Black Lives – And Minds – Matter
One local professional helps keep the minds and spirits of community organizers strong
by Sumayyah Smith (she/her)
Featured Photo Above: Following an NAACP rally at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center on June 8, 2020, attendees and protesters marched through uptown, eventually arriving at Marshall Park. Photo by Grant Baldwin.
Welcome to the 2020 Charlotte Pride Magazine! This article is part of the annual Charlotte Pride Magazine, published this year as a special year-end retrospective for 2020. You can see all 2020 Charlotte Pride Magazine content here, as well as finding distribution locations for our limited print run.
It’s been half a year since national protests erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Spring and summer gave us a new Charlotte – now more than ever, we can’t ignore the socio-economic and racial inequities in our city, and we are witnessing the fight against it in the streets of our neighborhoods. It feels like we’re watching history take place before our eyes.
These past few months have defined our idea of the Black Lives Matter movement: crowds flooding the streets in mass protest and nationwide civil unrest. And while street activism plays an essential part in the fight against injustice, behind it are the many organizers, counselors, and leaders who help to sustain the movement.
Everyone can’t be protesting on the streets, but plenty of change makers have dedicated their lives to serving oppressed and vulnerable people in our city through a variety of mental, emotional, and spiritual outreach.
In the fight against inequality, some are put in the position of choosing between their personal wellbeing and the needs of the collective — so, many Black and LGBTQ activists are forced to neglect their own mental and emotional health, which can lead to higher rates of depression and anxiety among both groups. Additionally, in times of mental, spiritual, and emotional crisis, they’re more susceptible to substance abuse, poverty and homelessness – mostly attributed to the lack of adequate resources.
The issue has grown more prevalent throughout the years, and in response, more organizations — ranging from church groups and wellness clinics to pop-up mutual aid efforts — have affirmed their presence in the community and helped to provide outreach to at-risk demographics. Several of these organizations have gained traction in Charlotte over the past few years, such as Transcend Charlotte and The Social Justice Emotional Response Collective (SJERC) – both centered on providing mental and emotional outreach to minorities and the LGBTQ community, with emphasis on low-income and Black transgender folks.
How does this relate to BLM? Well, leaders in mental health and healing are diligently providing the backbone to the Black Lives Matter movement. In preparation for this article, I had the opportunity to chat with Reia Chapman, a licensed therapist, community organizer, and founder of The Social Justice Emotional Response Collective (SJERC). Currently serving as the director of clinical services at the Center for Family and Maternal Wellness, PLLC, she considers herself to be embodying the principles of collective liberation and justice in her practice. She also touched on the integral role mental health advocacy has in the human rights space and how her 24/7 outreach and support helped to fuel Black Lives Matter organizers since 2012.
Chapman’s impact on marginalized communities in Charlotte has always been significant. Her work during the past few months of heightened unrest in our city has increased and taken on a new form. As we look back on how the events of spring and summer shaped Charlotte, let’s profile the social justice powerhouse, Reia Chapman, and how she not only helped bring important conversations to the forefront, but continued to breathe life into the Black Lives Matter movement.
On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. This horrific act of violence sparked uproar in marginalized communities everywhere. Not because a murder like this is in and of itself shocking – but, rather, because it’s far too shockingly common. Floyd’s death echoed the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people who lost their lives to police brutality this year. For Chapman and other community organizers, these events further revealed the saturated amount of inequality coursing through Charlotte. In Chapman’s definition, Charlotte likes to think of itself as a progressive city, but this past spring and summer really pulled back the curtain to reveal all of the city’s flaws.
A few months into the widespread protests, Charlotte Agenda profiled “Tent City.” The now infamous tent compound is inhabited by dozens of houseless people, primarily women and people of color, and acted as another chisel in chipping away Charlotte’s illusion of progress.
This mirage is particularly prevalent in the Black LGBTQ community, too – a rarely spoken about, but very disenfranchised demographic in Charlotte. There’s been over 30 Black trans women killed nationwide since summer, with at least one taking place in Charlotte earlier this year, when 34-year-old Monika Diamond was shot while receiving medical attention. Like many southern cities, Charlotte is notorious for violence and discrimination towards trans people, such as denying them service at businesses, verbal harassment, and physical attacks. And with little resources available, plenty of local coalitions have taken the initiative to address the growing amount of inequality against the LGBTQ community.
