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.

Here at the Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative, we believe that quality training and education is a crucial foundation of effective Certified Peer Specialist (CPS) services.

Peer support is a valuable and powerful way of connecting with others through shared lived experience, inspiring hope for the future, and supporting empowered and self-directed change. The principles that Certified Peer Specialists value and the skills most needed in supportive peer relationships are clarified and developed in initial training. They are then expanded upon and honed in our work and continuing education.

In 2016, Wisconsin developed a curriculum that integrated professional peer support competency and training relating to both mental health lived experience and the experience of substance use challenges. As the pilot period for that initial integrated curriculum came to a close, we kick-started the rigorous task of revising the Wisconsin Certified Peer Specialist Curriculum.

Learning from Our Trainers

In February, and again in May, of 2019, the Peer Specialist Program Manager sent a survey, to all 35 Certified Peer Specialist trainers in Wisconsin. The survey was designed by the Peer Specialist Program Manager with input from WI Department of Health Services (DHS) staff in order to gather feedback from the trainers regarding areas and aspects of the pilot CPS Curriculum that they wanted to see revised.

Trainers were asked what they found most effective in the pilot curriculum, what they wanted to see added or removed, and what they found least effective or challenging. 14 trainers completed and returned the survey in this initial step.

On August 6th and 7th 2019, 14 CPS trainers were brought together to begin work on revising the CPS curriculum. In order to participate in the workgroup, trainers were required to have completed and returned the WI Certified Peer Specialist Curriculum Feedback Survey and to have facilitated at least 2 CPS trainings. Trainers were divided into four groups and assigned 3 sections of the curriculum to review in advance.

Trainers remained in their assigned group for facilitated discussion and synthesis of their review of the material. The four groups were facilitated by the Peer Specialist Program Manager and DHS staff. The groups discussed and explored each section they were assigned, after which they shared their feedback with the larger group. Finally, the larger group was given time to add additional feedback. Throughout this process, thorough notes were taken on flip chart paper to account for every piece of feedback.

On August 13th, the Peer Specialist Program Manager and DHS staff met to debrief from the Curriculum Revision Workgroup and to put together a project proposal for review by the Integrated Services Section Chief at DHS. After approval, the feedback gathered from the Curriculum Revision Workgroup was transcribed and condensed into one document to aid in the revision process.

Scott writing on a flip chart during a trainer gathering Tim is in the foreground

Scott Caldwell tried out a section of the revised curriculum with our CPS trainers in September, 2019.

Diving into Revision

On September 3rd, and going until April of 2020, the Peer Specialist Program Manager (Tim), Peer Specialist Program Communications Assistant (myself – Brittyn), and DHS staff set about revising the structure and content of the CPS curriculum. Our core team met 2 – 3 times per week for approximately 7 hours each day to work on revision. Throughout the whole process, the CPS trainers’ feedback and the Wisconsin Certified Peer Specialist Core Competencies were kept close at hand and referred to frequently.

We benefited from the various strengths of all members of this core team throughout the process. Tim and myself brought forward the lens of peer support principles, first-hand experience working as Certified Peer Specialists, experience supervising teams of Certified Peer Specialists, as well as our lived experience. Tim and I also had the benefit of being very familiar with the challenges and successes of training during the pilot period. Cory, the Peer Run Respite & Peer Services Coordinator at DHS, brought a very grounding and methodical approach to the group as we set deadlines, reviewed formatting expectations and guidelines, and worked our way through the project plan. Joann, the Consumer Affairs Coordinator at DHS as well as a Certified Parent Peer Specialist, provided a wealth of experience in advocating within systems and supporting trauma-informed approaches. Scott, also from DHS who has helped with the training of CPS trainers in Wisconsin, offered crucial expertise and insights relating to communication frameworks, implementation science, and effective training elements.

In efforts to get as much input and feedback as possible, a variety of people were brought in to support the team throughout the process in specific content areas covered in the curriculum. These included other DHS staff, CPS trainers, members of the Certified Peer Specialist Advisory Committee, as well as state and national leaders in mental health and substance use. These individuals provided support on topics including:

  • Cultural components and the role of power, privilege, and systemic oppression
  • Effective self-disclosure
  • Functions of diagnosis and labeling lived experience
  • Historical context for Certified Peer Specialists
  • Navigating service systems
  • Spirituality and peer support
  • Substance use recovery supports
  • Harm reduction
  • Supporting people thinking of or considering suicide
  • Values systems and their role in connecting

The team met regularly with the Integrated Services Section Chief throughout the process and provided regular updates to the Certified Peer Specialist Advisory Committee, as well as posting regular updates to the Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative’s social media pages.

Brittyn on left, Joann center, Tim on right smiling for a picture on a revision day

Brittyn (left), Joann (center), and Tim (right) smile for a picture on a January revision day at Access to Independence.

In March and April of 2020, the revision team reviewed changes, made finishing touches, and finally submitted the first draft of the revised CPS curriculum to UW-Milwaukee School of Continuing Education for editing and formatting.

After UW-Milwaukee School of Continuing Education completes its review, the revised CPS curriculum will be submitted to DHS for final review and approval. This is a multi-step process that will also involve the revision team responding to feedback provided by the DHS approval team. Once this process is completed, the revised CPS curriculum will be returned to UW-Milwaukee School of Continuing Education for printing.

Late this summer, a mandatory retraining of the CPS trainers will take place in order to ensure that trainers are prepared to effectively facilitate the revised curriculum.

What’s Different?

Because the revised CPS curriculum is still a draft and is currently in the review process, we can’t share too much about specific changes yet. What we can share is that we are so proud of and grateful for the work that was done and contribution made by so many throughout this revision.

The cover page for the revised CPS curriculum

We believe this revised curriculum will better center peer support principles, clarify the professional role of a Certified Peer Specialist, and prepare people for the workplace, all while supporting effective adult learning. One big improvement is sure to be a reinvigorated focus on effective listening and communication skill-development for Certified Peer Specialists. Other topics such as supporting peers around the topic of suicide, honoring multiple pathways to recovery, spirituality and peer support, and trauma-informed peer support are expanded upon and refreshed to better develop Wisconsin’s valuable Certified Peer Specialist workforce.

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.

We are excited to announce the launch of this blog for current and future Certified Peer Specialists and Certified Parent Peer Specialists in Wisconsin!

This is a place for us to discuss and dive into topics relating to the work of people in peer specialist roles throughout the state. Posts will explore the values and ethics that guide our work, how to approach challenges in the workplace, navigating ethical dilemmas, efforts to offer peer support while acknowledging and honoring the impacts of marginalization and oppression, providing and receiving effective supervision in a peer support role, and more!

Tim and Brittyn will likely author the majority of posts here towards the beginning, though we plan to bring on guest authors and contributors in the future. These people will be mostly Certified Peer Specialists and Certified Parent Peer Specialists throughout the state talking about their work and the important issues they encounter in that work.

Today, we launch our blog with two entries that offer a deeper introduction to Tim and Brittyn, the Peer Specialist Program Manager and Peer Specialist Program Communications Assistant. Throughout the month of May, we will share more on the revision of the Certified Peer Specialist curriculum in Wisconsin, how the Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative is striving towards greater program transparency and accessibility, as well as a general program overview of the Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative and its future direction and vision in this new decade.

We invite you to contact us to let us know what topics you would like to see covered in this blog. If you have questions, it’s possible we can make a blog post about it!

Please, bookmark this page and follow along as we share and learn together. We will also update our social media pages when new posts are published. You can like and follow us on our Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram accounts.

Thank you for visiting today, and happy reading!