Bahia Overton is new leader for Black Parent Initiative
Bahia Overton, the new executive director of Portland’s Black Parent Initiative, has only been on the job since Jan. 3, but has big plans for the nonprofit. PHOTO BY BEVERLY CORBELL
A frequent problem facing teachers, social workers and others providing resources to African-American children and their families is a lack of cultural awareness, since most of them — in the whitest major city in America — are white, which can lead to unintentionally missing cultural clues.
Bahia Overton, the new executive director of Portland’s Black Parent Initiative, has been on the job for less than a month, but her direction is clear: To improve the cultural awareness social workers and others have in providing resources to the black community and grow support for programs the group sponsors to help black kids and black families become successful.
The Black Parent Initiative has been helping families attain educational success for their children while also helping the entire family achieve financial, educational and spiritual growth since its founding in 2006.
Programs start at birth, with BPI’s Sacred Roots Doula program, where trained professionals help families through the entire birthing process, from pre-natal counseling to home visits after the baby is born.
Photo by Beverly Corbell
Bahia Overton, the new executive director of Portland’s Black Parent Initiative, puts her focus on improving the cultural awareness social workers and others have in providing resources to the black community and growing support for BPI programs to help black kids and black families become successful.
The agency also offers breastfeeding and lactation education and support, including home visits. The idea is for African American women to have the best possible circumstances for bringing babies into the world, and then to prepare them for educating their children to eventually become self-sufficient adults.
Overton, whose first name is pronounced Ba-HEE-ah, said BPI also offers employment and financial counseling and even provides help with in setting up bank accounts including a nest egg to help people get started.
“We try to help families with employment instability to become stabilized through coaching, and we partner with Worksystems Inc., Portland Public Schools, Multnomah County Health Department” and other community organizations, she said.
“We are uniquely at the beginning of the development continuum,” she said. “We have this kind of “born to learn” program and what we are doing with parents and mothers – before they give birth – to help prepare them for educating their children.”
That’s just the beginning, she said, and after home visits are complete, BPI steers parents toward educational programs such as Albina Head Start and KairosPDX, a public charter school and nonprofit with the goal of closing the education achievement gap for black children.
“Those are very culturally specific and affirming organizations that serve a large population of our community members – African and African American and African American bi-racial families,” she said. “We just want to make sure that we’re strong on the front end of that continuum, making sure that all the services that we offer have sustainable funding streams, that people understand how they’re all connected to learning, and how learning is very much connected to being able to be stable and also support social and emotional wellbeing. Those are all things that are very critical to this community.”
Overton said that BPI has seven full-time staff members, two student interns, a student with a bachelor of social work, and will soon have several students getting their master’s in social work.
The agency is outgrowing its space at 2915 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., and will soon be looking for a new home, she said.
“We’re going to hire a new director of maternal health and some more home visiting people,” she said.
As with most nonprofits, BPI relies on donations and will have a big fundraising gala in May, when Overton will introduce herself to funders. In the meantime, she said she will continue to focus on increasing awareness of BPI, including a book drive with Barnes and Noble in February.
Before getting into administration, Overton was a social worker and child and family therapist for 16 years, then worked for about four years for the Chalkboard Project, working with school superintendents and teacher leaders “to center equity not only in their cultural centers, but in their practices and strategies.”
Overton is close to completing her doctorate in social work, focusing on black girls in foster care, and she gave one example of how missing cultural clues can have deleterious effects.
“I had a girl getting into fights and they said she was defiant with schizoid tendencies, she’s depressed — all those things,” she said. “But I discovered she was in a home with parents who were not African American who did not know how to care for her hair, so she was going to school getting teased by black and white kids, and so she was fighting.”
So the root cause of the girl’s problems was not internal, but external, Overton said.
“All of her therapists were white, all of her social workers were white, and she didn’t have anyone to voice that issue to, so they all decided it was an intrinsic deficit in her when really it was completely environmental.”
Overton said she started working with the girl, but she couldn’t even begin their sessions until she agreed to do her hair.
“My direct supervisor said, ‘Why are you taking so long with this client?’ and I said, ‘I’m doing an intervention.’ It was her hair. I had to do her hair before we could even talk.”
Once word got out among the black kids that there was an African American social worker, they all asked for Overton, which became overwhelming to the point that she started a group called Naime, her daughter’s name, which means peace, tranquility, healing and gifts.
“So I would tell my (white) colleagues, ‘You deal with their regular diagnosis, as you have it on paper, and then refer to my group where we’ll address the cultural issues,” she said. “Because I can’t have kids waiting (for her) and lacking service, but at the same time, I realized the need for meeting that cultural piece.”
That realization inspired Overton to go a step further by writing a book about black girls’ experiences that can be used by her white colleagues, called “Aminah Brown Breaks it Down.”
“It’s about a girl in foster care in a very white city and how she navigates the system,” she said, and it’s based on – and with the permission of – a former client who’s now 26 and whom Overton first met when the girl was 12 years old.
She writes about real life situations in the book so others can better understand the experiences of young black girls and the difficulties faced by African American girls in foster care.
Overton said she often stays in touch with her clients, not to continue treatment, but as a referral source.
“With a lot of my clients, I’ll say we’re closing your case, you’ve met all your treatment objectives, but I know you don’t have someone around the corner who can give you resources,” she said. “So if you need resource, call me.”
Overton expects to finish her book in the near future. She hopes it will help white therapists expand their cultural awareness.
The current model for social work practices is “very Eurocentric,” she said, which can sometimes be harmful to communities of color. If a white therapist is not prepared to work with kids of color, it can be awkward, she said.
“If they’re not prepared, they feel uncomfortable and turn all kinds of shades and they (the kids) see that,” she said. “But if they read the book along with the girls, it’s easy for a white therapist to say, ‘Have you ever felt like that in this situation?’ That gives them a foundational way to engage them without trying to pry and without them having to. It gives the therapist some insights, or maybe to get them someone to support them in this area, or find them a mentor. It might be eye opening for the therapist, but it might be affirming for the client.”
To learn more about Black Parent Initiative or to make a donation to its efforts, log onto www.thebpi.org.