East Portland picnic connects African American residents, mental health providers

July 24, 2019

Children streamed into the soft-turfed park, running between swings and shouting, slipping down slides, whacking a massive metal xylophone.

From the stage, Michalangela Wilson and Saeeda Wright belted out Chaka Khan’s “You’ve Got The Love.” And under the sweeping awnings at Luuwit View Park, pastor Dwight Minnieweather and his wife Cassandra uncovered steaming pans of corned beef brisket, macaroni and cheese, and barbecued chicken wings.

A team from Heavenly Taste Catering served hotdogs, hamburgers and barbecued chicken during the picnic.

Residents gathered Thursday in the Parkrose neighborhood to meet mental health and addiction providers, administrators from the Multnomah County Health Department and county commissioners. The event followed an African American town hall hosted in February, during which African American residents asked for more visibility and outreach from mental health providers, and more culturally-specific services outside Portland’s downtown core

“One of the goals was to bring the community and our providers together to make that connection, and do that in a way that celebrates the Black community,” said Ebony Clarke, director of Multnomah County’s Mental Health and Addiction Services Division. “In the Black community, our roots are in inner northeast, but also we’ve got folks out on the Eastside and there are transportation issues. Why not step into community where folks are at?”

As people gathered for music food and conversations, Commissioner Lori Stegmann stopped at booths featuring community services such as LifeWorks NW and Cascadia Behavioral Health. Commissioner Sharon Meieran crouched in the grass to pet a pug named Prince and a wiener dog named Smitty.

Commissioners Sharon Meieran, left, and Lori Stegmann stopped by to chat with providers from Cascadia Behavioral Health.

Smitty’s mom Janetta Smith lives nearby and said she came to learn about what kinds of services are available in East Portland. “They need to have more information on mental health and especially drug use and treatment services,” she said.

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, who represents traditionally African American neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland, stopped to visit with providers and residents. 

“Mental health services are as critical as physical health services,” she said. “Events like these remove that stigma and normalize mental health, where there’s music and food and kids can play, where people can talk to providers. It embodies what we’re striving for.”

Darline Hill, a wraparound care coordinator for youth at Multnomah County, helped coordinate the mental health picnic as a way for members of the Black community to connect with culturally-specific providers like herself. 

Hill said in the past decade she’s watched many clients move east. Hill and her husband recently bought a house in the Parkrose neighborhood after searching in vain for an affordable house in the Woodlawn neighborhood where her husband grew up.

She said it’s not only because providers who are also Black intrinsically provide better care to Black clients, although research suggests they do.

“Sometimes you just see someone who looks like you, and think you might get better service,” she said. “It gives me a foot in the door. They might not trust us, but they give us a chance.”

Nearby, staff from Central City Concern shared information about culturally-specific programs such as the Imani Center, which offers drug and alcohol counseling for Black residents.

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal wants mental health care to be as assessable and as acceptable as physical health care.

“Our folks are not successful in mainstream programs,” said Linda Hudson, director of African American Services at the Center. There are too few African American counselors, and the structure of mainstream programs can leave Black clients feeling they can’t be themselves. Those who speak up, who show emotion, are often labeled as “aggressive” or “angry.” They get kicked out at higher rates, Hudson explained.  

“When I’m sitting with a client, I can say, ‘I get it,’ said Hudson, who is African American. “You want people to recover and help other people. Because society isn’t set up for us to be successful.”

Thursday’s event featured music by Michalangela, Saaeda Wright, and Roy Moore, and even a children’s moonwalk dance contest. Mental health providers spoke about their work, and clients spoke about living with and recovering from mental illness and addiction.

Krystal Menefee spoke about the daily drum of childhood trauma — the kind that builds into explosions and fear so common as to seem normal. Growing up in Irvington Park, she was raised in a family batted by racism, consumed by drugs and alcohol. She ducked for cover at loud noises, exploded in anger, lived in anxiety.

“I grew up with all this trauma but I didn’t have words for that. I didn’t know what it was,” she said. “You grow up. Stuff happens. As a child, you think it’s normal. It wasn’t until the last couple of years when I thought, I don’t think I was supposed to grow up that way.”

Last year her brother died of an overdose, and she watched the people in her life crumble — into addiction, anger, depression. She sought out a counselor, someone she could be honest with, someone who could help her name her trauma and her feelings. Since then she began working for New Avenues for Youth, where she mentors girls who had been pulled into the sex trade.

“Therapy is a lonely road, and no one is walking it for me,” she said. “Instead of crumbing, I wanted to stop that generational stuff. I had to work to shed that skin.”