Urban Liberation & Psychoanalysis- Free Associations at the Grassroots

By Matthew LeRoy

In late January 2016, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chakira M. Haddock-Lazala. Chakira is currently a pre-doctoral intern at the Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology, housed at Boston University’s School of Medicine. While completing a rigorous doctoral program in Clinical Psychology at the New School of Social Research, Chakira has found time to establish, and develop two programs focusing on social justice. We discussed the specifics of these programs, the sense of helplessness inherent in social justice work, and explored the definition of social justice itself. I hope you enjoy reading our exchange as much as I enjoyed participating in it.Throughout the piece are pictures of the events Chakira mentions.

Matt: Why don’t we start with you telling me a little more about both of the social justice programs that you created?

Chakira: I guess I’ll start with Aliados for Mental Health. So, I’m a Latina, I’m a Puerto aliados lunatica photo project speechRican, or better yet I’m a Nuyorican, which means I’m a Puerto Rican from New York. When I entered graduate school, I started learning about mental health disparities in the Latino community, but also, I was really struggling trying to get mentorship in navigating this system that was just so unfamiliar to me. None of my parents went to college; I was the first one to go to college and go on to graduate school. So, during that process I became really frustrated and one day there was a mini-conference on Latin America at the William Alanson White Institute in New York City and there I met two other Hispanic graduate students that were feeling very much like me. Very alienated, marginalized, seeking mentorship, not knowing where to turn, particularly in regards to psychoanalysis. So, we got together and started Aliados for Mental Health.

Basically, the goal of Aliados is to raise awareness about mental health, and destigmatize mental illness, in the Latino community; but more importantly, it’s to raise awareness about disparities within the Latino community, both in terms of utilization and outcomes for the consumer, the patient, but also, the low rates of Latinos becoming bilingual mental health professionals. So, our goal was to help students navigate academia and facilitate mentorship relationships between students and more seasoned mental health professionals; as well as provide information, education and create overall solidarity.

Matt: So how has that mission gone, where do you see it right now and where do you see it going in the future?

Chakira: I think what really kicked things off was when we started the reading groups and these events we call the Summer Salons. The first Summer Salon was called “Mentorship at the Margins” and what we did was have a group of about twenty Latino students, psychologists, social workers all get together at a house in Harlem to discuss the experience of Latino students in the process of becoming mental health professionals and really try to understand the challenges and the obstacles they experience with hopes of finding ways to facilitate that process. After we had that first salon, I posted a little review on the blog and it started kicking off. More people started joining the listserv. More people were following the Facebook page. It really got me thinking ‘wow there’s really a need for this’. So the last Summer Salon we did was called “Lunatic@: Bringing Voice and Awareness to Latino Mental Health”. And what that was, and where that is heading hopefully, is the idea of not just bringing voice to Latino mental health but really rethinking what therapy can be for marginalized communities. For example, one of the other projects is Wordat4f-Teens. It’s about bringing spoken word into these communities and really trying to see what the therapeutic and liberatory potential of this art form can be.

Matt: Chakira, could you tell us a little about spoken word?

Chakira: Yeah, some people don’t know what it is. When I started getting involved in doing these programs I was doing externships at various analytic institutes in New York City, and a lot of people didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t really respect it, you know? Some people I would try to explain it to them as, you know, its poetry. And they’re like ‘oh isn’t that just like regular creative arts, art therapy, or poetry therapy?’ and I had to really explain to them the difference between regular poetry and that kind of open mic versus spoken word and its really rich and long history within the urban Black and Latino community. The performance piece is, you know, an embodied enactment of what you’re saying. There’s a lot of emotion involved.

Matt: And I think it’s more, at least my understanding is its origins come from a much more liberatory place.

Chakira: Right. People can debate this, but poetry, always… my experience of poetry has been just about the individual’s subjective experience, their emotional life, their conflict, and all of that. But spoken word is all about that stuff too, but emerging from a particular social context of oppression. It really does come from this ethnic racialized experience. And I think it’s due to its link to hip-hop and that particular history is what makes it different.

When I started the workshop, one of the things I would tell the kids is that it’s politicized. I would tell them, ‘spoken word is free speech and free speech is youwordat4fteen workshop readingr right’. For these communities, that feel very silenced, to have a free space that is self-constructed, it’s not within an institution. You make your own space, you say what you want to say, no one’s going to censor you, there is no right or wrong, you can sing, you can rap, you can dance. That freedom, that’s the liberatory aspect of it.

Matt: You know one thing that with both organizations, really I think from the ground up, is you’ve carved out a way to create community and create space and connection where there was disconnection and feeling isolated and alone.

Chakira: Alienation.

