In The News

A Conversation with Board Member Wizdom Powell on Advocating for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Behavioral Health


April 15, 2024

March was National Women’s History Month, and this year’s theme was “Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.” So at the end of last month, we sat down with CHDI board member Wizdom Powell, PhD, MPH, to learn more about her journey to becoming a trained clinical psychologist, public health disparities researcher, and nationally recognized expert on racial trauma, healing, and health equity. Quote from Wizdom Powell reading

Dr. Powell currently serves as Chief Social Impact and Diversity Officer for Headspace and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at UConn Health. She has dedicated her career to researching factors contributing to health disparities, particularly for African-American men and boys, and collaborating with policymakers and others to advance solutions.

Read on to learn about the ancestors who inspire her, how she stays motivated and optimistic during a time of division and backlash against "DEI" initiatives, the impact of men’s behavioral health on women, girls, and our broader society, how we can support youth behavioral health through policy... and why she sees her role as similar to the Key Maker in The Matrix or Hodor in Game of Thrones.

Q&A with Wizdom Powell

Conversation with Communications Manager Shannon Houston - lightly edited for length and clarity.

CHDI: What inspired you to pursue a career in psychology, and specifically in health disparities research and advocacy?

Wizdom Powell: Growing up, I didn't have the goal of becoming a psychologist, because it wasn't something that I had a lot of exposure to. I grew up pretty humbly and was the first person in my family to get my bachelor's degree. But throughout my life, there was always this fire in my belly for justice work. As a child, my mom had us involved in many youth leadership programs. So it was already seeded in me, this idea that what was important to do in the world was to leave a legacy of public service. 

I got my [undergraduate] degree in forensic psychology. At the time, I thought I would pursue a career combining law and psychology. But after a practicum at a facility for individuals being evaluated for mental competency to stand trial, it became clear to me… being on that side of the challenge, where people have already become justice-involved… that I’d rather work on the front end, the prevention side. I took a year off between undergrad and grad school to do some volunteer work with the Lupus Foundation of America. That was my first exposure to work combining population health and psychology.

I was also called to this space by my grandfather’s life. He was a public servant, a Korean War veteran who lived a pretty unusual life for a Black man during the time in which he was born. He traveled the world. He played the piano. He was a really incredible human. But he also had the unfortunate experience of having to leave Alabama in the middle of the night to escape a potential lynching, and encountered a series of other indignities being a black man in the Marines during a time when there was a lot of blatant racism within the military.

"My grandfather, like many men, didn't feel like the world held space for who he was and what he had experienced."

Fast forward, he passed away prematurely from a preventable cancer that was caused by excessive alcohol use. My grandfather was the strong, stoic, silent type who held his traumas close to his vest. So it wasn’t surprising to me, especially based on what we know about stress activation… [He was] a man who didn't believe he could tell anyone about his troubles, and who was socialized, as many men in our world are, to not display that emotional vulnerability. And our family lost our patriarch, with intergenerational consequences.

People don't drink themselves to death, so to speak, if they're emotionally cared for, and I think that my grandfather, like many men, didn't feel like the world held space for who he was and what he had experienced… And as I observed the intergenerational impact of that loss, it became clear to me that it’s not just the impact on them, [but also on] the women and girls who are left behind.

As I was observing this, the opportunity to work in men's health presented itself, and... all the puzzle pieces started to come together. It was clear to me that what I could do for the world through my work was to, one, leverage that lived experience in the field of psychology in ways that could help other families and communities, and two, prevent women and girls [from losing] the men in their lives prematurely.

CHDI: You’re saying that men having these untreated traumas and mental health challenges is going to affect everybody else in their lives - including women and girls.

WP: That's exactly it. We treat the health of men and boys in society as a foregone conclusion, like, you know, “men earn more, so of course, they have more economic stability, better access to care and health insurance.” Yet men in our nation still are largely less insured than women, despite earning more. It’s about what men and boys are taught to value. When men and boys aren’t taking care of their interior lives, they externalize that pain in ways that bring harm to the world - more wars, more conflict, more violence against women, girls, and children, more societal instability.

I saw transforming the mental well-being of men as essential to building a democracy. I imagined… a world where men and boys are radically healed, particularly men and boys who find themselves at the margins of society like my grandfather, who experienced lots of blatant and implicit racism and exclusion. Diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging… they can be just acronyms to some people, but for me, it means focusing on [our] collective capacity to see one another as whole, to… disintegrate hierarchies that create a false ranking of human value and lead to the inequitable distribution of resources.

"Diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging... they can be just acronyms to some people, but for me, it means focusing on [our] collective capacity to see one another as whole."

I truly believe that by focusing on that work, we not only support the healing and emotional wellness of individuals, but [also have] the power and potential to move a community, a nation, and ultimately the world.

So my pathway to the work was both inspired by my lived experience and what I saw growing up, but also the fire in my belly to ensure that every person's humanity is seen. We don't want to create a world where everyone looks the same and speaks the same... That's a very uninteresting world, and it also doesn’t produce a thriving democracy.

CHDI: Changing systems and policies can be a slow process, and sometimes it even feels like we're going backward, especially these last few years. How do you stay motivated and optimistic?

WP: I believe in the power of this democracy to be what it says it is. Look at the founding of our nation, the ideals and principles on which this nation is said to have been built. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” It is a part of the fabric of who we say we are.

But when… human value is arbitrarily ranked on characteristics [like] race and ethnicity, ability status, gender, or sexual orientation, we miss the potential to build a world that connects all of us so that we can benefit from the rich tapestry of people who don't look like us, who don't speak our language, who don't eat the same foods that we do.

I believe that - as a black woman who grew up in the South and had many exposures to discrimination and bias - that's not who we are. [DEIJ initiatives] help ensure that we don't slip back into the ways that almost dismantled our nation in the Civil War.

"I think we all get battle fatigue in this space. This is spirit work, and if you're doing it right, you will often come tired to the challenge... but you should be leaving inspired."

I think we all get battle fatigue in this space. This is spirit work, and if you're doing it right, you will often come tired to the challenge. The wear and tear that this work has on the spirit, the body, and the mind can't be understated. At the same time, you might come in tired, but you should be leaving inspired. Inspiration for me comes from observing everyday citizens and everyday acts of kindness, which reminds me that what I see on the internet and social media - where the dialogue is so disheartening around this topic – is not the whole picture.

CHDI: The theme for this year's Women’s History Month was “Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion." Are there any women who come to mind for you as sources of inspiration?

WP: I draw a lot of inspiration from the experiences of my ancestors. Folks like Harriet Tubman, a woman who fought for equity, justice, diversity, inclusion, and belonging at a time when we didn't have those words. Who had all kinds of ailments that would have kept most people from wanting to do anything and forget about going to rescue people. Did you know she had epilepsy and was having seizures and fainting? But she took on this job of being the primary conductor of the Underground Railroad.

So when I get tired, I ask myself, “What would Harriet do?” She wouldn't stop; she wouldn't give up because the forces in the world are conspiring to undermine our progress. She would say, “Hey, let me figure out another route to take,” and that's me. I'm trying to be a conductor for equity in the same way that she was a conductor for justice and freedom for so many enslaved Africans during her time.

I draw inspiration from slave narratives who were fighting for a world that they would never live to see. You don't get any more unconditional love than that, when you're being lashed and humiliated and terrorized, and your thought is, I'm doing this so my grandchildren and their children and their children's children can run free. How can I lose hope when so much of the work they did was done under such extreme duress?

I try to keep in mind that this is not about me... My job here may be just to open a door so that the next generation doesn’t have to fight this. I don't have any grandiose ideas about my impact at all. In fact, I tell people all the time, I'm either the Keymaker in The Matrix or Hodor from Game of Thrones – I’m either opening a door or holding the door, but those two responsibilities are front and center in my mind on days when I get weathered by this work.

CHDI: You’re carrying the baton.

WP: Yes. I have a granddaughter now, and I want her to grow up in a world that sees her full humanity, that honors the past while moving toward a future where these harms don't get repeated. 

One of the opportunities for which I’m most fortunate has been to be able to work with and learn from people in Kigali, Rwanda. In Rwanda, every year in April, there is a country-wide remembrance of the genocide against the Tutsi. This commitment to remember is called Kwibuka, which is Kinyarwanda for “remember.” It's become apparent to me that the goal is to remember the past so that we don't repeat it… there's something so powerful about taking the necessary and often painful steps to look back at the things that made us, so that we don't become that again...

"The moment I think about getting tired, I think, Harriet didn't have shoes most of the time she was leading people from the South to the North. I think I can deal with a few negative opinions."

Every day, I get to experience - in the work I do at Headspace, the work I do out in the world - being with people who see the possibility of a shared and integrated humanity as something promising. I have to believe that my grandfather, who fought for this nation at a time when the nation wouldn't fight for him, did that for a reason. Because he was also trying to build a world that he might not live to experience. I'm trying to continue that legacy.

