Q: What does “bami soro” mean, and how can it be helpful for people in recovery?
In the Yoruba language of the West African ancestors of many Black Americans, bami soro means “talk to me,” in a way that’s soulful, honest, and deep. The first step in any effective therapy or counseling situation is to establish a relationship where that kind of talk can happen. It requires a degree of mutual understanding and respect. But if you work in the field of substance use as a therapist, counselor, or teacher, there’s a better than even chance that you’re White and that many, or most of, your clients are not White. In this country, that means that your clients’ experiences don’t overlap yours nearly as much as you might believe—even if you come from similar economic backgrounds and have dealt with substance use yourself. This racial divide can make it hard to establish mutual understanding and connect on an intimate, honest level. This is especially true when you consider:
- The legitimate need to preserve professional boundaries.
- The huge empathy gap between most White and Black people in America due to their different experiences of the world, and consequently their different frames of reference.
- The fact that racial issues can be so emotionally loaded that many professional helpers avoid talking about them, even if that means that Black clients never get to deal head-on with aspects of their personal histories that could undermine or block their recovery.
- The importance of not allowing clients’ past traumas or crises to become excuses for not doing the work of recovery.
As a key tool in Culturally Directed Motivational Healing, Bami Soro helps the helping professional motivate clients, patients, and students by discussing crucial topics with them to help bridge the gap caused by their social, cultural, and historical differences.
Q: What are some key things that a professional can do to bridge the cultural divide when working with a client from a different cultural background?
This racial divide can make it hard to establish mutual understanding and connect on an intimate, honest level.Establishing rapport is not easy. If you are working with Black Americans, the next step after laying the groundwork of respect is to acknowledge the racial and cultural situations they face, so you can start and sustain conversations essential to your client’s recovery. The success of your work rides on these first two steps, so that’s where Bami Soro focuses.
To achieve that, we ask questions and share stories that speak directly to topics they’re intimidated by or leery of because they assume—usually correctly—you won’t understand. Opening up these topics is key to giving the people you serve the best possible chance to recover and thrive.
Bami Soro isn’t about political correctness. It’s about exploring key aspects of the Black experience in America. This goes a long way toward setting the stage for honest discussion and helps members view you apart from the system they distrust.
Q: How does Black culture play a role in both addiction and recovery?
Black Americans tend to drink at a somewhat lower rate than White Americans across most age groups but use drugs at remarkably similar levels. Yet Blacks are arrested and suffer legal problems from drinking and drug use to a much greater degree. They also have higher rates of social and health problems, at least partly because of racial disparities in poverty rates. Poor neighborhoods have easier access to alcohol and drugs and less access to good health care.
There is also a paradox in traditional Black culture that can help protect against heavy use of drugs and alcohol yet worsen some of their consequences. For instance, heavy alcohol use is culturally frowned upon in Black social society. But when Black people do drink heavily, their loved ones are often less likely to intervene. This may be due to a strong culturally based distrust of the medical establishment, at least in low income neighborhoods.
This distrust extends to treatment programs because they’re considered part of the medical establishment unless they have a prominent faith-based component. Blacks between the ages of 12 and 25 are less likely to need specialty treatment compared to the same age group among other ethnicities. Black men 26 and older, however, are more likely to need specialty treatment. This may be because Blacks who drink heavily tend to start drinking later than other ethnic groups. Black women, on the other hand, are less likely to need treatment than women of other racial and ethnic groups (Source: PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2013 American Psychological Association).
Q: How does historical and present trauma impact the ability of Americans of African ancestry to recover?
Most “street codes” are unhealthy responses or unhealthy coping strategies developed to help make meaning of traumatic experiences. American clients of African descent who come from street culture have perpetuated these codes knowingly or unknowingly. The behavior’s origin connects directly to slavery—silence was the only power a slave had. Many slaves would suffer horrible atrocities, even death, without uttering a word or a sound in order to hold on to something they valued and deny slave owners the satisfaction of seeing them hurt. Today’s street code is that same ideology gone awry, in that Black Americans do have a voice, but many have been conditioned not to use it even when justice and safety are at stake, until they explode in violence turned inward on themselves and others who look like them.
Black men in the world of drugs and alcohol—especially those in impoverished communities—live with an undercurrent of violence that can erupt at any moment. Violence and other forms of social trauma can affect people up and down the socio- economic spectrum, but in poor communities they are part of daily life. To survive in that world requires denial—denial that the violence all around them will ever touch them personally, and denial that they will be deeply damaged if it does.
Q: How can being of service support spirituality in recovery?
Living by spiritual principles strengthens the spirit. The more you feed them the stronger they get, and strong healthy spirits don’t do unhealthy things.In the fellowship that I attend “service” is part of our symbol as a spiritual principle. Spiritual principles are amazing because you need only incorporate one into daily living and it will lead to others. You can’t be honest without developing integrity, you can’t develop integrity without developing commitment, and so on.
To truly recover from addiction, you must incorporate these principles into your daily life without compromise. It is important to understand that principles aren’t lived by convenience, but by commitment. People who honor them only when it’s easy or convenient keep their spirits weak and then their recovery is weak as well.
Living by spiritual principles strengthens the spirit. The more you feed them the stronger they get, and strong healthy spirits don’t do unhealthy things.
Don’t skate over that last point, because it’s important—healthy spirits don’t do unhealthy things because they don’t want to. That’s the beauty of it. Living by spiritual principles is self-reinforcing. The more you do it, the more natural it becomes.
Also, the stronger your spirit becomes, the more it appreciates being and staying strong. The more it recognizes how things were at your worst, the more grateful it is to have survived and become healthy again, and the more determined it is to stay healthy. A strong spirit is your ally, not your taskmaster.
Q: As a black man, how has your own personal and professional journey helped other professionals in the field and people in recovery?
I am a person in long term recovery who has worked in the recovery community for over 20 years. Most of those years were spent delivering direct services to people of all ethnicities at a very vulnerable and troubling time of their lives. What struck me most was that all the information and experience I offered meant little if I could not translate what I knew in a way the person or audience I was trying to help could connect to, based on their own experiences. So, I focused on making those connections. And over time, I developed an empathetic, bridge-building, culturally sensitive communication style that served me well as a presenter, group facilitator, motivational speaker and author.
Bami Soro, which as mentioned before means “Talk to Me” in the Yoruba language of West Africa, represents my attempt to pass along this communication style. Its hallmarks are storytelling and eliciting personal stories on each topic from the participants themselves so that they, not the facilitator, do most of the heavy lifting. It’s the participants who “connect the dots” between their own experiences and each topic that’s up for discussion.
Support group participants and facilitators alike will find Bami Soro entertaining and informative. But its most important value to therapists, counselors and mental health professionals is that it helps those professionals with little or no experience, in communicating with Black Americans or people of color, begin to develop their own comfortable, confident communication style with clients from these communities.
Black counselors will also appreciate having a culturally directed tool to help guide their group discussions in ways that will make them more therapeutically effective for Black Americans and other people of color. But the fact is there are more young White therapists than Black therapists, counselors, behavioral health, and mental health professionals graduating every year, which means it’s impossible for people of color to always work with professionals who look like them. There are no reasons why White professionals can’t bridge this gap if they are willing to learn how to communicate effectively with Black Americans and other people of color and “meet them where they are.” Bami Soro helps them do that.
George Lewis, CEO, Author and Motivational Speaker. “I am extremely proud of my professional staff and the many products, services and resources. we provide substance use treatment, education, therapy and mental health professionals and their patients, clients and students.” More info about Lewis can be found on his website at motivationalconsultinginc.com