Blog Entry Narrative Change, Education

CBMA Spotlight: How This BMA Leader is De-Stigmatizing Mental Health in Milwaukee

The City of Milwaukee is one of CBMA's core "Promise of Place" cities, and where we've built significant partnerships and collaborations to support the important Black Male Achievement work happening there. Helping to lead those local efforts is Walter Lanier, Director of Multicultural Affairs and Community Engagement at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), and the senior pastor of the Progressive Baptist Church. Lanier is also a part of the inaugural cohort of Building Beloved Community Leadership Fellows (BBCLF), which this summer hosted its first gathering in Greensboro, North Carolina. For our member spotlight, CBMA talked to Walter about the critical work he's doing in Milwaukee's community college system, and how he's working through his church to de-stigmatize mental illness in the Black community.

CBMA: Can you talk a bit about your background and what brought you to do this work?

Walter Lanier: I was born in Buffalo, New York, lived there for about five years and then moved to Detroit, Michigan. My father played basketball for the Pistons and for the Milwaukee Bucks. So we lived in Michigan up until 1980, and then we moved to Milwaukee in 1980. I've been here for 30+ years. I kind of went from being an underachiever and an outcast -- I was my family's black sheep for a while because of what I was doing coming out of high school and going into college, and then dropping out -- to now being a success in life and a role model. So, I have some sense and experience for what it means to be on either side of success, to be a failure and to be dealing with mistakes and looking for second chances, and then to be an achiever. I went to college for about a semester. I was not really prepared probably emotionally, maturity wise for college.

I think I might even have been depressed back in that day, but in any event, by the end of my first semester I pretty much dropped out of college, floundered for about two and half years and worked odd jobs before I got jump started again. Then continued on my journey from there.

I have a particular passion for helping people clear out obstacles and baggage to their success. I like to help people succeed and achieve. I believe that everybody has a place of brilliance and a place of genius, and we need to create spaces for that genius and brilliance and talent to flourish.

CBMA: Tell us about the Men of Color initiative you launched at Milwaukee Area Technical College. 

Lanier: We launched it about two years ago, seeking to provide holistic resources and support for men to achieve academically, to contribute to themselves, first of all, the college community, and then our community. We've got about eight to ten different strategies that we’ve developed, including working with them in cohorts, working in specific academic programs. We've done a lot as of late around mental health and mental wellness, role modeling, mentoring, and building relationships with the community and several others.

It's about two plus years in now and has been very successful. It's had an impact inside the college and in the community. People are aware in the Milwaukee community of the work that we do here at this community college, and are looking for ways to collaborate to strengthen the student, and to strengthen the community. We have increased course completion for the men that have participated in the program; also retention, keeping them in from semester to semester. And we're working on our graduation rates and employment rates. All the data looks good, it's been successful. Our challenge, as with many programs, is how do we effectively scale it up here at the institution?

I think that over time we're going to find that community colleges are a more critical place to spend resources than we realize for men of color and students of color.

When you look around post-secondary, you find like 49 percent of all Black students in college are at community college, and 56 percent of Hispanic students. And that's true here at MATC, where 22 percent of our student population is men of color, the largest percentage being Black men.

CBMA: Speaking of data, what kind of data do you use to measure your impact? Is it qualitative, quantitative, or both?

Lanier: It’s a combination. We've got three very specific metrics that we look at: one is course completion on a micro and a macro level. Micro meaning the students that engage in our program, and macro looking at how are we doing as a college for men of color in terms of course completion? Second is retention -- are we retaining students from semester to semester to semester? Then third is graduation or program completion, because sometimes you complete a program without graduating. Those are the three core performance metrics. 

In addition to that, we are part of a network called the Minority Male Community College Collaborative. They are connected with the Community College Equity Access Lab out of San Diego State University and have done a rich amount of research on how to work with men of color to get them to succeed in community colleges.

