Home News Center YJLI Fellow Tierra T. Ellis Tackles Systemic Change Through Culturally Relevant Mental Health Interventions

YJLI Fellow Tierra T. Ellis Tackles Systemic Change Through Culturally Relevant Mental Health Interventions

April 29, 2021
Courtney M. McSwain

Photo of Tierra T. Ellis

hat got you into doing justice reform work? 

My mother used to be a juvenile detention officer and the stories she shared coupled with my AP Psychology course in high school is how I found my passion. I felt the need to advocate and be there for those youth.  

attended Howard University where I obtained my doctorate degree in school psychologyDuring my graduate studiesI conducted a lot of research and presented at conferences on the school to prison pipeline. Every time I learned about something such as the recidivism rates of court-involved Black and Brown youth then I would present at a conference to spread awareness while connecting it to ways school psychologists or mental health professionals may intervene. The disproportionate rates of Black and Brown youth impacted by that pipeline weighed heavy on me.  

I’ve also had multiple externships. I worked at the D.C. Superior Court where I conducted psychological evaluations on adjudicated youth per the judge’s request to help inform them on their decision-making for the youthI would paint a picture of their life from birth to provide more context of their life experiences beyond their charge. I also worked in the prisons in East Baltimore and Jessup, Maryland to provide psychological services for youth charged as adults – many of whom were in special education – and thus had individual education plans; I assisted them with their educational goals. I also worked for an organization in Los Angeles, California providing psychological services to men and women on parole who were diagnosed with serious mental illnesses and co-occurring substance use 

My passion for justice involved advocacy work was deepened with every experience.   

You talked about working to identify ways that school psychologists can intervene in the school to prison pipeline. What are some of the things that you think school psychologists can do? 

Something that I proposed was that school psychologists could be a liaison between schools and the systems or services that youth encounter. We can also provide culturally sensitive trainings to teachers and help establish culturally relevant interventions within the schools to keep youth out of the school to prison pipelinebecause a lot of the challenges students face come from a cultural disconnect between them and the teachers and/or schools.  

Can you tell us about your advocacy project for YJLI?  

Sure! However, I can’t talk about it without sharing my journey of being a YJLI fellow and how God used YJLI as a vehicle for my purpose.  

Back in 2018, I applied to YJLI but did not get accepted into the fellowship; however, I maintained the formed relationship with NJJN member the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) to carry out my proposed 2018 YJLI projectcreated an intervention called Black Minds M.A.T.T.E.R and YJC welcomed me to pilot my trauma-informed positive youth development group intervention, which was designed for youth at risk of entering the school to jail track. The intervention was infused with strengths-based and transformative justice approaches. The goal was to provide mental health education to adolescents and young adults in the group as well as provide them a space to process, identify intense emotions, validate and normalize their experiences and introduce them to various culturally relevant ways of coping. Black Minds M.A.T.T.E.R also served as a catalyst for the nonprofit I founded called Psyches of Color, where our mission is to decrease the stigma of mental health and promote radical healing for Black and Latinx adolescents and young adults. So, I thank God for my YJLI journey as it contributed to the birth of my nonprofit. In the midst of establishing the nonprofit in the summer of 2020, I applied to YJLI again and was accepted.  The timing is perfect as this is certainly a better time for me to be a fellow as I continue to evolve and find my place in the justice involved advocacy work.    

My proposed YJLI 2020 project was to add a second cohort including Latinx youth as the first cohort was Black youth – and the name has transformed to Black and Brown Minds M.A.T.T.E.R However, given the pandemic, I adapted to the needs of youth in the current climate.  In the midst of adapting, I realized the importance of providing a space for youth to culturally express themselves.  

My YJLI 2020 project is called Exert Your Voice, which is a Psyches of Color program that I developed throughout my YJLI Fellowship year. Exert Your Voice provides a space where Black and Latinx youth and young adults between the ages of 13 and 25 can come and express themselves through music creation (e.g., hip-hop, rapping), journaling, storytelling, poetry, or any other form of art, even if they just want to talk and express themselves. It’s a space for them to let those intense emotions out! 

What do you think having that kind of space for expression is doing for the young people you’re working with?  

As mentioned, one of the core aspects of the group – and my work with Psyches of Color – is to destigmatize mental health care in Black and Brown communities. This is a space where youth can use creative expressions to get those intense feelings out without initially calling it “therapy, but certainly providing mental health education so they are able to restructure the way they view therapy; youth are able to express themselves in ways that are culturally relevant and familiar.  

What motivates you? 

I’m motivated by being in these spaces with young people; also seeing the research – the literature – that has been written by people who are not from Black and Brown communities saying what Black and Brown youth need. I want to make sure that the literature reflects what is culturally relevant andas an interventionist, I want to make sure I’m doing my part to provide those supports to youth in practice. In addition, I want to ensure that I am amplifying youth’s voices in all spaces whether it’s through my private practice, research or nonprofit settings etc. I am committed to changing the narrative where their voices are more amplified even if that means radical change so that we may have radical healing.   

What is your dream youth justice vision? 

My dream youth justice vision is for the school to prison pipeline and the carceral system to be dismantledof courseand to impact youth through mental health using strengths-based and transformative justice approaches because they provide internal healing in ways that traditional interventions cannotI also envision schools having culturally sensitive curricula and approaches to interacting with students 

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