V anessa Green is the co-founder and executive director of Call BlackLine, a nationally recognized hotline serving Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), and LGBTQI communities with an unapologetic Black Femme lens. The project strives to provide healing, non-carceral mental health care for those most impacted by structural violence.
Her work revolves around human rights, women’s rights and sexuality, race, and identity politics concerning African diaspora peoples. From an early age, Vanessa Green learned to be curious and ask questions about embracing care and interrupting violence.
Vanessa began her social justice work as the director of the Rape Crisis Program in Orange County, NY. In 2014, Vanessa, along with #100Sistahs, began the #FeedThePeopleSquad and fed over 2,500 house-less folks in Yonkers, NY. She co-founded a recognized chapter of Black Lives Matter in the New York Hudson Valley. Vanessa was previously the director of the nationally recognized Domestic Violence Program for Men, a NY Model Batterer Program. Her anti-oppression work also includes running an LGBTQI initiative in Hudson Valley, New York, Rockland Pride, for over twenty-three years. Vanessa was recognized in New York State as an activist in the fight to end men’s violence against women.
Currently, Vanessa directs the Call Blackline hotline, which advocates for peer support centered in Black Femme values that provides emotional and material aid to BIPOC, LGBTQI, and low-income folks who would otherwise not have access to care networks. Her work with Call Blackline is proudly by BIPOC people and for BIPOC people.
In her organizing and personal connections, Vanessa embodies her philosophy of community care: “everything that we do should be for the love and care of the people.”
You can support Call BlackLine by visiting www.callblackline.com.
This is the first interview in a series of conversations being conducted around the issue of hotline tracing and intervention. Other interviews include: Sera Davidow from The Wildflower Peer Support Line and Jahmil Roberts and Yana Calou from the Trans Lifeline. These interviews are part of Mad in America’s Suicide Hotline Transparency Project, which was born out of the belief that creating transparency and public access around suicide hotline intervention and call-tracing policies should be a priority. This project includes a directory of lines that do not trace or intervene without consent, a public poll, survivor interviews, and an open call for art. Please visit the project page to find out how you can participate.
Álvaro Gamio Cuervo: I want to give you the space to introduce yourself to the audience as you’d like to personally.
Vanessa Green: My pronouns are she/her and they. I am currently in San Diego, and I am currently working for the county of San Diego. I still continue my work with Call BlackLine, but at this point, due to the losses that we suffered during the pandemic, it’s continued to suffer. We have taken a two-month hiatus so we can regroup, refocus, and center ourselves mentally and physically. I include my listeners in that, but I want to thank you for having me talk about this incredible hotline and what it means to the BIPOC community, especially our LGBTQ folks.
Álvaro: We can start off more broadly, talking about how you arrived at your work as a community leader in peer support.
Vanessa: Oh my god! I am 60 years old, and I came into my activism kind of young. I always wondered as a young girl about the violence I saw in my own community, particularly the violence against women. I used to ask my mom, who was a survivor of domestic violence, why does this happen? What’s going on? Why do men hit us when they should be loving and nurturing us? My mom didn’t have an answer for me because I believe she, herself, probably didn’t know the answer to that, as she was still experiencing such violence from my dad. That kind of started it. My role was to be honest and say, “that doesn’t seem right.”
When I was in high school and wanted to go to college, I remember my counselor saying to me to go to vocational school. I was so impacted by it that I went home crying. I told my mom, “I want to go to school. I want to go to university.” She looked at me, and she said, “Why wouldn’t you?” I told her that my guidance counselor said I should go to vocational school, and my mom was like, “You’re going to go to college. You can be whatever you want to be, and we’re going to get you there.” My mom and my aunt were instrumental in getting me into the United Negro College Fund and helping me go to my first university, Virginia State University.
