On this episode of ILLN Opinion+, we spoke with Andy Wade, the Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI Illinois). NAMI Illinois is Illinoisâ€™ branch of a national grassroots organization that aims to support, educate and advocate for people and families affected by mental illness. NAMIâ€™s 20 local affiliate offices currently serve over 50,000 people a year throughout the state.
With so much misinformation and stigma surrounding conversations about mental health, Executive Director Wade described the need to normalize talking about these issues, citing that mental health is simply an extension of physical health. It is something all humans deal with.
â€œEverybody has mental health and we all, frankly, have days where our mental health might be better or worse than on other days, so the degree to which a mental health condition affects our lives is really the thing to pay attention to. The idea that some people have mental health issues and other people just donâ€™t, thatâ€™s false,â€� he said.
Itâ€™s important to note that mental health is not universally experienced. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the topic because our understanding of the world and how we navigate it are so uniquely dependent on a variety of factors, one being race. Executive Director Wade says that there are currently gaps in the programs catered to minority groups, but NAMI looks to expand the way they offer their services.
â€œWe are looking at everything through the viewpoint of equity, and equity means everybody gets what they need to thrive and succeed. And if you look at our society right now resources and support systems arenâ€™t equally distributed,â€� he said.
In order to better serve the Black and Latinx communities, NAMI launched two culturally competent video series, Sharing Hope and Compartiendo Esperanza, that encourage these groups to partake in mental wellness dialogues in ways that resonate with them.
â€œIf you ask about mental health, a lot of times people will clam up. If you ask about wellness, stress, how youâ€™re feeling, itâ€™s kind of a myth that people wonâ€™t talk about mental health issues, but we have to talk about them in the right way,â€� he explains.
Executive Director Wade expressed NAMIâ€™s awareness of a lack of resources in regards to Spanish language content and was very transparent in their efforts to fill that void through implementing new programs, such as Compartiendo Esperanza, building relationships with other organizations, and encouraging more bilingual and culturally competent professionals to join the mental health workforce.
This week CTLN Opinion+ had the opportunity to speak with Debra Greenwood, President, and CEO of The Center for Family Justice (CFJ). Greenwood has spent more than 35 years in nonprofit management, with extensive experience in strategic planning, fundraising, community mobilization, and leadership and program development.
Prior to joining The Center for Family Justice, she served as a CEO at various YMCAs in the region, leading four successful Capital Campaigns that resulted in creating a new YMCA, two renovations at different Ys, and most recently remodeling The Center for Family Justice.Â
The Center for Family Justice is a nonprofit that provides free, confidential crisis and supportive services to victims and survivors of domestic, sexual, and child violence in Bridgeport, Easton, Fairfield, Monroe, Stratford, and Trumbull. Dated back to 1895, it began as the Bridgeport YWCA, and in 2016 it became Connecticut’s first Family Justice Center to provide support and help in keeping victims safe under one roof in one safe place. Today, CFJ joins over 150 family justice centers in the U.S. and 16 other countries to help victims lead a life free of trauma and abuse.
CFJ offers 24/7 crisis hotlines for sexual and domestic violence victims. It welcomes non-English speakers by providing bilingual services. Greenwood says, “looking and understanding the people that we serve and in addition to our hotlines being in Spanish as well, we have language lines for those that speak many languages.” Their most prominent population support group is in Spanish, and they are now adding a Portuguese support group. Hotline services expanded to in-office visits, and satellite offices are available for those in the suburbs.
The pandemic affected all of us worldwide, but more so for those individuals who had no choice but to stay home with their abusive partners. She mentioned that abuse could be more than partner violence, not only husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend. It could be a mother or father and their child. “We realized so many individuals were sheltering at home with their abusive partner.” “Schools were online, and kids weren’t going to school, so they didn’t have that safety net where they can speak to a teacher or guidance counselor or someone.”
