Therapist Discusses Healing through Affirmations, Archives & Art

Updated on March 10

Araya Baker is a nationally recognized educator, journalist, and psychotherapist with over a decade of experience advancing social change. Their writings have appeared in Teen Vogue, The Washington Post, and Psychology Today, among other outlets. They have been recognized for their activism by ESSENCE, Native Son Now, and The Mighty.

As a community educator, Araya has collaborated with a number of equity-centered and justice-championing institutions, such as The African American Male Initiative, The American Public Health Association, The New York Urban League Young Professionals, and Pride in the Pews. Professionally, their work has included positions with The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, The Trevor Project, and Mental Health America, where they co-authored The City of Houston’s inaugural public survey on mental health, in 2013.

PrideIndex (PI): Hello, Araya. It is great to be speaking with you today. Please introduce yourself and tell us about your journey and how it has brought you here.

Araya Baker (AB): My name is Araya Baker. I’m a psychotherapist and freelance journalist who writes and speaks on social issues affecting marginalized groups. I’ve gotten to where I am today by following a drive for fairness and a sense of justice that I’ve felt since I was a kid. I’ve always known that I wanted to be of service to other people and have a career that would make a social impact.

My career as a freelance writer has given me many opportunities to share my personal values and perspectives. Thinking through different cultural, historical, and political events that have shaped and defined our generation led me to the mental health field, with the goal of helping minoritized populations (including myself) work through legacies of generational and historical trauma. I’ve also sought to help us rediscover our generational legacies of strength and hope, too.

PI: You mentioned your career in Counseling and Mental Health. What is your take on therapy, and why is it important to you?

AB: Therapy is one of myriad paths to self-discovery––it’s certainly not the most legitimate approach or healing lineage. With that said, I think that therapy is most effective when the client and therapist establish a trusting foundation undergirded by transparency, shared ethics, and accountability. Therapy that’s collaborative, relational, and shame/stigma-free tends to work best. As bell hooks* said, “Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.” At its best, therapy can be a microcosm of community and how it can re-humanize (rather than dehumanize) us.

Yet, relationality also involves infallible human beings and, in turn, social dynamics. Certain interpersonal dynamics can harm minoritized clients, particularly when identities imbued with hierarchy become apparent. Further, majority-groups dominate the therapy profession (just like the teaching field), a fact which necessitates lots of intentionality when engaging minoritized clients.

Adapting therapy to the perspectives and values of minoritized folks is important to me, given the link between trauma and oppression, particularly anti-Blackness. To do this, we have to dispel revisionist histories that gaslight, pathologize, and victim-blame minoritized folks, while romanticizing the history of the therapy field. There’s a long way to go, but that’s changing slowly.

For example, in 2021, the American Psychiatric Association publicly apologized for perpetuating racism in psychiatry. APA also categorized queerness as a mental disorder until 1973, and legitimized ‘female hysteria’ throughout the early 1900s. Similarly, the National Association of Social Workers issued a public statement in 2021, apologizing for the many social workers who advocated for eugenics, stifled the voting rights movement of the 1960s, and promoted the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Japanese internment camps, and the boarding school movement to colonize Native folks.

Acknowledging these truths elevates therapists’ critical consciousness, and, hopefully, deters us from discussing mental health stigma in minoritized communities through a deficit-based lens, when, in actuality, historical context/trauma informs it.

PI: How do you rise above the isms? The racism and phobias, how do we rise above it?

AB: There’s no definitive answer, but I think a first step might be retracing our personal stories rooted in trauma. This can be painful because it requires remembering many moments that we’d rather forget––traumas that we’re more comfortable burying, keeping a lid on, repressing. The courage to pinpoint them as the source of shame, hurt, and anxiety, however, can lead to healing. Why? We can learn to cope better with what we acknowledge and confront. We can get to a point of understanding, ‘This particular moment or period was when I began changing who I was, based on who others pressured me to be. At this particular juncture, I put my authentic self on the shelf.’

The second step might be finding empowerment via history––not just histories of our own communities, but across all groups. There’s a lot to learn from the history of other cultures and other movements. For instance, we can reference historical forces, such as colonization, which happened similarly (and simultaneously) in many different parts of the world. The overlap can become a point of empowerment because you realize, ‘It’s not just me and my ancestors who survived this. My people weren’t the only ones who were exploited, dehumanized, criminalized, etc. A shared ideology harmed us. And just like that group across the world reclaimed their dignity, my people can, too.’

PI: What is one thing one can do right now to heal and move forward?

