Creating the Time and Space to Impact Communities Through Your Words

Invisible Stories Episode 12 with Dr. Maysa Akbar

On today’s episode I speak to Dr. Maysa Akbar, Author of Urban Trauma. Dr. Akbar is a clinical psychologist and board certified in child and adolescent psychology. Her work is centered around the impacts of trauma within urban communities. Her company, Integrated Wellness Group, is a behavioral health clinic in Connecticut specializing in culturally competent care and addressing racial trauma.

In this episode we discuss:

  • Start by sharing with small groups, then build up your confidence and start sharing with more people. And write it down. Converse around your story.
  • You’re the only one that can hold you back! Not the time, not the people, not the naysayers, not the shame
  • No one’s going to be able to narrate and dictate your life better than you. Those people don’t live in your shoes, those folks don’t know what you’ve gone through or how you’ve overcome.

Enjoy the episode!

Urban Trauma by Maysa Akbar

Saved by education.

This is Dr. Maysa Akbar’s story. A story of overcoming Urban Trauma.

It’s easy to look down at urban communities and wonder why economic and social disparities still exist when so many people of color, despite facing severe adversity, have done better. They have broken the “cycle.”

Yet there are those in urban communities who continue to be plagued by what Dr. Maysa Akbar has defined as Urban Trauma – a set of conditions that sustain modern day oppression.

In Urban Trauma: A Legacy of Racism, Dr. Akbar makes the case that since the time of slavery, systemic trauma in our urban centers is a result of poverty, overcrowded housing, poor physical and mental health, despair, violence, crime, and drug abuse.

Drawing from historical events, intergenerational biology, and psychology she expertly illustrates that not only is Urban Trauma real, but that by denying it’s existence we deny our communities of color the chance to heal and break their cycle.