I'm in it because Harriet was in it, because my grandpa was in it, and the moment I think about getting tired, I think, okay, she didn't have shoes most of the time she was leading people from the South to the North. I think I can deal with a few negative opinions.

CHDI: Speaking of the next generation, how do you see racial trauma and ongoing racism affecting youth today?

WP: I think the important thing to remember is that racism is a bio-psychosocial stressor that has the same potential negative impacts on a person's mental and physical health that any other stress-induced process might bring. The stress that is associated with racism is both chronic and acute.

What has been different about this period in time is, we have the internet. We have the opportunity now for young people to witness incidents of racialized violence in real time, and to watch them repeatedly... You can now hear about racial unrest in another city or state hundreds of miles from you. Whereas before, you know, you may not ever hear about what happened; you were able to escape.

I do think that there is something happening that has to do with the stress-inducing potential of bearing witness to racism in real time, repeatedly. Colleagues in California found that kids of color who have been exposed to racism online are showing the same symptomatology as if they had experienced it themselves... We can't underestimate the implications of secondary trauma reactions or secondary racialized stress.

"From a scientific point of view, we know that exposure matters, whether or not a child articulates, 'Oh, I'm experiencing stress because of racism.' Racism is like carbon monoxide: odorless, difficult to detect, but noxious. We all breathe it in."

From a scientific point of view, we know that exposure matters, whether or not a child articulates, “Oh, I'm experiencing stress because of racism.” Racism is like carbon monoxide: odorless, difficult to detect, but noxious. We all breathe it in. It’s in everything; it’s in the air. Young people are both directly affected by being able to observe that in real time, but they're also being secondarily affected by chronic exposure to these events.

[Acknowledging] that racism has the potential to work against a person's natural equilibrium - I think that’s a missing piece for supporting young people in their journeys. We're actually layering on harm by not acknowledging what they're experiencing. Young people are grappling with this invisible enemy, and no one's vocalizing it, so I think even the silence around it can send a signal to young people that this is normal... 

The potential for trauma always exists when you have a stress exposure that overwhelms your capacity… and with this issue, it’s not just one exposure. In our space, we talk about complex or compounded trauma. I think the exposure to racism coupled with the political division that we're seeing in the world - in addition to, for some young people, high violence and alcohol or drug activity in their communities, or extreme poverty – [these] are all interacting to produce deleterious impacts on young people.

And that's all young people, regardless if you're a person that's in that racial or ethnic or gendered group. When it happens to one person, the whole collective gets affected. Young people are containers for that larger societal pain and harm. I think that’s one reason we're seeing an uptick in anxiety and depression, but I think it's also the isolation that we talk about... That sense of loneliness that got particularly enhanced during COVID, when young people weren't able to socialize.

CHDI: Could you talk a bit more about the impact of the pandemic on the behavioral health of children and youth?

WP: Young people lost the routine of connection, protection, and affection. I think that the disruption of those routines continues to wreak havoc, [compounded by] environmental exposures to things like racism and poverty... We forget that young people's developmental capacity for metabolizing these kinds of exposures are still being cemented. Their brains are being overwhelmed... in ways that you and I didn't have to contend with. We didn't have this massive onslaught of information to process alongside just trying to be a young person in a world that's increasingly more complex and, quite frankly lately, scary.

So I think it's to be expected that we would be seeing this uptick in anxiety, depression, suicide in young people. But it isn't something that we should live with. It isn't immutable. If we really want to address those challenges, we have to build better therapeutic landscapes, places where young people can heal, grow and thrive.

WP and JV at Headspace Youth Forum smaller.jpg

Dr. Powell (seated in front row in green dress) and CHDI CEO Jeff Vanderploeg (back row, fourth from left) with youth advocates at a Youth Wellbeing Action Convening hosted by Headspace and Hopelab in November 2023.

CHDI: What can we do at the policy and systems level to build those better landscapes for youth?

WP: Wow, there's so many layers to this… but I am drawing inspiration from the young people that we've been working with lately at Headspace, building our Youth Action Coalition. I'm going to channel some of their wisdom because I think it's quite brilliant.
We were in a conversation about what young people need from systems and society to radically heal, grow, and thrive. And overwhelmingly, the response from the youth was, “Well, stop fixing us and fix yourselves. Stop fixing individuals and fix the structures.” The old adage of, “if all the fish in the water are dying, it’s time to look at the water” is exactly what I think we need to do in terms of policy and systems change.