I tell people all the time that it’s a healing experience to go to an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) when you’re a Black person. But then I came back to New York because it was actually cheaper to go to school in New York City. When I graduated from college, I started understanding that I wanted to be a social worker—and I started working in foster care. I noticed while working there that all of us had caseloads of just Black and brown children. I was like, “are whites mistreated? Do white kids not come in?” That started me thinking. I started asking, “why is it that our children are being taken?” That was really what started me on my role to just start questioning. I called child services a huge slave ship that separates parents from their children. That started my activism, and after that, I became head of a rape crisis center.
I’ve had a journey in different things and fighting for the rights of folks, but I would say that it was my work in child services that led me to start asking these questions—why is it that the children who are coming to our care are BIPOC? I like to call it family policing now, following Dr. Dorothy Roberts. Why is it that our kids are taken from us? Let’s be real clear, back in the slavery period and even up until now, Black and brown children take care of white children. Why are our children always taken from us when we care for white people’s children?
Álvaro: Your mom and other women played such a central role in your formation as an organizer. Then going through all these jobs and noticing all these racial disparities, especially in foster care, really opened up your eyes to these systems of inequity.
Vanessa: Yes, very much so. I also saw how we placed children and where children were placed. When I was doing social work in the foster care system, people were afraid to place children with a gay man, and I’d say, “you do know that these people here who beat their partners are cishet (cisgender heterosexual),” although that wasn’t the word yet. I was advocating for children to remain in homes where there is love, care, and nurturing.
So I fought those good fights to make sure that these kids got adopted by these loving parents, which was rewarding. Because of Facebook, some of them still reach out to me and say: “Hey, I went to college. I’m in a family. I have kids. I’m doing okay, and thank you for being such a beautiful advocate when we were growing up.” Horrors come out of the foster care system, but there were also some wins too.
Álvaro: How do you feel like your work in foster care shaped how you organize around peer support, especially for BIPOC?
Vanessa: You know, I don’t think I was that good at it.
I grew up with an uncle, right? I had an uncle who was outwardly gay, and I heard so many things like, “Oh, he is gay because he was sexually assaulted.” My uncle would sit me down and say, “That’s not why I am who I am.” He’d say, “I was born this way.”
Working in the foster care system, I remembered what he told me: that all a child needs is one good parent who is nurturing and loving, or it could be two, but if you love a child, it doesn’t matter. People kept looking at me like, “Why are you advocating for those people,” and I would say, “because they love that child, and they want to raise this child.”
I don’t think I honed my LGBTQI—I would hate to say ally, but comradeship, I want to be a comrade for them—until I started working with my mentor, Phyllis B. Frank, who was so good on this. I have two queer children, and they are adults. I had a gender-fluid son, and he would do plays. I said to her one day, “he’s a Black male, and he’s in a dress,” and she said to me so lovingly, “Your son is not out to you, Vanessa, because of some of the things you say. You can be as woke as you want to be and this great organizer, but if he picks up that anything he’s doing is wrong, he’s not going to come out.” My son didn’t come out until he was in his 20s. She talked to me about how just subtle things can make our children not feel loved or accepted for who they are.
Through that journey with her and the beautiful people I met in Rockland, I realized that everyone LGBTQI should be treated with love, dignity, and respect. When I started wearing all my pride shirts, people were like, “Are you gay?” I was like, “it doesn’t matter.” I never answered that I was or wasn’t. They are my family, and if you think I’m gay, that’s okay. Now, I’m a little bit upset that I’m straight!
Phyllis B. Frank was the one who helped me see that to be this good comrade, I needed to embrace my son and not connect it to what I thought masculinity, and Black male masculinity, should be in this country. It was a journey! As a mom and as a mental health person, I’ve apologized to him and made a commitment to him, but I know I hurt him. I hurt him at certain times of his life. So that’s something, as a mom, I deal with. They embraced me because they said, “Ma, you are one of the openest and coolest people,” but I know I still harmed him when he was younger. That’s all mom guilt, but I’m okay to have mom guilt.
Álvaro: Thank you for sharing that profound story with us. You gave me goosebumps. It’s so intimate and vulnerable to admit that we’re all capable of harm, and sometimes there are other ways to love each other. From a very early age, it sounds like your uncle helped you realize that, and along the way, you’ve had key figures that have allowed you to grow in your peer support. We sometimes forget in academia and organizing that there are individual connections that form us as a person, especially in this work.