After the lockdown, their office pivoted in less than 72 hours and went completely remote. “We never stopped with our hotlines or counseling those that we have been counseling.â€�
CFJ advocates and counselors continued working on their cases non-stop. They noticed their numbers were jumping well over 25-30 percent in the greater Bridgeport area.
Another great topic discussed is CFJ’s legal and attorneys’ support system. They provide free and confidential services to help victims through the journey of survivorship. This service is especially needed when the mother is trying to keep her children safe, and in many cases, the children are taken away.
A new empower house is opening in Fall 2022, supporting around 1,400 individuals and children who need a safe place to stay. This empower house was possible through the state’s financial support, foundation donations, and grants received.
While growing up, the idea of grief was foreign to me. It was something I saw others endure on television or heard my family members mention. However, I didnâ€™t understand it. I couldnâ€™t understand how the absence of someone or something could create such a deep feeling.
It wouldnâ€™t be until the age of 25 that I would finally understand the depth of grief after losing my grandmother. The loss of our familyâ€™s matriarch, a woman who was my second mother, shattered our family. Many years later, our family still finds itself re-learning what the world looks like without her. We have been forever changed by grief.
After experiencing grief myself, I felt as if I was holding a secret badge that at some point everyone would receive. This secret grief badge allowed me to feel more compassion toward others when I realized that they too were wearing the badge. I also became increasingly aware that my first experience with grief only meant that I would inevitably be receiving yet more badges with time.
When I talk to others who may have never experienced grief after losing a loved one, the conversation quickly turns toward an awkward silence or response. Truth is, the notion of losing someone scares us. Earning the secret badge of grief is something weâ€™d rather ignore. But it is one of only a few certainties in the world: at some point, our heart will be the recipient of this difficult secret badge to carry.
Thanks to therapy and ongoing life experiences, I have come to learn that the nature of grief is more complicated than I realized. We can experience grief when we go through divorce, when we, or someone we love, is diagnosed with an illness when we lose our dream job, or experience violence.
During this time of the year (holidays), many of us may be experiencing some type of grief. Some of us are grieving a loved one. Some of us are grieving an illness. Some of us may be grieving the loss of a dream.
The ongoing pandemic has created yet another layer of grief for many of us. Millions of people around the world are grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID-19, while others grieve the loss of connections, normalcy, and safety. Since last year (2020) anxiety, stress, and depression have increased dramatically for millions of Americans of all ages and backgrounds. While some of us have the privilege of accessing mental health services, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, each year nearly 30 million adults and children living with mental health conditions in the U.S. go without any treatment.
This incredible disparity is due to lack of health care access or affordability issues, a limited number of providers available, or even lack of interest. I understand that therapy may not be for everyone, but I also believe that other types of support for individuals suffering through depression, anxiety, addiction, and grief should be readily available and encouraged.
Every day, we encounter individuals who are mourning something or someone. Some may be dealing with their grief alone, some may be hiding their grief behind anger or even a smile. We may not always recognize it when they are carrying their secret badge, but when we do, we must remember that itâ€™s a difficult and painful badge to carry. Itâ€™s one we will all hold at some point, and showing compassion is an imperative part of carrying it.
During the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic, Latinos, in particular, have suffered and faced disproportional health and economic impacts. For example, the group is 1.7 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than their non-Hispanic white counterparts and 4.1 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19, and 2.8 times more likely to die from the disease.
The pandemic is taking a toll on mental health. A 2021 Healthy Now survey found that about 60 percent of Americans were more likely to feel stressed, anxious, and/or depressed last fall as compared to 50 percent during the fall of 2020.
â€œI have an entrepreneur spirit and itâ€™s always been my calling to increase communication among individuals when it comes to mental health needs,â€� said Abramson.
Abramson felt compelled to support a world struggling with social justice issues, isolation, and interpersonal conflicts. Her business provides mental health treatment, consultation, and coaching services.
â€œI see myself as the cousin, a Latinx Mary Poppins, you didnâ€™t know you had, bringing an afro-centric, family-focused, and strength-based perspective. I bring humor, creativity, and playfulness to my work,â€� said Abramson.