[We need] better school-based mental health resources, including more frontline support for educators to take care of their own emotional wellness... That even means salary reform for educators, whom we now expect to be "Mortal Kombat" fighters, doctors, lawyers, pseudo-parents, buy their own supplies… They play the most stable and visible roles in a child's life from K through 12, because [kids] spend more hours in school than they spend outside school. So taking care of our educators is really important.

We also need to… [build] systems for the education system to talk to other systems and create more of a wraparound, whole-child approach. We need legislation around data-sharing at the local level, so that if a child is having problems in school, you can also see the other social determinants of health needs in concert with their immediate mental health, emotional, or educational needs. We need to fix issues around data interoperability, incentivize data system sharing, and create more pooled or collective impact funding in innovative ways... So again, it’s not so much fixing the young people as much as it’s trying to fix ourselves.

"It's the old adage of, 'If all the fish in the water are dying, it's time to look at the water.'"

We [should] think about the investments we're making in promoting mental health care access for young people who are historically underserved... There are equity challenges that are inherent in addressing the youth mental health crisis, because we know one size is not going to fit all, so we need to make sure that we are addressing the gaps in services that can exist for young people who live in “care deserts” and who don't have access to brick and mortar mental health resources. For example, [we could scale] digital health care options... but with regulation, because not everything out there is rigorous and thoroughly evaluated.

We have to confront this tension we feel around young people's use of social media and its impact on their mental health. We have a tendency to want to throw out the whole baby with the bathwater in this instance… but we know that young people will continue to navigate those spaces. A lot of harm happens in them, but also a lot of help. I think it was Common Sense Media who did the study around young people and social media use during COVID. They found that social media was the one place that many young people had to go to feel connected.

So I think we should ask ourselves, are we removing psychologically safe spaces for young people... in our approach to this challenge? We have to design policies that strike the appropriate balance between protection and autonomy.

CHDI: We've been talking a lot about the ongoing workforce shortage in the behavioral health field and how it’s restricting access to care for children and families. What have you seen in your work regarding workforce needs or policy solutions to address the shortage?

WP: We have to do more with workforce development if we're going to address this mental health crisis head-on, in a sustainable way. We have a tremendous dearth of providers who are trained at the Master’s, Ph.D., Psy.D. levels. And unless we change the very nature in which we train [clinicians], the ramp-up to get people into the field is too long, and it's not sustainable for us to meet the demand... There are simply not enough providers to deliver care... particularly for young people. So we have to get creative.

In Rwanda, community health and peer support workers do a lot of the triaging and the mental health referrals, mental health first aid. We should think about… how the paraprofessional workforce could help us with this challenge… [and create] opportunities, through legislation and regulation, to make those partnerships more viable. We need insurance to reimburse community health workers and peer support [specialists] in every state. These are also viable pathways for employment for many people who are low-income, and an opportunity to honor the wisdom of people who are closest to the challenges and therefore closest to the solutions, who could be a part of that workforce.

"Young people need to have seats at tables where policies are being made about their mental health and well-being."

Young people [should be] at the helm of the innovations that we're designing for them, so that we do “nothing about them without them,” we've all heard that saying... Young people need to have seats at tables where policies are being made about their mental health and well-being. [We need to] listen deeply to what they need, what they want, what they're seeing, and the capacity for innovation that lies within them...

We now know more about brain science and development than we ever have, and we know that we need to hold space for young people's development for a longer window... How do we leverage what we know about this emerging neuroscience to support policies that are grounded in an appreciation of developmental transitions and [how they impact] decision-making and emotional well-being? It’s not just [about] evidence-based practices, but evidence-based policy.

CHDI: How does supporting youth behavioral health and well-being have a broader impact on society?

WP: Young people who are wounded emotionally, [who are] not as well as they could be, and who feel silenced are not going to grow up to run a thriving democracy... [They] will have to lead one day, and we need to prepare them for that.

I want younger people… to live in a world that sees them whole, that honors their humanity, their diversity of thought, their experiences, their cultural preferences, in a way that doesn't feel like a zero-sum proposition, because it isn't.

CHDI: We really appreciate you taking the time to share your journey, your motivation, and your ideas with us. Thank you.

WP: I really enjoyed this conversation. And thank you for creating the space for me to share.


About Dr. Powell

Wizdom Powell, Ph.D, MPH - Chief Social Impact & Diversity Officer, Headspace; Assoc. Prof. of Psychiatry, UConn Health