Vanessa: So much. It’s so true. Also, one thing for me to remember when I’m on this journey is that I have to listen to those voices, especially my Black trans sisters. I’m not doing anything without checking in, like, “what do you think, is this wrong?”
Years ago, I wouldn’t have done that. I thought, “I’ve got this, I know.” It was these great folks in my life who have said, “you didn’t check in with us, so why do you need to know now?” I have been blessed to have people who didn’t cut me off or people who were willing to help me see and bring me in. People would say call out. I didn’t have people call me out. I always had people who would gently bring me in and say, “Hey, that was not right. Let’s help you. Let me tell you why.” I’ve been blessed to have those kinds of folks in my life.
Álvaro: All of that has led you to make this beautiful organization called Call BlackLine. Can you tell us about what services your organization offers and what’s unique about Call BlackLine?
Vanessa: We are unique in so many ways. We do simple stuff. We don’t have a time limit. You can call, and I’ve been on calls with people for an hour or two hours, but what I’ve noticed is that when people are allowed to tell their stories, they don’t talk as long the next day because we’ve already heard their story. We’ve already affirmed and acknowledged their pain, their hurt, or whatever they are going through.
We are all marginalized folks. It’s just that way. We’ve had white people become listeners, but we tell white people that you have to be transparent when somebody calls, and you have to say that you are not Black, or you are not Latin, or you are not indigenous. A lot of times, people don’t want to talk to them. Black people say to me, “I need to talk to somebody who knows my experience, who understands what it means to be Black in this country.” White people tend not to last. They are well-intentioned, and what I’ve said to them is give us money then, because if you want to help, we can use the money.
We train anybody who wants to be trained, but most of the people who have stayed with Call BlackLine, even through the hardship, are poor, indigenous, Black, LGBTQ, and Latinx folks. Those folks tend to stay. I find that impacted people, marginalized people, we give all the time. We know that most of the money donated is from poor people or people who don’t have a lot of money. They stay for the long haul, and so they are the ones who’ve been around since the beginning of the hotline.
We offer non-judgmental listening. A lot of times, when people do call, I give my listeners an out if you think it’s too much because I can see all the calls coming in. They just texted me. Could you call this person back? I will call them back.
Suicidal ideation. I have one sister who is a listener and a rape and domestic violence advocate. She handled some suicide calls in Canada that were brilliant. She got two of them in one week, and she handled them brilliantly.
We do not engage with police ever, ever, ever, and I think that’s a turnoff for a lot of clinicians and other organizations. But we don’t call the police because we know that if a person is calling and they have suicidal ideation, it doesn’t mean that they will kill themselves. Other hotlines will connect the police, and then the police come out. People have told me horror stories of being hospitalized against their will and then being mistreated during the hospitalization, so we don’t call the police.
We do offer, and it’s not common knowledge, but we do offer a little bit of money. If somebody calls and they are crying and say, “my lights got turned off,” and it happened a lot during the pandemic, we will Venmo people money. I don’t know if they are lying or not, and I don’t really care. I don’t police people and money. I think this country does that enough. We don’t put ourselves out as a mutual aid organization, but we will send money. I had a young man in Portugal who called. He was in a Ph.D. program in Portugal, and he goes, “I don’t know if I’m going to finish because my computer broke.” I sent him money for a new computer. We do things like that.
We do give referrals, but we try to vet our referrals. We want to make sure these referrals that we give people are LGBTQI-affirming, that they have an oppression analysis, all of that. It’s funny because a lot of clinicians refer people to us who are white, and I giggle; you don’t give me any money, but you refer them to me. We get that.
Based on the state and if I have a connection with folks, we get people who call about people being mistreated in prison. I have some connections in New York with people at Sing Sing in California, I have a few connections. I will connect people with prison advocates and prison abolishment folks to help when they have relatives in prison.
