From Washington Park Beat May-June 2008

Gregory Stanford: Profile of Success

By Patricia Obletz

Of all the subjects Milwaukee’s award-winning journalist, Gregory Stanford, covered, from the Civil Rights Movement to education, housing, welfare, and much more, he neither spoke about nor wrote about his childhood struggle in a racist society. It’s fitting then that his first beat for the old Milwaukee Journal in 1970 was the Civil Rights Movement as it played out in city streets.

After 36 years, Greg Stanford retired from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last December to work on books, science fiction and journalism. You may already know that he taught journalism, including a course on race and journalism at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; organized and ran a writing workshop for middle school students; member, Advisory Board of Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University; former president for the Wisconsin Black Media Association, a chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.

What you may not know is that Greg grew up on the south-east side of Washington, DC, in a neighborhood named for a Civil War fort, Ft. Stanton. His was a safe childhood in an isolated, small, solidly black community surrounded by woods and a huge playground. He, his siblings and friends played when and where they wanted, when they were free. They had cookouts in the woods and, in the old fort, which actually was a cave, they found shells shot from Civil War guns. Their informal troupe also collected bottles, which they hiked to a distant store, earning enough to buy hot dogs, buns and cupcakes. Back in the woods, they’d build a fire and cook their feast.

Greg also devoted time to his first love: reading and writing. One of his favorite things was the four-mile round-trip hike to the library, giving him time alone to think about things and, while cutting through the woods, to pretend he was Robin Hood, among other heroes.

Greg’s generosity of spirit radiates in the warmth of his compassion, wit, and brilliance, his ready laughter. Greg said, “My parents sacrificed themselves to send their kids to parochial school. They knew that education was the best way to prosper in life. My parents were part of an amazing generation of black people, who worked hard and went without to improve the lot of their children.

Taking the best interests of children to heart

“My mother, Juanita, had a full-time job plus five kids — I’m number two. She worked hard all day and then came home and cooked for all of us.

“My teachers were nuns at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School; they were my first experience with white people. They were kind and encouraging. You could tell they had our best interests at heart. They had the ability to connect with the students and make sure they understand their schoolwork, which is the essence of what teaching is all about.

“The church basement school was so small that teachers taught two grades at a time. Despite this inferior structure, we still got a good education.

“Before sending my kids to school, I thoroughly investigated them. I was skeptical about the ability of the teaching standards to ferret out good teachers. I tend to blame the system, not the teachers in the system. A lot of bad teachers are just burnt out due to the system.

“As a reporter, after Milwaukee public schools reinstated the algebra requirement, I talked to the principal at North Division High School. He said that, of five algebra teachers, four had students whose grades and attendance rates were getting worse and worse. But the fifth teacher’s student scores and attendance rates were getting better and better. The principal said he asked the first four, how come? They said she was ‘faking the grades.’

“I visited these teachers, saying nothing about my talk with the principal. When I asked how the algebra thing was coming, the four whose kids weren’t doing well were older, white teachers, who said that the kids don’t have time to do algebra, they don’t get it, so they don’t do well, and get dispirited. The teacher whose students were improving was black and much younger than the others, in her 20s; she wasn’t charismatic. But she was dedicated. Initially, she was very disappointed with her students’ work and began searching for better methods of teaching. She found a computer program that helped her students learn more easily, but she was still looking for other effective tactics.

“To be a good teacher, you’ve got to want to teach, you have to care about making sure that your students learn, and earn their way into the next grade. But education colleges have come under criticism for not addressing the problems in urban schools. They need to rectify this issue.

“I’m not sure that caring about your students can be taught.

“Unlike a lot of kids today, I had good role models, a good grounding at home and at school. My mother came from a middle class background in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father was a bricklayer, which was a money-maker in those days. Her mother took care of us in addition to venturing into other lines of work, including owning and operating a variety store. They owned their own house and lived across the street from the richest black man in America, A. G. Gaston, who made his money in insurance.

“In contrast, my father Amos grew up dirt poor with 10 siblings in little more than a shack. He used to say that I owed my life to the fact he couldn’t afford shoes one year. So he had to skip school that year. He met my mother in the class he had to make up.

Think things through before leaping.

“The thing about my father is that he was extremely bright and ambitious, an A student and class valedictorian. He forced me to be logical by demanding logical reasons for everything I did, which made me think things through before leaping. He would have made an excellent lawyer.