She approaches therapy by addressing an individualsâ€™ problems through family history and the community, she said.
Coming to the United States from the Dominican Republic at the age of 5, Abramson speaks fluent Spanish and provides services in both languages.
â€œI bring my cultural humility and pride into the work that I do,â€� said Abramson. â€œI find that my background and culture bring more people into the conversation, and I am able to highlight the need for all of us, American born or immigrants, to know ourselves from a cultural perspective,â€� she added.
Another motivation for starting her business came after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in 2020, an event that caused protests nationwide. As a person of color, Abramson felt the need to help with issues involving race and discrimination, she told the Latino Communities Reporting Lab.
“In these recent times, we are being challenged on how much we are willing to push for change and equality,” Abramson wrote in Reflections of an Afro-Dominicana Family Therapist in 2017. “As an Afro-Dominicana, my silent torment has manifested in many different ways â€” from overly proving my worth at the workplace to graciously deflecting unwelcome advances and even chemically straightening my hair.”
She said that as a family therapist, she’s come to appreciate and value the power of “our narratives” and reflect on those stories during times of transformation. “More specifically, the stories that intersect with the different parts of my identity”, she said. “Through that intersectionality, she has come to explore and expand her “reflective capacity” â€” the ability to find different ways to process the choices “weâ€™ve made and the circumstances we are dealt with.”
Jeanette Chavarria-Torresâ€™ neon yellow jacket and headgear strike the eye against shades of brown and silver metals in the background. While bulldozers encircle the area and a red crane rotates in the sky, Chavarria-Torres glances to her right at the ALLY construction site, 1229 W. Concord, in Lincoln Yards and has a moment of contemplation.
â€œSometimes, I canâ€™t believe it. Itâ€™s important to me what I do, and I know in my own way Iâ€™m making a difference, and thatâ€™s important to me. And I know that a lot of people now depend on me, and that is a lot of pressure sometimes,â€� she said through tear-filled eyes.
Jeanette Chavarria-Torres owns Franklin Park-based DCH Construction & Hauling, which moves material to and from construction sites. DCH is currently working under its largest deal since its inception in 2014, a half-million-dollar contract with mega-developer Sterling Bay on its Lincoln Yards development.
Lincoln Yards is branded â€œWhere Chicago Connectsâ€� and consists of over 50 acres of land bridging the Bucktown, Wicker Park, and Lincoln Park neighborhoods. The new infrastructure is projected to develop in phases over ten years and create approximately 10,000 construction jobs during the process.
Of those jobs, Sterling Bay has expressed a commitment to ensuring the inclusion of traditionally marginalized communities with about 30 percent participation from minority businesses and 10 percent from women business enterprises, according to a recent report presented before the Department of Planning & Development.
â€œI always say diversity is a verb, not a noun, and it has to be measurable,â€� said Keiana Barrett, Director of Diversity & Strategic Development at Sterling Bay.
Chavarria-Torres says she gained the attention of Sterling Bay through networking and maintaining a relationship with Walsh Construction and the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA), an organization that advocates for the growth of minority-owned women businesses. She says building connections is vital for anyone attempting to establish themselves in this industry.
â€œDefinitely get connected with organizations that can help you meet the right people, networking is everything and building relationships,â€� she explained.
Earning a significant contract didnâ€™t come easy to DCH Construction. However, Chavarria-Torres is honest about her journey and the struggles she faced in building her business as a 22-year-old single mother.
â€œI donâ€™t come from connections. Honestly, every customer that I have, I have earned every single one of them by knocking on their door to ask for an opportunity. So I think that the hardest thing for me one, was that I was a woman, but I was also a very young woman,â€� she said. â€œI had to build my reputation.â€�
In her words, Chavarria-Torres used her savings to buy the â€œdinkiestâ€� trailer and spent three years pitching herself to contractors before finally landing a gig with Walsh Construction. She credits her persistence and honesty to getting her foot in the door.