We don’t have a huge presence in the South, but we definitely have a foothold in the West Coast, East Coast, and Northeast because I still have a lot of contacts in Black Lives Matter all over the country, which is helpful.
Álvaro: It sounds like it’s about meeting folks where they are at, providing liberatory emotional support, and, when possible, vetted referrals and financial support. Can you describe your personal philosophy around caring for community members more specifically, especially when they are in crisis?
Vanessa: My philosophy is that everything that we do should be for the love and care of the people.
My philosophy is that if you call—I don’t care who calls—if you call us, we will listen with non-judgmental support. It’s funny the calls we get. I’ll never forget when the pandemic started; a mom called me, and she said, “oh my god, my son wanted a hug.” He was two, “and I didn’t want to hug him.” I think she was overwhelmed. The pandemic had just hit, and she said he went to bed, but she called me crying because she felt she hurt him, so I basically just talked her through that. When he wakes up tomorrow, you can tell him that mommy was having a bad day, it was nothing to do with him, and you love him. I said, get down on your knees and hug him. She sobbed for like 10 minutes because she felt like, “I ruined my son.” I reassured her that he was going to be okay.
The pandemic pulled the covers back off of the inequities and disparities in this country. Some of the calls we got were just heart-wrenching. People were saying, “I don’t have food,” and I’d try to connect them as best as I could to mutual aid. I used Amazon a little bit to deliver food to some people, but Amazon got weird on me and was like, “you have to take out a business account,” which I thought was because I was using different addresses. I don’t have a business account, but for Jeff Bezos, who I hate, I guess that’s maybe his security. I couldn’t tell you why. But it is heart-wrenching when you’re trying to help a community, and the corporations come in, and they are like, “we’re not delivering there because you use a different address.” I had to navigate that too, but our philosophy is just the love and care of all people.
Álvaro: You also mentioned not calling the police. That can be such a stark shift for clinicians, social workers, and anyone in a helping profession. Why wouldn’t you call when someone is in crisis, especially around suicide? Can you speak to the audience a little bit about why that philosophy is so important for anybody in crisis, especially BIPOC and Black folks particularly?
Vanessa: When I created Call BlackLine after I went to Ferguson after Mike Brown was murdered, and so on the way back, somebody on the bus said, “Black people need their own hotline.”
I knew that anything I created could not involve the police because we were coming back from communities that had been impacted by police violence. When I was creating it, initially, we used to dispatch in Newburg, New York. If somebody had a mental illness crisis, we would dispatch. What we realized soon—quicker than we knew—is that you need a lot of people to do rapid response. It can’t be two or three. You need people to be on the streets when the police come to divert. You need people in the house. We knew that even though we handled a few calls, like coming into the homes, we knew that in order to do this well, you need more people.
We decided that we were just going to do a hotline, and then some of the first calls we were receiving were from people who were—and this was amazing to me—men who were saying, “Hey, you know this police officer he just jumped out of his truck and beat me up for no reason.” So, I’m like, I can’t call the police on the police because it makes no sense, but I also know that in certain communities, the police are just not our friends, especially when dealing with mental wellness issues. Many people who die in police hands are people who are in a mental wellness crisis because they are not equipped. It’s about more than them being equipped, but they are just not equipped to deal with that type of stuff. From the onset, because it was created out of our Black Lives Matter chapter, we knew we were not going ever to call the police and ever engage with the police.
Álvaro: I can imagine it also builds a sense of trust with folks who call the line as well.
Vanessa: Yes! It’s funny; some people will call and whisper it like, “will you call the police?” We’re like, “no, we will not.” Then they start talking.
So, I don’t know if they are in the house or whatever, but there are people who, before they even start telling us what’s going on, actually ask us, “but if I tell you, are you going to call the police?” I’ve had women who were being battered by their intimate partner also call and say, “are you going to call the police?” No. We connect those women and LGBTQ victims who are in the same situation to services that are specifically for them that deal with domestic violence.
