The pandemic has been hard for so many reasons, but among them is the loss of so many movement elders including Margo McMahon, Mary Ann Ebert, George Ebert, Jay Mahler, Diane Engster, and Darby Penney.
Then, on December 11, 2022 we lost Celia Brown. She was 59. Celia was instrumental in developing the formal peer support role in New York, and became the state’s first Peer Specialist. In her own words in a brief video with the Open Paradigm Project, Celia said, “I consider myself a psychiatric survivor, a human rights activist, a trauma survivor, I’m also a breast cancer survivor… You know, [there’s been] a lot of surviving in my life.”
Celia has many accomplishments as a part of her work in this movement, most recently including co-founding Surviving Race: The Intersection of Race, Disability, and Human Rights Coalition. Perhaps even more importantly, Celia was known for her warmth, her kindness, and her persistence.
Celia was deeply connected with and loved by other movement elders. In her Open Paradigm video, she recounts when she first met Judi Chamberlain, author of On Our Own, who died in 2010 of chronic lung disease.
“I said to Judi, who’s allowing you to be doing alternatives? And she laughed because I think people need to understand in mental health you’re not really allowed to do anything. They tell you what they want you to do. And here she’s doing what she feels is good for her and her spirit and her activism.”
Celia’s voice was also one of the first and one of the most consistently present black voices in the movement. Read on for a memory from Wildflower friend and colleague, Chacku Mathai.
From Chacku: I met Celia Brown when I started working for NYAPRS around the turn of the year from 1999 to 2000. A few years later in 2003, Celia and I were walking down a street in Austin, Texas towards the venue for an evening presentation at a conference of the National Association of Rights Protection and Advocacy (NARPA), one of the few independent, rights advocacy organizations in our movement. By then, we had many conversations about how there were still so few of us who identified as people of color in the survivor/ex-patient movement, and even fewer who were recognized as leaders. We were thinking about new ways to organize that would bring in more people of color.
I had just read Ruminations, a book written by KRS-ONE, that also included a CD with a mix of his remarks, lyrics, and a powerful intro by Dr. Cornel West. I remember jumping out of my skin with excitement as I told Celia about it. KRS was talking about Hip Hop in his book and how the world struggled to interpret our shared experiences in much the same way we talked about the world struggling to interpret the perspectives and experiences of our ex-patient/survivor movement.
Together, we reflected on how the emergence of Hip Hop was such a parallel to our ex-patient/survivor movement, and imagined a bunch of ways to bring these worlds together, including getting a few of us together with KRS-ONE in a keynote at one of our conferences examining to examine these parallels.
Unfortunately, behind the scenes, most of our other movement conference organizers didn’t get it or understand the value of the proposed conversation, so it didn’t happen. The Temple of Hip Hop was certainly a good start at raising consciousness in our communities, especially for people of color. However, we were still searching for a way to bring these two worlds of Hip Hop and rights advocacy together.
A decade later, over a chess board at yet another conference, a few of us, this time including my friend Luis O. Lopez (DJ LOL), started talking about it again from a different angle. We decided to try out a workshop in 2014 and then with support and feedback from Celia, and others who are now on the team, reshaped the workshop to offer:
· The macro story of Hip Hop emerging out of trauma and as a pathway for healing from trauma
· The micro elements that further described the Kulture of Hip Hop beyond music (language, dress, tagging, breaking, lyrics, rapping, deejaying, etc.)
· The parallel experience and the inherent connections to our survivor movement – creation of peer support, social justice
· The personal impact of Hip Hop on our recovery and lives
· Live DJ and Hip Hop experience throughout the presentation with a post-presentation “block party”
As a team, we brought together our capacity to talk about Hip Hop through our personal experience, highlight the parallels between Hip Hop and rights advocacy, and promote the growing evidence and recognition of Hip Hop as a healing force in our community, especially for those of us with psychiatric histories.
We eventually organized and launched a nationally recognized webinar, including a Hip Hop artist into the formula. We started to get even more Hip Hop artists and enthusiasts involved and now even the Museum of Hip Hop was contacting Celia to organize ways to bring more people into it.
Celia supported this vision. She knew it was a way to talk directly to people, especially young people like her son, who would otherwise never hear us. She found her own voice and perspective in these presentations about Hip Hop and our collective and individual healing from trauma.
Celia’s voice will live in through this and so much of her other work and contributions.
Watch a presentation on hip hop and mental health from Celia below: