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Activists Talk ‘Race, Racism, and Mental Health’ at Harvard Law School

Langdell Hall
Langdell Hall houses the Harvard Law School Library.

Community organizers from the Boston area and across the United States convened this weekend for a two-day conference on “Race, Racism and Mental Health” hosted by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at the Harvard Law School.

The conference comprised a series of panel discussions that touched on the intersection of race and mental illness in modern America. The audience included local high school and college students, Cambridge residents, and Boston-area medical professionals.

In a conversation held early Friday afternoon, three Bostonian social workers convened to discuss their personal experiences with structural racism they say led to mental illness. The trio also offered advice for the next generation.

Abrigal S. Forrester, a panelist and the director of community action at the Madison Park Development Corporation, urged black Americans to improve their own neighborhoods to show solidarity in the face of overwhelming structural racism.

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“My experience everyday is the urgency of now," Forrester said. "That young man who’s carrying a gun in Roxbury or Dorchester, who feels like he’s worth nothing… What I can say to him is, ‘Baby boy, the gig can stop. You don’t have to keep hurting yourself. We love you.’”

He also spoke about the link between institutional racism and disproportionate diagnoses of mental illnesses among people of color.

“There’s work that we have to do in recognizing our own internal oppression and systems that we are a part of that continue to repeat the process of compounding trauma for people who have challenges in our society," Forrester said.

Panelists later devoted 40 minutes to answering questions posed by attendees.

Panelist Phillipe Copeland, professor at the Boston University School of Social Work, suggested that victims of racism should identify their oppressor and avoid blaming themselves — and that, ultimately, these individuals should work to reach "peace and reconciliation."

“Black people are not just feeling bad. Things are being done to us that would make any human being feel bad," he said. "And so the people who are doing that need to stop. If part of the battle is not being named and doesn’t want to be peaceful, there is not reconciliation.”

Nyamuon Nguany Machar, the third panelist and the leader of "Youth Move Maine," rounded out the discussion. Attendees included members of Arlington High School’s Black Student Union.

“It was very eye-opening, very eye-opening. I love all the new data and statistics I’ve been exposed to," Arlington High junior and attendee David L. Lopes said. "I knew a lot of that stuff but not all of it. I thought I was woke, in parentheses, but now I’m even more awake.”

The students said they especially admired the panelists’ use of data. Arlington student Jordan S. Saintil said that she hope to update Black Student Union projects by “showcasing that data.”

Saintil said that integrating data into BSU presentations will help Arlington students “understand and see what we’re going through daily.”

"I’m definitely gonna be snagging some of those useful techniques," Lopes said.

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