There's a survey that we did about a year ago that they developed called the “Community College Success Measure”. We surveyed about 650 students in a wide range of areas. That gave us some feedback on things that we could do more effectively to serve those students. That talked about campus environment, the environment of staff and faculty and how we engage with students. It talked about their personal lives and their needs, particularly around, say, housing. It talked about food insecurity, primary provider role (or the bread winner role, I should say). It's extremely comprehensive. Then the third thing is we have a lot of data as an institution. I can break apart performance data on a student wide basis or on a school basis. It really gives us a mega dashboard where we can drill down with great detail and look for opportunities to close gaps.

I think we're ahead of the curve. Down the road, if you look at the data and ask yourself “where are Black men?”, you’ll find the largest number inside institutions, especially in this rust belt area, are in community colleges. Therefore, that's a critical place to strengthen, because that's where the numbers are. If you come to Milwaukee and ask where are the largest number of Black men in a particular institution, people will think of a variety of places, but they'll miss out on the reality that the largest number is actually in the community college. I think over time that, if we do our job, the community colleges are going to be a hub for a lot of productive activity and strengthening of BMA work. 

CBMA: You also launched another program with Progressive Baptist Church, where you are pastor, called "MIRACLE" (Mental Illness - Raising Awareness with Church and Community Leaders Everywhere). What inspired that, and what impact has it had?

Lanier: That's been fascinating, and actually a little humbling. It really grew out of the concern that I had when I was younger in ministry. I noticed too often that people with mental illnesses were not received well in churches. Sometimes it would be very subtle, and I don't know that it was intentional. But I just saw where there was sometimes a mocking or marginalization happening. That bothered me a lot. 

Because of my faith journey, I know and believe that God is big enough to minister and create space for everybody.

When I became a pastor in September of 2011, that created an opportunity to give birth to something that was on the inside. In February of 2012, we launched the ministry. There's an architecture there with four components: ministering inside our local church, sharing what we learn about how to do it with other churches, collaborating with other organizations who are experts (counselors, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, hospitals, etc.) and then advocacy. We had those people at the table at our initial meeting, and have continued to do that over the past five years. It's really grown organically. As a matter of fact, in October we're going to have Mental Health Awareness Day here at the community college, and hope to have a couple thousand people in attendance.

Because I wear many hats, I get to look for many angles. On a one-on-one basis, as a pastor, it is a blessing because it's taught me how to listen more attentively and create space for people to share their stories without judgment and support them along the journey. Leading the community at Progressive, I've watched over time as our community has grown in its health. I've watched our intentionality, our increased love, our increased capacity to walk alongside somebody even if we don't understand their journey, arise and spring forth from this mental health and mental illness ministry. I've watched as members have not only come to talk to me, but to talk with others in the church community about mental health issues. We've got a quarterly mental health moment that we talk about from the pulpit, and I mention it regularly.

What it has done is normalized and made it okay to talk about mental health and mental illness in that particular faith community. I didn't have vision like that, but God took it and grew it and amplified it. It's a cornerstone of the work that we do.

CBMA: You recently attended the first-ever gathering of Building Beloved Community Leadership Fellows in Greensboro, NC. What was that experience like, and, in what ways would you say that you are an emerging leader? 

Lanier: The time together was excellent, very rigorous, humbling, profound, energizing. I was particularly taken by the speed with which we became a community while we were in Greensboro. We just forged into a community very quickly. In terms of being an emerging leader, I just turned 50. I was one of the older participants in the Fellowship, and I'm digesting and embracing that. I'm used to back in the day being one of the younger people in the room, and now I'm more of one of the seasoned people in the room. What I am embracing now is a need to turn up, to increase my leadership, and to steward more effectively my centers of influence. Also to speak up with more boldness; to grab the leadership reins more frequently and pass information on more directly and really be conscious of opportunities to share and invest in somebody and get people connected.

These are things that I've always done, but I want to be much more intentional in this season in my life about stewarding or shepherding my leadership influence here in the Milwaukee community and beyond.

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