Dove Pressnall is a 1995 School of Business graduate and is now a licensed marriage and family therapist, with offices in Pasadena. Today, she combines private practice and community work, with a special focus on the homeless.
Dove: I love working one-on-one with people, which is richly rewarding most of the time. I’m always inspired by how people figure out how to improve their relationships and make their own lives better. I also like to take a step back, to see the “bigger picture” person. That’s where the community work, the systems work, fits in — pushing back on the whole system of humanitarian and social services. Who has the expertise and how do we send their expertise back into the community?
In terms of that work, some time back I started a nonprofit organization called Survivors’ Truths, which is about using technology and media to support people directly affected by social problems, so they can have more of a voice in both defining the problems and working toward solutions.
Dove: It really depends on the particular situation. I started this project while training community-level counselors in Liberia, West Africa, shortly after the end of their civil wars. I had a private psychotherapy practice but wanted to go overseas and see what ways of working might be relevant in another environment, another cultural setting. I had done a lot of work with trauma survivors in the U.S. before that. What I found was that the one-on-one work we were doing could be helpful but what was much more important to survivors was being thoroughly reintegrated into community in one way or another.
When we only ask people who’ve been through something difficult to tell us about what happened to them, we lock them into that victim character in their story. So, the stories of victimization can be shared — we should bear witness to what other people have gone through and support people carrying those experiences. But the stories of victimization are always about powerlessness and lack of resources and being disconnected from others. It’s better to ask people about how they came through their experience, and how they were getting on with life. The localized knowledge, relationships, courage, and faith found in those parts of a person’s story are things that we as helpers can build on. I started Survivors’ Truth out of a growing awareness of the importance of these elements and an interest in the value of publicly shared stories, recognizing that communications technology enables us to reach many more people and lets many more people participate.
In Liberia, that can look like community radio, public forums, or trying to get funding to do some SMS-to-web applications that help people with lower levels of access participate in online conversations with others. One of the programs I’ve been working with locally is called Speak Up!, which is a project of The Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH). Survivors’ Truths was an initial partner in establishing what at first might look like a speakers’ bureau, but is actually much more. Speak Up! is intentionally beneficial for the advocates who participate and prioritizes centering the knowledge of people with lived experiences as architects of solutions to the problems that the homeless face.
Dove: Speak Up! prepares individuals to share their personal stories as a way to advocate for better policies. It’s a 10-month program — participants come to monthly workshops where we teach public speaking and storytelling skills, and they get to work one-on-one with a volunteer Story Coach to develop their individual narrative to present publicly. Right now, I’m seeking to recruit people from the Woodbury community who are interested in getting involved. Our Story Coaches are the heart and soul of the program — they work one-on-one with advocates to help them develop their own stories. The advocates then fan out to a variety of places to share their stories, through videos and other means. They go to Sacramento, to D.C., to anywhere there’s an opportunity to connect.
We’re striving to help people tell their stories in ways that convey their message more effectively, in ways that are more respectful of them as people, and in ways that begin to define some solutions. Many people are aware that in Los Angeles County, we passed Measure H and Measure HHH to fund services for the homeless. Speak Up! alumni are now sitting on some of the decision-making boards that are determining how and where to use that money.
The other day, we were having a deep conversation about how mental health is delivered. People who are involved with community mental health centers typically have to see advocates every three months, but it’s often a different psychiatrist. Every three months, a given advocate has to tell her story, her trauma story, and she’s telling us, “this is re-traumatizing me every time I do it — it sets me back.” We need systemic ways to make sure that people aren’t constantly being re-traumatized. Those solutions generally center on reducing the barriers to accessing help and being more respectful in trying to help. There’s now a whole push to look at how data is collected and what data is collected, to be more mindful in social services delivery.
The numbers on homelessness came out in June, really shocking numbers. A lot of people are saying “we’re putting all this money in, why isn’t it getting better?” Difficult as it may be to recognize, L.A. compared to the rest of the state is doing relatively well. Our numbers went up much less than in other parts of the state and other parts of the country. There’s no magic bullet in addressing a problem this big, but what’s wonderful about the Speak Up! program is that advocates can engage in helping our policymakers build better systems. Each person might have a different area they’re interested in, but they can bring that expertise to the community, which can be really useful to people who are trying to do something about the crisis.
Dove: Exactly. Speak Up! program participants are all people who were homeless in the past and who now live in what we call supportive housing, which is housing with direct connections to social services.
Dove: A lot of factors are in play. What L.A. is struggling with most right now is that many of us see the tents on the street and know it’s heartbreaking — we care and we passed these measures to fund services, and yet every time a proposal goes in for a supportive housing project or an affordable housing project, the community pushes back. We really need to challenge the idea of homelessness as something that happens to other people. While many people experiencing homelessness are dealing with mental illness and addiction, the stress of being homeless often causes or exacerbates these problem. So many advocates experienced homelessness after being laid off, a serious health crisis or taking time to care for a dying parent. So, really, most of us could find ourselves in a similar situation.
It’s overwhelming but if we all do our part — different people clearly have different parts to play – and we can have a real impact. Others are replicating the Speak Up! program around the country, so while the local effort is dedicated to Los Angeles, activities overall are much bigger and broader. We want people to join us, and I highly recommend that people volunteer locally. For information on how to do so, please visit www.csh.org/supportive-housing-101/speak-up or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.