A racially diverse background and firsthand knowledge of discrimination have helped social worker, Jessica Joiner gain a unique lens when it comes to working with people who have been historically marginalized
Written by Melanie Taussig
Coming of age during the 1980s in a suburb of Denver, Jessica Joiner was always an astute observer. The biracial child of a Hispanic-Native American father and a Caucasian mother, Ms. Joiner had a unique perspective among the mostly majority population around her at that time. Being from a multi-racial background sometimes led to challenges with figuring out “where I belonged,” she says, recalling back to that period in her life. Those early years largely were the impetus for Ms. Joiner to pursue a career in social work and confront social injustices head on. “I always had a heart for fighting for oppressed populations,” she says, that sentiment dating back to her formative years growing up in Longmont, Colorado.
Ms. Joiner attended the University of Colorado in Boulder, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Sociology with an emphasis in Criminology and a minor in Ethnic Studies. Following university, she worked for a small headhunting firm. Soon afterwards she got married and raised three children. Once her children were in school full time, Ms. Joiner began taking steps toward a career in social work; embarking on her lifelong career endeavor to work with disenfranchised people.
Ms. Joiner took incremental steps toward her professional goal; first becoming a Certified Addictions Counselor, then a DUI specialist, facilitating education and individual therapy for mandated clients who had been sanctioned for driving under the influence. For the next several years Ms. Joiner continued to work with clients who found themselves, for one reason or another, involved with the criminal justice system. Contemporaneously she was observing that the majority of her clients not only had addiction issues, but many were also afflicted with mental health issues.
In order to provide comprehensive care to the growing number of individuals on her caseload with dual diagnoses, Ms. Joiner knew would need to advance her education. She was accepted and enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Denver, earning a Masters of Social Work degree in 2015. As a newly minted social worker, Ms. Joiner was committed to serving individuals who had faced discrimination and oppression, things she was able to identify with firsthand.
For many years Ms. Joiner worked at various organizations providing behavioral health and addiction treatment to diverse populations. Today she owns a private therapy practice in Parker, Colorado and approaches treatment through a social justice lens. Ms. Joiner is an advocate for equity and presents regularly to fellow colleagues about inequity, racial biases and micro-aggressions; prejudices that tend to come about unintentionally. She also works with athletes, a population in which many come from minority backgrounds similar to her own and are navigating ongoing oppression while trying to conform to longstanding dogma.
As someone who has been the target of discrimination, Ms. Joiner has lived through experiences similar to those of some of her racially diverse clients. “I can relate and understand what people are going through, even if their experience is slightly different than mine,” she says. “If a client knows that when they come and talk to me, they don’t have to explain what discrimination is, or why they felt discriminated against, it can make that person more comfortable in telling their story. They don’t have to try and help me understand these feelings that may be very foreign to someone who has never had to deal with any kind of racism.” Ms. Joiner indicates these shared experiences can help forge a valuable alliance with clients who come to therapy often feeling isolated and alone. While having comparable experiences can help a therapist to build rapport, it is not the most critical factor for connection; being open to understanding the client experience is paramount.
Increasing mental health services to historically marginalized groups through the lens of a fragmented system
Having spent the majority of her life facing at times subtle and at other times overt and vitriolic oppression, Ms. Joiner identifies with the very causes for which she is championing. “We don’t have a level playing field,” she says, speaking of how people from low-income areas are at a disadvantage when it comes to tending to their own mental health needs. “When you are underrepresented and you are living through discrimination on a daily basis, it has a definite impact on your mental health. It’s a chronic, persistent trauma that never goes away and it can lead to other chronic mental health issues like depression and anxiety, as well as chronic physical ailments like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer.”
Seeking mental health treatment is difficult for most people but in underserved areas, there can be additional barriers. The stigma around mental health is often pervasive and certain cultures can have negative perceptions associated with mental illness. Such attitudes can be an added roadblock when it comes to seeking treatment. “The fact is there aren’t a lot of black and brown therapists out there to sit across the room from us and to hear our stories,” says Ms. Joiner. The “hard to talk about issues,” she explains “can create feelings of isolation. It can feel better to tell your story to someone who looks like you. Simply put, representation is important.” And, finding the right therapist can be challenging. Ms. Joiner encourages those who are seeking mental health services to be tenacious in the endeavor to locate a provider, which can be a daunting task. Many may have a belief that, “nobody is going to get me.” Challenging that mindset, with conviction Ms. Joiner says, “someone will understand so don’t give up.”
During a profound and revealing conversation, the cost of mental health treatment came up more than once. “I think we need to make mental health services more affordable and at the same time, be able to compensate professionals what they are worth,” says Ms. Joiner, eluding that many underserved populations are less likely to receive mental health treatment due to these services often being financially prohibitive. She believes there are other systemic issues that account for lack of access to treatment including the absence of education, ongoing stigma about mental health, and not enough people from underserved communities pursuing careers in helping professions. “We need to have more scholarships and financial aid available for people of color to pursue degrees in social work and other helping professions. These are all systemic issues that need to change in order to make education more accessible to all.”
