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Story by A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez
Photography by Michael J. Clarke
Psychology Professor Jessica Graham-LoPresti says that, in some ways, her journey to understand the systemic nature of racism began right after college. She’d been hired to work as a research assistant at a local hospital, supporting injection-drug users who’d been diagnosed with HIV and were experiencing depression.
“I saw the people of color in the methadone clinics being treated much differently than the white people were,” she says. She noticed the subtle shifts in the staff’s demeanor and tone of voice, and the way that Black patients were often viewed with suspicion while white patients were given the benefit of the doubt. “It made me think, ‘This is not working for us.’It didn’t feel like a safe space.”
Yet in other ways, Graham-LoPresti says, her journey began the day she was born. She grew up in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, a majority Black community outside of Pittsburgh that was impoverished but nurturing. The larger world didn’t see it that way. Where she saw her parents’ and neighbors’ determination and self-sufficiency—despite the systemic removal of resources from their community—the world saw poverty and internal failings.
At the methadone clinic, she recognized this familiar pattern. The refusal to see individuals of color in the complexities of their needs and identities reflected an investment in upholding systems of power—and a disinvestment in communities and individuals of color.
Today, as an assistant professor of psychology at Suffolk and in her own private practice, Graham-LoPresti is working to change that pattern. She researches the broad disparities that Black Americans face, the toll these disparities take on their physical and mental health, and effective strategies for treatment. Her Suffolk colleague, Psychology Professor Amy Marks, puts it this way: “Jess is doing important, hard leadership work at the national level on racial trauma healing.”
Many discussions of racial trauma focus on overt examples of racial terrorism, like the 1921 Tulsa race massacre or the murder of George Floyd. Graham-LoPresti says everyday experiences with discrimination are equally impactful.
“There’s an abundance of research suggesting that the pervasiveness of racial microaggressions”—at school, work, and other public settings—“leads to a sort of hypervigilance,” she says. “We don’t know when or where they will happen, whether they will be acknowledged, and how we’ll manage our emotions.” And when regular exposure to microaggressions and interpersonal racism intersects with institutional discrimination, the result, she says, is toxic stress.
Graham-LoPresti was reminded of this during the birth of her second child, when her treatment echoed what she had seen in the methadone clinics. “Racism doesn’t discriminate by socioeconomic status,” she says. “I’m an upper-middle-class Black woman with a white husband, but that didn’t afford me the opportunity to escape this sort of experience.”
Remedying racial trauma, she says, requires confronting white supremacy—“not the white supremacist movement represented by the Proud Boys or the Klan, but all the ways our society centers whiteness at the expense of all intersecting marginalized identities.”
So when 2020 brought this issue to the forefront like never before, Graham-LoPresti was ready to respond.
Before the concurrent tragedies of the pandemic and the murders of unarmed Black people, before the national reckoning on institutionalized racism, Graham-LoPresti was already running a doctoral research lab exploring the multi-level impact of institutional, systemic, and interpersonal racism on the mental health of people and communities of color.
We’re resilient because we have to be, not because we should be. We should be able to live our lives based on safety.”
She was also developing her own mental health and wellness consulting business.Together with Tahirah Abdullah-Swain, an associate professor of psychology at UMass Boston, she founded Black Advocacy, Resistance, and Empowerment Mental Health and Wellness (BAREMHW) to “actually provide the resources that our communities don’t have access to,” including clear information about mental health diagnoses and access to quality care.
BAREMHW works to address the disparities in access to high-quality, effective mental healthcare as well as mental health and wellness more broadly. In her research, Graham-LoPresti identified these disparities as a lack of information about mental health; stigma; mistrust due to the legacy of institutional racism in the medical and mental health communities; the difficulty of finding culturally competent providers; and access barriers like cost, transportation, and paid time off from work.
Focusing on communities of color is essential, she says, yet it can also “send the message that there’s something wrong with our communities.” The more Graham-LoPresti and Abdullah-Swain talked, she says, the more they realized they also needed to “effect systemic change in white spaces.”
As a result, BAREMHW’s work is twofold. In addition to supporting mental health and wellness efforts in communities of color, Graham-LoPresti and her team run workshops and consult with education and healthcare institutions as well as businesses, law firms, and community-based organizations to help them develop equitable, just, and inclusive environments and anti-racist recruitment, hiring, and retention policies, as well as increasing access to and persistence in healthcare engagement for patients and clients of color.
She relishes the “conversations that we’ve been having across difference about racism—teaching people about it, having them ask questions to understand it, developing long-term consultation plans for systemic change,” Graham-LoPresti says. “I’m so proud of what Tahirah and I have built as two Black women in this field of psychology.” She’s also proud that her Suffolk graduate students participate in BAREMHW’s work, and not only learn from it but are paid for their expertise as well: “The level of freedom that BARE gives us to do the work that needs to be done, that we really want to do, is the most rejuvenating, hopeful thing.”
Change, she says, will require people to see themselves in more collective ways and to understand their role in the collaborative story of racism. Conversations about the disparities that communities of color face must be strength-based and center on culture, contributions, and resistance—rather than on resilience.
“We’re resilient because we have to be, not because we should be. I don’t want the word resilience to be a good thing,” she says. “We shouldn’t have to be as resilient as we are. We should be able to live our lives based on safety.”
Her work at BAREMHW is a prime example of these conversations and the strong impact they have for Black people. She credits the love and intergenerational labor of people of color like her parents for being the light that illuminates the way forward.
And she is working hard to pass this light on to her two young children. “First and foremost,” she says, “I’m motivated to make this road better for my multiracial kids. Trying to make this world a place where they feel safer, where they can feel seen, heard, and valued—that’s what keeps me plugging along. And if we want to make this world better, we need to do the work and not stop.”