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    Spotlight on the Ma’at Program: An Afrocentric LGBTQ Mental Health Revolution

    By Andrea Shorter–

    Mental health awareness is important every day. While there are mental health services in San Francisco for those living in the margins, there is a clear lack of support and resources for assisting the Black community from within the community. Dr. April Silas, Executive Director of the Homeless Children’s Network (HCN), saw this need and developed the Ma’at Program in June of 2018. As she describes, “We don’t begin our work from any established system of thought that’s consistent with white supremacy or all of the institutionally established ways of viewing families in the Black community as less than. We start from an interpersonal love and authentic relationship. We start as part of the community.”  

    The Ma’at Program highlights Black therapists providing Afrocentric mental health services to the Black community throughout San Francisco. Not only does it aim to improve behavioral health outcomes for Black/African American individuals and families in San Francisco, but it also addresses the historical legacy of intergenerational racism, inequity, and trauma within the community. The goal is to support individuals and families of African descent to passionately and unconditionally affirm Blackness, in addition to helping them improve mental health and functioning, increase coping skills, improve relationships with family members, and to facilitate connections with educational programs, peers, and community. 

    There is no other program like it in San Francisco.

    San Francisco’s dwindling Black population is in crisis. Almost half of homeless adults with children are Black/African American, though only 5.5% of the city’s population is Black. San Francisco has been home to thousands of Black/African American people residing in well-known neighborhoods and safe spaces for the Black community.

    However, over the past 15 years these communities and neighborhoods have seen a steady and rapid decline. As individuals and families are increasingly displaced by gentrification, and regional workforce trends, poverty-related stressors often trigger multiple health issues. This trauma creates the potential for long-term mental and physical health consequences such as persistent anxiety, intense feelings of guilt and shame, difficulty regulating emotions, and emotional numbing.

    Throughout the history of medical practice, there has been little work to establish the best level of care for Black/African American communities living in the U.S. What is well established is that there are various reasons for the lack of enthusiasm to pursue mental health treatment on the part of Black/African American people in the U.S.

    There is a well warranted mistrust in the Black community of the Eurocentric medical model of mental health service provision, which focuses on the individual; the established models are prone to pathologize Black/African American experiences, and they have a history of abuse. Help from within the community is therefore important for safety and culturally-competent response. As a country, the stigma surrounding mental health is significant and fear-provoking, further preventing those who could benefit from seeking support. 

    Additionally, treatments and ongoing services are deemed financially prohibitive and not a good investment. Perhaps one of the most misunderstood theories is that Black communities simply do not believe in mental health, and as a result, will not seriously consider seeing a therapist or attending a counseling session because it is not necessary. These reasons point to the dire need for mental health models that are centered in African/African American principles and world views, such as the Ma’at Program, which is holistic and communal. And that is truly revolutionary.

    Black LGBTQ+ Mental Health Services

    Homeless Children’s Network (HCN) has been providing mental health services to members of the LGBTQ+ community for the past two decades through partnerships with San Francisco-based LGBTQ+ organizations.

    HCN’s Ma’at Program in partnership with Soul of Pride focuses on three areas: (1) mental health services, (2) outreach and community engagement, and (3) cultural events. Dream Keeper funds enabled LGBTQ+ Black clinical staff to provide mental health services for 43 of the city’s Black/African American LGBTQ+ community members. Clients included children and youth, caregivers and other adults, as well as community partners needing support in addressing the mental health needs of Black/LGBTQ+ individuals.

    For more than 20 years, Soul of Pride has celebrated Black Pride and works to unite and represent the LGBTQ+ community of the African Diaspora in the Bay Area and beyond. Soul of Pride organizes the African Diaspora Stage and Village at the annual San Francisco Pride Celebration and Parade and is a critical part of influencing change and growth in areas such as artistry, economic independence, youth advocacy, and political opportunities. Throughout the year, Soul of Pride organizes events and resources for the Black LGBTQ community in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    Program staff also engaged in community work to continue to develop and expand the Afrocentric behavioral health model to ensure inclusivity of all members of the Black/African American LGBTQ+ community throughout San Francisco. They participated in 163 outreach calls, meetings, and other communications to potential advisors, community partners, educational programs, referral sources, and others, as well as in community conversations emphasizing the needs of the city’s Black/African American LGBTQ+ community.

    Program staff also took part in strategic planning and infrastructure design to elicit feedback from the Black/African American LGBTQ+ community, and in outreach to engage and introduce services within communities throughout San Francisco, as well as to generate referrals. Additionally, staff engaged with the San Francisco Dream Keeper Initiative and other Black-led and Black-serving San Francisco agencies to increase the efficacy of cross-referrals and community learnings.

    HCN in partnership with Soul of Pride hosted cultural events that affirm and celebrate Black queer communities in San Francisco. At the city’s Juneteenth celebration in mid-June and two Pride celebrations at the end of that month, HCN further promoted access to Afrocentric mental health resources.

    Over 400 San Francisco community members showed up on June 26 to march for Black LGBTQ+ visibility and equity as well as to celebrate Black LGBTQ+ contributions to society. On June 27, over 1,000 San Francisco community members participated in celebrating Black LGBTQ+ culture.

    To learn more about HCN and the Ma’at Program go to https://www.hcnkids.org/ma-at-program

    Andrea Shorter is a longtime Commissioner for the City and County of San Francisco, now serving on the Juvenile Probation Commission after 21 years as a Commissioner on the Status of Women. She is a longtime advocate for gender and LGBTQ equity, voter rights, and criminal and juvenile justice reform. She is a co-founder of the Bayard Rustin LGBTQ Coalition, and was a David Bohnett LGBT Leaders Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

    Published on August 26, 2021