Alumna Helen A. Neville (Counseling Psychology, Ph.D., ’93) is a force for transformation. A professor of Educational Psychology and African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she is a national leader in the areas of race, racism, and racial identity, and diversity issues related to well-being. From being a past President of APA Division 45, the Society for the Psychological Study of Culture, Ethnicity, and Race, where she co-founded the Psychology of Radical Healing Collective, to co-editing/authoring eight books and (co)-authoring over 90 journal articles and book chapters, Neville has built a career of social justice work.
Here is the full interview with Dr. Neville that we excerpted in the 2020-2021 issue of Launch.
GGSE: I know you are a member of the Radical Healing Collective. What inspired the creation of the group and what does it hope to accomplish?
Neville: This might be a little longer response than you anticipated but it will be comprehensive, I hope. In 2016 I had the opportunity to do a Fulbright fellowship in Tanzania; I was at the University of Dar es Salaam for about an academic year. While I was there, I realized that this huge weight had been lifted from me. As I thought about it, I was really able to name what that weight was. Although there are any number of issues in Tanzania as there are in every country, racism or racial oppression was not one of them. Tanzania is ethnically diverse; the country has a range of ethnic groups. Almost half the country is Christian, almost half of the country is Muslim. People live very peacefully together. Although there is rich ethnic and religious diversity, the overwhelming majority of folks are Black. So it was so freeing not to have to think about race in that way, not to have to think about racial oppression. It just got me to thinking about the importance of healing and how we can draw on folks who are like us in this healing process over the toxicity of racism.
While I was on sabbatical in Tanzania, I was asked to run for president of APA Division 45 the Society for the Psychological Study of Culture, Ethnicity and Race; I decided to put my hat into the ring. One of the things I wanted to promote on my nomination platform was the importance of healing and liberation. My platform was this idea of promoting healing through social justice. I was primarily interested in how we as People of Color support and heal ourselves from racial trauma and other forms of oppression. I was less interested in ideas of racial reconciliation—that’s definitely important, but that was not the notion of radical healing I was particularly interested in.
I was humbled and honored to have been elected as president of APA Division 45. As part of my presidential initiative I put together a promoting healing through social justice task force. The members of the task force were Dr. Bryana French at the University of St. Thomas, Dr. Della Mosley at the University of Florida (she was a graduate student at the time), Dr Jioni Lewis at the University of Maryland, Dr. Hector Adames at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Nayeli Chavez-Dueñas, who is also at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and Grace Chen, who is in private practice in the Palo Alto area. I asked them to come together and really think through this initiative with the idea of first creating a framework of radical healing. I call them the dream team, as they are an amazing group of scholars and clinicians.
Through their hard work developing this Psychology of Radical Healing, a psychological framework or model that draws on a rich tradition in psychology and related work. It incorporates insights from educational scholars such as Shawn Ginwright, who wrote a book on Black Youth Rising, in which he talks about radical healing. It also draws on the foundational work of Frantz Fanon, who was a revolutionary Black psychiatrist writing during the colonialist struggles. He is famous for Black Skin, White Masks, The Wretched of the Earth, etc. And, of course, we relied on the research of psychologists like Lillian Comas-Diaz, who for decades has examined ethno-political psychology, racial trauma, and healing. Drawing on this body of work, the team developed this Psychology of Radical Healing Framework.
The Psychology of Radical Healing Framework was published in the Counseling Psychologist, online first last year and published this year. It seems that people are resonating with the work in some ways. It currently has over eight thousand downloads from the site, the most downloaded article in the last six months. So, it’s really nice to know that people are resonating with this concept of radical healing or how individuals and groups heal from identity-based wounds. The framework is designed to move away from just coping with racial oppression and exploitation to actually thriving under those conditions.
One of the things we wanted to do with this framework, is to highlight the radical aspect of healing. The framework is radical in that it identifies the root causes of our levels of distress, discomfort, and inequity. And those root causes are the interlocking systems of oppression and hate. And, so that means any form of healing must address those interlocking systems. We also wanted to highlight that our lived experiences are not solely determined by oppression and hate, but they are also determined by our envisioning a struggle for justice and liberation; the idea of Radical Healing is justice centered. Our framework is based on those issues and then we also consider the psychological dimensions which provides a context for the development.
