I didn’t know Michael Brown personally, but I knew of Michael Brown. I went to high school with his mother and uncle. I worked with kids from the St. Louis County Juvenile Justice system from 2005-2014 as an Adolescent Care Specialist lead, and some of them knew Michael Brown. They were like my people, and my people knew his people.
Months after he was killed, I watched and felt pained as the no true bill was announced. I was hurt by the plain-sight injustice of it all and further pained for the people that cared about Michael. There was a triple screen on CNN, one of President Obama speaking, and two of my city on fire.
Within a week, I was no longer working with young people exclusively. I moved to a new career, away from foster care case management and into adult social work. After two months working for the St. Charles Housing Authority, I moved to a community support specialist position at BJC Behavioral Health in January 2015. I wanted to be in the neighborhoods of St. Louis, serving and helping on the frontlines.
On day one, my supervisor told me the reality of my new position: “You’ll learn a lot about a lot of systems, and you’ll help people navigate them to get their needs met.” Systems theory was important to her: the way people are connected and how shared experiences affect populations as a whole. Helping people identify and meet their needs is important to me and what I try to do now.
I was born and raised in St. Louis. My parents moved from North City to the county when I was two months old. A local musician who grew up on the block I was born on once said to me that my parents saved my life. Excuses weren’t a part of my upbringing, and mistakes were most often due to my own choices and failings.
It wasn’t complicated: go to school, get an education. College at Saint Louis University was the same. I enjoyed the required 18 hours of theology and philosophy coursework as part of the Jesuit education more than most coursework. Those classes made the world seem bigger and made you really think. They made you expound on ideas and connect thoughts to action.
I didn’t choose social work, but I did choose to work in the greater St. Louis community once social work chose me. Since September 2018 I have worked for BJC Behavioral Health as a senior community support specialist. Our project is called emergency room enhancement. The team I am a part of is interagency, and the skill set crosses disciplines and systems in order to best serve our clients, most of whom are African-American males. Traditionally, this demographic group is underserved in managing mental health concerns and diagnosis, and lacking in resources to treat said concerns.
I once had a client tell me as a black man he is not allowed to be complicated. There are two moods – mad and sad. That’s stress in and of itself. Post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorder, unemployment, and economic stressors disproportionately affect the African-American community, especially in St. Louis. Discriminatory housing policies ended only a generation ago still have impact to this day. In my job, it is important that I try to meet people where they are, literally and figuratively, and respond to needs.
I am charged with going into the hospital, meeting and assessing people at their most vulnerable in these most urgent times, and giving hope where there may be none. I keep things in perspective, measured and short. In chaos there is opportunity, and for people that look like me I feel a special chance to walk with them, side by side, to a goal, a better tomorrow, a hope for a successful ending.
My viewpoint is always looking in the margins, and offering a hand up not a handout. Teach mobility, enable change, or connect people to someone who can. I am paying the chance afforded me forward to the people I serve, especially the black males I work with who have been boxed in, boxed out, marginalized, and pushed to the side. I owe that to them, and they need support like I did.
Cory Mitchell is a graduate of Saint Louis University and currently serves as a senior Community Support specialist with Barnes Jewish Central Behavioral Health, part of Emergency Room Enhancement Project.
“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American, in memory of Michael Brown.