â€œI didnâ€™t tell them I can take on the whole job, I just told them if I can get a piece of that contract, [and] perform well at my capacity, thatâ€™s all that I wanted,â€� she said.
This transparency established her reputation in the industry.
â€œThey always know if Jeanette says that she can get you 10 trucks, she can get you 10 trucks and if I say I will get you 50, I will get you 50 trucks. Iâ€™ve learned what my capacity is and I donâ€™t over-commit,â€� she explained.
Success in this field meant more to Chavarria-Torres than just establishing a business. It was a redemption story.
Her involvement in the industry came at an early age. Her father also owned a trucking business but faced challenges due to his language barrier as a native Spanish speaker. She says that as a 10-year-old girl, she helped him complete his paperwork, which branched into a passion for trucking as she grew older. Her father eventually lost his business and filed for bankruptcy after a deal with a contractor fell through.
â€œI decided then in high school that I was one day going to open a trucking company to kind of redeem ourselves from what happened,â€� she said.
When she approached her father with the idea, he stressed the importance of education.
â€œUnder one condition that he would one day help me was that I needed to come home with a 4-year degree in business and accounting,â€� she said.
She followed through with her promise, earning a 4-year degree in Business Administration, and a minor in Accounting from Dominican University.
She says that although her parents are not verbally expressive, she knows that they appreciate her hard work and dedication.
â€œI know theyâ€™re proud of me and I just want them to know that all their sacrifices and what they left behind in Mexico were worth it because it gave us a better life,â€� she said.
Barrett also expressed admiration of Chavarria-Torresâ€™ journey and emphasized the importance of minority representation in all industries.
â€œWeâ€™re always happy to be able to collaborate with firms such as Jeanetteâ€™s that has such an inspiring story of how sheâ€™s been able to triumph and continue to move forwardâ€¦ I always say young people aspire to be what they see. So when they see individuals that look like them, it gives them a sense of hope and it broadens their lens to know what opportunities exist for them,â€� she said.
Chavarria-Torres hopes her story motivates others to pursue business ventures despite the difficulties.
She said, â€œI want other people to see that you can make it even though thereâ€™s a lot of obstacles. I donâ€™t like to say obstacles, challenges, but I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s a challenge that I have not been able to conquer. You just figure it out.â€�
Although there were many obstacles along the way, DCH Construction has grown from one â€œdinkyâ€� truck to now owning six. It has expanded its subcontracting area, allowing for collaboration with other women minority-owned businesses, and has earned a half-million-dollar contract with one of the largest real estate firms in Chicago. Chavarria-Torres hopes this experience creates a lasting relationship with Sterling Bay.
â€œThis is my first big, private job so itâ€™s a huge honor for me to just be part of the Lincoln Yards project and Iâ€™m very thankful for Walsh Construction and not only them, but Sterling Bay that have really opened the doors to want to see me succeed, and I know that this is just the beginning of many projects that weâ€™ll be on together,â€� she said.
Cover Photo: Jeanette Chavarria-Torres at the construction site of Lincoln Yards. Credit: Sterling Bay
Since 1857, Metropolitan Family Services has empowered families to learn, earn, heal, and thrive. Founded as the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, the organization has helped families get through the devastating hardships of poverty, world wars, epidemics, and natural disasters.
“We are very proud in all the areas that are important to our community,” said Ricardo â€œRicâ€� Estrada, president and CEO of Metropolitan Family Services. “Economic stability, education, emotional wellness, and empowerment,” he continued in describing “the four E’s” paramount in realizing the non-profit organization’s mission.
Estrada was a guest on the Latino News Network (LNN) podcast,Â â€œ3 Questions Withâ€¦â€�, where he shared how Metropolitan Family Services assists marginalized communities that have proven to be resilient once again through almost two years of COVID-19.
Pandemic aside, he believes too many children are being left behind due to parents working several jobs to make ends meet. “It is incumbent on us as a society to make certain that people have a living wage so that children can be children; could learn and have their parents at home,” said Estrada when talking about how many children, particularly in immigrant families, have to help raise their younger siblings, especially during remote learning.
