The Agreement


The Agreement

Tackling a Teachable Moment on Race

By Lauren Dockett

September/October 2020


It’s the day after footage of George Floyd’s murder has made its way around the world, and Ra Frye, the Black director of Pride Roc, a trauma-healing process and program for recovering gang members on the South Side of Chicago, is holding a group Zoom call with Mary Jo Barrett, a white therapist, and some of the young men they work with together.

Zooming has altered the feel of the group’s weekly meeting, which takes place at Pride Roc’s home in Englewood and is a rather intimate, ritualized affair. Before COVID-19, the men would pass around a talking stick of sorts—perhaps a stone or a talisman of their choosing—and whoever held it was promised the floor. Listening was so sacrosanct that anyone who interrupted had to drop and give the group 25 pushups.

Frye and Barrett are the only ones exempt from the interrupting rule, but Barrett has always been careful about exercising that right. She’s concerned about overstepping her role, even though she’s been a part of the group for three years. This day, however, she’s anxious for someone to bring up George Floyd’s murder. It’s painfully clear to her that the group members need to process this blatant execution of an unarmed Black man by police, and their meeting only lasts so long.

As the clock on her screen ticks the minutes away, her frustration gets the best of her. If I—a white woman who’s never been disrespected by a cop, afraid for my children, or in fear for my life when the police stop me—am traumatized by this event, what the hell are they going through? she thinks. Finally, she leans into her camera and speaks up. “I want to talk about George Floyd.”

For a beat, no one says anything. Then a Zoom square glows and one of the men throws out, “Why, Mama Jo? What do you want us to say about it? We know this happens—it happens to us all the time.”

Before she can answer, another square lights up. “Look Mama Jo, this is the way it is. This right here is our lives. No different than any other day.”

By the next week, the protests for George Floyd and support for Black Lives Matter are in full force across the country. The Pride Roc group is back together online, and the Zoom squares glow in rapid succession.

“You see this? White people finally paying attention and look what happens. Bam! Suddenly, Black Lives Matter’s a movement?”

“That’s right. School shootings, too. Something affects white people; they organize, and it’s a movement.”

“Yeah man, we’ve been trying to get people to see what’s happening in our communities for 50 years. Where’ve the white people been? Where’s our movement?”

Barrett’s taking some of this in, but she’s also distracted. The virtual talking stick is making its way to her, and all week she hasn’t been able to stop thinking about how the men had brushed off Floyd’s death at their last meeting. She’s ready to share with them what that taught her about their lives, and how it made her feel.

Once it’s her turn, she breathes in the respectful silence before she begins. “Guys, last week you really showed me that something I saw—an execution in broad daylight, which for me was inexplicably horrible—was for you a regular trauma. I feel so much sadness and anger that you’ve become numb to death and violence against you.” No one moves to interject. It’s powerful for them to hear me share like this, she thinks. It’s furthering our attachment. “There are so many ways we white people continue to fail you. This realization has left me reeling this week and clear on the importance of what we’re doing here—.”

Suddenly, Barrett’s screen is alight. She’s jarred out of her reflection to see that she’s being interrupted. But it’s not one of the group members breaking their hallowed listening rule: it’s Frye, her cofacilitator. “Stop!” he’s shouting.

Barrett watches in stunned silence as he looks into the camera and orders everyone else on the call to put their faces close to their screens. “Now, I want you to look at all those Black eyes, and I want you to feel them,” he tells her. “Look at them, experience their pain, not yours. You need to stop feeling so emotional about this. It is not about you.”

Getting in the Mud

That night, Barrett can’t sleep. It’s not the first time Frye has called her out in front of the men, but damn, that was awful. Cutting her off like that, as if she’s someone who needed to be taught a lesson?

It’s true that when they’d started working together, she herself had insisted that Frye help her keep her privilege in check. But in her view, what she did on the call—confess some heartfelt feeling—was about her continuing, like any good therapist, to build attachment with the men. And anyway, even if he interprets what she said as privilege, does that justify his response? What are the men going to take away from him silencing a woman like that? Isn’t he the one always telling them that women deserve their respect?

It’s a fitful night, and when she’s still reeling the next morning, she calls Frye. “I want to talk about what happened yesterday in group.”

At first Frye isn’t sure what she means. So much happens at every meeting that warrants more discussion between them.

“I felt slammed when you interrupted me like that and insisted I stop and look at all of them,” she clarifies.

Ah yes, he remembers now. That. “Okay, but I had to make a point in that moment. Tell me, how did it feel when you looked into the screen?”

“I mean, yes, I saw their pain,” she says. “But I was also feeling unnerved by how aggressive you were. I hadn’t even finished speaking.”

“But what you saw, their historical trauma—they live that every day. And that was the moment to draw everyone’s attention to it,” Frye says. “I had to make the point then.”