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Key Takeaways

  • Timestamp: 2:00: As you know, we started talking about the concept of this book probably late 2016 maybe. I think it was 2016, and it was through a mutual writer that you had already published or that was kind of at the tail end of publishing his book, James Knowlin. James and I had met in an entrepreneur incubator, both being minority business owners and trying to continue our executive and leadership education at the top business school. One of the areas that they have you focus on in terms of your leadership is your vulnerability and authenticity, and they do that through the form of story. So each of us had an opportunity to share with our classmates how we got into entrepreneurship, what our passions are, you can really have taken it any which way. And what I decided to do was talk a little bit about my life story, which for me was really the ultimate vulnerability, because in my profession, disclosure of your pain, your trauma, your life, is not the norm. Right? It’s actually very highly discouraged unless therapeutically appropriate. So in front of a class of about 50 entrepreneurs, and deciding that this was going to be the moment that I shared that my entrepreneur journey began at age 13, when I struggled with a significant trauma that happened in my life, was I think the catalyst moment of when this journey began for me.
  • Timestamp: 4:06: James encouraged me to have a… that I had a book inside of me, and it needed to come out. And so he wanted to introduce me to you and for us to have a discussion about this, but I remember, you know, knowing that I wanted to call whatever book if I ever wrote one Urban Trauma, because that is what I felt what I had personally gone through. But bigger than that, in my 15+ years of doing clinical work, what maybe of the patients that came in, who were also from communities of color, had also experienced. So I saw a commonality in the trajectory of my life and in the trajectory of many of the people that I saw in my practice. And I felt like there was a lack of definition around Urban Trauma, in that we needed to support the healing pathways for communities of color, by creating a framework and a common language that people could use to define the collective and multi-generational traumatic experiences that we as a people had endured. So that was really sort of the culmination of many different paths finally meeting together. And then me connecting with you, and your excitement, your vision, your support around getting this work out. And I would say that I was really afraid of taking this step, and taking this leap of faith. But you have a very incredible way of making it palatable, and not making it seem like it’s something impossible, breaking it down into manageable chunks. Somebody that’s as busy as me really had a faulty narrative around that thinking that writing a book is just something that I never had time to do. And that really wasn’t the truth at all. And you helped to dispel that by working with me as an author. That you knew that not just had potential or a story or the training and the background to write this book, but also the passion to move forward with it. So it was an exciting journey that caused me to challenge myself in a lot of different ways, as a person and as a professional. But also, very rewarding by the time I got done with it.
  • Timestamp: 8:26: I want to start back to something that you said about like finally birthing the book, and me not really anticipating how successful it was going to be. I remember talking to you the day we released it, and you called me and were like, “Ok, I see your rankings going up on Amazon. Ok, looks like you hit number one in this category.” And then like talking to you at like 7:00 am the next morning, you were like “You hit number 1 in three categories!” And man, if I can bottle that feeling, that was probably one of the best mornings of my life. Like, just knowing that I had poured my heart and soul into something, and that there was a literary world that was recognizing what a significant contribution this book was. And you know, sometimes in life, you go through, especially in a helping profession, you try to help so many people. And it’s rare that you really understand the impact of the work that you’ve done, because a lot of times you don’t know what’s happened to patients who leave or who have finish in treatment. You hope that they’ve gotten better and that for them life has changed. But this was a really tangible way to see that I have finished something and right away people are seeing the benefits of what I’ve done. I’m building up to the Ally book. I think that that accomplishment allowed me to realize that there are other possibilities beyond just this book. So then you and I started talking about the workbook. Because people were reading the book and saying, but I don’t have any tools that I can use to work with people who have Urban Trauma if I am a professional. I read the book, I get it, I get the biology, I get the history, I get all the pieces that you have been writing about. And then you know you and I started to consider how can we generate a workbook out of this, right? And I had never done a workbook either, so I had no idea what I was doing here, yet again. And very tentative and scared about whether I was going to get this right or not. And so the professionals workbook just came out, and we are about to finish any day now the self-workbook, which would be the workbook that the person who actually self-identified as having Urban Trauma will use as they are moving forward in their healing path. And so that all starts to come together. And I think that the Urban Trauma brand is feeling complete for me.
  • Timestamp: 11:42: I was very specific that my target audience was people of color that needed to understand what it felt like to have gone through the traumatic experiences. But when I was in audience that were mixed, white folks that were in the fight for this, because they believed in racial justice and social change, were wondering how they can be helpful, how they can be allies, how they can support this work, but were feeling very lost and feeling that they didn’t have a clear roadmap on what that process would look like. And then you and I started to talk about this because I remember when the developmental edits were happening for Urban Trauma, I actually wrote an entire chapter on allyship, and you nixed it, and you were like, No, doesn’t belong, sorry! And I was like no! No, I want it! And I had my whole tantrum. And you and your team were like doesn’t fit, doesn’t fit. It’s out. So I already had a chapter that I had started to develop out. And then here comes the little seedling that started to grow out of writing a book specifically for allies. So that is the next creation. The manuscript was completed on Valentine’s Day on the 14th of February, the first draft. And now we’re working together to get this baby out there again. And I am so excited about this because I think that all the folks out there that struggle with definition and a roadmap and a real concrete framework on the steps and the process and the phases of allyship, will finally have a reference point that they can go to and say oh, ok, so I know that this is where I fit now, and I have the option to do these things to move into this other category. So I am really excited to get that work out.
