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Andrea Jenkins: ‘Culturally embedded racism impacts every part of your body and mind’

In an extended Q&A, Jenkins talks about her work on the City Council, her hopes for the future and the ways she looks after her own mental health.

Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins
Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins: "The mental trauma or the mental stress created from what I would call community trauma or communal trauma is just as challenging and deleterious as actually suffering from those injustices yourself."
Office of Andrea Jenkins

Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins has been in the spotlight of late. Immediately after George Floyd’s death at the hands of four of her city’s former police officers, she made a moving public statement saying that racism should be declared a public health emergency. Later, she joined a majority of her fellow council members in a vote to divert funds from the MPD to alternative community-based programs. 

These moves, combined with citywide efforts to respond to the spread of COVID-19, have made for a busy few months. Jenkins said that she and her City Council colleagues are all feeling the strain. 

“I’m not sure people fully understand the full range of challenges that every public official is facing right now —  and in Minneapolis that is significantly profound.” 

Jenkins said that she wants to encourage the public at large to seriously consider the negative impact a Eurocentric culture has on communities of color. “Racism impacts all aspects of our health,” she said. “It’s in the very air we breathe.” 

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Last week, Jenkins took time for an extended telephone interview. We talked about her work on the City Council, her hopes for the future and the ways she looks after her own mental health.

MinnPost: After the death of George Floyd, you made national headlines by saying that racism should be declared a public health crisis. Can you describe some of the negative impacts that racism and white supremacy have on people of color? 

Andrea Jenkins: It’s not just an emotional reaction, it is a physical reaction, too. Your cortisol is elevated, which has a deleterious impact on your synapses, your blood pressure, your heart. Culturally embedded racism impacts every part of your body and mind. 

MP: So you’re saying that culturally embedded racism also has a negative impact on the mental health of people of color? 

AJ: I absolutely agree with that idea. 

MP: We’re living through a particularly tumultuous time. Do stressors like COVID-19 also have a negative impact on the mental health of communities of color?

AJ: Yes. To the extent that we hear that African-Americans are more susceptible to dying from COVID-19. For example, even if you don’t have COVID-19 and you are African-American, the knowledge that your community is suffering at a disproportionate rate creates stress and tension in your body. Everything that we witness does that. … George Floyd looks like people in my family. The mental trauma or the mental stress created from what I would call community trauma or communal trauma is just as challenging and deleterious as actually suffering from those injustices yourself. 

MP: What about addiction? Do you see a connection between the overuse of addictive substances and psychological stress? 

AJ: I think there is one. You see that evidenced in the increased rates of chemical and alcohol use around the country. I think people are self-medicating for their mental health stress. With COVID and the quarantine, I haven’t actually been interacting with a lot of people lately, so I can’t speak for others. But it has impacted my life. I don’t drink — but I have been seriously tempted to go buy a bottle of something over the last months. But I haven’t. 

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I can imagine that there is an increased use of chemicals and alcohol in many communities, based on the events that are happening. We hear plenty of stories about people “day drinking.” People are discussing that as a common phenomenon. Even though I haven’t actually seen many other people lately, so I can’t say I’ve witnessed that, I would suspect that to be true. 

MP: In Minnesota, the overwhelming majority of mental health providers are white. Do you think that not being able to easily find a provider who looks like you or shares your cultural experiences keeps some people of color from seeking mental health care? 

AJ: Absolutely. I have sought out practitioners of color myself — or if a person of color wasn’t available, which is quite frequently the situation, a woman. I want to be able to work with a practitioner who is more able to relate to my experience. A white male is furthest person away from my experience. I know that can be a limitation in pursuing mental and physical health care. 

I would also add to that the financial cost of going to a therapist can be a burden that a lot of people of color, particularly Black people, just can’t overcome. I just did a telehealth visit with my doctor, for instance. It cost me $780 for a 20-minute visit — and I have health insurance.  

MP: Are there ways that government can respond to these kinds of inequities?  

AJ: Through our Division of Race and Equity, the City of Minneapolis has been trying to respond to some of the trauma that communities of color had been experiencing before the uprising. We provided funding for mental health providers related to COVID-19 because we knew that the pandemic and the fear that surrounds it does have a significant impact on people’s mental health. If you are lucky enough to be able to work from home at this time and you have kids, there is plenty of added stress baked in: You’re working at home, you’re teaching your kids. You’ve got so much on your hands. 

This situation is stressful for everyone. However, in this state, many people of color, particularly Black and brown people, have jobs that require them to work outside of the home. That means that many times their kids are at home on their own because they can’t go to school. This creates a whole different level of stress. We definitely recognize that there is an increased need for mental health support. 