Matt: Yeah, alienation. The word I keep coming back to, for both of them, is empowering. Empowering in a way everyone, instead of one person empowering someone else, everyone becomes more empowered, with that feeling of community and growth.

Chakira: Mhm. Absolutely.

Matt: What have been some of the things you have observed that are difficult in this community formation and growth, what were some of the those areas?

Chakira: Oh wow, well you know it’s interesting. Cause yes, it’s about community and getting people empowered but I think, as with a lot of community grassroots organizations, its also hard getting people to actually get involved in the work. You know, getting people to help out and make these kinds of events happen, getting people to become more active in the community. Cause a lot of the people we’re serving are also people from the community and they are really overwhelmed too. So that has been a little challenging, to kind of keep all of this stuff going as I myself am struggling as well.

Another thing has been funding, cause on one hand everyone’s like ‘you could easily get funding’, but the way I feel about it sometimes is ‘what’s the cost of that?’ I sometimes worry that that empowerment will be lost, that the rigidness of the power structures will be imposed. Um, yeah so, it’s been a struggle for me to keep that tension. Keeping it a safe space. Keeping it a space that can stay alive.

Matt: I suppose what you’re saying is in a way almost inherently taking in money from an outside agency or a grant of some sort would kind of change some of the things that your doing.

Chakira: Absolutely. So it’s like, on one hand, I’m kind of sold this tale that you know institutions help you gain more power and access but, my experience has been that sometimes it limits more, particularly when you are dealing with these populations and organizations that have so much mistrust of anything that’s medical.

Matt: Exactly, in a way, it ends up creating a barrier, or a way of distance between; it’s not as accessible, and it’s something to be suspicious of because of lived experiences.

Chakira: Mhm, yeah. Exactly. The question of what do they want from this? What do they get?

Matt: Ah, the institution. So do you have any ideas about how to resolve that real conflict, I guess I’m curious?

Chakira: That’s my struggle. I feel like that’s kind of my work this year, and, when you ask the question of how does this move forward into the future? That really is my own question. Kind of finding some sort of dialectic or a bridge, you know? Cause I think it’s just so important. That mistrust is really there and, well, it’s there for a good reason as well. You know, sometimes we talk a lot about hermeneutics of suspicion, from the top down; we’re always very suspicious of our patients. You know, ‘we have questions’ but that goes from the bottom up as well. So what it creates is this kind of mistrustful paranoid, you know, ‘thing’ where we refuse to connect. So in some ways, in some ways, the question of how to build that bridge is the same question of ‘finding peace’ and all these bigger things that I’m not sure if I alone can come up with the answers to… but I’m trying.

Matt: One thing I’m curious about, that I think a lot of folks who do social justice work wordat4fteen skateshop openmicstruggle with, is their own feelings of helplessness at times. I don’t know if that is something you could say a little bit about; if that’s been an experience that you’ve had and how you’ve kind of managed it on a more personal level. How do you stay so motivated? Because this is a lot of work, let alone all of the liberatory components. This is a lot of hours of doing these things, and planning. So how do you manage your own struggle that I imagine would be there?

Chakira: Man. The helplessness. It’s interesting because it’s like… God, it’s hard. I guess, it depends on why you’re interested in social justice on some level. It’s very different when you come from privilege and you’re interested in social justice versus when poverty, oppression and marginalization is part of your real lived experience and you are interested in social justice. My helplessness is also where my resilience comes from. I didn’t have a choice in doing this, I had to help myself. So going back to how Aliados came up, it really came from a place of scarcity. Um, so that part of us that really wants to not just be free, but be able to live, my livelihood depended upon it. I wouldn’t have gotten through grad school. I still wouldn’t be graduating if I hadn’t done all this stuff. My spirituality has been a big piece in helping me deal with my sense of hopelessness and helplessness. My community has been there for me when I’ve felt helpless -they’ve helped.

Matt: Social justice is an interesting phrase because it’s used frequently and we often assume that we all know what it means, but I think in conversations I’ve had with folks it seems to mean different things for different people. Different people emphasize certain things. Some of this is based on intersecting identities and where one sits in the sociopolitical sphere, so maybe you could give us your own; when you say ‘social justice’, what are you thinking of?

Chakira: Hm, god, this is hard right? I guess, to become more focused, I’ll just say, hmm, in terms of psychology and psychoanalysis, what does social justice mean? I think for me, it’s the difference between… the first thing that comes to my mind is action. I get very frustrated with our field because we think that writing articles about multiculturalism all day is going to do something. And it does ‘do’ something, but not enough. So for me, social justice is ultimately about action, and even more so, it’s about addressing on more than a symbolic level but really, addressing the material conditions of social inequality. Issues related to class mostly. So a lot of our social justice goals really have to be about getting off the couch and out into the streets.