Barrett takes a breath. “Okay, I’m not saying there wasn’t a teachable moment. I definitely learned from it, and I know it was powerful for the men for us to look at each other so deeply,” she says. “And yet, when you cut me off like that . . . I didn’t know you were trying to teach when it happened. Plus, I’m uncomfortable about the message we’re sending about silencing a woman so aggressively. Honestly, Ra, when does our relationship start becoming as important as these teachable moments to you?”

Frye takes a moment to consider what she’s saying. They’d made a deal with each other years ago: a promise to get in the mud together when they have to and do the relationship work that will make their partnership a success. She’s got a point about the sexism in this instance. He hadn’t seen it in that light. Now, how best to make amends and reemphasize to the group members that women deserve their respect? “Next time, I’ll do an atonement in front of them for the way I handled that,” he offers.

Barrett’s not so sure about that. “I’m not asking for you to apologize to some white woman. I just want us to acknowledge to the guys that both of us could’ve created a better moment together for them,” she says. “Don’t we want to be an example of how to cope with differences that they can emulate in their own relationships?”

It’s decided. Before they hang up, they agree to keep talking about what happened. Barrett is still a jumble of feelings as she goes through her day, but the hurt is starting to fade. She’s had plenty of experience with white men in the field shutting her down, and always speaks out assertively in response, but she wants to handle this episode with Frye more humbly, with respect. It’s a testament to their relationship, she supposes, that she’s no longer so afraid of bungling things with her own racism that she hesitates to speak up for herself at all.

Working It Out to Do the Work

Barrett runs a therapy center in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. It’s just a few miles but a world away from Englewood, which journalists have pegged as one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. She’s developed her own trauma treatment, The Collaborative Change Model, which is steeped in an understanding of systems—including racism, poverty, and historical trauma—but when she does her pro bono work for Pride Roc, she approaches the men with a deep sense of outsider humility. She was glad when Frye made it clear at the start that she could come to him with anything, knowing that despite her 65 years on this planet, she still had a great deal to learn. She’d even explicitly invited his feedback, telling him she didn’t believe people could be white without having internalized racism, and asking that he call her on her own whenever it flared.

“Okay,” he’d said, interested. “Give me some examples.”

“If you think I take up too much time in the group. If I come across as an authoritarian or like I always know what’s right. If you feel like I’m using privilege or power.” Getting emotional and sharing her feelings hadn’t explicitly been on that list.

“If relationships like the one I have with Mary Jo are going to become more common, we’ve got to acknowledge all the smoke and rubbish in the air first.”

For his part, Frye used to live the life these guys are trying to leave behind. If his mother hadn’t caught him selling the weed he’d pilfered from his drug-dealing stepdad and sent him to live in Denver as a teenager, he says he’d be in jail or dead. It taught him that life can be different—you can be different—when you’re not stewing in trauma and violence every day, and when you can learn about the social forces that are holding you down and the science of how to build yourself up. He believes, with a spiritual ferocity, in the men’s potential to change, and they in turn treat him with reverence. He’s always championed Barrett for her clarity about the systems that underlay their daily trauma.

But Barrett’s not the first collaborator Frye’s worked with in this space, and he’s seen how even the best-intentioned white people don’t get what these men are dealing with. If she’s going to do this work with him, she’s got to deal with being reminded that for all the feelings the work brings up for her about the impact of racism, it cannot be about her. He needs her to be their therapist—not someone they need to tend to.

It wasn’t so long ago that Pride Roc had moved into a new building in Englewood, and Barrett had announced to the men that driving there, she’d been nervous until she’d gotten inside. They’d had to explain to her that a white lady with no ties to the neighborhood would be the last person anyone would want to hurt. Frye spoke to her about it. Why should they have to hear about her fears and reassure her? She’s the therapist after all, and they’re the ones living in danger every day.

At the same time, Frye’s come to feel that not accepting help with the program from people of different races cuts off possibilities, and Barrett is a perfect example of the kind of informed white mental health professional who can really make a difference. He’s met lots of other white therapists, trained by white folks to do trauma work with white folks, with trauma models constructed by and for white folks, who don’t yet understand that their techniques won’t get them far in communities they don’t understand. This is something about which he and Barrett wholeheartedly agree.

“Our issues are so deep,” he explains. “You can’t just come here and think you can help us navigate through the nappy mysteries of our minds just because you’re a therapist. Still, some very genuine people want to do this work with us. So if relationships like the one I have with Mary Jo are going to become more common, we’ve got to acknowledge all the smoke and rubbish in the air first.”

Among that smoke and rubbish is the fact that Black and white Americans continue to live different lives. The more segregated Black lives are within communities suffering from poverty and violence and a dearth of decent schools and jobs, the more Frye sees Black people coming to believe the racist ideology that they aren’t as good as white people. He grew up on the same streets as the men they now serve, and says the situation is worse than it was 40 years ago. That’s why it’s imperative that therapist allies, like Barrett, be as laser-focused as he is at decoding racist systems.

