An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast
Valeria Chambers and Keith Murphy discuss strategies for supporting recovery, mental health, and wellness for marginalized communities during these times of COVID-19 and racial strife.
December 21, 2020
Kristen Harper, Host: [00:05] Hello. Welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Kristen Harper, woman living in long-term recovery, and my pronouns are she/hers. Our topic today is a time to listen–using the power of storytelling to heal trauma in our communities. My first guest today is Valeria Chambers, the Coordinator of Black Voices Pathways 4 Recovery. Welcome, Valeria.
Valeria Chambers, Guest: [00:28] Hi Kristen. Great to be here. I use the she series.
Kristen: [00:32] Thank you so much for joining us today, Valeria. Our second guest is Keith Murphy, Recovery Counselor for Rutgers University Collegiate Recovery program. Hey, Keith. How is it going?
Keith Murphy, Guest: [00:43] Hi, Kristen. Thanks for having me.
Kristen: [00:46] Thanks for joining us today. Before we hop into this topic, which I’m super excited about, I’d love to hear a little bit more about the work that you’re doing in your community. Valaria, I know you’re calling in from Massachusetts. Can you tell us a little bit about your work that you’re doing there in the state?
Valeria: [00:59] Sure. Thanks, Kristen. I work as a Peer Support Specialist. In Massachusetts, we call ourselves a Certified Peer Specialist, which means I use my lived experience of mental health and trauma to connect with others also working in recovery. I also work as a research consultant with two groups that are working on mental health disparities.
Kristen: [01:23] Thank you, Valeria. I can’t wait to ask you how you got into the work, and I know you’ve been doing it for about almost 20 years now. Is that right?
Valeria: [01:29] That’s correct.
Kristen: [01:30] Yeah, we’re getting up on an anniversary. That’s exciting. Keith, how about you? What’s going on at Rutgers?
Keith: [01:36] Apparently there’s a lot with COVID. Well, first my name is Keith Murphy. I go by he/him pronouns, and I work as the recovery counselor on campus with the students that are in long-term abstinence-based recovery. The program has been around for about 30 plus years now, started by the director, Lisa Laymen, and I’m there as a part of a wonderful team, Barbara Casha, Brian Carey, and a host of other folks in the counseling center who help support students sustain the long-term recovery and get to finish college and have a full-on college experience.
Kristen: [02:11] Thanks, Keith, I appreciate you being with us today, and we’re going to hop into the conversation just first by saying congratulations for making it to the final round of 2020. It’s been quite the heavy year. We’ve had a lot of challenges, a lot of wakenings I feel like as a community, and one of the main reasons why I wanted to speak to you both about this is because I have watched you over the years and through the grapevine heard wonderful things about your approach to recovery oriented systems of care, from the peer perspective especially. How are we getting through it? How are your communities, the folks that you’re serving, how are they doing this year? The topic is listening, the power of listening and using storytelling to heal. Valeria, you started Black Voices, and I think it’s a brilliant idea. I would love to hear more about how that process has been helping folks in Massachusetts get through this year and previous years as well.
Valeria: [03:07] Yeah. This has been a really rough time. I think for many folks in Black Voices, the pandemic has been traumatic on so many levels because really we’ve been experiencing two pandemics. Racial strife against Blacks, as well as COVID-19. I think for those who are able to connect via computer or smartphone or tablet, they’ve been feeling a bit better because at least they can attend lots of support groups and stay in touch with people, attend meetings at recovery learning communities. But many folks may not have that option because of access to technology. So for them it’s much more difficult. People are also struggling with things like, not being able to see their providers regularly, or having the provider, have to go as a provider be in the front line and they have to see someone else, which when you’ve developed a rapport and really made a connection with one person, to then have to speak to someone else and start all over with your story and lots of painful stuff. That’s really hard.
Kristen: [04:34] Yeah, absolutely. It’s reliving the trauma every time we have to start over with a new provider. I know early on in my recovery, you just reminded me that just the connection with a peer, with somebody that shared that lived experience, it made me feel like I had a foundation or a grounding. It’s so important to feel like you’re not alone.
Valeria: [04:55] Absolutely.
Kristen: [04:58] Keith, how about your work with the students there? I know that being on a college campus right now is probably especially challenging. Especially when there are shutdowns and social distancing and not many options for some students that are living in the dorms and don’t have anywhere else to go. Tell us a little bit about how your folks are making it through.
Keith: [05:22] Yeah, thanks for the question. I just want to note Valeria’s humility and how she answered that first question. I really appreciate that. In this whole thing that’s been going on, well, first let me also give a little shout out to Rutgers in being flexible and allowing students to stay on campus. At least the students that needed to stay on campus could stay on campus in this time. This has been a really hard time, a really difficult time as a lot of learning has happened virtually. And some of those classes have been asynchronous, a word that I’ve learned this year. You can basically watch the class at a different time than when the class actually happened. That’s caused a little bit of disruption for a lot of students. And then there’s some classes that are synchronous that are happening live or in vivo as they’re watching the Zoom.