The abolitionist group Charlotte Uprising – led by a substantial amount of queer Black people – has used the Black Lives Matter movement as a tool for bringing awareness to the vulnerability of Black trans women in the city. Through both their website and social media accounts, Jail Support helps to raise funds for Black trans women who are risking eviction (especially due to the pandemic) and, for those already displaced, they work to find temporary housing solutions, whether it be from a Jail Support member themselves or reaching out to shelters.
As the founder of SJERC and an active member of the Charlotte Transgender Healthcare Group (CTHCG), Chapman is no stranger to intersectional activism and integrating the needs of broader demographics into her practice. She also recognizes that the Black Lives Matter movement is far more affirming of the LGBTQ community: “It’s easier to put aside our differences…We’re all united by being Black and the collective experiences we share,” Chapman shares.
Here We Are
Once summer cooled off and fall nestled in, it became abundantly clear that the old skin of Charlotte had begun to shed. Not only had the protests forced conversations surrounding social justice to become more common, they had even gotten the attention of elected officials, both local and statewide — including Gov. Roy Cooper, who was quoted voicing support of Black Lives Matter and spotted marching alongside peaceful demonstrators.
Significant attention has also been given to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and several policing practices activists say are unethical harmful, among them accusations of brutality during arrests, turning off body cameras, and the blatant antagonizing of the protestors. Local police officials have responded with several changes — though many activists say the changes don’t go far enough — like additional de-escalation trainings, compliance with the national “8 Can’t Wait” policy priorities, and new changes being proposed by Charlotte City Council. Some officers have also been cited for termination or resigned.
Continuing to pull back the curtain – to peel away at the old skin – seems to be the priority of marginalized communities now. As Black Lives Matter activists hammer away, it reveals the beginning of a new landscape in Charlotte. Queer, Black, and women led organizations are finally gaining much deserved traction and are reshaping our social fabric, making us all unapologetically aware of their presence and plights.
And nowadays, beautiful murals honoring Black Lives Matter decorate the cityscape. Local business owners have become outspoken about their intolerance towards bigotry in the community, and have voiced their solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ movements.
In her work as a counselor, Chapman keeps this momentum of change pushing. Through what she defines as “Decolonized Therapy,” she address generational and systemic trauma of marginalized groups in order to begin the healing process.
“[Decolonized Therapy] is focusing on the process of unlearning decades of trauma, colonization, and oppression [that can effect] mental health, self-esteem, and our views on the community” Chapman explains.
Where We’re Headed
I have to admit: seeing social justice bloom in Charlotte is refreshing. Although this change was birthed from the heartbreaking tragedies of the spring and summer, we’re finally seeing marginalized groups on a trajectory of empowerment within our community – and that’s worth celebrating.
Despite this, the city is still far from unification. Especially in the aftermath of a very intense election, Charlotte feels more divided than ever.
“Division isn’t new [in Charlotte]…This year just revealed all of the division and inequality that’s always been there,” says Chapman.
Even with all the prevalent issues, and still so much work ahead, Chapman and other community organizers stress the importance of remaining positive, diligent, and grounded during these challenging times. If we don’t commit to our beliefs in a better and brighter future, social justice then becomes unsustainable and a source of mental drainage.
Chapman encourages activists to develop boundaries and to not overextend themselves into areas that aren’t their strong suits. For her, this meant acknowledging that her place in the movement was not being an active participant in protests, but rather an organizer and resource for those involved.
“Knowing my role [in the movement] was a powerful tool I used to help the longevity of my activism,” Chapman reflected. “As I got older, I realized I could no longer be a physical participant in protests, and I think It’s important for us to keep reinventing and reimagining our place in the movement.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has found its footing in Charlotte and it’s greatly due to the efforts and achievements of Chapman and other community organizers. Not only are they tearing down the walls of bigotry and inequality in the city, but restoring faith, hope, and a promise of a better future.