Both Frye and Barrett think therapy alone will never be enough to heal these men, who are the ones most in danger of being killed on our streets today. But programs for impoverished and violent communities that are truly trauma informed, and take systems and context into account, can be part of a physical, spiritual, and emotional rewiring that might just change some lives.

Staying Uncomfortable

Barrett says that though she’s been working with Pride Roc for years now, she’s still anxious about saying the wrong thing or, from her place of privilege, not understanding something fundamental about the men’s experiences. It’s permeated her life, this sense of constantly checking herself for unexpected signs of racism. But, she says, “I think it’s okay to be anxious. White people trying to do this work should remain anxious, so that they can keep questioning themselves and learning. Therapists have a ton to offer as long as they offer it humbly. I say to Ra all the time, ‘Here’s what I have; tell me what I need to do or how you want me to present this in a way that makes sense.’”

“Mary Jo has made plenty of mistakes by trying new things that didn’t work,” Frye says. But he’s sure to add that whatever adjustments she’s had to make, the guys are attached to her now, because they know her heart. As her attachment grows with Frye as well, so does the need to stop holding herself back with him, Barrett says.

“It’s a big question, isn’t it? How to manage race in an intimate working relationship? I didn’t allow myself to have feelings for a long time. Even to feel hurt felt like a privilege. I’d think, ‘Okay, I’m hurt. Big deal. How many centuries have I metaphorically hurt him, interrupted him? But for people like us working together, the question eventually becomes: when does the relationship encompass my feelings? Yes, the relationship is about race; but it’s also about gender and personality and a lot of things.”

Another Level of Approach

Barrett started her career as a 23-year-old social worker in Chicago’s notoriously segregated public housing high rises in Cabrini–Green. But by the time she was offering therapy sessions through her Center for Contextual Change and living in the prosperous suburb of Evanston, she’d become divorced from those streets. When a former student of hers called to say he was thinking she could do some good with the gang members at Pride Roc, she jumped on it. She believed she could help heal these guys, and when she met Frye, she told him so.

Frye was pleased about the referral, but cautious too. Part of that caution stemmed from the fact that the therapy world had long turned a blind eye to communities of color. “Look,” he says, “if someone shows up at the hospital in cardiac arrest, you don’t take a 9-volt battery and say, ‘Stick your tongue out; we’re gonna resuscitate you.’ You bring out the big paddles and put that charge right on the chest. In this analogy, using the tiny battery is like trying to use something like CBT to address the effects of gang violence, and historically, this kind of cognitive-based battery is what we’ve been handed. That may work for white males, but it doesn’t work for guys who’ve experienced trauma in the wombs of their mothers. For centuries.

“I see the big paddles as a more trauma-informed approach. But you need more than a few hours of training in trauma-informed care to bring it here. Some thing is working to wipe Black people out, specifically Black males, and it’s woven into every aspect of our existence. That requires another level of thought and another level of approach, doesn’t it?”

Barrett faults therapist-training programs for too often neglecting community. “These programs aren’t contextual; they don’t focus on systems. Even trauma-informed work doesn’t bring the system to the foreground. People are trained in many ways to do therapy in an office, and that’s not what’s going to change the violence and injustice on our streets. It’s just not.”

Ra isn’t sure, despite the surge of attention and activism following Floyd’s killing, that we’re truly at a societal tipping point. That might require more years spent decoding the systemic racism he believes a lot of people will not abandon. “What I will not do is spend my time stopping to teach white folks about what’s going on in our neighborhoods. There’s too much work to do for that. But if they can run with me, I’ll put my arm around them and bring them along.”

“Mary Jo and I understand that we’re not going to do everything perfectly. We have different perspectives, different experiences,” Frye says. “But we have a common cause, and we’re comfortable in the mud together. Have you seen The Matrix? What we’re doing with Mary Jo is we’re jacking her in. And all the guys know it. When they look at her, they say, ‘We gotta make sure she has all the information she needs to do the best job she can do on our behalf.’”

During the COVID-19 crisis, the men have decided to deliver weekly care packages of healthy food and quarantine essentials like masks and gloves to neighborhood families that they know are in need. While finalizing plans for this, Barrett asked Frye if the guys could shop for the supplies themselves, thinking it could help them take even more pride in their actions. “But we don’t have any of those things in this neighborhood,” he told her. “You’re going to have to shop for them in yours.” It was yet another painful truth for Barrett to absorb. She didn’t spend time remarking on it, though. There was too much work to do.

***

Lauren Dockett is senior writer at the Networker.

What does it take to work with people of color suffering from trauma? In this excerpt from Dockett's video interview, Ra Frye and Mary Jo Barrett weigh in.




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