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A New Approach To Racial Trauma: Black Residents Build Safe Spaces In Wake Of Stephon Clark’s Death

Vanessa S. Nelson / Capital Public Radio

Hundreds gather at the Sacramento District Attorney’s office on April 4, 2018 demanding justice for Stephon Clark.

Vanessa S. Nelson / Capital Public Radio

When police fatally shot unarmed black man Stephon Clark this March, communities erupted in protest. They pleaded for change at city council meetings and screamed for justice on the streets.

But in the shooting’s immediate aftermath, and as Clark’s brother suffered from very public mental-health episodes, grieving residents began discussing how mental and emotional support wasn’t widely available in communities of color.

That’s an issue. Experts say the shock of a police killing — on top of the racism that black residents experience on a daily basis — can lead to high stress levels and serious mental health struggles.

That’s why black communities are taking the matter into their own hands with “emotional emancipation circles”: healing spaces led by and for people of African descent.

Theopia Jackson, president-elect of the Association of Black Psychologists, which helped create the circle model, said this can help people cope with racism, poverty, violence and other barriers that date all the way back to the age of slavery.

She said that historic trauma can make it even more difficult to process a police shooting.

“[These circles] were ready for Ferguson, they were ready for Baltimore,” she said. “With the death of Stephon Clark and the high probability that no one will be held accountable … [Sacramento] has to get ready for the ongoing psychological and physical assaults that may be coming.”

Jackson and other national organizers visited Sacramento last month to train roughly 30 people to lead emotional emancipation circles. They’ll fan out across the region and launch groups at churches and other community hubs this summer.

Adele James, a Sacramento resident who recently completed training to lead emotional emancipation groups, said she started noticing a lack of safe black spaces after the 2016 presidential election.

“As I was looking and asking ‘Do you know about anything by and for women of African descent?’ people were saying ‘Oh my gosh, if you find it, let me know, you should start one,’” she said.

After Clark’s death, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg responded with a call-out for volunteer mental health professionals. He said he would put them through cultural sensitivity training, and about 70 have signed up so far.

Steinberg told Capital Public Radio in April that he wants grieving residents “to be able to talk, to be able to be heard, to be able to be directed to resources and the help that they need,” through a network of community-based providers that will be available to people individually or in groups.

But Jackson worries these clinicians will not be able to treat — or even understand — historical black trauma

“I cannot have African-American clinicians who are grounded in black psychology be replaced by good intended white clinicians who are learning how to ask about spirit, but have not been able to benefit from the genuine training of understanding their own role in oppression and racism,” she said.

Supporters of emancipation circles say it’s crucial for black people to talk about their experiences with someone who has endured the same struggles. They say hearing other people’s stories can be empowering, and can stave off depression, stress and other feelings that can spring from racial discrimination, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

A 2016 study of people who experienced the Ferguson protests — some civilians, some police — found that community members reported more symptoms of PTSD and depression than law enforcement, and black community members experienced these issues more than their white neighbors.

Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart specializes in historical trauma at the University of New Mexico. She said it can be really helpful for minorities to air out the injustices they face everyday.

She said any group that has experienced racism — Native Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish people — needs help to regain confidence in a system where they’ve historically been treated as second class.

“Psychologically, it’s really to stop internalizing everything and self-blaming,” she said.

For some people, the circles are a source of both healing and inspiration. Cephus Johnson, also known as Uncle Bobby, said he started attending, and even organizing, these groups after his nephew Oscar Grant was killed  by police at an Oakland BART station in 2009.

“We go through various stages — the initial shock, the anger, just the pain of not knowing what to do,” he said. “And the only way that becomes clear is when you sit in a circle and you hear that your story’s not an isolated story.”

He says the circles have an impact. “It is transformative, it is empowering,” he said.

For more information, visit The Community Healing Network, Inc. and The Association of Black Psychologists, Inc.


Sammy Caiola

Healthcare Reporter

Sammy Caiola has been covering medical breakthroughs, fitness fads and health policy in California since 2014. Before joining CapRadio, Sammy was a health reporter at The Sacramento Bee.  Read Full Bio 

Adhiti Bandlamudi

NPR Kroc Fellow

Adhiti Bandlamudi is a visiting NPR Kroc Fellow. During her fellowship, she has worked as a reporter for the National Desk and as a producer for Weekend All Things Considered and Planet Money.   Read Full Bio 

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