We may be living in a time of mandated physical distancing, but organizers of Minnesotas semiannual African Mental Health Summit say they are committed to bringing event participants closer together by building strong connections between individuals and by emphasizing the innate strengths of African and African American culture.
The conference, titled Building Mindful Connections: The Invincibility of Mindful Self-Care for Helping Professionals, will be held virtually on Oct. 31 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. CDT.
Because of the fact that now everything is done online and people are practicing social distancing, he said, we want to talk about how we can still stay emotionally connected, how can we keep emotional connections with one another even when we are physically distancing.
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Elder Atum Azzahir, founder and executive director of Cultural Wellness Center, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that offers classes, coaching and consulting around developing culturally based solutions to real-world problems, will be delivering the summits keynote presentation.
In these uncertain, trying times, she said, taking a deeper look at ones own culture and learning about its innate strengths can build a sense of inner knowing and a confidence that can help forge connections to people from a variety of backgrounds.
Elder Atum Azzahir
Youve probably heard a lot about trauma-informed ways of communication, she said. Youve heard about historical trauma. Youve heard about the way people carry forward the memories of their ancestors. Azzahir encourages people to embark on a cultural self-study, where they take a deeper look at their own family histories.
Cultural self-study and cultural wellness go hand in hand, she said. Cultural self-study gives you a sense of what is good about your nature and helps you to know how to carry those good elements forward.
Conference presenters will emphasize this approach to understanding history, added Tolulope Ola, summit co-organizer and executive director of Restoration for All, a St. Paul-based organization that partners with communities to restore cultural connections. Culture is at the heart of all we do, she believes, and encouraging people of all backgrounds, but especially those of African descent, to build a deeper understanding and appreciation of their cultural ways of knowing can help to improve and support mental health.
Knowing our culture is a necessary factor in our self-care, Ola said. If we are going to question the system and be able to act courageously to make change in it, we need to appreciate our own culture and the culture of others. We live in uncertain times, she said: If we keep talking about the necessity of resilience, why dont we teach people to be resilient?
Building cultural competency is a key part of developing resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Ola added: This is the essence of this conference.
Growing up in in the 1940s and 50s in segregated Mississippi, Azzahir, 76, said that she inherited a sense of hope and optimism from her parents and grandparents, who, she explained, endured some of the most horrific things and still walked around with a sense of joy and gratitude.
As she moved into adulthood, Azzahir began a lifelong quest to better understand the origins of her African culture.
As I grew up and I lived my life I knew those terrible things had happened to my family members, but I didnt spend time focusing on them, she said. Instead, I spent time in community organizing, community building and talking to and watching Black people recover and hold on to themselves. I learned from my mother and father and those around me who hung on to a level of honor and beauty and grace and the capacity to be loving and forgiving.
Her curiosity and wonder piqued, Azzahir eventually traveled through Africa, reading every book I could get my hands on, talking to every Black person I could talk to. What she learned on her journeys, she said, was that there is a cultural value system, distinct customs, cultural ceremonies, yes, but there is also a way of knowing that is distinctly African.
In her keynote address, Azzahir said she will discuss how a general lack of cultural understanding has played a role in the larger reaction to current social events. This unrealized awareness of their deep, inherited cultural strengths has put many Africans and African Americans at a distinct disadvantage during this difficult time in world history.
The coronavirus and other things have now brought to surface in a very profound way some of the preexisting conditions that relate to people of African heritage in the United States, Azzahir said. We have experienced such profound uprootedness and the disconnecting from culture and the stripping of language. This has to be addressed.
But the present and the future doesnt have to be dark, she insisted. Building a deeper understanding of cultural strengths can help build stores of resilience and emotional well-being.
How do you reassure yourself that you have an emotional storage bin and within that storage bin there are all these things that you can pull forward to build your emotional strength? Azzahir asked. These cultural strengths preexisted the trauma youve just experienced. If you really study your culture, you can go all the way beyond the pain, suffering and struggle.
