Discussions about mental health in America are evolving. There is a mental health crisis growing in the wake of Covid-19. This ‘long tail’ of the pandemic is forcing the country to grapple with the surging demand for mental health services. Parallel to this, policymakers are connecting the dots when it comes to acknowledging racism as a public mental health crisis. At the heart of this perfect storm? Underserved Black and Brown communities living in mental health deserts. In a special series, Hurdle offers up three examples of how its community partnerships can help quell this perfect storm. Read Part I: The Role of the Church in Improving Mental Wellness and Part II: Bridging the Mental Health Gap in Education for Students Who Need It Most.
For the third and final part of this series, we met with Dawan Alford, Executive Director of D.C.-based Run Hope Work. We sat down with Alford to talk about the organization’s integration of mental health services in their workforce development program for youth and young adults. Driven by long‐term shifts in the labor market and on‐going poverty and racial inequities, youth and young adult employment challenges in the U.S. have mounted steadily in recent years. At Run Hope Work, Alford is taking a novel approach to help youth prepare for the workforce and strengthen their employability profiles. Run Hope Work program participants complete hundreds of hours of running, meditation, and vocational training. Trades include drywall, painting, flooring, OSHA10, and more. The ultimate goal is for each youth to leave the program with a full-time job, but more importantly to ensure they have a plan for themselves and a positive sense of self.
As the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines continues with promises of a gradual return to normalcy in the American workforce, the Run Hope Work-Hurdle partnership offers a model for how to integrate culturally relevant therapy into workforce development programs for marginalized communities.
To give our readers some context for your work, can you share a bit of background on why workforce development programs like Run Hope Work are needed?
Alford: The short‐ and long‐term consequences of youth and young adult unemployment are severe. Individuals who fail to transition to stable jobs by their early 20s are at risk of experiencing more frequent and prolonged spells of joblessness, permanently lower earnings, greater difficulty building a secure financial future for themselves and their families, and ultimately are vulnerable to experiencing mental health challenges and crises. It is well documented that youth unemployment and its associated challenges threaten to perpetuate cycles of intergenerational poverty for individuals and communities. Additionally, there are steep barriers to entry to college and higher education opportunities for historically disenfranchised communities. Systemic disenfranchisement cemented in place by policies that prevent individuals with criminal convictions from accessing financial aid and access to post-secondary education opportunities perpetuates the disparities we see in youth and young adult unemployment.
At Run Hope Work, many of the 18–24 year-olds we work with are experiencing housing instability through the rising costs of living. They come from communities that have historically and consistently lacked access to healthcare and mental health resources. This is why we don’t just focus on the job training. Our aim is to be a bridge, bridging the access to care gap and the job opportunity gap. In addition to our pre-apprenticeship program that offers participants the opportunity to earn industry-leading certifications that make them more employable, we help them build mental health skills that empower them to cope with things like racial microaggressions in the workplace.
It’s important to note that the design of our program is intentionally rigorous. It is intended to replicate the demands of the construction and craftsman trades that we train participants in. Oftentimes, on a construction site, work starts at 7 a.m. This is why in the ‘Run’ portion of our programming, we gather three mornings a week for a 5K run. The runs prepare participants so that when they leave the program, they have the muscle memory and habit to be active and ready in the morning. This mirrors our intentions for the ‘Hope’ programming: to instill healthy habits that can help offset the demands of carving out your own path in life.
You joined Run Hope Work in September 2020 at a point when the organization was reworking its approach to accommodate COVID-19 social distancing measures. What brought you to the organization?
My background has always been rooted in community engagement. Run Hope Work’s mission aligns with my ambitions to uplift communities like the one where I grew up in Essex County, NJ. Their focus on mental health is what really drew me to the organization. Leading up to my joining Run Hope Work, I founded Black Male Mental Health, a social media platform designed to address and support the mental health struggles of men of color. The platform started with me simply sharing posts about my own mental health journey. Within a year, it grew to have over 24,000 followers. I started receiving frequent requests from followers asking for help in finding culturally competent therapists. I’m not qualified to offer that kind of assistance professionally, so I connected people to resources like Hurdle. It was actually a member of Hurdle’s team who referred me to Run Hope Work.
Run Hope Work had been in existence for close to eight years when I joined. However, from March to October 2020, the organization was unable to operate at its normal capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions. I took the helm in September 2020 on the heels of a summer surge in Covid cases and rising racial tensions in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. My immediate directive was to transition Run Hope Work’s in-person model to meet the demands of 1) social distancing measures; and 2) rising cases of depression and anxiety amongst our primary demographic of program participants — young, Black, and Hispanic men. As a part of its transition, the organization leveraged a HOPE Community Grant through D.C.’s Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office to engage Hurdle’s team of culturally competent therapists to address the youth’s growing need for mental health services.
How has your partnership with Hurdle supported Run Hope Work’s mission?
Prior to partnering with Hurdle, the ‘Hope’ portion of our programming consisted of daily, in-person Hope Sessions. The sessions were designed to teach meditation and are an important component of our philosophy. These daily meet-ups taught participants self-awareness and mindfulness and helped them foster a deeper connection with themselves and their community.
For several months at the start of the pandemic, the organization was unable to hold these meditation circles. Through our partnership with Hurdle, we were able to reinvent the circles in a virtual space. With Hurdle, we ensured that our entire cohort and staff had free access to culturally competent therapy and mental health support. We also opened a weekly virtual safe space to foster community engagement called, Friday Wellness Workshop, where community leaders and stakeholders join our cohort and share under the facilitation of a Hurdle therapist.
“With Hurdle, we ensured that our entire cohort and staff had free access to culturally competent therapy and mental health support.”
- Dawan Alford, Executive Director of Run Hope Work
Have you seen a shift in the destigmatization of mental health amongst the youth you work with?
I do think the narrative has shifted, especially amongst Black men. However, it’s important to differentiate the reason for this shift. The tendency is often to blame Black people and other disenfranchised communities for the stigma. While some have viewed mental wellness as a taboo topic — just like in affluent white communities — for many in the Black community, the absence of mental healthcare has more to do with it being systemically hard to access or ill-designed to meet our unique needs.
I also think social media has had a play in what I believe has been a significant generational shift in the conversation around mental health. More and more young people are sharing their struggles online and dealing with them openly. We see this play out at Run Hope Work in our group sessions with Hurdle’s therapists. There is a sense of ‘safety in numbers.’ Our participants are more likely to open up and share when they are with people who can relate to them and their experiences. This kind of space that Hurdle is creating, for Run Hope Work, and for countless others, has not existed before, which is why their work has the potential for exponential impact on the future of these young people.