Dear Fountain House community,
I hope this message finds you well on this Sunday, usually a day of rest and reflection.
I, myself, have not found today, nor the last several days, to be particularly restful. The tragic murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, following on the heels of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Ahmaud Aubery in Georgia, and the Christian Cooper incident in Central Park this past week, have reminded us that to be Black in America is still criminalized, despite no longer existing in our laws. Countless others have lost their lives needlessly due to violence and racism, including Sandra Bland in Texas and our very own Deborah Danner, killed by police in 2016, both of whom lived with serious mental illness. These innocent victims were killed because they are Black, nothing more, nothing less. All discussion or purported context for these events simply obfuscates the fact that their deaths, and countless other Black lives taken at the hands of law enforcement and other hate crimes, start and end with the color of their skin and the pernicious and permanent stain on a culture that values their lives as less important and less worthy of human dignity than others.
These events, followed by the wave of protests and sometimes violent clashes with police and destruction of property that has engulfed our city and our nation, has left me saddened and angry. And against the backdrop of a global pandemic, a growing recession, unprecedented job losses, a looming rent and eviction crisis, and our fraying safety net, causes me no end of worry and concern for our future. I spent Friday night standing watch on my stoop in Brooklyn, my children asleep inside and oblivious to the world around them as violent clashes between NYPD and protestors took place no more than 200 meters away down my street. This scourge is at our doorstep, embedded in our communities, and endemic to our society. We cannot look away or remain silent.
Some of you may have seen my statement issued on behalf of Fountain House, on Friday, condemning these recent racist murders. Some of you may be asking, “What does this have to do with mental illness?”, or “Why is it the role of Fountain House to speak out on these issues?”. To this, I respond:
- Our jails and prisons are populated with people living with serious mental illness, the majority of whom are people of color, who should be receiving the kind of community-based support Fountain House offers. Think about you or your loved ones who live or have lived with mental illness, and then think about whether you or they were more likely to receive care in the community or the correctional system. I imagine your answer would differ based on the color of your/their skin. It certainly does for most New Yorkers and Americans who face the challenges our members face every day. Mental illness, like every issue in our society, is not immune to racial inequity and injustice.
- Mental illness is not a silo. It does not exist in isolation from other issues and other systems and we cannot treat it as such. Criminal justice and mental health are inextricably linked, and our racist system of mass incarceration is well documented. As is our lack of affordable housing, especially for Black Americans, subsequent homelessness, and its connections with mental illness. Our healthcare system itself is well known to perpetuate racialized health outcomes and quality of care. So we cannot claim that “this is not our lane”. We cannot be single-issue people, nor a single-issue organization, when our country and our society is facing intersectoral challenges that, ultimately, impact our mission and the people and communities we seek to serve.
- This affects all of us. Whether we are members, staff, social practitioners, directors, or any other professional title or tribe we might affiliate with, these recent attacks are an affront to our basic humanity, in which we all share. That is the one inescapable, universal truth that no social construct like race can negate. When we stand up and speak out as humans first, we affirm the humanity of others, especially Black people who continue to have their humanity undermined. Being in this together - taking it upon ourselves to say something and to do something - is the only way social change will be achieved. Martin Luther King, in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.” As a human, a father, son, husband, and as the leader of this great organization, I cannot remain silent. Nor should any of us. If it feels uncomfortable or unfamiliar, that indicates it is a muscle needing to be exercised. As a person of color myself, but who does not have the lived experience of the type of direct and structural racism faced by Black Americans, I too have and continue to educate myself on how to be an effective ally, understanding that the privileges of my community are derived from decades of works done by the Black community to advance justice.
So what can we do? This message is not simply a lament, but rather should serve to stiffen our resolve to make a change, and should stand as a call to action. What you and we can do, together and also in our individual capacities, is to use our respective voices to speak out on the issue and to educate ourselves if we are not directly impacted. We continue the work of Fountain House, which at its core is a fundamental struggle to recognize the humanity of people living with mental illness and work with them to thrive. But we also commit to making Fountain House the kind of organization that leans into advocacy, policy and the political space in our struggle to achieve rights and dignity for all, which are necessary for us to achieve our mission.
To the Fountain House and Clubhouse community, especially to those who identify as Black, I and we stand with you. We are here for you, whenever and whatever you may need, and we know that "it’s ok to not be ok”. We stand at your side and at your back to support you and please don’t hesitate to reach out. To our donors and friends, thank you for your support. I know that the explicit public and active stance we have taken in response to these tragedies is not one that is necessarily familiar to Fountain House. But I think it is in keeping with our essential core mission to affirm and achieve dignity and inclusion for marginalized people. This is just the beginning of a conversation I look forward to having with you as we embark on a journey to become a more equitable and just organization.
Wishing you all peace, safety, health and love.
Ashwin Vasan, MD, PhD
President and CEO