Multiculturalism is interesting because, one of the blogs I wrote for the Aliados blog is What’s Your Beef with Multiculturalism? And you know, I’m all about it, and it has been a great beginning. But I do think multiculturalism has focused on individuals adjusting. It wants to be about social justice but it still comes from a very top-down perspective, of helping people in power deal with these other Others. And getting people to conform to the status quo, to adapt. We want to understand concepts like race, ethnicity and class but we also want to deny the oppressive context and material conditions in which they emerge and the systems that they serve.

Dr. Nancy Hollander was my mentor and one of the ideas she introduced was this idea of socially conscious psychoanalysis. So to have a socially conscious psychology, which I think is different than multiculturalism. It’s just different. It’s coming from a bottom-up kind of perspective and so inherently, it has a critical and class consciousness. It understands mainstream discourse as inherently oppressive and rather than just having an aim of having people adapt, it really wants to understand the differences of power. It’s more about the politics of revolution as opposed to the politics of reform. So, when I think of social justice, I mean, you can be ‘multicultural’ and not have social consciousness.

Matt: It sounds like, as your talking I hear a little of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed from Freire in the way you are talking about it. Now with my own reading of that, I actually find that book to be very psychoanalytic. He references Erich Fromm often, he’s talking about the disavowal of so many things, privilege, oppression. Obviously we’re just two people, we don’t really know the answer to this, but one thing I wonder a lot about is why does that book, that tradition exist, but so much of psychoanalysis, for many many years, has been so seemingly unexposed to that.

Chakira: One of it is, well, first of all, when we say psychoanalysis, we are talking about American psychoanalysis. That’s first. We are very xenophobic, focused on understanding these other Others. I think that really shapes it. A lot of what’s shaped my thinking has been not only Freire and liberation theology but also, Frantz Fanon. I discovered Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist and that was mind-blowing to me. So again, to have these authors that are Latino and African, and have it not really been honored or respected? When you aliados lunatica performancethink about, again, one of the things I personally have struggled with is this idea of respectability and what it means to become a psychoanalyst? What does it mean to look like one, talk like one, act like one. And when I’ve been at institutes talking about the male gaze or wearing ‘the white mask’ or liberation, people think it’s just a distraction from what’s ‘really happening in the room’. Or that I’m bringing stuff that’s irrelevant. You know, we have certain authors that we respect. The Melanie Kleins, the Winnicotts, Lacan even. But when you bring Frantz Fanon, or even Judith Butler, or Freire? One, people don’t know what you are talking about. So they can’t respect it if they don’t know it. They don’t have the awareness. And again, even if they have the awareness, they have implicit unconscious biases against them because well, they are people of color or women.

Matt: Your talking about the American context of psychoanalysis is helpful I think, because it’s the context of a country founded, really, based on genocide and slavery. One thing I’m wondering is, there’s this kind of collective silencing of people that really creatively and brilliantly merge these traditions.

Chakira: Right, and that history of colonization? That is still very present. A lot of the way I am hasn’t been through choice. I’m Puerto Rican, and I feel very strongly that my people are colonized people. Like, currently. One of the things I struggle with as I move into the world of psychoanalysis is… well, I love to read the back and forth about the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, and I’ve learned so much hearing more seasoned analysts debate this, but my heart aches. Well, because in my opinion, come on, it’s happening in my own country. The United States is imperialist. We’re very blind to how we collude with these powers and how our theories and ideologies are really part and parcel of how we colonize people, intrapsychically.

Matt: Yeah, oh that’s so well said. Oh, were you going to say something else?

Chakira: No, I mean again it’s a very hard topic, it’s really hits home for me.

Matt: Like it’s an emotional kind of topic to discuss?

Chakira: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s dangerous. You know again one of the things about social justice, going back to that definition. I think, it’s not about just remaining safe. I think we talk a lot about creating safe spaces as being part of social justice, but one of the things Frantz Fanon talked a lot about was about really understanding violence and all of these types of things. Violence is not just being done to, but doing and all of that and but really kind of understanding where that comes from. So, when I talk about me being a Puerto Rican and about what liberation means for me, well you start talking about revolution. I feel like revolution is one of those words that’s like a bad word.

Matt: That people have strong reactions to?

Chakira: Yeah I think it scares people.

Matt: Like there’s something almost taboo about it, and then the dialogue ends.

Chakira: Yeah, it ends.

Matt: It ends before it really begins.

