I wasn't part of the movement yet—I wasn't even a therapist yet—but it got plenty of media attention, and I found myself intrigued. The early community mental health movement seemed to me genuinely visionary and democratic, a concept that attracted therapists who sought to meld political ideals of equality with grass-roots work with troubled people. The personal was the political. Now that was an idea.
At the time, I was caught in the intersection of the political and the personal in a different way, as a political organizer and consultant in New York City. I'd experienced the exhilaration of triumph in battles for good causes, including a stint with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund when it successfully sued New York City in 1981 to stop the mayoral and city council election due to redistricting that was discriminatory to Hispanics. I'd also experienced failure, plenty of it. Unequipped to manage, or even identify, the interpersonal animosities, implicit power struggles, and hidden coalitions that seemed to torpedo so many of my organization's efforts, I began to feel increasingly frustrated. Clearly, I needed to learn more about human behavior. I was also in my own therapy, and had begun to value the process of change involved in exploring the internal, as well as the external, world. So, I enrolled in graduate school in clinical social work.
Some of my political-organizing colleagues thought this was a bad idea. When I told them I might go into counseling, they dismissed it as a "band-aid," work that offered people temporary relief, but took place too far downstream from fundamentally unjust social and economic realities to have any major impact. I didn't disagree, but I still felt a pull toward counseling. Maybe it was for the greater intimacy of contact I'd experienced in my own therapy, the mix of interpersonal honesty and accountability that was often missing in political discourse. In my former job, I'd spent plenty of time talking about "the people," but what did I really know? Whom did I really know?