We also recently published an article on the psychology of radical hope in which we elaborated on this concept as presented in the Psychology of Radical Healing framework. Additionally, we felt it was important that these frameworks were also shared with Black, Indigenous and People of Color more generally. That is why we created a Psychology Today blog which has a broader readership, where we can use language that is much more accessible to a wider range of people. We disseminate some of our analyses and understanding about the construct through our Psychology Today blog and we have also developed workshops and other interventions designed to promote radical healing.
GGSE: I know you are a part of #Academics4BlackLives? How did that initial event go?
Neville: Dr. Della Mosley and her student, Pearis Bellamy, are the visionaries behind this work. They wanted to find a way to address and attend to the moment of anti-Blackness and Black liberation by (a) providing Black scholars a respite for a moment from all of this barrage of hate they’ve experienced, which was exhausting and (b) offering white academics and non-Black People of Color academics intense study on racism and the myth of white supremacy so that they can transform themselves, their work, and the institutions in which they operate.
That is their general mission, and, of course, who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Within supporting their work, I offered one of the lectures on racism and white supremacy in institutions and facilitated a discussion on that.
GGSE: Making a statement in support of BLM just isn’t enough for a school, no? What should universities do to address systemic racism on campus?
Neville: That is such a great question. One step is to examine who is represented on their campus. Since the question is about a BLM statement, it is connected to anti-Blackness and racism. My comments, as a consequence, will focus on Black folks. What is the Black student representation there? How is the university actively recruiting Black students? And what activities are they doing to retain Black students at the undergraduate and graduate levels?
Then the next level of representation is faculty. Many of our institutions have an abysmally low percentage of Black faculty. I want to highlight the importance of Black tenure track faculty. Having Black teaching professionals and other clinical faculty are important, and they provide central support to the mission of the university. Unfortunately, they do not have the same power or job security as somebody who is tenured. Thus, we need to increase the number of Black faculty that are tenure track. I also know that just having Black faculty does not mean that an institution is committed to the success of Black students. It is equally important to have faculty—Black and non-Black faculty—committed to the development of Black students. They need to be trained; they need to be able to have some culturally grounded practices.
Another representation refers to administrators at the university. We need to ensure that we see Black folks represented in decision making positions who have the interests of other Black people in mind or who are social justice oriented. Representation is key. However, it is obviously not the be all, end all. Universities should also come to terms with their racial climate on campus. I know a lot of universities have completed, or plan to complete, studies to gather data on the campus climate for Black students and to identify the policies that have been implemented or that could be implemented to address equity concerns. These efforts must also include qualitative data about the lived experiences of and recommendations offered by Black students, faculty and staff.
I invite universities to reflect on their institutional practices – historically and contemporary – that have locked Black students and faculty out of the halls of their institution. I encourage universities to examine the ways their institutions are attending to the needs of the communities that surround them. What are they giving back—how are they using their knowledge and resources to uplift and provide services to those communities?
It’s definitely more than a statement, and it’s a long-term proposition that is going to require committing resources to rooting out anti-Blackness in all of their practices and to creating a space where Black students thrive; such efforts necessitate continual reevaluation of their effectiveness.
GGSE: How does white supremacy make itself known in the classroom? In therapy?
Neville: Instead of using the term white supremacy, I like to talk about it as the myth of white supremacy. This underscores the fact the idea of supremacy is a false one; instead, there is a myth that white individuals and white systems and white culture are superior to Black and Latinx and Afro-Latinx and various different Asian and Indigenous communities.
So, what does this look like in the classroom? The myth of white supremacy shows up in the content of the course—what’s on the syllabus, the assigned readings, the theories discussed, and the topics covered. It reflects the person’s approach to the specific topic. It is less about who is covered in the course, but rather who is not included and why? If an educator does not specifically, say, “I adopt an anti-racist, social justice oriented, or decolonized approach to teaching,” then many times the structure and content of the course support the myth of white supremacy.