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Azzahir said that she is pleased to be able to deliver an inspiring message in these dark days.
I get to be the cheerleader, she said with a laugh. Thats a role Im happy to play.
The summits intended audience, Oni said, is individuals in caring professions, including teachers, physicians, medical professionals and social workers. He said that conference organizers wanted to help participants increase feelings of empathy and understanding of the cultural mores and nuances that impact the behaviors of the people they serve.
Increasing empathy and understanding helps build relationships, Oni said. You build connection through empathy. When you look at people emotionally and align with them emotionally, that is empathy and that is a good approach.
Teachers, especially, can benefit from increased understanding of and sympathy with the unique cultures of students and their families.
As a teacher, how do you look at your students and empathize with them? Oni asked. Through your teaching, through your approaches, through observing people and the way they express their culture.
This patient, observational approach can improve teaching styles, he said: Some people, for instance, are very much oriented to writing and reading. Some people just listen. Their orientation is to the oral tradition. When you have students who prefer to listen, because that is their cultural orientation, you need to be able to present some lessons to them orally.
This approach requires an understanding that the accepted ways of looking at the world arent necessarily the best way. My presentation topic will be more on the area of how do you see yourself in other peoples shoes, Oni said. As helpers, as doctors, as social workers, as janitors in schools, how do you contribute, how do you become humble?
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Humility can be difficult to cultivate for some people, he added, but being humble can benefit everyones emotional well-being.
When it comes to mental health, we are saying, How do you connect with someone who is suffering from mental illness? How do you do you build connections? Putting yourself in their shoes helps build understanding and community.
Im going to be talking about resilience and how during this time of COVID, when we are overwhelming communities, our health care, individuals, our teachers, our education systems, how we can dip into that internal strength and how we can do that collectively, she said.
Reilly explained that emphasizing the importance of building connections and collective learning is a way to help people facing severe challenges build resilience.
People right now are finding themselves isolated from one another, she said. Often the feeling of distance that mandated isolation creates it is not necessary. I will talk about reaching in to not only find individual strength but also community strength and helping to support each other.
Resilience, Reilly added, is a state of mind and a state of heart. We say social distancing, but its not distant. Yes, we need to physically distance, but we dont need to be emotionally distant from each other.
Though this physical distance is mandated for the time being, she said, Our hearts dont need to be distanced. It is about staying emotionally connected and looking at the individual as part of a whole community. It is also about individual resilience and strength. Were not separate. Were all connected.
The connections between cultural understanding and mental health are clear, Oni said. When a person is confident in their own culture, they innately understand the best way to approach and treat mental illness. This cultural understanding should be acknowledged by mental health workers and other people in caring professions.
In a culturally aware approach, he said, professionals will encourage people to apply what best works for them when they are working on their own mental health.
In his professional life, Oni said hes learned that not all cultures see mental illness the same way: A lot of the time I see people experience and express mental health differently. Some people may prefer to see a shaman for mental health issues, rather than a therapist working in a Western-based tradition: A shaman may approach treatment differently from a doctor who would push medication.
In her talk, Ola said that she will emphasize the concept that deep cultural understanding of your own culture and that of others should inform a professionals approach to care. She believes that building strong self-understanding is key not only in trying times but also in normal ones.
I will be talking about culturally oriented mindful self-care, she said. If I have a self-knowledge of myself I will know when to understand when I am tired and when I need to take time for myself. She wants to pass that self-knowledge on to summit participants. As Africans, sometimes we dont know when to stop. We are always out there. As immigrants, too, we dont always know when to stop and take care of ourselves.
Ola said she plans to emphasize the importance of prioritizing responsibilities in supporting mental health: You have the ability to say no to what you dont have time to take on. When you take on too much you cannot perform in all the areas of your life. It is part of having that cultural competence and mindful self-care.
Continuing education credits are available to African Mental Health summit attendees. The event is free, and registration is available online.
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