We strongly encourage anybody who lives in the United States to be in counseling. But unfortunately, counseling can be hard for some folks. It’s hard. We don’t have the resources. It’s a country that doesn’t feel that even universal health care is a thing. We try to connect people. Some folks will see somebody for me a couple of times just to get them out of a crisis, but we don’t have free mental wellness care. We just don’t.
The struggle during the pandemic was when so many young kids were calling because they were just feeling so alone and missing their friends. Sometimes people don’t understand that you could have good parents but being home with them 24/7 is not a good thing. I mean, we’ve all been teenagers. Your mom can get on your last nerve. I would talk to youth in their closet. It was like, “My mom is getting on my nerves.” Can you go in the closet? And they would go in the closet to talk.
It’s just having someone that you can talk to. That’s what we provide. We are here if you want to talk. You don’t have to be suicidal. You don’t have to be in this huge crisis. We had older people who called who just wanted to talk. We had older Black people who called to say, “I miss my grandkids.” Those are the sweetest people because they always apologize for bothering you. We’re like; it’s not a problem. The youth and the older people always apologize for bothering us, and we thought that that was bizarre. I’m like, “you’re not bothering us. We love you.”
Also, with our youth, we always try to—we don’t know what they look like—but try to affirm their beauty. We had so many Black girls who called because they felt ugly and maybe had suicidal ideation. Sometimes we were saying, “you are so important to us. You are beautiful. You are loved,” and these young girls would sob and say, “Nobody ever told me that.” Our listeners always make it a point to affirm our youth and let them know how valuable they are to us. This country tells our youth, our brown, Black, indigenous youth, that they are throwaways half of the time.
I tell people that if you recognize that they are younger, please make sure that they know that any loss impacts us. Every police killing too. Youth call because they are afraid. If it’s in a community where this person was killed, they call us like, “I’m so afraid. I’m afraid I’m going to get killed,” and I can’t say that won’t happen because it could, but we tell them the truth. We are transparent. We are transparent, and we try to tell them that we would be on the streets for them even if something happened to them. We know people will come out, will fight for you. So, we always try to make sure that any child who calls that line knows that they are valuable. We will cry with you too. I actually had some listeners who cried with people, and I’m like, “Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
Álvaro: For marginalized people or people who experience police violence or forced institutionalization, the community is what, at the end of the day, can provide life-saving and life-affirming care, especially when people are scared for their life and reaching out for help. We tell so many people to reach out for help when it actually isn’t safe for them all the time. You all are standing in the gap, really—that’s how I see it, I’m not sure if you see it in that way—for folks who are being thrown away by formal services and can’t receive help.
Vanessa: Yes, we get all kinds of calls. I got people who call about their supervisor is horrible. But I’ve stayed on the phone with trans women, and it’s like, “I think this car is following me,” and I said, “okay, stay on the line with me, talk a little louder like you’re talking to the police even though you might not be.” We stay with them on the phone until they get in their house and are safe.
We tell people to call us whenever. That is our motto. You’re in a supermarket, and you’re feeling some kind of way, call us. We do a lot of consumer complaints as well because people get mistreated in stores too in this country. I’ve had people call me and say, “the manager kicked me out of Walmart for no reason.” I’ll say, “Oh yeah, what Walmart is it?” And one thing about me, I’m calling that Walmart, and if I don’t get the manager, I’m going to call the corporate. The goal one day is to have an app where people can drop pins and say, “I’ve experienced discrimination at this store.” I don’t care. We’re going to drop the pin on that store, and we’re going to drop the pin on that restaurant.
I have people kicked out of restaurants and call me in tears, like, “Why did I get kicked out? I don’t know. The woman that I was yelling at was yelling at me first.” For people who navigate being Black, brown, indigenous, and queer in this country, this is every day. I don’t like the word micro-aggression because every time somebody hurts me because I’m Black, it’s macro to me. I feel so bad.