“My parents moved to Washington, DC, to escape the repression and the lack of decent-paying jobs for black people in Birmingham. While in DC, my father decided to take a few night courses.

“He became a police officer for awhile, a cab driver for a long while, and during my childhood, he started his own business, which didn’t start making it until after I left home. By the time he retired, he owned several apartment buildings.

“I wouldn’t have minded growing up pampered, but growing up poor didn’t hurt me. Although, in retrospect, I grew up thinking we were really poor because my mother was used to having more stuff.

“My mother was a clerk for the Pentagon. She was a victim of discrimination, I think. White folks in her position seemed to move up faster than she did.

“I was about six when I became aware of color-consciousness. I remember running home from school, climbing onto my mother’s lap, crying. I kept saying that all the important people seemed to be white. And all the unimportant people seemed to be black. My skin was dark, which is probably why I was crying.

“She said that what’s inside is what counts, but I couldn’t believe her: In 1952, everybody on TV was white, except Amos and Andy.

“In my heart back then, I still thought I’d be more deserving if my skin were lighter. I was just reflecting back what the world was telling me: if you’re dark-skinned, you’re no good.

“Color discrimination wasn’t just white and black. There was differentiation of skin color within the black race. Light skin seemed to be prized and dark skin was something to be ashamed of. I didn’t really believe that I was inferior. I just knew that the white world believed I was inferior.

“The Black Consciousness movement was a reaction to that thinking in the 1960s. But in the 1950s, the middle class in the black race still tended to be lighter-skinned, which was true for my mother. And my father was dark, and poor.

“A whole lot of people had that moment of trauma that I had at age six. My parents loved and respected me, making me feel good about myself. And my teachers inspired and encouraged me. I’m not all that rare in having such people. Protecting children from the sting of racism was the rule among grownups when I was growing up.

“Racism is a national sickness, which affects all Americans one way or another. Every American has to wrestle with its effects if he or she wants to overcome them. My encounter with racism was by no means unique.

“It’s said that black people don’t do well on tests, but I’m one of those who does better on tests than in class. Maybe I see things more clearly when they’re written down — my dad did drill me in logic, which also helped me duke it out intellectually with anybody of any skin color.
Antidote to Discrimination

“The world today is different, but I think the message still exists that darker skinned people are inferior to lighter skinned people. The antidote to this struggle is for parents to raise their kids to be strong by encouraging them and making sure they get good educations instead of prison terms.

“I think today’s generation has it tougher than my generation had. It’s more violent, which is a result of, to put it simply, racism. The increased presence of guns also adds to the violence, I believe. The rise of the prison system on a number of levels has taken the place of a good education.

“We need more black voices to tell the true story of America, including the people who have different views of current events. That’s why the Wisconsin Black Media Association established the Gregory Stanford Scholarship Fund. The high school winner of the annual essay contest receives $500. Unfortunately, it’s just $500 for the first year. The hope is to increase that amount.

“I got into journalism because my teachers gave me good feedback on my writing, but I wasn’t sure about this path — I scored in the 99th percentile in math. However, my senior year math teacher turned me off that course. I went to St. John’s High School in northwest Washington, DC, an hour and a half ride each way on the bus. Whereas my grade school was all black, my high school was almost all white.

“My guidance counselor said that the only Catholic college with an accredited journalism school was Marquette University. Once I came to Milwaukee in 1964, it became home.

“There’s a sense that black people do worse in Milwaukee than elsewhere. I was the first one to report on this. About half of the black kids drop out of high school here. Many of them get into trouble and are troubled.

“Most black kids early on have to grapple with racism; they have to face the white assumption of superiority over African Americans. I still have to remind myself sometimes that I deserve the same respect a similarly situated white person would get.

“People of every skin color end up wrestling with an inferiority complex when someone or some thing degrades them. Young children don’t discriminate on bases of race or wealth. Life is scary for everybody. Those people who can afford it, mostly white, get psychotherapy to help them overcome fear by addressing it.

“Whites with a superiority complex also have a problem, since, in my estimation, feelings of inferiority drive the need to feel superior.