Keith: [06:07] Part of this has been hard, as Valeria talked about it, being able to make connections that are necessary. That’s been a difficult thing. Really students, at least where I’m housed in the recovery house, have had each other. As a tight knit community, since March, they have not moved, they’ve stayed together. They’ve been essentially as the state would consider, a single household. They’ve been doing everything I say honestly, probably to the best of their ability in making sure that they stay safe and keeping the whole community as a whole safe. It’s not been an easy needle to thread for a lot of folks. Young people get kind of dismissed for being so reckless. But these students really value each other, and they value the lives of their parents and other people by really following the guidelines that have been set up by the CDC and by the University.
Keith: [07:00] So hats off to them. And as far as Zoom meetings go, there’s been a mix of some meetings, smaller meetings online, and some meetings out in person. They’re making it work. It’s not ideal. And again, it really just points to other disparities as Valeria wisely pointed out. If you don’t have access to internet or device, it’s hard to make those connections. Talking about providers, as a trained clinician, I’ll say this and be quiet. Someone actually coming into your office is actually an intervention in and of itself. The fact that I’ve been seeing students either on the phone or by a video is good, but it’s not the same because in some ways, having someone come into an office is a healthy disruption, so to speak. We’re all trying to deal with it the best way we know how. I wish there was a pat answer to give, and I wish I could just say it’s 2020, but this is just really pulling the bandaid off of a lot of stuff that we’ve already been dealing with in a lot of marginalized communities.
Kristen: [08:03] I’m really glad that you brought that up because I was going to switch gears and speak a little bit about pulling that bandaid off this year for sure. I just know in my local sphere here where I’m located within the Atlanta area, we have really been seeing a lot of the racial inequity and health disparities during COVID this year, which pulled back the curtain on many things that have been happening for a very, very long time. Switching to both the topics that you and Valeria brought up, Keith, tell me a little bit more about what this is looking like within the Black community, especially the recovery community. How are we supporting each other? Valeria?
Valeria: [08:47] Well, it’s really been difficult. There have been lots of groups that have come together. Community, grassroots organizations mostly, that are really trying to look after folks and come together to really pull resources because many people that have lost their jobs, do not have access to enough food, really critical things, facing eviction. I’d say that there are definitely efforts happening, but it’s just not enough.
Kristen: [09:30] Yeah and Keith, just to piggyback on what Valeria shared, in this historically white dominated culture, especially within the recovery world, how are we able to shift the focus and really dismantle some of that so that we can open up and make recovery more inclusive?
Keith: [09:48] Well, part of the Cares Act in the federal response for people to get access to telehealth, they’ve loosened up some of the restrictions for some of the telehealth to happen. I think that’s probably a good way to start for some folks. I know certain people feel a certain way about it, but again, it increases access and allows people who may not be able to go into an actual community-based clinician or to see a therapist to actually get health services in a way that they couldn’t possibly get to before. I know now a lot of psychiatrists, a lot of doctors, are doing telehealth appointments. A lot of times there’s a lot of barriers that were set up for a lot of folks to engage, especially with psychiatry, without having a full battery of tests and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Keith: [10:32] But now thankfully, they can hook into their local provider, but insurance is a whole other thing that we can talk about. That kind of access is a whole other thing to talk about. Nevertheless, this is just one avenue that’s opened up a door for folks who couldn’t access good mental health care, that can now be involved in therapy whereas, they couldn’t before. And then I’ll also say this too. Part of this whole thing with COVID has, unpacked, and Valeria will probably speak to this much more effectively than I can, has unpacked a whole world of trauma. Part of what we’re witnessing, and she talked about the two pandemics. One of those White supremacy culture, patriarchal culture, those are traumatic things that people did not have a language for. What we’ve seen in the streets is people trying to find a remedy, a healing for that stuff that’s been going on under the surface for a long time. And what we’ve been able to see, the school to prison pipeline and how we’re really redressing a lot of issues that have been stepped over for a great deal of time.
Keith: [11:41] And it’s been couched over in terms of houselessness and food insecurity. Those are two things that are really actually had my ear for in the presidential debates, which were not necessarily talked about. That really disheartened me. There was some brief talk about maybe some work in terms of helping folks with mental health and substance use issues, but it was really quick stuff. There’s a ripple effect to what’s going on, but sadly, the closer you are to where the rock dropped into the pond is where you’re going to feel the greatest ripples. I think we’re now at a point or a turning point in our society and in our history. I’ve heard it said that this may be the third reconstruction where we can really look at what we’re doing as a society and as a whole to improve outcomes and improve people’s access to good and lasting health care.
Kristen: [12:32] Yeah. Excellent answer though. Thanks Keith. Valeria, I’m going to toss it back over to you and just really would love your wisdom on that trauma that Keith talked about and how folks are coping.
