cameron whitten
cameron whitten Nick Mendez

Every one of us deserves the love, support, and community we need to live our best lives. But the unfortunate reality is that we depend on unjust and broken systems that appear to work fine for a privileged majority, but harm Black, Brown, and Indigenous people every day. We all need justice, and that requires healing.

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I first arrived in Oregon at the age of eighteen. I didn’t know about our state’s racist origins, but soon found out through a shocking and painful lesson. My first night in Oregon I went to Albany to stay at the house of my friend’s dad. The next day, we were asked to leave because the dad was uncomfortable having a Black man in his house. I laughed at the absurdity of that act, because there was no way I could believe that people walked around holding these hurtful and racist views. But after years of living in Portland and seeing the daily treatment I and fellow Black, Brown, and Indigenous Portlanders endured—I no longer can ignore the pain.

Year after year, I collected new horror stories. I was silenced and dismissed by white peers in professional settings. I was racially profiled by streetcar operators and had the police called on me. In order to cope with these hurtful moments, I would type out my trauma on Facebook. This platform helped me raise awareness about racism, and sometimes even have my experiences validated. These posts would evoke guilt, outrage, and sometimes even donations from white supporters. But after years of posts, I never saw real, sustained action to combat the racial hostilities festering in Portland.

During a time when I was processing my own racialized trauma, I finally found the healing I hungered for. It was 2018, and after struggling to get my footing professionally, I found what I believed to be my dream job. For six months I was unfairly targeted and ultimately fired from that position. I was forced to have a difficult conversation with myself.

I had lived in Portland for nine years. This was where I planted my roots. And the soil was slowly poisoning me.

I realized that leaving Portland wasn’t a solution, because racism and anti-Blackness were lurking in every corner of our country. But with hard work, I could find the safety and acceptance I needed and deserved. Because of the authentic relationships I’d developed during my decade in Portland, I knew even poisoned soil could be remediated.

Although Oregon was originally founded to be a racist, whites-only Utopia, I had a powerful dream that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people could live here—and thrive.

Thus the nonprofit Brown Hope came to life, and healing was our purpose. I sent out a survey to dozens of Black, Brown, and Indigenous Portlanders and asked, ‘What has made you hopeful when it comes to addressing race in Portland?’ and ‘What makes you feel more connected to other people of color in Portland?’ The key words that surfaced were “solidarity, community, restoration, healing spaces, and collective activities.” These responses led to the creation of Brown Hope’s first program, Reparations Happy Hour. We built a supportive space for Black, Brown, and Indigenous people to build community and heal from the impacts of racism.

We asked white allies to participate in Reparations Happy Hour by staying home and donating to a fund that we distributed to attendees for their leadership. It was in those rooms filled with smiling, laughing, thriving Black, Brown, and Indigenous faces, I felt the future Portland I hoped for coming into vision. COVID-19 forced us into a months-long hiatus, but I’m excited that Reparations Happy Hour has been rebranded and revived through our new virtual program, Power Hour.

I am no mental health expert, but because of my lived experiences I’ve seen the ways in which Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in this country are not served by traditional mental health systems. We often hear the misguided fairytale that individuals are responsible for conquering their mental health challenges. But the truth is undeniable. We are facing an unprecedented public mental health crisis, and systemic racism inflicts a degree of suffering that’s out of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people’s immediate control.

America’s mental health system has a dreadful track record on race. The pattern of injustices ranges from misdiagnosis and incarceration, to police brutality. These systemic biases have led to less Black, Brown, and Indigenous people seeking critical support, resulting in stigmatization, isolation, and preventable suffering.

Corporate healthcare practices do not embrace the pain and beauty of our existence. They fail to imagine beyond the broken systems we live within. That’s why I’m hopeful for new initiatives like the Safe + Strong Community Care Resource Guide which can link Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in Oregon to affirming groups and services like Brown Hope, Radical Rest, and PDX Alliance for Self Care.

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COVID-19 has sent shockwaves through our society. The reality of racialized police violence has illuminated the chasms in our systems. Throughout 2020 we’ve seen how crisis after crisis has impacted the mental health of each and every one of us. And our Black, Brown, and Indigenous neighbors must seek help while also navigating racially biased, traumatic, and broken mental health systems.

With our hearts, minds, and voices, we must envision and uplift collective healing practices that are rooted in love, compassion, and action. There is no pharmaceutical drug to cure oppression. Therapy cannot free us from the chains of exploitation. But when we reclaim our collective healing, we can find justice.

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cameron whitten is Chief Executive Officer of Brown Hope and Co-Founder of Black Resilience Fund. Safe + Strong believes in amplifying authentic stories and voices from BIPOC communities. For culturally specific mental health support within your community, visit safestrongoregon.org/mentalhealth. This post has been paid for by the Safe + Strong campaign.

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