“I’m not looking for a utopia,” Latasha Taylor says. “I’m looking for balance. Nature shows us that balance is the best way for any entity to move forward and be successful.”

mental health activism

Credit: Grassroots Leadership

In 2016, the Hogg Foundation started its Mental Health Peer Policy Fellows Grant Program to fund the recruitment and training of certified peer specialists, who utilize their lived experience of mental illness to analyze mental health policy for organizations across the state.

Latasha Taylor, a member of that cohort and a mental health organizer at Grassroots Leadership, talked with Into the Fold about empowering members of marginalized communities to seek out and create—through activism, advocacy and good communication—alternatives for mental health wellness and recovery that operate outside clinical settings.

Opening Up the Mental Health Conversation

Taylor aims to energize and mobilize people who, like herself, feel disempowered by inadequate mental health services. Achieving system-wide equity and efficacy, she believes, requires building a “place and space” of community wellness beyond diagnosis and treatment.

For Taylor, that means taking on projects that take her deeper into the realm of activism than advocacy, its less confrontational counterpart. While she still engages in the latter—a role she associates with education, information and consensus building—she makes a clear distinction between the two.

“As an activist, I’m trying to change the language,” Taylor says. “I’m trying to change the dialogue around what we accept as ‘is,’ and bringing alternatives.”

Because language is socially constructed, attempts to change it can’t succeed without collective momentum. That’s why Taylor finds inspiration in the words and deeds of Harriet Tubman. “Her liberation was invested not only in liberating her family, but others,” she says.

Perhaps Tubman would agree with Taylor’s belief that wellness isn’t just a matter of public health. Particularly in the criminal justice system, it’s a civil rights issue. “Having civil rights violated, I think, sometimes has more of a negative effect on an individual’s wellness than lack of treatment,” she says.

Perspective and Passion as Tools for Progress

Choosing to identify as a peer means interweaving the personal with the professional, enabling a fuller expression of identity that strikes a chord with those living through similar conditions. Adding to what Taylor can offer as a peer are her experiences as an African-American woman, which add another layer to her engagement of marginalized communities.

“You don’t just understand—you know,” she says. “It gives you a wider lens to see what’s happening in any space where someone is being discriminated against.”

From shared injustice comes the potential for considerable power. “It’s recognizing that something’s not right, and from there turning it into passion,” she says. “I have fires from all these places, and now I have a bonfire inside of me. I can direct it into passion and do good things.”

Taylor’s perspective and passion emboldens her approach to transformational organizing. “If my primary goal is action, providing alternatives and remaining authentic, then that informs what my targets are,” she says. “By default, they’re not mine. They’re ours. I’m always thinking about the conversations I have with those who are more like me.”

At present, Taylor is collaborating with students, lawyers and community members to formulate a peer-led clinic at the UT Law School on Psychiatric Advance Directives. She also hopes to lay the groundwork for a peer-led respite center that would be the first of its kind in not only Austin, but the entire state.

How is Taylor able to negotiate the many spheres of influence that overlap in her work? Much of her capacity for meaningful conversation, she contends, whittles down to her ability to listen.

“Listening isn’t about the words that are coming to you,” she says. “Listening is making yourself vulnerable and open to hearing what the being behind those words is trying to express to you.”

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