Towards a Black Social Service Agency

We need an action-oriented, evidence-based, best-practice-focused multi-ethnic coalition of health-care professionals

In 1974, two years before the Eugene Springfield NAACP branch was founded, I worked in a Los Angeles Black Community Mental Health Day Treatment center for “emotionally disturbed” children. They were children of alcoholics, living in poverty, witnessing daily alcohol-fueled domestic violence. They “self-medicated” their traumas on the way to third grade with marijuana. Plenty of marijuana, plenty of liquor stores, in a social service desert. Our agency was one of the oases. 

I came to Eugene in 1984 to find another desert. No ethnic neighborhoods, few businesses owned by people of color, rare Black hair care and few social services agencies of color, none Black. Clear evidence of current and historical racialized trauma. Historically, every time a physical Black community formed, it was intentionally destroyed, by bulldozing, urban renewal, the usual means by the usual entities. Decades of official white denial, because this was not taught in the schools or higher education, and no one was training counselors in healing from racial trauma therapy.

Hmmm, we need a Black social service agency that acknowledges that racism exists, that it can be dealt  with in scholarship, therapy and activism. 

Locally, I was trying to explain why referring to African American families as “being in a tarbaby situation,” in the presence of a Black intern, who told you already tarbaby was an ethnic slur, which Blacks older than the internet could tell you (disbelieving the Black intern, by referencing Google). 

That same agency denied Emmett Till’s lynching: “Shut up, that never happened!” Shaking my head in disbelief, having been called tarbaby in elementary school. A Black teen who’d been verbally, racially assaulted, reported it to school personnel, disbelieved and finally physically attacked. Outnumbered 5 to 1, he beat off his attackers, but was the only one arrested and charged with Assault III. 

Sentenced to anger management, he was subjected to a counselor who years earlier said to my face regarding youth of color: “These people have a criminal culture, and it’s the same as their ethnicity.” The youth sentenced to “anger management” said the “counselor” used the N-word as a form of “saturation desensitization therapy.” 

It’s hearing and witnessing actual comments like these, asking for and being denied ethnically disaggregated outcome data, that caused us to create Rites of Passage. That was independent of the Eugene Springfield NAACP, which despite evidence of wrongdoing, malpractice or health disparities, just wanted to be a “watchdog” and “advocate,” but not deliver evidence-based solutions.

Eric Richardson agreed the NAACP branch needed to be more than that chained, fenced-in watchdog, or be an advocate limited to talking, marching and protesting. I was wary and skeptical.

After my 2019 retirement from Lane Community College, he asked me to assist in re-booting the NAACP Health Committee. My past assistance with NAACP in 1991 consisted of having “reasonable” meetings with often avowed, unapologetic practicing racists. 

I didn’t call them racists to their face. I just pointed out there was more current science than what they learned in the ’50’s, ’60’s or ’70’s. Employing current science, instead of old prejudice, might be more efficacious. You know, apply best practices to everyone, not just the ones you like. N-word saturation therapy, or denying racialized trauma exists, are not best practices. Being nice to racists, however professional and polite they were, was no longer effective. When polite “advocacy” fails, Black people act.

Richardson assembled an action-oriented, evidence-based, best-practice-focused multi-ethnic coalition of health care professionals, physicians and other community partners. The combined partners, in effect, built a womb-to-the-tomb focus on eliminating health disparities affecting Black people, people of color and others who are marginalized. 

We signed up people for SNAP, delivered and distributed food to 40 families a week, as well as paid rent and paid utilities to people in COVID quarantine. We called elders of color, set up COVID-19 vaccine clinics, facilitated HIV testing and delivered online continuing education training for health care personnel and more. 

What started as a local NAACP branch Health Committee had, as far as we knew, the national NAACP’s blessing to accrue funding and do the activities we were engaged in as an exportable national model. We had been working within legal, ethical boundaries, in a pandemic, for nearly two years.

All that came to an abrupt end at the end of November, when the board abruptly terminated Eric Richardson as well as terminating some Health Committee activities except food distribution.

I get asked by our partners, fiscal sponsors, former mayors, judges and lifetime NAACP members: “What happened to Eric?”

We have been given no rational, health evidence-based reason for stopping health promotion activities, in an ongoing pandemic. Or abruptly firing Richardson, for what cause? We understand confidential personnel issues, but abrupt termination, in the absence of wrongdoing or deficiencies in comprehensive public performance review? 

Local white government employees wrecking government vehicles, while on the clock, and under the influence of cocaine and alcohol, have kept their jobs. Did Richardson do worse than that? Why terminate Richardson abruptly? Trust has been broken, but the issues we all face need decisive action, which we are prepared to take beyond the NAACP.

Beyond Richardson, abandoning focused, evidence-based action is like walking unvaccinated and maskless into a known super-spreader event, thinking you see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. 

Some of us cannot “pump the brakes” on the health promotion bus.  We can understand nervousness about the bus route, but we will continue forward momentum.

Mark Harris MA, CADCI, MAC, is a semi-retired educator, counselor and health care activist who has been living and working in Eugene for nearly 40 years. He has functioned as co-chair of the Health Committee and a part-time NAACP employee working on pandemic relief. 

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