21.5 percent of Hispanic-Latino residentsÂ of Chicago, Illinois live below the poverty line, according to Welfare Info.
â€œI am excited to join the board of ComEd because the company is and will be at the forefront of our regionâ€™s energy, environment, workforce, and community investments,â€� said Estrada about his recent appointment as an independent director with ComEd.
He is the only Latino on the board of the largest electric utility in Illinois, and the sole electric provider in Chicago. “I think we need a Latino voice there to make certain that our community is not ignored, but is a part of every opportunity,” Estrada said about how he plans to guide ComEd on initiatives addressing the environmental challengesÂ that impact the company and the public.
A poll by Earthjustice shows that registered Hispanic-Latino voters have a strong commitment to conservation, the environment, and a genuine interest in how climate change impacts their families and communities.
Estrada also serves on the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois as well as on the Board of Directors of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Woods Fund of Chicago, the Grand Victoria Foundation, A Better Chicago, and Erie Elementary School.
“As a Latino, Latina, Latinx – we seem to be not seen in the media,” said Estrada about the lack of representation in newsrooms. “We need journalists to make sure that these stories are told accurately, with the right nuance, with the right perspective.”
Last year, Â the U.S. Government Accountability OfficeÂ produced a report on how the absence of Hispanics-Latinos in major newsrooms, Hollywood films, and other media industries deeply skewed non-Hispanics’ perceptions of that community.
Estrada and his wife, Beatriz Ponce de LeÃ³n, reside in Chicago and are the parents of two young adult daughters.
“YIA plays an imperative role in the development of youth and their adult allies, going beyond traditional approaches to leadership development by prioritizing social-emotional development,” said Elliot Rivera when he was named Executive Director of Youth In Action (YIA) in 2019.
Since then, Rivera has been working to fulfill YIA’s mission of creating opportunities for youth to become their best selves. “They address power imbalances that stifle the potential of youth, especially young people of color, and create more caring and fair public institutions and systems,” reads in part the About section of the YIA website. By building power, leadership, and action amongst youth in our communities, YIA believes a more equitable and safe world is possible.
Growing up in Worcester, MA as a first-generation Salvadoran, Rivera did not have the access to most resources. What he did have were two dedicated parents working countless hours in manufacturing and janitorial services to get by. Never really thinking he would end up working with people, opportunities to support his communities from fighting within a union for undocumented worker rights to supporting youth in multiple settings came naturally to Rivera. He was first profiled in the Latino Policy Instituteâ€™sÂ #LatinosInRIÂ series.
As a person of Latine heritage, Elliotâ€™s connection to his work and its journey is rooted in his deep core connection to all aspects of his culture. Now proudly calling Providence RI home, in his current role with YIA, he amplifies the stories and journeys of the next generation and supports them in their journeys by opening doors to experiences and opportunities he was never afforded.
â€œIf the pandemic is literally killing Black and Latino communities at higher rates, itâ€™s obviously affecting them in different ways, too,â€� Rivera said in an interview with the Brown Daily Herald about the Providence Public School District operations in March 2021. Rivera said the school district had â€œbeen working on (issues of inequality) for decades,â€� but he questioned the quality of the progress that had been made. The pandemic may be slowing down reforms made by the state takeover, he said, noting the pandemicâ€™s highlighting of the inequitable access to technology throughout the district.
Rivera was recognized with the Service to Youth Award by the City of Worcester in 2019. His experience includes Community Engagement Specialist and Program Director with the City of Worcester. He’s also been the Program Coordinator with the Latino Education Institute.
Rivera is a graduate of Worcester State University and has a Master’s degree from Tufts University.
LPI and RI Latino News;Â partnersÂ in elevating the visibility and voices of Rhode Islandâ€™s Hispanic-Latino communities.
Is there someone in the community you think we should feature? Send us your ideas to Info@LatinoNewsNetwork.com.