We’re navigating such tough stuff in this country, and I don’t think a lot of people understand that. I appreciate you said it—we stand on the gap that nobody talks about. Sometimes if you have a therapist, you’re like, “I don’t want to talk about me being mistreated in the store,” but we’ll field those calls. We listen to those calls, and we’re like, we’re sorry that happened to you. We don’t say, “what did you do?” We’re sorry it happened to you.
Álvaro: What does it feel like for you to be part of a community providing necessary support for individuals, BIPOC individuals, queer and trans individuals, low-income individuals who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access care?
Vanessa: It feels good, and also, it’s overwhelming.
When I decided to shut down for two months, I struggled. I had to touch base with people because I was really struggling. People who are close to me were like, “Vanessa, you’ve all been here for a long time, for a nice few years. You all provide so many services, and you all need to take a break.” I agonized over it. I didn’t sleep because I felt like they needed me, and then somebody was like, “Don’t get that savior complex,” but I know it’s a valuable service.
It was wonderful when my therapist said, “You need to heal. Your whole team needs to heal.” A lot of us poor people don’t do self-care. I’ve got to be honest; people work three or four jobs and don’t do self-care. Then you’re also experiencing so much hate too. We get so many hate calls. Then you internalize that, and you all need time to heal. So, I spoke to all the listeners, and it was funny how quickly they agreed they needed two months. I’m like, “so you all were really hurting out here without telling me,” but I also think they were agonizing over it like I was. I told them that I need you all to be ready to go in April. It’s needed, but I still check-in. I still see the calls come in, and I’m like, “oh my god,” but it’s the process that I have to go through myself about being this person whose goal is to save the whole world, and that’s not possible.
Álvaro: What you just said resonates with me so powerfully, noticing all the healing that needs to happen. While folks are telling communities to provide care, they might not realize that it also means putting yourself in harm’s way due to all of the hate that you might get in response. That’s something that folks don’t realize, especially with hotlines and community care. Can you speak more about that hate you all have received at Call BlackLine?
Vanessa: It was bizarre, and I want to smack Google. If you Google hotline BLM, we come up. So, we put up a message that said we were not connected with BLM, that we were a crisis line, but still, they call, and they still do hate. They still text hate. I didn’t understand it, but around every incident of either Black Lives Matter or President Trump, the calls would come—it would be outrageous how many calls we would get from people that were just needing to sing the N-word song, calling us Bs and the N-word. During the day, you’ll get like maybe 10 to 20. You get some, but when something happens, like when Trump lost, we actually turned the line off for a couple of days because I guess the people felt that they needed to spew their hate to us over his loss. The hate calls are amazing.
For my listeners, it depends on their personality. I have one in the South. She calls them spam calls. She goes, “It’s spam. I hang up.” Then I have others who say, “Vanessa, I can’t answer no calls; I’m tired of being called the N-word.” So, everybody is very different in how they deal with it.
My system is not good because we only have a limit of blocking 1,000 people, and let’s be real clear, we reset 1,000 and then some, and then we start unblocking the ones at the bottom so we can block more, the newer hate calls. We don’t get a lot of money. We have never had a lot of money. I know that if I had enough money, I could have a system like the suicide hotline and, just like battered women shelters, those 800-numbers.
I wish Google would change the algorithms because, you know, everybody tells me, “Vanessa if you put in BLM, you all come up.” It has nothing to do with BLM. These people really want to call and spew their hate.
Álvaro: The fact that as an emerging organization, you need to build this infrastructure to stop people from enacting harm on you it’s just the saddest and most enraging thing. I’m wondering what are the biggest challenges in your work in addition to this hate that you all receive?
Vanessa: The biggest challenge is the ability to have enough funding. I don’t care about being paid. I’ve been blessed that I can have a pretty decent job right now, but I want to be able to pay my listeners. I have one that’s been with me since the inception, and she is a poor indigenous woman in Newburg. I want to be able to pay a stipend. They should be paid.
I get mad when I fill out grants because sometimes, when you say certain things like, “we do not ever deal with the police,” a lot of people don’t give. We don’t really qualify for federal or state aid because they want you to actually work for hand in hand with the police. We live, and we survive on the kindness of people who make donations. We have a PayPal on our website that you can just give us money. We live on kindness.
