I want to share a piece I was asked to write about my path to counseling and the work I am doing in my graduate program. My adviser nominated me to be featured in our department newsletter, which I found very touching and an honor. I wanted to use my story as a platform for something more meaningful than just simple autobiography. I hope the message resonates with some of you.
In the neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, across from the oldest church in Paris, lively conversation spills out of the cafés whose tables clutter the sidewalks. I found myself there this past August, after a relationship breakup and an airline credit flew me over the Atlantic to wander over cobblestone, take in centuries of art and architecture, and soothe my heart with an abundance of chocolate croissants. One morning I decided to map out the addresses of old haunts and habitats of my first and most enduring love, James Baldwin. I made a path through Parisian districts that followed the traces of where he lived, loved, and worked. Baldwin, the iconic gay black writer with the wispy, melodic, and powerful voice, raised in a strict Pentecostal home in Harlem, lived as an expatriate in France for most of his adult years. On my walk I paused at and peered into the places where Baldwin wrote his novels, Go Tell it on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room—bistros, like Café de Flor and Les Deux Magots. I stood at the doorstep of his first Paris apartment along the tiny passageway, Rue de Christine, my feet pressing into worn stone where Baldwin’s feet had landed decades before. This self-guided tour was a sort of a pilgrimage for me, one that began at age 17.
Twenty years ago my high school English teacher gave me a copy of Another Country. Her scrawl in the margins of the inside cover told me: “I know you will love the honesty and passion of Baldwin.” Ms. Hepburn was a small and fiery white woman with a zest for life and a love of justice. The summer after graduating high school, when she turned me onto Baldwin, Ms. Hepburn and I met a few times to talk books. She confided in me then, that she had long been living with a woman, her true love. In our small town in central New York, she hid the most sacred contours of her heart for fear of losing her job. I hid mine in a home whose message was: you are too much, too emotional, too sensitive. Finally, in Baldwin’s fiction, I found in vivid and breathtaking detail, the intimate secrets and wild frontiers of our relational lives, our connections and ruptures—across race and sexualities—studied, exalted, and celebrated as the heart of what it is to be human.
I also found in Baldwin’s essays and fiction, a new world, or like his title says, another country. It was, to me, as KRS-One raps on the album, Edutainment: “The language of the people ready to hear the truth.” In schools and at home, through textbooks, teachers, family norms and cultural myths that are passed down, I had learned a story of our nation, one that was wholly different from the reality depicted in Baldwin’s books. His voice was my entry into a body of work by black artists, poets, authors, and musicians in whom I found refuge from the delusion of an American culture that acted as if white was the norm, the only subjective experience, one usually cut off from our hearts and bodies, and which flinched and recoiled at real conversations about racism, past and present.
As an undergrad, I studied the history and politics of race and completed an Urban Studies semester based in Chicago that included a 3 day intensive anti-racism training. I continued to devour Baldwin’s books. The Fire Next Time said it clearly: white people are “still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” Baldwin wrote of the past in an uncompromisingly candid yet compassionate tenor, understanding that no movement forward would be possible until we, as a society, acknowledged what we had allowed ourselves to become in upholding systems founded upon dehumanization—that we, in fact, were all dehumanized.
From the study of history in college and at the Masters level at the University of Illinois Chicago, to several years of clinic work at Planned Parenthood health centers in California, Chicago, and Chapel Hill, deep study of Buddhism and a side gig teaching moving meditation, and a foray into being a public librarian-activist and then case worker in social services, I finally made my way to NCSU’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program in the Summer of 2016. Being a Masters student in the Counselor Education Department has nourished and affirmed everything that Ms. Hepburn and James Baldwin first awakened within me when I was 17. It is powerful to be in a supportive community of peers and faculty, where my strengths are valued and I am encouraged to grow and flourish. I feel a sense of belonging in both my cohort and in the field of counseling, which at the intersection of my passion for personal transformation and healing; embodied, heart-centered, authentic connection; social change and multicultural community; embraces all of who I am and yet holds me accountable to who I want to become.
In Dr. Marc Grimmett, I have an advisor and mentor who models compassionate, whole-person care, and displays self-awareness and sensitivity to the contexts of power, access, and privilege in which we and clients are embedded. That he and Dr. Helen Lupton-Smith developed the Community Counseling, Education, and Research Clinic (CCERC) , as a model of affordable world-class health and wellness services to reach underserved populations was an enormous draw for me in selecting NCSU’s Master’s CMHC program. I am honored and excited to be joining their team for my practicum and internship starting in January 2017.
Perhaps most unexpected and rewarding to me, is that I have been able to bring my passion for history into my counseling education. For a class presentation in Dr. Grimmett’s Intro to Clinical Mental Health Counseling, I made a website exploring the connection of historical memory to healing and what I can do, as a white counselor, to take action in recovering the past and de-centering whiteness for integration of the collective psyche. The website, Counselors for Courage, Truth, and Justice (http://counselorsforcouragetruthjustice.weebly.com/), is an ongoing inquiry of how I, and other counselors, can help foster healing, justice, and community in a nation that has not adequately addressed its white supremacist foundations and our inheritance of pervasive racism. The project integrates liberation psychology, theories of counseling, research, and interviews, and offers suggestions for historically competent tools, counselor-facilitated community consciousness raising groups, and the creation of safe spaces for public remembering and grieving. Dr. Grimmett encouraged us to submit one of our class presentations as a conference proposal to the North Carolina Counseling Association (NCCA). My proposal, “Historical memory and healing the national psyche,” was accepted and I am looking forward to presenting this as a poster board session at the 2017 NCCA Conference in Durham this coming February.
NCSU’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program and CCERC are exactly the settings I need to be in to become the kind of counselor I want to be. I’m eager to keep learning alongside and from fellow counseling students and professors and to find ways to build and broaden the multicultural community of care I experience here, out into the rest of the world. I see us, as NCSU counselors, carrying on James Baldwin’s s message of truth and love, for widespread healing and justice.