Jeff, can you talk about how your advocacy & education feeds your counseling work and vice versa?
In a sense, I’ve always been an activist at heart.
I believe a part of me has always known that I’m queer, and also that I’m a free spirit and not the type to stay in my “place” or let others define me.
So, as a child, I suppose I instinctively sensed struggle looming in my future, and thus, instinctively related to those resisting oppression and fighting for freedom. As far back as I can remember, I always saw myself in old pictures of the Civil Rights Movement, on the very front lines, rioting and resisting.
That makes me sound like a warrior, but if anything, I’m an emotional warrior.
My bravery and courage have always come from my empathy, my sensitivity, my imagination and intuition, and my instincts. As I got into activism, I realized that without any experience, I would sometimes just seem to know when to speak up or take action, or to offer what others need. And this explains why I became a counselor, too.
My profession is very much connected to my advocacy work, and I love it that way; I get to show up in both spaces as myself, with the same purpose. I’ve always envisioned a career like that.
What is something we often get wrong when talking about mental health?
A common misconception about mental health is that it’s solely a personal health issue, not a political issue. Yet, I’d argue that mental health is inherently political, as our mental health is tied to our lived experience, and every aspect of our lived experience is political.
Just as much as our brain chemistry impacts our mental health and wellness, so does the burden of enduring structural trauma, chronic minority stress, multiple isms, etc.
Mental health disparities between majority and minoritized populations prove this. Moreover, the collective healing and liberation of minoritized and marginalized communities is a function of their collective wellness.
We can only sustain the fight against injustice if we are well. This is why I fight so tirelessly for a more equitable mental health system, and also why I integrate mental health into every advocacy issue that I’m aware of.
As a queer person of color, my mental health will always be as political as it is personal.
Can you speak about the importance of counselors educating themselves on intersectional theory?
The exact moment that I set my sights on becoming a counselor, I was researching depression and gay Black men, on Google. That’s when I stumbled across findings from report that revealed 40% of gay Black boys have at least one suicide attempt during their childhood. A decade prior, that was me.
The next thing I did was search for queer Black therapists, and I couldn’t find any.
What’s important about this story is the intentionality of searching for a therapist who identified as I did. I did so primarily because I desperately needed help processing the intersectional oppression that lead to my suicide attempt as a teen, as well as my suicidal thoughts in that moment.
This undertaking necessitated a therapist who understood intersectionality––the idea that people hold a matrix of identities that are inextricably linked, because of interlocking systems of oppression.
Moreover, this emotional work would require a therapist who could do more than piecemeal together disjointed thoughts on patriarchy, racism, and homophobia. I needed someone with enough sociopolitical awareness to synthesize the convergence of these issues.
Most therapists aren’t very skilled at that, mainly because they see ‘cultural competence’ as enough affirmation of clients from minoritized backgrounds. That’s a different conversation altogether.
But, as I said earlier, mental health is political, and so is therapy, even though most therapists are taught to keep their politics out of their therapeutic relationships. Meanwhile, trans women of color––who have a life expectancy of 35––have the highest suicide rate; and Latina adolescents have the highest rate of depression.
People are literally dying in the absence of therapists who understand intersectionality.
What steps can individuals take, regardless of their mental health state, to begin improving our society’s view of mental health and illness ?
I always say that there’s no substitute for storytelling in mental health advocacy. It’s easy to talk in abstract terms about destigmatizing cultural myths and dismantling structural barriers; but it takes real courage to be vulnerable about mental health, in a society that largely stigmatizes it. That’s a form of advocacy that doesn’t get enough credit.
At the end of the day, storytelling is an ancient art, and people are moved more by narratives that depict humanity and universal truth, than they are facts and figures.
So I’d tell people to totally stop striving to become the model mental health advocate who’s perfectly healed or recovered, and instead become more secure with their voice and truth.
Healing isn’t linear, and even advocates continue to struggle with mental illness, self-harm and wellness. We need to hear testimonies like this, so that people stop feeling that they’re not yet where an advocate “should be”. Any of us can be an advocate, and the best way to start is by speaking up.
Who do you go to when you’re needing support and guidance?
