Sunday, June 19, 2011

Friends in Internet Places

- by Stacey Prince

You know when you are doing something different or new, or you're a little uncertain of your direction, how validating it can be to learn that there are other people out there who have similar ideas? Thanks to the world wide web, this has happened to me recently in a multitude of ways, connecting me to individuals and organizations whose work mirrors and bolsters my own and gives me the encouragement to continue. I wanted to highlight some of those connections here:

1) Heather Greene, Justice Centered Social Work. Heather is an MSW in Portland, Oregon, who is committed to anti-oppressive, social justice oriented social work practice. Her website outlines her intentions and philosophy of justice centered practice and supervision, and I especially appreciate her voicing of the struggle to do this work in the context of institutions and systems that can and often do perpetuate systemic oppression. Her blog, the Social Work Activist Reader, was recently begun and is intended to be a forum for exploring practice through a justice lens. She also will soon launch an online zine with a similar focus. We have begun to correspond and her passions, vision and interests overlap considerably with mine for TJP. I hope the future will bring opportunities for us to connect not just electronically but face to face!

2) Manivong Ratts, Washington Counselors for Social Justice. I have been hearing about Vong for several months from mutual friends and colleagues, who have told me we should get together to discuss our two organizations and their overlap. He has been active in the national organization Counselors for Social Justice, and is currently President of the Washington chapter. In one of those weird, small world things that make you go hmm, it turns out he works right across the street from me, as program director of the school counseling department at Seattle University! So far we are internet friends only, but we are working on a get-together soon. From their website, WCSJ is "a community of counselors, counselor educators, graduate students, and school and community leaders who seek equity and an end to oppression and injustice affecting clients, students, counselors, families, communities, schools, workplaces, governments, and other social and institutional systems." Strategies include implementing social actions, disseminating scholarship on the impact of socioeconomic inequities, maintaining an active online and in person support network, and providing social justice focused professional development activities. Sound familiar? I was so inspired to learn of this parallel organization whose commitment, vision and strategies sound so much like TJP's. I am also excited about the possibilities for allyship and connection with Heather, Vong, and other practitioners in the Northwest who share a commitment to incorporating social justice, anti-oppression, and liberatory strategies into our work, possibly at a future TJP retreat.

Venturing now both beyond the Pacific Northwest and outside the world of mental health:

3) Josh Freeman, Medicine and Social Justice. Dr. Freeman is chair of the department of family medicine at University of Kansas Medical Center. I really like this guy's blog! He writes on topics such as the following: healthcare reform, insurance companies profiting while patient care quality decreases, perceptions and realities of economic inequity, professional disincentives to providing care to underserved populations, and financial conflicts of interest impacting physicians' choice of treatment approach and the veracity of research findings. While not speaking to mental health practice directly, so many of these issues are prevalent in the mental health professions that I think it is a great read for those of us interested in the intersections of social justice and mental health.

And finally, here is a way that the internet has made the world seem REALLY small and has connected me with someone whose work is so similar, and yet so very different...

4) A few months back I received an email from a Pastor named Martin Nzabanita. Martin is the leader of a ministry named Beyond the Bridge that serves countries in central Africa. His congregation has both religious and social foci: in addition to an active Christian ministry he works with street children, orphans, the homeless and impoverished, prostitutes, victims of rape, and individuals with substance abuse in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and the DRC, and trains other pastors to do the same. He found me because I also run an organization called Beyond the Bridge (, whose focus is to raise funds to support organizations that work with LGBTQ youth to reduce suicide risk, prevent bullying, and increase acceptance in schools, families, and faith communities. A friend in the US was helping Martin set up a web page for his ministry, and they were both surprised to find another group with the same name. Martin emailed and asked me about my "ministry," and when I explained to him that in fact we were not a ministry but a community organization with a focus on LGBTQ youth, frankly I expected rejection. Instead, he was warm and accepting, and what has transpired since has been a remarkable, fascinating dialogue that has built bridges in ways that I did not think possible: across vast differences in philosophy and approach and religious belief, across huge cultural differences, and of course across the many miles and continents between Seattle and central Africa. As Martin describes it, he works with people who have been the victims of hatred, exclusion, tribalism, ignorance, and the mismanagement of African institutions. He describes himself as not being "in the prison of religious barriers," and in fact I have found his responses to my inquiries about the challenges faced by gay and lesbian people in central Africa to be unconstrained by the usual homophobic, rejecting rhetoric that so many of us have experienced or been harmed by when trying to interact with fundamentalist Christians. I believe this dialogue has been healing and growth producing for both of us: I am learning that my kneejerk reaction to evangelical Christians is sometimes unfounded. In turn, I am sharing with Martin about the concerns and needs of LGBTQ individuals, the human rights violations that take place in many countries in Africa and around the globe, and the need to address these social inequities not just with prayer, but also with public education and policy change.

Community is one antidote to feeling isolated and lost, and one of my primary goals in forming TJP was to build local community; now I am also grateful to the internet and a good dose of kismet that is bringing me together with others in the global community who are doing similar work.

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