How we as educators communicate and how we expect students to communicate fits into this notion of the myth of white supremacy. For example, the question “why don’t we have a civil discussion?”, often is designed to silence people’s affect around their oppression. In essence, the question encourages people not to express anger over racial and other forms of oppression. Imbedded in the question, also, is the assumption that naming racism and anti-Blackness is not part of the civil discourse.
Black students, indigenous students, and other students of color feel silenced in the classroom in other ways as well. Race or ethnicity or racism are rarely discussed and when they are discussed those populations are pathologized or their experiences are minimized. And when there is conflict in the room over incidents or discussions, many times faculty don’t have the skill set or training to intervene. Some students might say incredibly insensitive things that get unchecked or unchallenged by the teacher or other students. This further silences students of color and it creates an unsafe learning environment.
Parallel to the classroom is how the myth of white supremacy shows up in therapy. One way is a therapist’s case conceptualization. If a therapist focuses solely on individual behavior and individual actions that are decontextualized from the client’s lived experience, they don’t take into consideration the client’s racial and other social identities, their class background, and the neighborhood in which they grew up. As a result, the therapist might pathologize the client or identify the source of anxiety or depression solely within the person as opposed to within the environment. Another way is adopting a racial colorblind approach to conducting therapy. This is where folks might say, “I see all of my clients as human beings, I don’t want to stereotype them; I just want to focus on them and their individual selves.” This would be fine if we lived in an ideal world. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world where race and racism do not matter. When therapists view clients as individuals, that is often paired with them not exploring clients’ racial or ethnic or cultural selves; the therapists are essentially denying that part of their clients’ lives. What ends up happening is that people don’t feel completely seen or recognized in therapy.
Another way in which we see the myth of white supremacy operating is the assumption that individual or group therapy is the gold standard way of promoting mental health. We should also train applied psychologists to work in communities and to intervene at a structural and system level. If we find that our clients are experiencing racial trauma, what are we doing as psychologists to transform those toxic and hurtful practices and environments that are rooted in racism?
GGSE: I think you worked with Don Atkinson when you were a doctoral student here. If so, do you have any particular memories you’d like to share?
Neville: I’m sure I would not have been at UC Santa Barbara if it were not for Don. I’m very thankful that there was something that he saw in my application to give me an opportunity to receive training at UCSB and ultimately to earn a degree. I want to acknowledge that Don was one of the early people who expressed a commitment to multicultural counseling and psychology. Early on he worked to diversify the field and I am appreciative of his contribution there. He also did an excellent job of socializing people into the field of counseling psychology; he encouraged people to adopt a counseling psychology identity whether in practice or as a researcher. I know now it’s a combined program, but when I was going to UC Santa Barbara it was not a combined program. I currently have a firm identity in counseling psychology, which I appreciate because it is one of the few fields that is social justice- and liberation- oriented.
GGSE: Does the current moment, despite growing out of violence and pain, give you hope?
Neville: We are living in a moment of tremendous chaos and pain. But, having said that, I am so inspired by the radical and revolutionary love that I see out there. People feel so passionately about justice, about anti-Blackness, the importance of affirming Black lives that they are continuing to demonstrate for at least three months after the murder of George Floyd. I view that as love; people are so committed to our collective humanity that we are willing to fight and struggle for justice in the midst of a global health pandemic. That gives me hope.
But what also gives me hope is that I come from a long history of people who have resisted oppression, who have worked and fought hard to transform our society so that I could have some of the opportunities that I have now, so that we have a society that is this much closer to realizing democracy—we’re not there yet, but it is a journey.
I also believe that I owe it to future generations to hold on to this fight. To know that tomorrow is going to be better for them. I think that gives me hope and motivation and provides me with meaning. I also understand that a tool of racial oppression is to try to make us feel powerless and hopeless, and I will not succumb to that. I can see all kinds of possibilities in my future, in our collective future. These possibilities include liberation, and freedom, and joy.