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.
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.
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.
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.
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.