  • Timestamp: 16:25: I mean I think I was really afraid and ashamed of my story. And when you and I first started crafting and building out the chapters, I had no intentions of sharing my personal story. While I didn’t want this to be an academic book, you know, I did want it to be softer for the reader. I really had no intention and I remember sending you a couple of chapters and you were like, “uh, we had this really amazing conversation about your personal story and I don’t see anything in here about that.” And I’m like, right… And you were like, “Yeah, dude, you need to like figure this out.” And I was so resistant, I didn’t want to do it. Because I still carried a lot of shame around my story, and I certainly wasn’t ready to share that with the world. You know, like anybody who can pick up this book now, has pieces of me that I hadn’t even processed through. And as a psychologist, what I do know the best, is if you had a problem that has been undealt with and unprocessed, it’s very difficult to become vulnerable in that way, and expose yourself. And really relive that trauma. And when you’re doing it as you’re writing, it’s a blow by blow of reliving that, because now you actually have to put words to the traumatic experience in detail, so that the true manifestation and expression of what you were feeling and experiencing can be felt by the reader. And that’s a really painful process. And I’ll tell you, there were moments I was writing, and I was like bawling, crying, hysterical. I know that there were moments we were on calls where I was like, “I’m not doing this shit. This is like… I can’t, this is too much.” I felt like if people read it, they would judge me. And my credibility in terms of being a top-notch psychologist, I had worked so hard in terms of my career and where I was, and getting all the right titles and all the right diplomas from all the right institutions of higher learning. And that this would damage me, and that people would see that I was really a very broken person. I wasn’t ready for that.
  • Timestamp: 19:07: At the same time, it was probably the most cathartic thing that I had ever done in my life. Which was coming to terms with the fact that all these pieces of me exist inside one person. I can be both a phenomenal psychologist, a person that has all the credentials, someone who is considered at the top of her field in terms of race and culture. And I can also have had a really tough life. When I was able to understand through talking to some of my mentors and my very close circle of colleagues and friends, that it was okay to be both or multiple things, and that good and bad things happen to people all the time. And to love myself and accept myself with all of my wounds and with all of my fears, and with all of my insecurities, and with all the thoughts of being an imposter, then this was going to be the best thing that I had ever produced, probably outside of my children, in life. The experience felt almost exactly the same, by the way. So that’s what I would say to people that are thinking about, especially writing something that is personal to you, as the author, is that you do have to consider that you’re going to go through a variety of different emotions, and sometimes those emotions will paralyze you and you won’t move forward, because you will fear judgment too much or you will feel so ashamed that it doesn’t allow you to move forward. And sometimes that’s the very thing that propels you and provides you with an incredible amount of resiliency. And it allows you to push through and come out of it being a better version of the person you were before you wrote it. And that’s how I feel right now. I feel like I’ve let go of all of the shame and everything else, and I just feel like each time I write, I’m just a better version. Each time I get up on stage and tell my story, I’m a better version. Each time I do it I let one more piece of that trauma go. And it’s been like I said, cathartic is probably the best way I can say it.
  • Timestamp: 24:11: I think if you are accepting of yourself, and you understand that that’s part of it, that no one’s going to be able to narrate and dictate your life better than you. Those people don’t live in your shoes, those folks don’t know what you’ve gone through or how you’ve overcome. And you can just sort of sit still in that moment and be gentle with yourself about it. Then you know, it’s ok. You’ll push through. I think it also shows you who’s really on your team and who’s not. At the end of the day, there’s where the truth telling happens, right? It’s how will people’s judgments of you dictate whether they choose to continue to have a relationship with you or not. So, lots of lessons that are learned afterward.
  • Timestamp: 25:40: I’ve spoken, I’ve done keynotes and workshops and training in rooms of 500 people. As little as 10 people, as big as 500+ people, auditoriums full. And I will tell you, the times that I decide to share my story because that’s part of what they want me to do, there’s never a dry eye. I almost 100% of the time get a standing ovation with people crying hysterically. And I don’t know that they’re crying necessarily about my story, I think that the emotion that they feel is because they can connect to my pain and my process. And we all have a story. Everyone has a book inside of them. Everyone. It’s just whether you’re ready to share that with the world yet or not. So that’s what I see it as. And to be, that’s the most fulfilling part of what I do. That’s what reinforces every single day. I did the right thing. Because now somebody can feel that there’s someone just like them out there, and they can feel not so alone, and they can feel comforted, and they can relate to you in a very profound way. So yeah, if we’re talking about return on investment, completely outweighs the naysayers.
  • Timestamp: 27:48: It’s a decision point. You know, like, am I going to push through? You’re the only one that holds you back. Not the time, not the people, not the naysayers, not the shame. It’s really as simple as just choosing you as the most important thing, right? We psychologists always tell people who are in treatment about the airplane analogy. If the airplane’s going down, and the air masks come down, they tell you very clearly put the mask on your first, and then anyone else that you’re with. And that’s exactly what this experience is about. It’s about putting the mask on you first, choosing you first, and then you can take care of other people. And to me, I think that that’s the most powerful thing about writing and about putting out pieces that feel healing and supportive to others.

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