Ms. Joiner believes that increased services and exposure in underserved regions will help to create organic opportunities in communities where mental health care is greatly needed. “People have this [negative] preconceived notion that if you are in social work, you aren’t going to get paid very well and you are going to be doing unpleasant tasks.” She acknowledges that the work can be arduous and taxing, which may deter people from pursuing careers in helping fields such as social work, counseling, or case management. This is precisely why Ms. Joiner is committed to confronting these attitudes and perceptions head on; she wants people to be aware of the inherent versatility that exists within the field of social work.
While the need is undoubtedly there, Ms. Joiner explains that helping professions have long been undervalued. These jobs often consist of difficult work and salaries that are rarely remunerative. She strongly believes that there needs to be more societal worth associated with careers in mental health as well as increased compensation. She hopes young people are informed about the versatility that a career in social work offers. “There are so many different aspects of where social work fits [medical social work, working with athletes, advocacy, positions in policy],” says Ms. Joiner. “Making social work and other helping professions more attractive [to recruit more people into the field] is important.”
Encouraging difficult conversations
“What are you?” This is a question that has often been asked of Ms. Joiner over the course of her life. She smiles as she explains that her instinctive response is generally to say, “I’m human.” Ms. Joiner wants others to understand how a nonchalant question with no ill intention can nonetheless be insulting. Because she is biracial, Ms. Joiner surmises that others may view her to be “racially ambiguous” and as a result “don’t know where to put me.” She is frequently asked incredibly blunt questions pertaining to her ethnic background. While she knows this kind of curiosity usually is not accompanied with nefarious intent, it can, nonetheless, feel offensive. Ms. Joiner views these uncouth encounters as an opportunity to educate and raise awareness about cultural sensitivity.
“I think you have to have a relationship [in order to ask about a person’s background]. I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask just to know,” says Ms. Joiner, explaining that accountability for why a person is asking can convey compassion, which can make the experience less awkward and invasive. The question should never be ‘what are you?’ Instead, for someone who is curious about another person’s background, Ms. Joiner suggests saying something such as, ‘I’m curious, what is your ethic background?’ Phrasing the question in this manner is clear and expresses ownership of that curiosity.
Uncomfortable as it can be to discuss injustices, Ms. Joiner believes it is necessary for people to continually engage in these difficult conversations. “When we don’t talk about tough topics, it allows those issues to go unaddressed,” she says. “Ignoring and pretending the issue doesn’t exist is the same as being complicit and that’s part of the problem. The benefit [of having these conversations] is that perhaps more people will start to notice the inequities that are happening.”
In search of unity and equality amid a media frenzy
At a point in time where the world is divisive and chasms appear salient, Ms. Joiner says, “that has always been the case. It’s more apparent and seems more so now because of what is happening,” referring to racial tensions that have recently been amplified. “It might be heightened to other people’s perspective but it is not heightened to people who live it everyday. That’s always been the climate,” she says, explaining that widespread media coverage has only recently brought the longstanding issue of racism into the limelight. “Racial tensions and discrimination are covert at times and more overt at other times but it is always there.”
Despite having been front-page news lately, Ms. Joiner talks of how disenfranchised populations have been facing hardships since the beginning of time. She believes that reconciling these deep-rooted imbalances start with each person being willing to look within themselves and at their own biases. “We all have different levels of privilege,” says Ms. Joiner, explaining that by confronting and evaluating one’s own level of privilege comes the opportunity to formulate insight, which could ultimately help curtail discrimination and unconscious biases.
Ms. Joiner knows that it will take time, dedication, and intentionality for true change to occur. She believes that unconscious biases and cultural insensitivity are generally not the result of hostility but rather derive from a lack of education and understanding. Ms. Joiner is optimistic that sharing her experiences will embolden others to engage in necessary conversations and hopes transparency will serve as a catalyst for people living in oblivion.
Ms. Joiner urges people to use their voices to confront the inequities and inequalities that exist, not only within close proximity, but also from a distance. It is her belief that being a part of the collective solution means people looking beyond what is in one’s own purview. “It’s a lot about the stereotypes rather than who people are at their core,” she says, referring to how embedded injustices can thrive. Challenging uncomfortable societal norms and micro-aggressions is the first step to addressing a situation in which an individual would have otherwise been complicit. Ms. Joiner speaks of the importance of “allies,” individuals who aren’t directly targeted by discrimination yet who are in a position to decry it. Ms. Joiner envisages a world where there are more allies and fewer bystanders. She believes that when people confront and denounce inequities, it drives the collective conversation toward a place of potential parity.
As we wrap up a reflective and philosophical discussion, Ms. Joiner expresses desire for people to consider how the system, one which she believes has long been a culprit in the pervasive marginalization of certain populations, can start to advance. “Injustices are happening all the time in places you may have never been to. You may not see it right in front of you, but it is happening.” She hopes her words are not only heard, but are also palpable. Ms. Joiner encourages participation in grassroots movements to support changes that individuals would like to see occur. “People often think that when things are quiet and calm in their own little bubble that everything is fine; but don’t wait until the issues of injustice affect you directly, until it’s in your neighborhood,” Ms. Joiner says. “Do something about it now. That’s being a good ally.”
Jessica Joiner is a therapist in private practice in Parker, Colo. To learn more about her services, click here. Photo courtesy of Ms. Joiner.