Fighting Barriers to Mental Health Care, through Empowerment

Sep 22, 2017

Eboni Bugg is the senior manager for diversity, inclusion and outreach officer at the Mind and Life Institute.
Credit Jordy Yager

For the latest installment of our Women of Interest series, WMRA’s Jordy Yager met a woman who is dedicated to breaking down not just barriers to mental wellness, but also barriers for African Americans in Charlottesville.

Eboni Bugg is one of a very small handful of licensed clinical social workers in Charlottesville who is African-American. In fact, she’s one of an even smaller handful who’s also a woman. So if you’re a female of color, wanting a therapist that looks like you, that understands your reality and the trauma that comes with it, Eboni’s who you turn to. And that’s why she got into this work: growing up, she didn’t have that.

EBONI BUGG: I wish I had a me when I was growing up. I wish my whole family had someone in their corner, encouraging healing and wellness as a right, as opposed to a luxury or something for later on. I think back to all of the women in my family, and there’s this saying that if you heal one generation, you heal seven generations back. And so I think as a parent my goal is to create an opportunity for this next generation to have a sense of wellness that wasn’t as easily available to me.

For the last five years, she’s been program director at the Women’s Initiative, a mental health nonprofit that offers a sliding fee scale, ensuring that money and access aren’t barriers to mental wellness for women. Eboni’s office was upstairs from where we met, in the courtyard of the Jefferson School, the first grade school where, in 1865, the white Charlottesville government stopped preventing African Americans from learning.

Barriers in Charlottesville are nothing new for African Americans. But Eboni recently shifted how she tackles them. This past June, she became the senior manager for diversity, inclusion, and outreach at the Mind and Life Institute.

BUGG: It’s an organization that really works towards supporting an understanding of the relationship between contemplation and the sciences. So their mission is to alleviate human suffering.

Contemplative practices include meditation, mindfulness, and yoga, but also things such as prayer, dance, and even some forms of exercise. So contemplative sciences is the study of those practices to see if they can improve our lives. For example, what if teachers used meditation as an alternative to in-school suspension? Crazy right? But what if there was scientific research that proved it worked? That’s where the Mind and Life Institute comes in.

But…

BUGG: Organizations like Mind and Life have really noble missions, and yet in practice their organizational structure and the demographics of the organization and maybe even some organizational practices may still reinforce societal imbalances.

Eboni was hired to fundamentally change those imbalances. But that means more than just promoting or hiring more people of color.  In most organizations, there’s a reason why things are the way they are. Certain people have benefited from them.

BUGG: We do want to shift the demographics of the community, but every time you start to have one of those conversations, you recognize that you’re also looking at shifting the inherent hierarchical structure, and when you start to talk about how people hold power, then it becomes very personalized, even though it feels like and it seems like it’s happening in this amorphous or externalized organizational experience, but the relinquishing of power is a deeply personal experience.

For example, following the violence of August 11th and 12th in Charlottesville millions of dollars have been raised across town—but most of that’s been going to established nonprofits, many of which are run by white middle and upper class people. The funds have yet to make it to many organizations led by people of color or historically disenfranchised groups, who may not have 501c3 status.

BUGG: And yet they may be providing the most innovative way of healing, or supporting or even knowing and understanding their communities. If we’re just redistributing these funds for example to the same organizations who have been doing it for a while, and yet we’re still seeing these inherent structural problems, is there another way that we can begin to look at that?  

These aren’t as obvious as a Ku Klux Klan robe or a swastika, but they are ways of functioning designed by and for white people. So how do you convince those people with power that we’d all be better off if they empowered others?

BUGG: Often times when we talk about redistribution of power, it runs counter actually to someone’s identity as a good person. And so it’s not trying to change their notion of themselves, it’s about expanding the definition of what that good person looks like.

At the Mind and Life Institute, Eboni’s one of the few African Americans on staff.  A while back, she went to the University of Virginia, where only 7 percent of students are African American. So much of why things don’t change is because it doesn’t occur to people in power to do them differently.

Recently Eboni took her 16-year old daughter to a back-to-school night. They met with teachers, saw old friends and parents, and talked about their summer vacations. But they saw surprisingly few of the school’s African American students and parents. Why? Maybe it was held at a time or in a way that they couldn’t make it, with work and other life obligations.

BUGG: If half of the student body’s parents were unable to attend, and I know that they care about the education and well being of their children, then what is the actual answer? Do we keep having the event at the very same time? Or do we step outside of our comfort zones and do something a little bit differently to respond?

So what would it look like if our community was truly inclusive? Eboni is hoping to find out.