Lansing Legends

Lansing Legend: Barbara Davis

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This is the conclusion of a four-part series during Black History Month with longtime Lansing residents who witnessed a generation of Black excellence. Interviews have been edited and condensed.

After losing a husband and a daughter, Barbara Davis decided it was time to make a change. At 72, Davis is a master’s student attending Siena Heights University studying clinical mental health. In this interview, Davis takes a break from writing an essay on historical trauma to shed light on her personal journey of self-acceptance, spirituality, and community mentorship. 

Where did you go to school? Is it still around?

Main Street School (present-day Educational Child Care Center). West Junior is still standing, and they are about to change it into something else. I graduated from Sexton High School in ‘67. I was pregnant and was proposed to by my husband. Back then at Sexton, you didn’t go home with anything lower than a C. The principals, assistant principals and teachers all knew your parents. I think they were more disciplinarians.

What is your student life like?

I have 12 clients I meet with regularly because my internship requirement is 600 hours. I get my hours counseling at Not Your Average Counseling Agency on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. And I’m done with my hours in June! Woohoo! Since the pandemic, we meet with clients over Zoom a lot. It’s an interesting time — the pandemic. I think students have more clients because a lot of people like to stay in, which is good. I understand wanting to avoid crowds, but being at home and isolated can cause a lot of depression and anxiety.

 What classes are you taking?

I’m taking a course on serving diverse populations in counseling and I must write a 1,000-word paper. The assignment is called “Now that I know better.” The essence of my paper is meeting people where they are at. Military, immigrants, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes I want to start crying because it requires a lot of thought.

What has been your biggest takeaway about your profession?

The sad thing about this profession is that there is a lot of discrimination. There is discrimination around sex, race, religion. I mean there is a lot of confusion, because when you see people walking the streets, where it’s more obvious, some professionals will tend to avoid them. All they need is help. That’s why I joined this profession — to help.

Are the services you offer free?

Yes. At one point I was seeing 18 clients, that was too many. 

What made you go back to school?

My daughter. I lost a daughter, and I was suicidal, but I still had a grandson and another daughter to look after. I was in the hospital, and I told myself I still have more to live for. Before she left, she told me, “God is going to take care of everything.” And that should’ve given me relief, but it did not. Getting into this profession has helped. I can get my mind off the negative and turn it into a positive through my personal contributions. 

What do you think is the biggest barrier for people of color seeking mental health services?

They’re afraid. In the history of mental health, Blacks who were living in a white man’s home or were raising their kids, if they came up as mentally ill they were put in a cave. An underground cave and kept there. So today, I probably have three to four clients who are Black or another racial minority. It’s hard because it has been instilled in them, hearing it from grandparents who heard it from their great-grandparents. 

I used to be afraid of mental health because I used to think that people were, excuse this word, but crazy. Then I was diagnosed with OCD. I understand now that even people in high places can have mental illness and we need to talk about it. 

What are some strategies for mental wellness you like to personally use?

I like to practice mindfulness. Especially when you have anxiety, and your mind starts rushing to oh-oh-oh-oh. For example, I like to hold a piece of ice in my hand, so the only thing I think about is oh, my hand is cold. Then there is always breathing. Going outside and doing something. The more you sit and look at that “bloob tube” and don’t exercise — it’s depressing. Every day is the same thing. Exercise is also so important for everyone. There are so many strategies, but it takes time. 

In Lansing, how has the environment impacted community mental health?

Oh, my god. I grew up on Max Avenue before Oldsmobile bought us out. It wasn’t I-496, which is what many people believe. Especially in the elderly community, the displacement and loss are where the depression comes from. Whatever they offered you for the house, we had to take. There was no dicker and deal. There is one block of Max Avenue left. 

How do you deal with loss?

Losing my daughter and husband was horrible. However, holding on to the love of God is what has got me through. I pray every day. You may think that when you’re praying for someone that it’s just going up in the air, but it’s real. Prayer is real. And I’m still getting through it. I used to go to his grave — from 1990 till 2008 when my daughter passed — every day. 

Do you think that Black survivors fare better with Black counselors?

Sometimes having a counselor that is the same race is not the answer. It’s all about your knowledge and how you speak to people. You can’t just give out advice, you must listen and show them that you are interested. Knowing you aren’t better than the person sitting across from you is how you get that relationship.

Audrey Matusz, the author of this series, is a former arts and culture editor of City Pulse who was born in Lansing and grew up in Okemos. She is a graduate of the Residential College of the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University. She is a digital and instructional designer for the Michigan Victim Advocacy Network.

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