This blog is managed and maintained by staff at Access to Independence working on the Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative. The words, views, and values presented herein are not necessarily representative of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Discussion and conversation around the topics of systemic oppression and specifically anti-black systemic racism have been happening with increasing regularity after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police as we confront the racism that is baked into every aspect of United States society. As these conversations occur and as we educate ourselves on white supremacist culture, systemic racism, and what it means to be anti-racist, it can be easy to want to jump into it all and take on big projects and advocacy work. Before we can begin to do all of that, however, a crucial step is to take some time to reflect on a personal, programmatic, organizational, and systemic level about the role that we all play in perpetuating these harmful systems. That includes us here at the Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative examining how this program has perpetuated systemic racism.

Taking Responsibility and Identifying Harm Done

To start, and to be clear, this will not just be a laundry list of ways the program has caused harm. Additionally, this post is not meant to serve as a condemnation of those who worked on this program before us or to shame them for decisions that were made. It’s also important to note, I think, that aside from how his program has perpetuated systemic racism, I have personally been taking time to reflect on the ways in which I have caused harm in both my personal and professional lives. Additionally, I’ve been exploring how I can grow in order to reduce the harm I will inevitably cause moving forward.

Tim is smiling in the Access to Independence parking lot, wearing a pink t-shirt with a heart on it. He has sleave tattoos and glasses.

A June photo of Tim in the Access to Independence parking lot.

The Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative has existed for approximately 12 years and in that time has played a massive role in the development and growth of the professional peer workforce here in Wisconsin. It has contributed to increased recognition of and respect for the voices of people with mental health and substance use lived experiences and continues to push the behavioral healthcare system forward in its provision of services. That being said, it’s important to also recognize that when I say that it has done these things, they have always been through the lens of white women and now, a white-passing man. No matter how we may try to speak on behalf of those with lived experience, without ever having had a Black person or a person of color leading this initiative, it’s impossible for the voices of those communities to be fully heard or accurately represented.

This is also true when we attempt to examine the demographic makeup of the CPS and CPPS workforce. Since its inception over a decade ago, the Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative has never collected demographic data on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc. This being the case, no reliable data related to the workforce can be found. This is racist in and of itself as it makes it extremely easy to ignore the issue of workforce diversity, because without the data there is no way for anyone to claim that there’s a problem in the first place, and so it has long been ignored. Although this data isn’t available, we can see from employer feedback, training observation, and comparable date from related behavioral health professions that the CPS and CPPS workforce is made up primarily of straight, cisgender, white women.

As I mentioned, this is a trend seen in other behavioral health and “helping professions” so it is unsurprising; however, the fact that nothing has been done to address this inequity is disappointing to say the least. The Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative has only ever hosted and funded two community-specific CPS trainings and has no mechanisms in place in order to promote and support Black, Indigenous, and participants of color engaging with trainings at an equitable or representative rate to their white counterparts. This has led, and continues to lead to, a workforce that is out of balance with the communities that are being served, and plays a role in continuing the “helping professions’” habit of engaging in white saviorism.

The recent work on the revision of the CPS curriculum has shone a light on another aspect of the program with which we continue to struggle: the topic and presentation of “cultural competency.” While revising the curriculum we worked hard to make adjustments and improvements throughout, and “cultural competency” was one major topic where we struggled with pushing the boundaries and finding ways to weave cultural understanding into the entire curriculum. We were hesitant to push too far on topics such as racism, power and privilege, for fear of making participants uncomfortable, not being able to go deep enough into the topics, among other reasons. While certainly an improvement over what’s currently in the CPS curriculum, the “cultural competency” piece of the revised curriculum could have been made more robust and could have taken a stronger stance on issues of systemic oppression and racism than what made it into the final version.

All of this is to say, the Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative, and myself as the Program Manager, have a lot of work to do.

Moving Forward Intentionally and Seeking to Do Better

A close up photo of a person working on a laptop and smart phone. Their hands are darker in skin tone and have painted finger nails. A pair of glasses and a coffee cup are resting next to the laptop. Text reads, “Certified Peer Specialist Training of the Trainer - August 26th-28th & August 31st-September 2nd - Held Online - Apply now! Applications close at 4:30pm on Monday, July 20th, 2020 - Our logo is in the lower left hand corner.

We are offering a Certified Peer Specialist Training of the Trainer this summer. We are specifically hoping to center inclusion, accessiblity, and an anti-oppression, anti-racist approach in this offering. We strongly encourage those that identify as part of a marginalized community to apply.

Both Brittyn and I are currently working to address some of the pieces that I talked about above. Demographic information will soon be a part of the CPS and CPPS training applications, the CPS and CPPS trainers have been tasked with engaging in co-conspirator and anti-racist training to better support marginalized participants, we have been meeting with various community leaders to learn how different communities would like their needs met by this program, and we have been engaging with anti-racist and anti-oppression training and education ourselves. Additionally, we have plans for the coming year to do community-specific trainings and to host a CPS Training of the Trainers targeting members of marginalized communities.

