The Intentionality of Diversity: Reflections on the 2017 MI-AIMH Biennial Conference

By Andrea Rodgers, MSW, IMH-E®

Rogers, Andrea, picture copyThis past May we celebrated the 40th anniversary of MI-AIMH at the 2017 MI-AIMH Biennial Conference in Kalamazoo. The conference title, “Integrating Mindfulness and Diversity in Practice: Nurturing Authentic Relationships with Infants, Young Children and Families,” included two buzzwords: “mindfulness” and “diversity.” These two words don’t always invoke positive feelings in me; I might even say they make me uncomfortable. I am a want-to-be middle-class African-American wife and mother supervising an infant mental health (IMH) program in southeast Michigan. Although I have wondered if people are uncomfortable around me because of my race, I have to admit that I am conflicted about my own feelings about mindfulness and diversity. I have thought about this discomfort many times during my life so I was surprised by the internal dialogue I experienced during the conferences many poignant sessions. I felt a myriad of emotions. At times I felt validated and motivated while at other times I felt exposed and vulnerable. I felt both hopeful and apprehensive.

During the opening Selma Fraiberg Colloquium, I was blown away at learning how IMH has evolved in 40 years. Often I have felt a bit of distance with the origins of the IMH model. Selma, being a trailblazer and the creator of a new way of working with very young children and their families, birthed a movement in what I assumed was a suburban middle-class living room. I struggled with how this model could be effective in urban and rural poverty-stricken areas where there are so many risks besides the relationship. I hadn’t fully understood how IMH was designed for at-risk infants and families of all socio-economic levels. Michael Trout described a model that addresses many risk factors and offered a framework about how to think about our work. He talked about Selma’s attention to detail about what is seen, heard and felt. Considering how Selma taught us mindfulness without even calling it that, I thought about our responsibility to be mindful of the relationship we are working with as well as to be mindful about what we bring to our relationship with the family. Although we may not be able to identify with every person’s experience of gender, race, class and sexuality, we can be attuned and generous with our ability to be present and to hold their feelings when we consistently practice mindfulness.

The next session that profoundly impacted me was Dr. Marva Lewis’ presentation, “Translating Culturally Valid Research into Evidence-Based Community Interventions: Successful Steps along the Nappy-Haired Road.” I had prickly feelings down my back and knots in my stomach just reading the title, which embodied so much of my anxiety about the concepts of mindfulness and diversity. I didn’t want my internal “secrets” and insecurities discussed in an open forum. I wasn’t ready. Just the words “nappy hair” reminded me of those times sitting between my mother’s knees, flinching at every brush stroke. Yet I feel that if I have a responsibility to bring awareness and understanding to issues of other races and socio-economic classes, as an African-American woman I also have a responsibility to expose my feelings about my race and culture. So even though the topic of nappy hair, which I have had all my life, wasn’t one I wanted out in the open, I was happy that Dr. Lewis offered affirming words and cited scientific research about the wonderful phenomena of hair. My tender-headed self was validated, but I also saw that people who looked nothing like me and with whom I thought had nothing in common have a similar tension about their hair. It was a leveling of the playing field.

In the Gregory A. Proulx, PhD plenary address, Intentional Practice for Change: Mindfulness Supports Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Practice in Partnership with the Diversity-Informed Infant Mental Health Tenets, Kandace Thomas M.P.P., stated that it takes personal commitment, conscious effort, and intentional resource allocation to implement diversity, inclusion and equity principles into our spheres of practice. I am reminded how intentional and deliberate the mind and process has to be in order for mindfulness to take place. Consequently, it will take intention and deliberate efforts for our beloved IMH to fully be a diversity-informed practice. It’s a practice, to be sure, just like a doctor’s practice. It’s not an arrival — we don’t always get it right — but as Kandace stated, it’s a benchmark, a standard for us to strive for.

I am returning from this conference with a more developed internal framework for mindfulness and diversity. It is not something that must necessarily educate others, but it is the lens with which I will look at myself and explore how my experiences impact my beliefs, attitudes and interactions. These are things I have to be aware of and I will strive to exemplify mindfulness of myself and others in my everyday interactions with clients, staff, families and administration. It is not a hat I can put on and take off. It must begin with the very first tenet of diversity-informed infant mental health, which is that self-awareness leads to better services for families. As a professional in this field, I feel the obligation to be self-reflecting and culturally informed across all-isms and phobias. Additionally, my commitment is to the families we serve, the systems we work within, and the policies that affect the most vulnerable.

In the last session of the last day, the question was asked, “Why in 2017 are we still having these conversations?” But then she looked out at the audience, which included a new generation of African-American clinicians, and told them that they are the first generation of blacks born with all their rights intact. True words! So here we are, and a new dialogue and new responsibilities begin:

Babies still need a voice.

Native Americans are still being violated.

Women are still not paid equally to men.

African Americans still bear the burden racism.

Hate crimes still happen.

There are disparities in infant mortality due to race.

There is still so much work to be done.

Mindfulness and diversity: The saga — and the opportunities — continue.