There’s a presence to Leneice Rice, one that exudes confidence and optimism, even in the face of challenges.
In a room full of public safety officials, elected leaders, and community advocates, Rice commands full attention. She’s not daunted by the formidable people around her. In fact, she’s a natural fit as a counselor with roughly 10 years of experience in one-on-one and group counseling, suicide and substance abuse prevention, public speaking, and community engagement.
And there’s gravitas in her expertise in Counselor Education and Clinical Mental Health. Rice earned her Master’s of Education at the University of New Orleans and a bachelor’s in Psychology from Tusculum University in Tennessee. “Go Pioneers,” she says with a laugh.
But there’s even more to Rice than a strong résumé, warm smile and sense of comedic timing. It's an ability to truly connect with people, particularly those who experience significant struggles.
Rice, who was born and raised in New Castle, Pennsylvania, grew up one of nine in a blended family.
“My mother lived with co-occurring disorders, addiction issues and mental health struggles,” she said. “Growing up with her, she wasn’t always present. She was in and out of the justice system all my life, and after being released from her last jail stay in 2015 she overdosed on fentanyl within 12 hours of her release,” she continued, “which is a common statistic among those involved with the justice system.”
Rice says she feels comfortable talking about it, “because it needs to be talked about.”
“I am comfortable understanding where I come from, and I believe my transparency, education and experiences can bring healing.”
This summer, she joined the County as the first Community Engagement Specialist for the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council. She’s charged with bringing more transparency and community voices to the public safety system in Multnomah County. She will also work on behalf of the County’s MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the local justice system and reduce the number of people experiencing mental health and addiction issues who are incarcerated.
“There is still a lot of stigma and fear in many communities, especially communities of color, surrounding these issues,” she said. “So I’ve made it my entire life's mission to be part of a system that invokes hope and strength, not fear and judgment.”
After her mother’s passing, Rice moved from New Orleans back to her home state of Pennsylvania to help support her family. She worked as a clinical counselor for adjudicated male youth at a residential treatment facility in Grove City, Pa. The youngest child she served was just 7 years old — a child whose life intersected with the criminal justice system.
Rice hosted group and individual therapy sessions and provided family and court advocacy. She taught youth prosocial skills to help them toward a better path, including “how to be emotionally expressive and how to use sensory tools to redirect energy for children who really struggled,” she said.
Most youth stayed at the facility for three to six months before transitioning back to the community. Rice was able to help reunify about half of those young clients with their families.
And the other ones who didn’t have families to go back to, “I got to see a bit of progression,” she said. “Especially having a woman of color work with these young adults who didn’t have their parents around or any community support or structure.”
In 2017, in search of ways to make a difference in the lives of people struggling with mental health issues, Rice began researching states with high rates of severe and persistent mental illness.
She found Oregon and the nonprofit Lines for Life. In a gut decision, she moved across the country.
“I flew here with nothing but three suitcases and I showed up at the Lines for Life office. And I said, ‘Hey, I’m here to work!’ And they just happened to be expanding their Military and Veterans Crisis Line.
“So I went from the plane to training that day.”
Within a couple of months, Rice was promoted to a supervisor and charged with the oversight of the organization’s Military and Veterans Crisis Line. The 24/7 suicide and substance abuse prevention line not only supports military personnel and veterans on issues ranging from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to finances, employment and relationships, but it also assists their families as well. Rice helped provide confidential support for people on more than 40,000 calls while also helping more than 250 families find hope.
“It’s still a passion of mine. Suicide is a pandemic that needs to be brought to the attention of all of us,” said Rice. “Native women are killing themselves at higher rate; suicide rates among youth are not lessening; and veterans are still completing suicide at an alarming rate. We need a community prepared to recognize symptomatology, lessen stigma, and identify protective factors and who to reach out to for support. I want to be part of that change.”
Nevertheless, Rice longed for more direct contact with the community. She set her sights on one of the oldest African American civil rights and service organizations in the region: the Urban League of Portland. The organization was just awarded a grant to provide culturally specific career development services for low-income families.
Rice worked with community organizations such as the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization, the Native American Youth and Family Center, El Programa Hispano Católico, the County’s Department of Human Services, the Urban League’s Community Works Project, and Human Solutions to develop a program and curriculum tailored for Black men and women to enhance life skills personally and professionally.
Having someone who cared about them as a person, without judgment, “was a huge shift for them,’’ she said. “But the most important portion that motivated change was the culturally specific aspect. Someone who has the lived experience and even someone with the suicide prevention lived-experience — to help someone choose life and make different decisions.”
All of Rice’s clients had children themselves and some struggled to find adequate housing and sustainable career opportunities because of their justice involvement.
“We worked on personal and professional development, and I provided life and career coaching to help people get out of the system,” she said. “I supported 60 percent of my participants into vocational training, collegial education and/or sustainable employment. We focused on financial literacy, family success planning, career exploration/mapping and workplace readiness skills.”
In September, Rice joined the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council team. She plans to draw on her professional and personal experience to bring new levels of transparency and community involvement to the County’s public safety system.
She has set goals to:
Help bring mental health focused, judicial listening sessions to the community;
Bring more community voices to Local Public Safety Coordinating Council executive and community meetings; and
Launch an advisory board to the County’s recently launched Diane Wade House, a transitional housing program for women of color.
“Being a person of color, and being able to bring community voice through a cultural or mental health lens — there’s a long history of that not being there in the County — that’s a barrier,” Rice said. “But I have a great team to make sure I have tools that I need and the biggest part is building relationships in the community and being able to liaison in an authentic, effective way.”
In preparation for the work, she has attended community events, judicial and specialty court meetings, Local Public Safety Coordinating Council Meetings, toured the jails, and even joined in on community barbecues.
“There are a lot of different ideas but I believe we can, through healthy dialogue, take important steps forward,” she said.
“My goal is to bring hope, understanding, community priorities and solidarity to the communities that represent Multnomah County which can only happen with community support, presence and participation.”