These steps that I’m taking to move the program in a more equitable direction are just first steps, and one year of working to address racism and inequities within the Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative cannot undo over a decade of denying or ignoring them. It will take years of work, community collaboration, training and education, regular reflection, and intentional efforts from all of us working on the Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative in order to shift the way this program works, the goal being that anti-racist approaches are ingrained into all aspects of this initiative.

While I will try to hold myself and this initiative accountable, no program nor system should hold such responsibility alone. I invite the CPS and CPPS communities to play a role in ensuring this program is living up to the values of anti-racism, accountability, transparency, and equity. I look forward to continuing to learn and grow, and working to move towards a more equitable and accessible program for anyone interested in becoming a CPS or CPPS in Wisconsin.

On a final note, I realize this post has focused on how I see this initiative has perpetuated systemic racism. I want to invite anyone who is Black, Indigenous, or a person of color to reach out to us if they would like to give voice to aspects of this perpetuation we have missed or do not touch on here. We especially offer this invitation if you have been personally harmed by the ways in which this program has perpetuated systemic racism throughout the years.


Helpful Resources:

Please check out the links highlighted in the article earlier for more information on white saviorism and an anti-racist training we have had our non-BIPOC CPS and CPPS trainers attend.

We would also like to share the following panel that was hosted by the UW-Madison School of Social Work on June 26th of this year. This panel features Certified Peer Specialist leaders in Wisconsin, primarily including Black and Brown Certified Peer Specialists as they discuss peer support in relation to calls to defund police and better support people with “lived experience.” Click here for the recorded video.


Carmella Glenn, CPS, Program Coordinator, Just Bakery/Madison area Urban Ministry

Tim Saubers, CPS, Peer Specialist Program Manager, Access to Independence

Tara Wilhelmi,CPS, Founder of EOTO, LLC

Dani Rischall, LCSW, Chrysalis Executive Director (UW-Madison BSW Alum 2007)

Lastly, we want to thank Urban Triage and Freedom Inc. in Madison for the amazing work and education they have been offering on how to more effectively engage in anti-racist work as individuals and organizations. We recommend you check them out.

This blog is managed and maintained by staff at Access to Independence working on the Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative. The words, views, and values presented herein are not necessarily representative of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

What a June this has been.

I reflect today on my experience of Pride Month in this turbulent year. I think of the June 15th Supreme Court decision that advanced the needle towards justice in regards to LGBTQ+ workers’ rights by stating clearly that it is sex discrimination to fire people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. I think of mass uprisings and collective efforts against ongoing racial injustice, systemic racism, and a long history of police violence in the United States experienced in particular by Black communities. I think of the tens of thousands of people who rallied across the country in defense of Black transgender lives a little over a week ago.

I’m a white, queer, and transgender woman. This month’s Pride seems to be much less about rainbow flags and corporate pinkwashing (though that is still seen everywhere) and much more about honoring the roots and lessons of LGBTQ+ liberation efforts in the United States, efforts so often led by Black and Brown trans people, especially trans women. There is still pride, and there is also righteous rage, dancing (though much of the dancing I’ve seen has been in reclaimed city streets and autonomous zones rather than clubs), and joyful resistance. This is not the usual Pride that centers white LGBTQ+ people, people like me, and I’m here for it. I’m here for it, because a world that only recognizes the lived experiences of some and the dignity of some, ends up harming all of us.

Intersecting Justice and Liberation Movements with Peer Support

The movements that sought to broaden access to peer support for those in contact with the mental health and substance use service systems were inspired by and learned lessons from movements that also recognized the interconnectedness of different struggles for justice and liberation. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” are oftentimes seen on banners at disability rights marches and spoken in the circles of self-described psychiatric survivors.

People who had experienced institutionalization, loss of social connections, and/or forceful and coercive treatment because of their lived experiences of intense emotional states, struggles with substance use, or mental health status recognized the value of peer support. Peer support has been a tool of survival in a difficult world for so many. Connecting with others who have “been there” offers so much of value in a world that is reluctant to believe the words and experiences of “crazy people.”

Today’s state-Certified Peer Specialists have somewhat radical elders to thank for broader access to peer support services today. And yet, we have so far to go in making the peer support workforce and the supports we offer an actually trauma-informed, validating, and safer space for anyone other than white, straight, and cisgender people. Our movement and workforce has not done enough to honor and understand intersecting levels of systemic oppression, center anti-racism, and support LGBTQ+ people with “lived experience.”

I have to pause and admit something. I am one of two people working at Access to Independence on the Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative contract. I work Monday through Friday to support the continued expansion and improvement of Certified Peer Specialists and Certified Parent Peer Specialists and their peer support offerings in Wisconsin. All this is true, and I would feel very hesitant about personally seeking out peer support from any CPS or CPPS in Wisconsin who is not also transgender.

My experience as a trans woman is such that when I have sought out peer support in the past, I found myself in the role of having to constantly educate people on how to show basic respect for me and other trans people. The amount of time I have spent trying to educate people on the importance of respecting and using a person’s expressed pronouns is disheartening. The reluctance so many organizations and agencies have in finding alternatives to calling 911 on people experiencing emotional distress or navigating suicidal feelings greatly scares me as a trans person.