Valeria: [12:44] Yes. It’s so difficult. I think there’s so many, as Keith says, there’s so many elements. From the psychological and emotional, physical, environmental. There are just so many ways that every day is a struggle for so many people. It’s the compounding of that stress that really builds up and that causes, we now know, major problems to your health. Not only mental health, but your physical health. I think that’s an area that we have a lot of work to do in.
Kristen: [13:25] Yeah, absolutely. I think about those of you that are in a peer support role, and then also a clinician, those of us with lived experience, living our purpose and being of service and trying to help our communities and the weight that also, the heaviness that comes with that. How are we making sure that the instrument, which is ourselves, how are we taking care of ourselves so that we can be available and be a resource to our communities? I think about some mentors that I had over the years that have taught me how to do that, and also taught me what not to do just in watching how they took care of themselves, or did not take care of themselves.
Kristen: [14:11] I’d love to just switch a little bit over to that idea of carrying the load together as a community. We’ve done a lot of amazing things together, both mental health and addiction recovery communities, advocacy leaders. But I think that we are a little bit splintered right now because we are overburdened. And so I’d love to hear from you both about how we could support each other. Maybe mentor or offer leadership advice to one another and also take care of the young-ins that are coming up behind us and see how we’re passing the torch on. I’ll start with Keith, and we’ll just see what you all have to say about that.
Keith: [14:52] That’s a critical and vital question I think in the long-term and not just the immediate. One of the things about White supremacy culture is the idea that one person has to be the point person to disseminate all the information, has to be the keeper of the knowledge. There’s an aggregation of all of this knowledge and resources at the top. One of the ways of dismantling White supremacy culture is the idea of having a collective. And it’s the idea that it’s a shared responsibility. It’s a shared thing of community healing. I think for a long time, there’s been a slow move away from that. People give a lot of guff to 12-step work or those traditional fellowships, but understand that they really put something in place that’s really different than what we’re used to, which is that everybody is so important.
Keith: [15:44] There’s a collective conscience that needs to be raised in order for things to kind of continue to move forward. The idea that the newest person is the most important person. Leadership doesn’t have to look the same. Leadership is from the back to the front. If I can even put it in that hierarchy. In terms of what’s going on now, I think the beautiful thing is that Black Lives Matter, for example, it’s not a top down type organization or movement. It is a collective. It is an understanding that all of us have a stake in improving the outcomes and making sure justice is a real thing for folks. As opposed to just, again, the idea of this one person, federal government, state, local officials are going to be the folks that are going to make these full-on decisions for folks that are literally doing stuff on the street.
Keith: [16:37] There’s a lot of people who are doing great harm reduction work, and they understand the vital part of having new people come in and keep the movement going and keeping the energy fresh and vibrant. I’ve heard this metaphor used. The difference between a pond and a lake. A pond is just a stagnant pool of water. It is what it is. Not that there isn’t life in it. It’s different life, but a lake has an entrance and an exit, but the water is always constantly being refreshed. And I think that’s how we need to think about where we’re at in all the stuff that we’re doing.
Kristen: [17:09] Thank you, Keith. Valeria…
Valeria: [17:12] I love that metaphor, Keith. Yeah. I think this is one thing that this time is really teaching us. There are so many resources, there are so many gifts and talents that are in our communities that are unknown, that are languishing, that are not being allowed to come to fruition. And I think that is the work, that is a big part of the work that we must do. Black Voices came about because people said, “When I look for a provider, I don’t see someone who looks like me. I don’t see someone who can understand the way I speak or the way I dress or my life experiences. In fact, I have to worry about saying something that might hurt their feelings. And I find myself having to take care of my own therapist because I don’t want to be viewed in a negative light.”
Valeria: [18:24] There’s so many things that people struggle with as they work their recovery and as they reach for resources. I think self-care, as we say in peer support and mental health, is number one. It has to be number one. We have to take care of ourselves first. Like the airplane and the oxygen mask, you have to put on your own mask first. It’s so huge and yet I think people do get so much hope, a feeling of community, a feeling of possibility when you’re able to see other people having been through horrible things. And yet, they are still putting one foot in front of the other. They’re still getting up. They’re still determined and that does something inside for you because you think, wow, maybe, just maybe, if that person can do it and maybe I can too.
Kristen: [19:40] Yeah. I can’t think of a better way to end this conversation than on that note. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your time and your shared experiences and just telling us your stories. We really appreciate the work that you’re doing. Thank you so much again. Keith Murphy, Valeria Chambers. Amazing. Thank you so much.
Valeria: [20:01] Thank you so much, Kristen. It’s a pleasure to be here with you all today.
Keith: [20:05] I’m just so happy to be here. Just being in the presence of Valeria and Kristen, two amazing women who are just doing their thing. Thanks for having me.
Kristen: [20:13] Thank you to our listeners, and we hope that you will join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
Erika Simon, Producer: [20:18] 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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