AB: I never give cookie-cutter, textbook advice without adequate context. I’d have to get to know a client and the totality of their situation, before I could or would suggest anything specific. However, I do encourage others, and myself, to affirm that they are enough in the present. Consumerism and the shallowness of social media can cause us to feel as if we don’t measure up. Many people often compare their situation to someone else’s highlight reel and think, “Where did I go wrong? Why am I not as happy or lucky?” It can help to remind ourselves that what we have and who we are is enough. Assuming our basic material and psychological needs are met, it’s healthy to strive for contentment, as well as to view where you are in terms of how far you’ve come, not where someone else is. Lastly, not everything happens for a reason––sometimes, life is just randomly devastating.

PI: Let’s talk about some of your writing. You’re a freelance journalist, and you have written for various publications. What is the one thing you want people to take away from your writing?

AB: Going back to your previous question, I’d say that I want people to see their own humanity through some of the stories that I’ve shared and, as a result, feel less ashamed of what they’ve been through, who they were, and where they are in life now.

PI: Let’s talk about your writing. What are you working on right now?

AB: I’ve been freelance writing for about a decade. Before that, I used writing as a healing tool to process things in my life, while also reading a lot. I eventually got to a point where I was reaching clarity about a lot of things, and felt I had meaningful perspectives to contribute. That’s when I started pitching different publications to see if they would be interested in publishing my writing, and I ended up becoming a contributor to several mainstream media outlets. I’ve explored many issues and topics through writing––broadly, the crossroads of cultural identity, health, history, and politics.

For example, one day I was scrolling down the @TheAIDSMemorial page, and saw a black-and-white photo of a Black man, Paul Whitedy, sitting on a bench. I recognized the backdrop as the University of Pennsylvania, where I received my master’s degree in counseling––the caption confirmed this. I then connected with the photographer, who shared more about Whitedy’s life.

To preserve Whitedy’s memory, I contacted the campus newspaper, which allowed me to write an op-ed on the early AIDS epidemic. I underscored how there is a missing generation of queer Black elders today––from Joseph Beam, Marlon Riggs, and Essex Hemphill to Melvin Dixon, Alvin Ailey, and Assotto Saint––due to the anti-queer and femmephobic victim-blaming that inhibited AIDS research during the 1980s. Queer Black men still feel the void of thousands of Paul Whitedys.

PI: How would you speak to a child who is experiencing racism or homophobia? Then, what would you recommend to the parents of the child having these experiences?

AB: I’d ask the kid what they like about themself. If they can’t name a single good thing, that’s the starting point. There should be a more routine affirmation of their gifts, talents, and the special energy that they bring to a room––affirmation of why they make people smile, why their friends like them, and why their teachers say they’re a joy to have in class. The loudness of mean-spiritedness should never drown out self-affirmation. I think that’s what James Baldwin meant when he wrote, “You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.”

As for parents, I would want them to explain that bias-based bullying happens because people want to feel powerful, yet often don’t know how to do so healthily. Perhaps that’s why Toni Morrison once said, “If you can only feel tall when someone else is on their knees, you have a serious problem.” It’s not just the bullied kid who can’t name good things about themselves; oftentimes, it’s the bully, too.

PI: What is your ultimate goal?

AB: One aspiration is to explore writing beyond journalism. I want to try leveraging fiction and poetry to inspire change. I engage those genres in my personal life already. I’m just more hesitant to share those genres publicly, since they’re more vulnerable. But I do see them as valuable creative outlets.

Some stereotype me as a writer who’s very analytical and who gives very incisive takes on issues; but a lot of my inspiration comes from the arts. It comes from contemporary and archived works of dance, film, music, plays, poetry, and literature. I don’t just sit around reading academic texts with facts and figures. I also have artistic sources of inspiration. Earlier, I mentioned several influential figures––Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs, Melvin Dixon, Joseph Beam, Toni Morrison, and *bell hooks. They were all multifaceted artists, with expansive creativity, and I’m here because of them.

PI: What should they do if one were interested in getting Araya to come out and speak on a panel, or to schedule a therapy session?

AB: They can go to my website, arayabaker.com, or any of my social media handles (@arayabaker).

MEET ARAYA BAKER 

Araya Baker is a featured panelist in Artists in the Afternoon 4: Writing For Our Lives. The event will be held on Saturday, August 31, at 250 Williams Street Northwest Atlanta, GA 30303, from 1 PM to 5 PM. Join us for an afternoon highlighting written and spoken word, music, art, and more. This event is free; RSVP here.