Creating an inclusive culture at Fountain House

Posted on July 24, 2020

Dear Fountain House members and staff,

Over the past few months, our lives have been disrupted in extraordinary ways that have been painful, challenging, but also enlightening. We have witnessed inequality in our country grow as a result of COVID-19, with the disease disproportionately impacting people of color, and its insidious economic harms - from housing to employment - also targeting them and other low-wealth and marginalized people unequally. Meanwhile, the murder of George Floyd and others by police, and ensuing protests, have once again laid bare the systemic racism that has plagued our country since its founding. Our resolve at Fountain House in response to this urgent societal upheaval is to examine our own culture, hold ourselves accountable, to take action, and to build the just, inclusive, and equitable organization and society we want for our present and our future.

As the first person of color to lead Fountain House in its 72-year history, this was a priority on my list of objectives upon entering the organization, and I was aware that my appointment had the potential to become a catalyst for change. But I had hoped we would come to this point in a deliberate way. And while I have written about the particular time from both a personal perspective,  as well as an organizational one, this urgent moment – and our community, of which most of our members are people of color – demands not just words, but action, and to begin that action now.

I am writing today about some of those actions - the very early steps we are taking, and what we plan going forward. I commit to keeping our entire community informed and involved - and participating, throughout.

Here’s how we are starting:

Building an Inclusive, Anti-Racist Organization

  • Many nonprofits like ours that are dedicated to doing good and important work in the social justice sector are legacy white, liberal institutions. Reckoning with that, and what it means for governance, recruitment, and staffing at all levels - board, senior staff, program staff - as well as how to lean forward into being an anti-racist organization, requires work.  While systemic racism is appropriately front-of-mind in our nation, this is also an opportunity to examine inclusivity and equity in the broader sense as well of historically marginalized people, including LGBTQ, women, and people with disabilities.  Doing this demands both time and treasure- and we have board support to commit resources to do this right.

Expertise

  • We recognize that we need outside expertise to help us confront our history, and to define our future. We have identified and are reaching out to several Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)/Race, Equity and Inclusion (REI) organizational specialists to support this effort, but we also encourage your suggestions for consultants, should you have them.

Education

  • We want to jump-start our education. A working group of senior leaders and directors are committing to the 21-Day Challenge. We encourage others throughout the organization to do the same. We all have work to do, and it begins with educating ourselves as individuals. While no means complete, this is a start.

Inclusion and Representation

  • We will be establishing a DEI committee of voices both within and external to our community to uncover opportunities to make our community more inclusive across the spectrum of diversity at FH and in society, including racial and ethnic diversity, sexual orientation and gender identification, and those with different and special abilities and needs, just to name a few groups. In addition to the DEI committee, we will offer opportunities for candid feedback and conversations for the broader staff and member population. 
  • Voices from all across the FH spectrum, from member, to staff, to senior leadership, to Board, must be represented in this process, with a specific emphasis on people directly affected by racism and other forms of discrimination. For FH to be an organization where EVERYONE feels safe, respected, heard, and valued, we need EVERYONE to be represented in this process.

Advocacy

  • Our membership has identified multiple issues at the intersection of racial justice and mental health, and we are creating a policy and advocacy platform that will support clubhouse members at Fountain House and across the country to advocate for systemic change.
  • We are starting with what has been front and center - policing. People with mental illness account for nearly a quarter of fatal police shootings across the country. Here in NYC, of the 19 people with mental illness shot in the past 5 years by the police, 16 of those were people of color, and 15 of those ended fatally. As you know, in 2016, Fountain House member Deborah Danner was tragically added to the list of those killed by police. As most of you are aware (and hopefully saw), we had a public briefing on this topic. Our relationship to this issue is the reason we are a part of the citywide efforts alongside CCIT-NYC to advocate for removing law enforcement from mental health crisis response and, instead, replacing them with special mental health teams which consist of a peer (a person with lived experience) and an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).

Values

  • While we certainly do not have all of the answers on what our transformation into an anti-racist and just organization will look like in terms of process, structure or timeline, we are committed to a process that is guided by a set of core values, including:
  1. Transparency - we will go on this journey, together, and will be in regular communication and consultation with all of you about directions and decisions. Nothing about you without you.
  2. Boldness - our goals should be clear, measurable, and ambitious. We’re not here to simply “tick a box” or to think incrementally. We’re here to fundamentally transform ourselves for the collective good, which means setting a high bar and a high standard for ourselves and for our objectives; as ambitious as those we’re setting out as an overall organization and for our impact on mental health in the world.
  3. Humility - We have a lot of work to do to eradicate and dismantle racism as a society and at Fountain House. Racist processes and structures may not have been built intentionally, but they are a product of a wider culture of structural racism in which we exist, which, of course, also manifest in disparities in mental health services.  And at Fountain House, we have gathered and will continue to gather information on policies and practices that require change. There is much to do, but we approach it ready to put in the work and to learn. We must all make that commitment to each other in this process, as well, as we all come to it from different starting places, experience, and education.
  4. Safety - This is difficult work, and could unearth traumas and triggers from the past, some unrelated to Fountain House at all. We commit to creating a safe culture and a safe space for these difficult conversations, especially for people with lived experience of racism and other forms of discrimination. As a learning organization, we also commit to creating safety for people to make mistakes and to learn, as they embark on this work. Not everyone will say the right thing, the right way, all of the time. We commit to educating and redirecting in these instances, not canceling and shunning our community members. This is not a license to introduce racism or discrimination into this discourse, but if, in good faith, words are used that engender anger or offense, we will deal with it openly, honestly, and with a spirit of failing forward.
  5. Perseverance - This will not be easy. And it will not be clean. But we commit to push on and push through to get us to the other side, and to a better future that lies ahead. We will not give up on this work, no matter how long it takes.

Fountain House has a 72-year history of advancing and advocating for rights and for inclusion of people living with mental illness. This is the next step on the journey toward full civic inclusion and civil rights for our community and for the wider world. We cannot build a world in which the marginalized and overlooked are regarded with dignity and respect and receive equal rights, if we are also not addressing underlying racism and injustice at the core of inequity in our society and in our organization. So, together, in the coming weeks and months, we will discover what it means to transform our community and to create a new culture of inclusion at Fountain House. I look forward to engaging you all in this essential work.

Wishing you all peace, safety, health and love.

 

Ashwin Vasan, MD, PhD
President and CEO
Fountain House

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