Every once in a while, when I don’t feel I have enough money in my account to cover just some of the stuff I need, I’ll just shout out to friends on Facebook, and people have always come through and give me maybe $1,000 to pay the bills. We survive that way but securing a grant would allow us to pay the listeners. They should be paid.
I tell people if they want to say, “I want to use you,” I’m like, “could you not use me because we don’t have the capacity right now.” People respect that, but it also hurts me that we have to put a limit on how much we can be marketed or put out or shared.
Álvaro: It costs a lot of money to care for folks, and often people get so excited that there is something out there like Call BlackLine, and they don’t realize how much work goes into it financially, emotionally, structurally. I know sometimes doing this work impacts funding opportunities because a lot of suicide prevention efforts prioritize active rescue, which is when folks receive calls from police or emergency personnel. So, often people need to sacrifice a lot of money to hold onto abolitionist values and hold onto community care values. How do you feel being dedicated to anti-violence values affects the funding in your organization?
Vanessa: I am okay with that. One thing I tell people is that we have to model our peacefulness. As a domestic violence expert, I had to always model for the men that I was teaching that I can’t be nasty to you. I’m really clear that the violence, that policing in this country is violent. I can’t deal with those institutions. I also struggle with dealing with mental health institutions because those institutions are also violent. I say that in my grants, which is why people do not offer the funding.
Some mental wellness institutions are very oppressive. As we grow and learn in this country, we’re learning that you need to have an analysis around race and oppression, but a lot of people still are using this formal type of training and intervention that is harmful to people. I tell people police stand in for killing brown, Black, and indigenous folks. They stand in, but let’s be real clear: education kills us, medical professionals kill us, every institution in the United States kills marginalized folks here. We suffer violence every day.
We are a catalyst. I’ve had people call me and say they just need to talk because their day was horrible. A boss or supervisor mistreating you is violent, even if they don’t hit you. It’s almost like we’ve been so dehumanized that people don’t even see that you’re little quip hurt that person; your little ignoring hurt that person. I tell people all the time that one thing we need in our life is peace in your home.
Álvaro: It is possible to hold onto these values and practice community care in a liberatory way, even if the funding doesn’t show up immediately. That’s not to say it’s easy. It’s easier said than done, but it’s a possibility. That’s why your work is so powerful from my perspective. You’re crafting a future and a world where folks can thrive and doing it on so little too.
Vanessa: You know it’s funny; I never thought people believed in me. But, a woman in New Jersey does grant-writing, and she’s writing grants for me this year. She’s agreed to write for free, and she charges other people, but she says I make it up because “The work you do touches people. Your work is legitimately boots on the ground, grassroots, touching people.” She will write my grants this year for free, and I love her to death for doing it. She is white, she is queer, and I always tell white people that it’s called creative reparation.
You can do things to support us without all this money. I tell people who need places to stay. Do you have an apartment? You don’t have to charge them rent for a couple of months. That’s creative reparation. I’ve asked white people, can you give somebody money for a couple of Uber rides? That’s creative reparation. I just need people to think creatively because people always think, “oh my god, reparations are millions of dollars.” It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Think creatively about what you, in your little space of the world, while you’re out here on the streets for BLM or George Floyd, that you could do creatively to help and lift up another person that’s hurting, a marginalized person. It’s easy to do, but I don’t think people know it. They just think about large gobs of money, and I don’t. I think pieces of money. Pieces of support.
Álvaro: I want to ask more specifically, what do you think needs to change in order to support Black individuals experiencing suicidal ideation or other types of crises?
Vanessa: That’s a hard question, because it’s like we’ve got to end poverty, we’ve got to end … You got me on that.
I really wish that the United States embraced mental wellness and mental health care universally. That would mean that they would have to embrace medical care universally, and they don’t.