“Black people still get the message from the media that white is superior. Coping in a racist society that denies its racism is difficult to overcome. Things are better today, but America still has deep pockets of cultural insensitivity. To dismiss real pain and cause for fear is harmful, not just to African Americans, but to everyone.”


The Universality of Mental Illnesses

By Patricia Obletz

Stress, tension, fear. These are universal aspects of human nature. When they become severe and persistent, one in four people, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, experience a brain chemical imbalance, which manifests itself in anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Much has been in the media lately about mental health issues. Stigma directs some of this by continuing to push too much damaging misinformation on mental conditions that affect individuals, societies and human evolution. Stigma still has the power to make too many people think that these brain conditions are shameful signs of some kind of sin, character flaw or joke. It makes them unwilling to risk admitting their conditions for fear of rejection by their family, friends, and employer.

Still too many people have no idea that life can feel so much better once medical specialists teach them how to identify and manage their mental health symptoms. Treatment is education no less vital than literacy, math skills and the visual and performing arts.

In the March 11 New York Times, David Kohn wrote about treating anxiety, alcoholism and depression in India. His article “Psychotherapy for All: An Experiment” told us that “Severe depression can be as disabling as . . . malaria and prevents subsistence farmers from getting out of bed to feed their children.”

Kohn’s portrait of India reveals that there are only 4,000 psychiatrists for one billion people, most living in rural areas. With psychiatrists available only in cities, 80 percent to 90 percent of people in depression in rural areas receive negligible treatment. Dr. Vikram Patel of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine initiated a program for the one in three adults visiting public health clinics who exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety and addiction.

Talk therapy and antidepressants lead to significant improvement.

Dr. Patel, knowing that talk therapy and antidepressants produce marked improvement in most patients, hired 12 recent high school and college graduates. Six “health assistants” received a week of training, and six “health counselors” had three months of training. The assistants screen patients, questioning them about physical symptoms and emotional problems. Those who exhibit signs of a mental illness are referred to counselors. These counselors then explain what depression and anxiety are and what treatments are available, such as talk therapy, yoga and doctor prescribed antidepressants.

To skirt the stigma of mental illnesses, as strong in India as it is in Milwaukee and around the world, health workers use words such as strain and tension rather than depression or anxiety. When people can’t or won’t share their concerns within their communities, therapy can be highly effective.

Interpersonal conflicts, persistent poverty and addictions aren’t the only cause of mental illnesses. Thirty percent of U.S. soldiers return from futile battles with post traumatic stress disorder, among other combat-triggered mental illnesses.

All US women soldiers return from war with a mental illness

Carl Bogar of the Veteran’s Office in Racine, Wis., County Workforce Development Center, said that every woman soldier returns from the Mid-East with posttraumatic stress disorder. It’s been known by many names throughout history; after World War II, it was called “shellshock.”

The symptoms of PTSD manifest in many people who experience rape; any act of atrocity by individuals, gangs and armies; natural disasters; and accidents. Symptoms include inability to concentrate; outbursts of anger; recurring nightmares; flashbacks; withdrawal from activities and people; and inability to overcome anxiety, substance abuse and sleeplessness, or hold a job. These symptoms also trigger severe and persistent illnesses, such as suicidal depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and panic.

According to author Dr. Joy DeGruy-Leary, people born black in developed countries can get PTSD. She has a Bachelor of Science in Communications, Masters in Social Work and Psychology, PhD in Social Work and Research, and is assistant professor at Portland State University.

In her recent book “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing,” Dr. Leary reported that mid-1800s U.S. white people rationalized abusing their slaves by passing a law that defined African-Americans as beings less than human. By the mid-1800s, whites also had produced 600,000 mixed race children.

Dr. Leary found that black children in ghettos today express the same behaviors she’d experienced as an African-American child, as had her “peers, friends and neighbors in the Hood.” Her conclusions also were drawn from the stories of slaves “already out there,” which she compiled for her book.

Dr. Leary determined that all black people everywhere in the developed world share the legacy of “oppression, racism and racist superiority” in one form or another.

“Hundreds of years of unpaid labor, subjugation and persecution guaranteed that the descendent of whites would have wealth and privilege, and that descendants of Africans would have debt and suffering,” she wrote. Centuries of abuse guaranteed that environmental PTSD has been passed on through time.

