Deirdra Yarbo, Director of Special Services for Brooklyn Center Community Schools during a meeting in Brooklyn Center, MN on August 4, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

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When Kevin Dedner told his therapists about the racial trauma he experienced as a Black man, he often found they wouldn’t believe him. 

Visits to multiple therapists left him “weighed down by the exhausting task of having to convince them of the importance of my experience in the world as a Black man,” he recalled. “Imagine being in therapy … and the therapist is just looking at you in disbelief.” 

That changed, Dedner said in his book, ‘The Joy of the Disinherited,’ when he started seeing a Black therapist who understood what he was going through. The meeting inspired Dedner to found Hurdle Health, a Washington D.C.-based provider of mental telehealth services that takes lived experiences such as racism into account to better care for clients. Dedner hired that therapist as the provider’s first chief clinical officer. 

“Our first clinical leader … was asking me questions which validated the story I was telling him,” Dedner said. “Our therapists are trained in a technique that acknowledges that they may not have the bank of experiences to relate completely to the client who’s sitting in front of him.”

Hurdle’s latest initiative is a partnership with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota to apply that approach in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota’s second-most racially diverse city, and the only Minnesotan city with a Black mayor and city manager. Its population is around 31% Black and 17 percent Asian, according to the United States Census Bureau.  

A Brooklyn Center police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, last April. The city has also been heavily affected by COVID, with communities of color experiencing the highest rates of cases and deaths.

But a lack of diversity and training among therapists leaves them unable to properly address this trauma. People of color often feel they can’t mention it to therapists without facing judgment or lack of understanding. 

Hurdle’s therapists approach their clients knowing they might have different experiences, and ask them questions which make them feel heard, Dedner said.

Being able to provide mental health services to Brooklyn Center is the reason Hurdle exists, Dedner said. “To be able to serve this community is a really humbling assignment.”

Blue Cross is paying for the therapy sessions and Hurdle is providing therapists. 

Deirdra Yarbo, Director of Special Services for Brooklyn Center Community Schools posing in a meeting room in Brooklyn Center, MN on August 4, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Brooklyn Center residents have long faced mental health challenges, said Deirdra Yarbo, director of Special Services at Brooklyn Center Community Schools, a program which works with community organizations to give students better access to mental and medical healthcare and other services.

“There were mental health concerns across our community … prior to COVID, prior to George Floyd’s murder, prior to Daunte Wright’s murder, and all of those things just became exacerbated,” Yarbo said.

“It heightened the need for all of us recognizing all of the intergenerational and community pieces of the work we do,” Yarbo said. “All of the anxiety and depression and lack of resources and lack of access to supports that … our community has.”

The police response to protests over the killing of Wright caused new mental health problems for Brooklyn Center students. “I think about the calls that we would get from families and students like, ‘My windows were shot out. Tear gas is coming in my apartment,’” one school leader recalled.

Deirdra Yarbo, director of Special Services at Brooklyn Center Community Schools

The police response to protests over the killing of Wright caused new mental health problems for Brooklyn Center students. 

“I think about the calls that we would get from families and students like, ‘My windows were shot out. Tear gas is coming in my apartment,’” Yarbo said.

Protests took place at the Brooklyn Center Police Department, which is located one block from a high school, said Seth Ryan, director  of Community Services at Brooklyn Center Community Schools. Many students had to evacuate their apartments because of tear gas.

Seth Ryan, Director of Community Engagement for Brooklyn Center Community Schools, during a meeting in Brooklyn Center, MN on August 4, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

During the year ending June 30, 493 Brooklyn Center Community Schools students, about a quarter of the district’s students, visited a mental health provider, Ryan said. Forty-four of those students were new clients from the previous year.

However, many Brooklyn Center residents can’t access mental healthcare, Yarbo said. She thinks the partnership will help existing mental healthcare professionals navigate the high demand.

“Minnesota, in the metro particularly, is very short on mental health practitioners,” Yarbo said. “High burnout, lower wages, it’s hard to retain … therapists.”

While teletherapy is helpful for residents who can’t drive regularly, it still will be hard for those with limited WIFI or no access to the Internet.

Although it’s been a year since the shooting of Daunte Wright and the subsequent protests, Brooklyn Center residents are still reeling, said LaToya Turk, interim manager of Brooklyn Center’s Office of Community Prevention and Health and Safety.

“Images continue to play over and over in our minds, not even just the murder of Duante, but so many of our Black and brown bodies across the country that it’s a constant re-trigger,” Turk said.

Therapists at Hurdle go through cultural ethics training which includes different scenarios, role playing, and learning about aspects of their clients’ cultures, said Hurdle therapist Cedric Rashaw.

“You can’t have a counseling approach to every person because everyone’s experience, everyone’s life view is different,” Rashaw said. “Often when I meet with someone of a different culture, I wanna learn from them. Before they even tell me why they’re coming to therapy, I would say ‘Okay, tell me a little bit more who you are, your background’ so I can be educated as well.”

The partnership will include therapists from a variety of backgrounds who reflect the demographics of Brooklyn Center, Dedner said.

Community organizers’ requests for mental healthcare services helped persuade Blue Cross to get involved, said Bukata Hayes, Blue Cross’s vice president of Racial and Health Equity. 

“The call was made by community,” Hayes said. “Through that process … of deep connection between community leaders, activists, city leadership, there was the call for mental health services to be accessible for community.”

After Daunte Wright’s death, a community group called the Emerging Brooklyn Center Group began conducting daily meetings with community organizers and city leadership. 

The group invited Blue Cross to its meetings, which is how the idea to provide the mental healthcare service to Brooklyn Center residents was born.

“Working to have a more equitable, racially just, healthy community is a life’s goal for me,” Hayes said. “I’m honored to be able to play my part.”

The program is a first for Blue Cross, and no other city was in the running, Hayes said. 

He hopes the size of Brooklyn Center, a city of 30,000 people, can allow Blue Cross to learn more about providing mental healthcare so it could potentially enact similar programs in the future.

The program launched recently, and Blue Cross plans to continue it for five years. Brooklyn Center residents can sign up for the program through an app or online portal. Participants need to provide an address to prove they are a resident.

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Aarushi Sen is an intern at Sahan Journal. She is a journalism and political science student at the University of Minnesota.