Steel Smiling bridges the gap between Black community members and mental health support through education, advocacy and awareness. Their 10-year vision is to expose every Black resident in Allegheny County to a positive mental health experience that improves their Quality of Life by 2030. A key component of their work is their Beams to Bridges Black Mental Health Workforce Development Program. It prepares residents to become Community Mental Health Advocates who are equipped to care for their own, and their community’s, mental health needs.
Hilltop Cohort leader and long-time Beltzhoover resident Rick “Biggs” Bigelow has always been a trusted leader in his community. He’s worked with community organizations, coached youth football, and made countless connections with generations of neighbors. However, he admits that he didn’t always have time to think about his own mental health. That changed when, about 7 years ago, he was invited to work with a group of individuals researching the intersection of community and mental health. This group, a collaborative effort created by Duquesne University, is where he first met Julius Boatwright, founder of Steel Smiling. It’s also where the foundation for Beams to Bridges began to form.
Fast forward to 2019, when Julius began working to launch the first Black Mental Health Workforce Development cohort in the Hilltop. Julius shared his ideas with Rick, and they discussed the community-driven values that would become the soul of Beams to Bridges. Rick then began recruiting participants for the cohort by reaching out to the friends, neighbors, and community leaders he had known for years. He strived to bring together individuals he knew would not only benefit from the program, but also bring unique knowledge and experience that could help fulfill Steel Smiling’s mission — to bridge the gap between Black community members and mental health support.
From there, word of Beams to Bridges spread through the Hilltop. Seemingly every day, Rick and Julius got more and more questions from neighborhood acquaintances, distant relatives, and even complete strangers about how they could get involved. In response, the cohort members organized several community conversations around specific mental health topics so that more community members could attend, learn, and share their perspectives.
“Someone’s perspective on mental health depends on their own needs and their own journey,” said Rick.
To Rick, mental health is very personal, and means something different to everyone. Its textbook definition can’t convey the complexities of lived experiences, the effects of community trauma, the stigma surrounding mental illness, or the barriers and inequities faced when it comes to access to mental healthcare.
However, the space they were collectively able to create was and continues to be safe and welcoming “no matter who you are, what you look like, or what you’ve been through.” The diversity of experiences and views that participants brought to their weekly sessions only served to strengthen their trust in one another and aid in their collective and individual mental health journeys.
A full year later, and the cohort members have become a close network of peer supporters who are knowledgeable about mental health and willing to assist each other and other community members in accessing resources, opening up about mental health struggles, and advocating for increased mental health supports in their neighborhood. As Community Mental Health Advocates, they will continue the work they started by striving to destigmatize mental health and illness in their neighborhood; checking in with each other, family, and friends using newly learned mental health tools; and mentoring incoming cohort members as Beams to Bridges expands to new communities this Fall.
“It’s a lifestyle, not just a program,” said Rick. “Programs end. They come and go. But this cohort paved the way and worked with us to grow Beams to Bridges together.”
The Beams to Bridges ‘lifestyle’ isn’t going anywhere. It was genuinely created by community members for community members in a way that continues to meet a real need. Bigger than any one individual, this work requires ongoing collaboration and community input to continue to make a real impact. The work that the Hilltop graduates have achieved and continue to carry out each and every day is a testimony to what can happen when communities are given the chance to lead.
“This experience taught me how needed this is in the community, and in every community, and how much more work we have to do.”