Within the black community, she wrote some people believe that lighter-skinned people are better than those with darker skin. “These behaviors suggested to me a level of self-hatred that has never been measured,” she wrote.

It’s also worth repeating that Sen. Barack Obama said that “slavery is America’s original sin” and that white people need to acknowledge that “what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people, that the legacy of discrimination, and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past, that these things are real and must be addressed.” He said that the African-American community needs to accept “the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past.”

Longtime peace activist Randall Robinson believes that racism cannot end until Euro-centric history books are rewritten to include every culture. Another necessity unmet to date.

Another voice to heed is Geoffrey Canada’s, president and CEO of Harlem’s Children’s Zone. He said that poverty breeds illiterate kids and creates a “cradle to prison pipeline.” He also said that 480,000 African-Americans are in prison and that only 40,000 black kids graduate from high school annually.
Charter schools in poorest neighborhoods getting good results.

Mr. Canada also said, “Even higher performing American kids are substandard to kids from China, Germany, Latin America.” He also emphasized that children who can’t read by third grade should be kept in that grade until they can read. Some charter schools are going into the poorest neighborhoods and getting good results.

Mental conditions affect the ability to learn. Did you know that they are more common than cancer, heart disease and diabetes? And 85 percent of those treated recover, which is a higher rate of recovery than that for cancer? At least half of people who need services for these illnesses never get them. Stigma drives them, or insurance denies them, or they have no idea that life can be better once they learn how to moderate their symptoms through talk therapy and sometimes medications.

Informed, reasonable people know that early intervention saves individuals, society and future generations. But all too often, law enforcement becomes the first line of treatment. And yet, the victim of crime is usually the one with a brain chemical imbalance. Twice as many suicides as homicides end up in the morgue.

Perhaps the facts noted above spurred the U.S. House of Representatives into passing at last a mental health parity insurance bill that offers better coverage than the Senate’s version. Washington Park Beat contributing writer Bob Driscoll addresses state and federal parity insurance issues also is on p. 9.

The hope is that the next president will ensure that parity becomes law. And that stigma will become past tense.


Parity April 2008

By Bob Driscoll

In March, after years of resistance, the House of Representatives passed a bill requiring most mental health group plans to cover mental illnesses and addiction on par with physical illnesses. The Senate unanimously passed a similar less stringent parity bill last September. The two houses are expected to work out a compromise bill that mental health advocates hope will become law later this year. President Bush opposed the House bill, saying it’s too costly, but has indicated he will sign a compromise measure.

For the past 13 years, the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) and other advocacy organizations have been trying to persuade the Wisconsin state legislature to pass similar legislation. Wisconsin is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t provide such coverage. Their efforts continue to be thwarted by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), who’ve complained that the measure would drive up insurance premiums for everyone. Earlier this year, however, the Wisconsin State Senate did pass a parity bill, only to have it hung up in the Republican controlled Assembly.
Some parents lose custody of children needing extensive treatment
Without parity, people with mental or substance abuse disorders receive more limited coverage than those with other illnesses. Adults who require treatment beyond the maximums must either pay out of pocket, receive publicly funded services, or go without required treatment. Families with children who need extensive treatment may need to give up custody of their children in order to obtain needed services.
Opponents to parity argue that parity would result in too much of a cost burden for employers. However, the Wisconsin Commissioner of Insurance, PriceWaterhouse Coopers, and the Congressional Budget Office have found otherwise. Parity does not significantly raise insurance costs. And parity merits a mandate.
Underneath the opponents’ rejections of these arguments there is an unseen force at work here: the undertow of stigma, a set of negative attitudes and beliefs that foster fear, rejection, avoidance, and discrimination against people with mental illnesses.

Opponents try to shift the debate from one about people to one about cost. But, ultimately, it shouldn’t be about cost. The most profound toll of untreated mental illness is immeasurable human suffering. Last year, 650 thousand Americans attempted suicide; 30 thousand of them died. Mental disorders were implicated in 90 percent of those instances.

Last year, a Milwaukee woman died of suicide, leaving a note that she had run out of insurance and didn’t want to be a burden on her family. To varying degrees, we are all accessories to her death – the business lobbies which have opposed parity, our elected representatives who have opposed parity, and those of us who have continued to vote these representatives into office.

Last edited by patricia obletz. Based on work by Tyler Schuster.  Page last modified on September 10, 2011

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