I turn to poetry; mostly spoken word poetry, but also song lyrics, written poetry, and even quotes. I’ve written poetry since I was a child, and although my writing as of late is mostly journalistic, I’m also still a poet.
Poetry helps me remember that there are no good and bad emotions-–every emotion is a teacher and poetry sort of represents the lessons that we as humans have learned about the struggle of living.
Moreover, in a literal sense, the words on the page are reminder that I can sit with the intensity of my distress, and move through and beyond it––that such tenacity is possible.
What’s something that’s been bringing you joy lately?
It sounds basic, but Twitter. I really appreciate that over the past 2-3 years or so, Twitter has become a space where people are very political, and unafraid to speak their truth. I consider some of the people I follow to be members of my circle or community, even though we’ve never met in real life.
Some of them bring me joy, every day, without realizing it. If one uses Twitter mindfully, it can serve a great purpose, in terms of fulfilling the needs that one would typically get from a familial or local community. So, Twitter brings me joy, and so does the idea of what it can do for society.
When was the last time you practiced self-care and why is self-care important to you?
I practice self-care almost every day. Doing so enables me continue healing, stay emotionally balanced, and strive toward being high functioning. I typically tend to engage in forms of self-care that push me to balance rejuvenation with deep reflection––activities like contemplative prayer and journaling.
I walk away feeling like I’ve made progress on my personal development, and that makes me feel more centered and aligned with my purpose. However, there are some days when self-care looks like doing nothing else but pampering myself.
What are your unshakable values and when did you become clear on them?
Harm reduction and restorative justice are probably my most unshakable values, and I developed these values while working through trauma that I’ve survived. The very first realization I had is that harm spreads like contagion; abuse, for example, is often passed down intergenerationally, and power struggles and cycles of antagonism between friends, family, lovers, etc. can go on and on.
I knew that engaging in that turmoil didn’t reflect my character, ethics and integrity; so I committed to not harming or wishing harm upon those who have harmed me, even if I felt like my sometimes reactionary defensiveness or self-righteousness was justifiable. I completely let go of ego and pride, in order to practice what I preached.
As a trauma survivor, getting to that point took a lot of forgiveness, which entailed working through bitterness, disappointment, hatred, rage, shame.
But what it allowed me to do was see myself in the people who harmed me. I realized that we’re all byproducts of our environments, shaped by forces largely beyond our control. And in that process of socialization, some of us learned harmful behaviors and relational patterns that have lead to hurtful choices.
That doesn’t mean our humanity is reduced to those choices, though. We all mistakes, and none of us is irredeemable, unsalvageable, unteachable. All of can choose to change, as well.
Once I got that lesson, I felt so much more centered and aligned with my higher self. I truly began to feel like I was finally equipped to minimize harm in my life and in my community.
That feeling was not only personally empowering, but it also gave me hope for new possibilities, in terms of collective healing in marginalized and minoritized communities. Witnessing my own transformation into a healer, is why I describe these values of harm reduction and restorative justice as unshakable. They’re my core values.
It’s years in the future. You’re on stage to accept an award for your life’s work. What’s your five word acceptance speech?
Answer: “Stay patient, persistent, grounded, united.”
What’s in the space between where you are and where you want to be?
Answer: In terms of my advocacy and professional work, the space between where I am and where I want to be is filled with more studying, more risk taking, more “failing”, more forging of my own path; as for personal and spiritual growth, I’ll leave you with a poem by poet ‘nayyirah waheed’:
getting yourself together.
what about undoing yourself?
Learn more about Jeff and connect
Jeff Baker, M.Phil.Ed. is queer, Black therapist, educator, writer, and activist, whose work has been featured in Huffington Post, Teen Vogue, Education Post, The Good Men Project, The Mighty, and more. Baker’s writing––which explores advocacy issues of diversity, inclusion and equity––has touched many, and has been appreciated and valued for its thoughtful storytelling, informative analysis, and visionary critique. Jeff holds a M.Phil.Ed. in Professional Counseling from the University of Pennsylvania, and an Ed.M. in Human Development & Psychology from Harvard University. Instagram. Twitter. Website.