I also wish that the 211s and some of the other hotlines took training like Undoing Racism, People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, or Getting to the Root. I recently took Challenges of Latinx in Dismantling White Supremacy, and I tell people all the time it was one of the best trainings I’ve taken in years. I think that folks who want to help need to be tapped into people like Dr. Joy tapped into these trainings. I don’t know if we can make people kinder because (like Dr. Edwin Nichols’ axiology of how we relate to each other) sometimes people just can’t relate.
I think that this work belongs to us. It belongs to marginalized people. We have to be the helpers of our people, and we are, right? We are. I think that because this country has people so segregated and so overworked with three jobs—I can’t help you, I’m tired—that if we could have that community support, that is so important. One thing that people always tell me is that we are a community. I don’t think a hotline is a community, but they say we’re a community, and we are their community.
People love to say Black people don’t get along, and I believe that’s a fallacy because, within this work that I do in the hotline, I find that marginalized folks are a lot more connected than the media and other people portray. We love each other. We love each other, so I don’t want us ever to give up hope on each other. I tell people all the time, “don’t drink the Kool-Aid.” Approach that person and provide that person the same dignity and respect you would want in your community, especially if they’re in your community.
Also, I want to end houselessness. I’m aggravated at this country for not ending it because they could. I just see so much, and I hear so much. When it was really cold in Chicago, a Black man called me and said he was lying and sleeping on the snow. I mean, why? He wouldn’t go into a shelter because he said it wasn’t safe. I was able to reach out to some of my folks in Chicago. He didn’t go in their house, they said, but they did put out a plug for him to plug in his stuff, and he did take the food. We have to do better.
We’ve failed in the United States. During the pandemic, we failed. The pandemic only showed us what was going on before the pandemic. We’re not gentle and caring with any folks that we feel are beneath us or don’t deserve dignity and respect. That was my journey. I wasn’t born this way. I probably had the same kind of messages and socialization, but as I grew, I started learning that your voice and what you do to people impacts them; I started to change, even how I looked at myself.
I respect you. I respect people regardless. If you curse me out, I will still respect you. It’s that peace that I’ve always embraced, and I get that from my dad. When my dad passed away, he had a third-grade education, and as violent as he was to my mom, at his funeral, people stood outside because my dad fed everybody in the community. My dad gave kids money if they needed it or had a baby and you needed it. I got that from him. I know I did. Even though he was violent to my mom, I didn’t stop loving him.
Álvaro: Yeah, holding out hope and holding out love for individuals and communities and that systems will change. That’s a hard thing to come by because, over time, folks get worn down. How can readers support your work and be in solidarity with organizers like you?
Vanessa: You could go onto www.callblackline.com. When we kick back open, I’m looking for people who want to support Call BlackLine. They don’t have to be listeners because listening is hard. I’m not going to lie about that. It’s hard. We have a lot of skills in our community. If there are people who are good with computers, people who are good with creating stuff, flyers, etcetera (You should see my flyers. Oh, Lord!) I appreciate anything that they want to give.
We are going to do a training, but I might have to charge, and it’ll be a sliding scale. I will be doing another training for Call BlackLine, which will open back up. We have enough listeners to answer the calls that come in and be available for calls that can’t come in. If they want to get involved, hit us up. Also, if you want to donate, there is a donate button. I know that times are tough. People lost their jobs because of the pandemic. I have somebody who gives three dollars a month, and I appreciate his three dollars. He doesn’t know, but I do every once in a while say, “I appreciate you for what you do.”
Whatever people want, and if they need me to do a training somewhere, I just asked for an honorarium because Black women should get paid. We should get paid for this.
Let me give you the number: 1-800-604-5841. We’ll be up and running on April 1st. Share it! Share the number if you can.
Álvaro: If you were to summarize the driving point of your work and its importance, what would you want listeners to know about providing community support on your hotline?
Vanessa: People who are LGBTQI, Black, indigenous, people of color, live with mental wellness issues too. We just don’t give them as many services as we should, so I want you just to offer support. Sometimes people just need an ear to listen. They don’t need advice. They actually just want someone to listen. Remember just be that listening person for someone. Just listen.
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Foundations