Chakira: Yeah, and that’s been my struggle this year, is that people having been using that term more to describe me, revolutionary, or radical, and at first I was like, “Oh, yeah, this is great. I totally identify with all of that! But the more that becomes my identifier I’ve realized that it’s really a double-edged sword. You just become a scary person to people. You know, I always say “I want to live for liberation, not die for twordat4fteen workshop kidshe revolution.” But you know revolution really has its place. And again, when we talk about liberation, we gotta keep it very positive, it’s like a breath of fresh air when I think of the word. But when I think of revolution, you think of violence. Protests. Riots. And now with this whole thing happening with Black Lives Matter. All of these things. You know, so where is my place in all of that? When I say I’m a ‘scholar activist’. I say that social justice is about action, but does that place me at the front lines when there is a protest? So it’s scary to think of.

The ethos of social justice is really about solidarity. We can have solidarity in the imaginary and talk the good talk but when it comes to action, what does solidarity mean? So going back to my schedule, you know, and my ability to actually continue to do this kind of work. What does it mean to have people help me in this process? Concretely. Like the man hours. The struggle is real Matt. The struggle is real, symbolic and imaginary! (laughter)

Matt: We’ve gotten excited, the both of us, in talking about the core of social justice, and one of the things you said was it’s about action. I guess I’m curious, what kind of action do you feel Aliados and the spoken word program has taken on and what kind of action do you feel like has been there?

Chakira: One again, it’s about the creation of times and spaces. That’s one type of action. I think, in regards to moving towards the future and as I get my degree and I have more “power.” It’s gonna be about program development; it’s about creating a psychotherapy for the people, by the people. And well, not just creating time and spaces, but constructing institutions. Brick and mortar homes for these types of scholars. I really look forward to the day that we have a ‘socially conscious’ analytic institution that specializes in this kind of stuff and provided free therapy like Freud did in the past. I think that would really be the type of action, that’s what I dream of. Being psychoanalysts out there. Building playgrounds in the back of the institutions for the kids of the moms who are coming to therapy. Really understanding how class affects people, the working class, and the real reason why people don’t come to therapy.

Matt: In part, it’s revolution, and like you said there’s something about it that is reclaiming a part of Freud that has been really disavowed, at least in the United States. I wonder, how have these kind of more social justice group kind of experiences, how have those contributed to your clinical work. Have you seen any growth in that area that maybe you didn’t expect? How being involved in social justice movements have changed how you are as a therapist.

Chakira: Oh yeah. Well, the things I attend to. I feel like I’m doing wild analysis sometimes. I attend more to power dynamics. What I call ‘playing with power’. I like throwing the power back at the patient, being like ‘hey I don’t know anything, I’m just some person here!’ Helping people see and become aware of their ideologies, how they’ve internalized mainstream discourse. That’s something I didn’t do before. I’ll bring up, like, maybe there’s a man or a woman and they are talking about their marriage. So I’ll bring up gender roles, and the mainstream ideologies about how gender roles are supposed to be, and I’ll allow them to challenge them or not. ‘What do you guys think about that?’ We’ll have a discussion about their own struggle, moderating or mediating that. I think its interesting. In New York, I think people started knowing me for being an activist. I started feeling like my clientele were people that were seeking me out for that as well. So for example, I had a patient or two who would look me up and start bringing in their poetry to analyze through this social justice perspective. One of the things Freire talks about is concientización, “to become aware”, but as a social type of thing.

One of the things I’ve realized is there’s almost phases to this. Like, suddenly you’re awake. And then this anger comes out. You know now ignorance is no longer bliss, and you are seeing everything. You’re seeing the racism, and you see how your being othered, and you notice the microaggressions and you’re unprepared for it and you’d rather just go back to the way it was.

Matt: Right, it’s like a societal denial that breaks.

Chakira: Right, so I think that’s really shaped my work after I started becoming more aware, attending to those things and noticing when people were already struggling with it but just couldn’t name it.

Matt: One thing I liked that you said was that in a way people start to bring in more of themselves. That maybe, initially I’m wondering, if maybe they didn’t think it was that important or wasn’t like something you would talk about in therapy, but then you kind of open that space for them to explore their multiple kind of identities. And I think these programs do a similar kind of awakening. Unfortunately, and I feel like we could talk for hours, but we are short on time so we have to come to a close. Thank you so much for talking with me today Chakira.

Chakira: Thank you! I feel so humbled to be interviewed like this. I hope it went well, I was nervous!



  1. Chakira’s reference to Friere is amazing – Sue Holland a Marxist and a psychoanalyst, in the UK has used his ideas in combination with psychoanalysis in two urban community psychotherapy projects in London, one in the 1970s where I worked in my first psychotherapy job, and one more recent and enduring on a large inner city council estate. She developed a method of women being in groups with a conscientiazation emphasis having first experienced some individual therapy. And yes if only psychoanalytic education would encompass Friere, Fanon and Butler – a few organisations here do but it is not mainstream

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