Dear VOCAL Members and Friends:
Institutionalized racism in the United States is a public health crisis (Vestal, 2020). The widespread negative impacts of Living While Black in America cannot continue to be ignored by White Americans (Thurston, 2019). For the wellness of our community members—from every racial and/or ethnic group—we must use our organizational platform and voice our support for the national Black Lives Matter movement, and Virginia’s Justice and Reformation Campaign.
There are no excuses or explanations that we will offer regarding the past mistakes of our organizational leaders. VOCAL was silent when Marcus-David Peters was killed by a Richmond Police Officer in May 2018, yet made a public statement when Gay Ellen Plack was killed by a Henrico Police Officer in September 2019. This situation is evidence of the invisible threads of institutionalized racism within our organization and membership. Recognizing this mistake, which likely retraumatized many of our VOCAL members of color, has evolved into the catalyst for our advocacy efforts moving forward. We sincerely apologize to the Peters family and all of our members who were hurt by our past inactions and/or actions. We also recognize that apologies, without subsequent action, are useless.
Racism is real and present within our social structures. White privilege is real and present in daily life (DiAngelo, 2018). If you don’t agree with us, check out a few of the linked resources throughout this statement. If you still refuse to recognize the presence of racial inequities throughout our nation and culture, then this simply may be where our paths diverge.
As an organization, we are ready to begin the long journey of redistributing power, equitably. We will work to shift our organization’s internal culture, as well as supporting advocacy efforts that address and combat racism on the policy level. Some of the first internal steps that we plan to take will be hiring a racial equity consultant. Through our future work with the racial equity consultant, we hope to learn strategies for how we can shift our organization to be more racially representative, in staff and Board.
In preparation for the Virginia Legislature’s Special Session, VOCAL commits to working in support of the legislative priorities shared by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC) and the demands of the Justice and Reformation Campaign. These initiatives include, but are not limited to:
  1. Declaring racism a public health crisis in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Specifically, the removal of all Confederate memorials and namesakes across the state, which currently act as visual reminders of slavery in America.
  2. Divesting in law enforcement in order to reinvest those funds towards community initiatives. Specifically, using a portion of the law enforcement budget to create a Citizen Review Board, with subpoena power, and to implement the Marcus Alert.
  3. Requiring independent investigations of all police-involved shootings. Specifically, reopening the investigation into the unjust killing of Marcus-David Peters.
Police officers are not trained mental health practitioners. Unfortunately, many officers are forced to approach individuals in the midst of behavioral health crises without the proper knowledge or training. The cycle of funneling individuals living with serious mental illnesses into the prison system, releasing them into unstable living situations, and criminalizing their symptoms when in public, must end (Treatment Advocacy Center, 2016). One way to end the cycle is through the implementation of the Marcus Alert across Virginia. With a Marcus Alert in place, behavioral health professionals and peers would be the first responders in situations involving someone experiencing a mental health crisis. Rather than officers being forced to operate outside of their competence, they would be present as support people to the mental health professionals who would be working within their professional expertise.
In addition to the legislative priorities above, VOCAL advocates will continue to support policies that value Peer Recovery Specialists and the life changing work that they do with Virginians struggling with mental health and substance use challenges. The utilization of Peer Recovery Specialists within the behavioral healthcare continuum of care is an evidenced-based practice, proven in multiple studies to reduce inpatient hospitalizations, decrease clients’ substance misuse, and improve the relationships between clients and their healthcare providers (SAMHSA, 2020).
While the legislative priorities with racial equity and social justice focus may not seem to be directly related to our organization’s core mission, we stand firm in our belief that the Black Lives Matter movement is the beginning of a community and systems transformation that will benefit all Americans, Virginians, and VOCAL members. The liberation (i.e. the elimination of stigma and discrimination) of the Recovery community is bound together with the liberation of the Black community. Marcus-David Peters was our community member and due to the criminalization of his existence as a Black man exhibiting mental health symptoms, his life was cut short. Marcus-David was not provided the privilege to discover his personal pathway to recovery. We cannot continue to stand by, as a behavioral health advocacy organization, and allow these injustices to continue unchecked. We stand with the movement towards racial equity and demand justice for the Peters family.
We are a membership driven organization, which means that we are open to feedback and accountable to our members and community. However, it does not mean that we will remain passive in order to avoid conflict. We hope that through our engagement in difficult conversations, about social privileges and oppressions, positive social change will emerge as a result. If you would like to join us in these conversations, we invite you to participate in our monthly Advocacy Committee calls on Thursdays at 1:30pm. Please be on the lookout for announcements about the calls in the VOCAL eDigest.
Sincerely,
Deidre Johnson
Executive Director
Jerry Higginson
Board President

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