COVID-19 and the subsequent riots are enormously impacting the mental health of Black and brown people in Minnesota, but a level of oppression and depression has been present and palpable in these communities for a very long time. For the past few years we’ve been talking about deporting all of the Latino people, and locking up their babies in prison. That has an enormous emotional impact on the community at large. These things are not new. They are only compounded by the most recent events.

MP: Not so long ago I had a conversation with Katy Armendariz, founder and CEO of MN Care Partner and Roots Recovery. She was saying that she thought traditional addiction treatment programs are based on a white-supremacist or racist framework and often don’t work well for people of color. Do you agree with that idea? 

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AJ: I agree with that wholeheartedly. There definitely is a problem. Last Friday I introduced a resolution officially naming racism as a public health crisis. It’s not just related to George Floyd. I think racism is at the core, the foundation of all of the social ills that are plaguing our society. Certainly we know that in treatment centers, unless they have dealt with the racism that is inherent in the institution itself and in the individuals that make up the institution, they can’t fully be effective in resolving whatever the issue is they’re trying to resolve. 

The only reason that I can say that with so much clarity and confidence is because I am a product of America. I grew up in this society. I have been educated in this society. I have two master’s degrees and a bachelor’s degree. I have been deeply indoctrinated in the American consciousness of race and racism. I have to work to combat that. Every single day I have to work on my own racism. 

I recognize it and I work at it to be anti-racist and to be anti-homophobic. I’m a trans woman. Those things are so insidious that everybody has to work hard to overcome it. We all need to be actively being anti-racist every day. Until recovery institutions work to actively become anti-racist institutions, they will not be able to meet the needs of people of color and particularly Black people in chemical health treatment. That’s not to say that some Black people are not successful in traditional treatment programs: They can be. They need a strong will and a desire, but they overcome addiction in spite of the underlying foundational racism that is present — not because of it. 

MP: Do you think that the treatment model presented in culturally specific programs like Turning Point in north Minneapolis plays a particularly significant role in helping people of color overcome addiction? 

AJ: I think it can. I worked as an employment specialist at Turning Point for two and a half years early in my career. I think programs like Turning Point provide important help that is specifically tailored to the experience of communities of color. 

MP: You’ve got a lot on your plate these days. What’s the state of your own mental health? 

AJ: I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted. How do I answer this question? I am exhausted because in many ways people know the answers to our problems but they want to feign plausible ignorance. That reality in and of itself is just exhausting. 

MP: Does this feeling of exhaustion ever make you want to step away from elected office? 

AJ: At this point today I intend to serve my community in an elected capacity as long as people respect my leadership and my willingness to serve. It is hard work. One of the things that really challenges me about being an elected official is the level of disrespect that is foisted upon us with the expectation that we respond to that disrespect with a level of respect and dignity. People  feel like they can call you names and accuse you of all sorts of nefarious, ridiculous crimes but you should respectfully listen, accept their vitriol and insults and subsequently respond respectfully and then actually do their bidding. 

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MP: So you get a lot of the attitude, “I’m a taxpayer. I pay your salary?”

AJ: Yes. But I pay taxes, too. The whole situation is a very challenging aspect to the work that I do.

MP: What are some of your key self-care strategies? 

AJ: That’s tough. It’s extremely tough. People talk about how physical health impacts mental health. I used to play tennis twice a week. That really helped my mental stability. That was my favorite form of self-care. 

I have been recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It has impaired my physical ability to a certain extent. I’m clearly still mobile and ambulatory, but my lateral movement has been significantly impacted. So I can’t play tennis anymore, which does have a negative impact on my mental health. I’ve been an athlete all my life.  Not being able to use my body in those ways has really limited my options for self-care. Before COVID, I was regularly doing massage and acupuncture and yoga. Since COVID, I haven’t been really partaking in those things. 

The love of my family is important to my mental health. My doctors have been impressed that since my MS diagnosis, I haven’t exhibited any signs of major depression. Being trans, that has provided me with a level of self-awareness that I’ve been able to overcome a lot of things. Not worrying about what people think about me, that has been a really important tool within this whole process because I’ve been getting lots of emails calling me dumb and stupid and insane and many other insulting things that I won’t share here. My history has really helped me to understand that I get to control the narrative around who I am and not allow others to define me. That has been really helpful in keeping my mental health stable. 

MP: There are so many problems in the world right now. Do you see much reason for optimism?

AJ: I am an elected official. I have to be optimistic. You have to be optimistic to run for office, to think that you can help to make change in our culture and society. I think that it is possible. I think it is going to take a lot of effort and energy and maybe even some luck because right now, as dark as this moment is, in terms of undoing racism we have hit a lucky jackpot of coronavirus and civil unrest that is forcing us as a society to look at and address the racism in our culture. I’m sure a lot of people would disagree with me for framing that as luck, but I don’t think we would get to this point any other way. 

I’m hopeful that we are on the cusp of great change in this state.