I also believe we have a peer support community and movement on a national scale that seems much more focused on approaching people who have repeatedly caused harm to trans people with curiosity, validation, and affirmation rather than a commitment to trauma-informed, inclusive, and healing environments for those who experience various intersecting levels of oppression. This is one reason I signed an open-letter that speaks to how we approach transphobia in our movement, workforce, and communities.

Brittyn sitting next to her car. She is wearing a "Trans Rights are Human Rights" button and there is a trans pride unicorn bumper sticker in the photo.

Brittyn sitting in the parking lot of Access to Independence next to her car. She wears a “Trans Rights are Human Rights” pin and is flanked by a trans pride unicorn bumper sticker.

The circumstances that led me to signing that letter, are the same circumstances that have resulted in me feeling safest and most seen in receiving peer support from other trans people. For anyone who knows me, you might have heard me talk about Trans Lifeline. Trans Lifeline is a peer support resource composed of, operated by, and existing for trans people. Peerness is defined in our shared lived experience as trans people, not by being people with experience navigating mental health or substance use. Trans Lifeline is also one of the few peer support resources in the United States with an expressed commitment to not engage in non-consensual active rescue. Since their founding, they have been divested from the police. That means that if you call Trans Lifeline and you are in crisis, they will not call 911 or the police — unless you explicitly ask them to.

This commitment to no-nonsense informed-consent is a basic requirement for safety and a trauma-informed approach to peer support in my book. It’s the ability to define what safety means to me – not to have someone else make that decision. It’s also a basic component of earning trust and supporting the growth of a genuine relationship of mutual support and respect.


Envisioning Something Better

As I reflect on this Pride Month, my queerness and transness, and the future of peer support, I also think of where we can go from here. With widespread calls to defund police and truly invest in people and communities, in healthcare, housing, education, and other basic needs for our communities, there are also calls for more peer support and mental health resources. Yet, many peer support programs operate within the mental health and substance use service systems, systems that many understand to perpetuate systemic racism, and all too often rely on methods of force, coercion, and calling in the police “for our own good.”

I think there is something to be said for re-thinking what makes one a “peer” with another. For some, a meaningful sense of peerness can be found in the shared lived experience of navigating mental health and/or substance use. For others, like me, there may be some other shared lived experience that serves to facilitate a peer connection. That may be a shared experience of Blackness, Indigeneity, transness, disability, and so on.

We see new approaches to the definition of “peer” already in organizations like Trans Lifeline and in peer support resources made by and for veterans. The answer to this question perhaps doesn’t have to be an either/or solution, but our workforce is overwhelmingly composed of white, middle-aged women currently, especially when it comes to those in supervisory or decision-making positions. The composition of our peer workforce and leadership, those serving on committees, drafting organizational policies and procedures, and any systems oversight in our field needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

Four buttons Brittyn picked up at the INAPS conference in San Diego. One reads in black and white, "Fuck Racism." Another has a cat and says, "Fuck your 'help,' it was my cat who saved my life. Anther reads, "Calling the cops on a person because they're in distress = a threat of violence," and it has 911 crossed out. The last one reads, "Silence is the voice of complicity."

Some buttons that Brittyn picked up at the National Association of Peer Supporters Conference in San Diego last fall (October 2019).

Is it enough for peer support professionals to be “in but not of” the mental health and substance use service systems? Was that phrase ever really true? By being in these systems, we are still immersed in and affected by the systemic racism and oppressive nature of such systems. I highly recommend that people read the article, “We Don’t Need Cops to Become Social Workers: We Need Peer Support + Community Response Networks.”


I want to be clear here, we can’t meaningfully improve peer support and operate business as usual. If we want to create a world that better supports Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), as well as transgender people, others in the LGBTQ+ spectrum, disabled people, and all those who experience unique levels of systemic oppression, we should be listening to, learning from, and centering the voices of BIPOC people, BIPOC trans people, BIPOC queer people, BIPOC disabled people, and so on. In many ways, these communities and peoples have survived because of peer support, but it wasn’t the peer support we were offering.


It’s linked here earlier in the article, but I specifically would ask that people check out the following video that Freedom Inc. put together about the Stonewall Uprising and how Black & POC members of the LGBTQI+ community continue to fight for liberation: Queer Power Rising video – click here

Also, I am looking forward to an upcoming panel that is being hosted by the UW-Madison School of Social Work this Friday, June 26th from 12-1:30pm Central time. This panel features Certified Peer Specialist leaders in Wisconsin, primarily including Black and Brown Certified Peer Specialists as they discuss peer support in relation to calls to defund police and better support people with “lived experience.”


Carmella Glenn, CPS, Program Coordinator, Just Bakery/Madison area Urban Ministry

Tim Saubers, CPS, Peer Specialist Program Manager, Access to Independence

Tara Wilhelmi,CPS, Founder of EOTO, LLC

Dani Rischall, LCSW, Chrysalis Executive Director (UW-Madison BSW Alum 2007)

For more information and a link to view the discussion, click here.