just about informing people, but helping to do that transformation work within people, helping people see how this work helps them be a better version of themselves, helps the organization be more innovative, helps them retain and recruit and serve more people, like, this is really, really important, is a really important dynamic of the complexity of the work itself.
Makeba (17:30): Absolutely. I think you said something that really resonated with me, and it’s about sustainability. You mentioned it. You hit it. You danced around it. I think there’s research out there. There’s articles out there about how cultural humility and having a racial equity lens impacts the workplace, impacts people’s ability to feel like they can thrive in the workplace, impacts clinicians’ ability to feel like they can do the work successfully, and also impacts people’s likelihood, if they’re receiving services, to continue with services. So there’s all those threads, and this is what you were just kind of speaking to, that are connected to one another.
Makeba (18:05): Ultimately, I think a lot of us get into social work, counseling, any sort of service provider thing because we want to help. We want to help people. So, this helps us do that. It helps us be our best selves, like, thinking, including, and by this, I mean including some sort of racial equity lens, acknowledging racial trauma, acknowledging how that not only impacts our clients, but impacts us. Again, we bring ourselves with us in every space we go into.
Makeba (18:31): Doing that helps us provide the best services that we possibly can, and helping organizations in this space that we’re in now helps them sustain that work. Because you by yourself, you can work through yourself; you can work on how you cope with things; you can work on all of these different things. But if the systems that you exist within are constantly challenging you or aren’t supportive of you, how long is that going to be sustainable? So absolutely, the work that we are really doing now, Ashley, and at C4 and in the space that we’re in, helps to sustain it, helps leaders understand, “Hey, this is important. This is the things that your staff might be experiencing. This is the thing that their clients might be experiencing. And here is how we deal with it in the best way that we can.”
Ashley (19:17): Absolutely. Absolutely. It makes me think of this upcoming course that we are developing at C4 Innovations that we’ll be offering around equity centered, trauma-informed supervision. We often talk about how to be a trauma-informed supervisor. We talk about equity. We talk about inclusion. Where do those things come together, and how can focusing on equity through a trauma-informed supervisory style impact that sustainability, the longevity of people’s ability to be energetic and creative, freeing up people’s emotional capacity to do the work, but also doing some really critical response work to the trauma that’s being caused within the workplace in addition to society, in addition to interpersonal relationships?
Ashley (20:02): It’s not one place in people’s lives. It’s woven throughout. There are a lot of really tangible things we can do within the environment and as supervisors, as clinicians, as providers, as team members, as colleagues, as friends, as family, in all spaces to make equity more of a focal point of how we navigate even some of our most basic conversations. So, I’m really excited to do this course with you so that we can begin to look at and see how this shows up in supervision and how we can heal racial trauma through the workplace.
Makeba (20:36): Yeah. Absolutely. I’m so excited for the course. I think, again, like going back to the beginning of our conversation and people often separating racial trauma from trauma, and when we think about trauma-informed supervision or trauma-informed work, usually the racial trauma component or the racial equity lens is a bullet point. It’s not infused throughout. What we’re really hoping to do with this course is to infuse it throughout and show how that can be so helpful for the people that you’re supervising or the supervision that you’re receiving. Being able to advocate for yourself and saying, “I need more racial equity in the stuff that I’m receiving, and here are some resources that I have,” is also important. So I’m hoping that this course can really help us speak to that supervision space and how, again, just as you said, having that racial trauma-informed lens, having a racial equity lens, is just so critical for that work and that space. So, I’m excited. Super excited.
Ashley (21:34): Me too! Me too. And I’m excited for other folks who are going to join us.
Makeba (21:38): Where could people find the information if they’re hoping to join us?
Ashley (21:41): You can find it on the C4innovates.com website. It’s the course listed as Trauma-Informed Supervision: Centering Equity. It’s going to run fall 2022, specifically between October and November. There’s going to be a link in the show notes to take you right to the page where you can register.
Ashley (21:59): Just as a final question, Makeba, I know I talked about what keeps me going. I want to hear from you. What keeps you going in this work? Because you are thriving in this space. What keeps you going?
Makeba (22:11): So my dog. My dog keeps me going. I figured I should give, for anybody listening out there, if I said that what keeps me going is the DSM or something like that, you’d be like, really, really? Is that what keeps you going, Makeba? No. It’s my dog first. And then after that, what keeps me going is just the work itself. That sounds cheesy or cliche. But when you get into the space with people and you get that energy, it is just intoxicating. It is just an infectious sort of experience of like, “Okay, I watched the news. I was feeling real cynical. But now I’m here in this training and I feel like, all right, we can do this. We can make change. We can affect change, and it’s going to start in this space. This is like me throwing my little pebble out in the world, trying to make the ripples look different.” So just that is what keeps me going, my dog and the work itself.
Ashley (23:06): Well, that is fantastic. We have lots to thank your pup for keeping you sustained throughout this work. Makeba, it is the absolute joy and pleasure to work with you. And thank you so much for joining us today.
Makeba (23:19): Absolutely. This was so much fun. I can’t wait to do it again sometime in the future. Thank you for having me and thank everybody for listening.
Ashley (23:26): And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
Erika Simon, Producer (23:29): Visit C4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
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