In just six weeks during the coronavirus pandemic, Saleemah McNeil, a psychotherapist and the founder of Oshun Family Center in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, raised over $98,000 to provide free counseling to Black Americans.
McNeil felt compelled to act after weeks of witnessing what she describes as a "highlight reel" of "Black bodies being brutalized and murdered by police brutality," which ultimately led to nationwide protests against racial injustice. "I woke up that morning, after it seemed as if my city was on fire for three days, and I realized, 'I can do something. Let me start a fundraiser,'" she says.
In early June, McNeil collaborated with Dr. Valerie Braunstein, a psychologist and the founder of Philly Psychology, a private practice near Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square. Braunstein, whose practice separately provides free therapy to members of the Black community, spread the word about McNeil's cause through networking and social media and helped McNeil's campaign go viral.
Video by Courtney Stith
McNeil has used the funds to provide a series of eight 60-minute free sessions to clients who have experienced racial trauma.
"I figured if I take away the financial barrier, I know that people in the Black community want to get therapy. Let me do this so they can at least try to see what this experience is like to hopefully begin their healing journey," McNeil says.
Initially, McNeil's goal was to raise $5,000, but after a celebrity caught wind of her cause, "it went viral," McNeil says.
On June 10, Benj Pasek, one of the songwriters behind the film "La La Land" and the Broadway hit "Dear Evan Hansen," saw McNeil's PayPal fundraising page on Instagram. For his birthday, Pasek, a Philadelphia native, asked his followers to donate to McNeil's cause — and promised to match up to $15,000 of contributions.
After Pasek tweeted, other celebrities donated and publicized McNeil's efforts, including Netflix's "Queer Eye" stars Tan France and Antoni Porowski, Broadway star Leslie Odom Jr. (known for his Tony and Grammy-award winning role in "Hamilton"), Netflix's "The Politician" star Ben Platt, and NBC's "Parks and Recreation" actor Ben Schwartz.
She woke up to an influx of donations and notifications. "Oh my goodness, I was blown away," McNeil says. "To go viral and get so much attention in the media has been amazing. It really does highlight the work, not only that I am doing, but the clinicians that I've contracted to do this work, that we are 10 toes down in the community, fostering a positive social change."
"Saleemah deserves all of the rooftops and all of the loudspeakers to shout this cause from," says Shay Leonia, a patient of McNeil's who nominated her as a Homegrown Hero.
After losing her job four months ago as a result of widespread coronavirus-related layoffs, Leonia could no longer afford to continue treatment with McNeil. "My job kind of abandoned me and the rest of the staff and threw us on unemployment, but I have not received unemployment for four months," she explains. "So I've just been living off of donations from friends and family, because I've been lost in the system, and I had to cease my therapy because of it."
McNeil, however, recognized Leonia's financial hardship and offered her services for free. "As soon as I got a hit with the unemployment situation, she reached out to me and said, 'You know what? I understand that you don't have the money to pay me now, but I don't care. We need to go forward with your counseling.' ... That just speaks to the kind of person that she is," Leonia says.
Leonia wanted to publicly thank McNeil for her selflessness to her and to the Black community, and after learning about the Homegrown Heroes initiative, Leonia saw an opportunity: "It just gave me the opportunity to shout from the rooftops about Saleemah and her cause."
Leonia hopes others can continue to benefit from McNeil's services as she continues to raise money. "She is one of the greatest people that I've had enter my life in the past year and I'm so thankful that I have her as a resource," Leonia says.
In addition to providing mental health services to underserved minority communities, McNeil also hopes to bring awareness of the need for cultural competency training among mental health care providers.
"It's very important for clinicians — especially the clinicians that are not of color — to have those trainings, so they can start to debunk some of those myths and prejudices that kind of impede the work that you're able to do with people of color," McNeil says.
Since many therapists lack training in cultural competency, they are unable to properly treat Black Americans, McNeil says. In addition, many Black Americans mistrust the medical system due to systemic racial inequality, and financial barriers often make mental health treatment unobtainable for the Black community, she explains.
That is one of the reasons McNeil was excited to collaborate with Braunstein to raise money. "She's a White clinician who was offering free therapy to the Black community, so we had a really good, raw, candid conversation as to what it looks like to be culturally competent, and how certificates and training don't necessarily equate to cultural competency. And she was really open to the idea and was very willing to learn," McNeil says.
McNeil hopes that her cross-racial and cross-cultural collaboration sets an example for the country. "I hope that America, in this moment within the movement, realizes the importance of allyship. I could not have done everything that I did ... as far as receiving donations, being able to hire people within my community, to treat people in the community, without the solidarity from allies," McNeil says.
As of July 13, McNeil is just $1,836.50 away from her fundraising target of $100,000. If she hits that milestone, she plans to open a brick-and-mortar clinic. "My vision is big," she says. "It is that we have a fully functioning center in Philadelphia ... and people will come from all over the city to receive services from Black clinicians to the Black community. Not only with therapy, but all of the other perinatal mood and anxiety disorders ... the whole nine coming to this one center."
So far, McNeil has hired eight clinicians to service 47 clients. But there are over 150 people on her practice's waiting list.
McNeil believes that efforts like hers, that both employ members of and provide services to the Black community, will help promote racial financial equality as well. "I hope that all of the corporations who now have grants for Black-owned businesses and Black-owned start-ups and nonprofit organizations that are run by Black people, or women, or different minorities ... continue to build capital and economic sustainability for those in the Black community," she says.
McNeil also hopes promoting racial and cultural competency education within her field will help effect broader change. "This isn't only for White therapists, or clinicians, or physicians that should undergo this type of training, but Black people should as well, and people of all minorities. We should all have a good understanding of what it may be like for the person sitting across from us to experience this, sitting across from someone who doesn't have the same race or same culture."
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