"We are about a movement, a shift, a change, one person at a time," said Sederia Lewis, summing up the mission of Victorious Black Women, an organization based in Oakland. "That one person reaching out to me made a world of difference, and now I can do that for someone else."
Victorious Black Women sprang from a simple but powerful idea back in 2009 that the path towards healing lies in the ability of black women sharing their stories with one another. Using the power of these individual stories, they encourage listeners to spread their message using the "each one, teach one" approach to help "change lives one life at a time."
The group also hopes to educate the larger community and mental health system about their culture, helping to make mental health services more culturally responsive and helpful to women of color.
"Culture plays an important role in how people of different backgrounds express themselves, seek help, cope with stress and develop social supports," explained Victorious Black Women CEO Yvette McShan. "Cultural awareness and competence of African American people must be a guiding principle so that services are culturally sensitive and provide culturally appropriate prevention, outreach, assessment, and intervention. African American community members oftentimes don’t utilize services because they can’t identify with them."
Co-founder Renee Harris' personal story illustrates McShan's point. Deeply depressed but unaware of the symptoms of mental health issues or tools for recovery, Harris first sought help through the emergency room, only to be sent home by the physician on duty. Harris eventually sought relief from her depression by using crack cocaine.
"I just wanted to be out of pain," Harris said. "I didn't want to hurt anymore. I used substances to try to manage my symptoms and it worked for a while. When I smoked dope, the pain didn't hurt as much. I didn't know I needed help. I just wanted to get out of the pain."
After eight suicide attempts, Harris finally received mental health services.
"At 36 years old, my life fell apart and I did things I never would have imagined," Harris said. "I finally got help through the judicial system. But why does it have to be through the judicial system?"
One of the primarily goals of the group is to help women of color like Harris connect with mental health supports in the community early on instead of being inappropriately served through the judicial system. They are already seeing good results from their efforts.
"The sooner we can get services, the sooner we can get well and begin healing," Lewis said. "But too many people can't get those services. This time last year I was much less functional, but because Yvette reached out to me it allowed me to begin healing. That's what we need to do for one another. I worked [in mental health] for 10 years and knew that I would hate to have to use these services because they were inadequate. But here we are, changing that.