Southfielder Spotlight on Alexandria Hughes
March 17, 2023
Alexandria J. Hughes is a Mental Health and Criminal Justice Organizer/Activist at Michigan Liberation and the African American Committee Chair for the Oakland County Democratic Party. As a civil rights advocate, Hughes brings awareness to issues harming Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) Communities, and emphasizes the importance of addressing issues of anti-Blackness within local municipalities. Additionally, she helps neighboring localities develop strategies to create better outcomes in their community.
Hughes also has several years’ experience working in the mental health industry, working as a behavioral health therapist in schools, homes, and the Centria Autism ABA Therapy Center. In this role, she worked with children and teens on the autism spectrum, helping them to acquire skills and reach their full potential.
From an early age, Hughes learned the importance of speaking up for those in need while prioritizing humanity over harm. During Hughes’ upbringing, she developed a passion for art, music, and psychology. She also experienced the joys of connecting with others and learned the harsh realities of inequality in the United States.
After her parents ended their marriage, Hughes’ mother worked hard to relocate to an environment where she and her siblings could thrive. She transferred out of the Detroit Public School system to Wyandotte. Hughes quickly noticed that access to education varies based on income and racial/ethnic identity. She also noticed the categorical inequalities and disparities in primarily Black schools. In high school, Hughes began to see how racial disparities also occurred in other environments and its impacts.
Hughes is a graduate of the University of Michigan. While in college, she joined organizations focused on mental health, civil rights, fundraising for families in need, and public speaking. Hughes enhanced her understanding of why racial biases in the criminal legal system exist and worked to be a voice for change. Through her work experiences, and personal experiences with racial inequality, she learned that existing problems within our criminal legal system often intersect with problems pertaining to mental health, addiction services and access.
Recently Hughes joined the Ab Korker Foundation for mental health’s Webinar Wednesdays where they discussed mental health and its links to the legal system, as well as what we can do to establish mental health resources rooted in compassion and wellness instead of punishment. Currently, she's organizing with community members to establish a mental health crisis response/crisis prevention service in Black and Brown communities in metro Detroit.
Hughes is currently working on two projects: the Black Mama’s Day Bailout Campaign and the Mental Health and Wellness Event, which will take place on July 22, 2023. The Black Mama’s Day bailout Campaign advocates to bring awareness to the harsh environments and inhumane conditions of prisons and is a fundraiser to bail out black women and mothers who were jailed solely because of bail costs. Last year, MI liberation bailed out sixty percent of people in local women’s jails who have not even been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial; 80 percent of them are parents, a direct result of the campaign. The Mental Health wellness event is about the mental health of black, indigenous and people of color and helps to provide services to those in need.
The Southfielder Spotlight spent time with Hughes to discuss her activism and the projects that she is working on to improve mental health and fight inequality and injustice.
What is Michigan Liberation and what type of work do you do there?
Michigan Liberation (MI Liberation) is a grassroots organization that was started in 2019 and its purpose is to end mass incarceration, mass policing, and to transform the legal system into one that is rooted in compassion, empathy and accountability. The ideal outcome is that after being held accountable, the individual who does harm to another person is able to be held accountable in a way that allows them to grow and thrive. It also means the ones who are harmed can heal as well. Ending mass incarceration also means ending criminalization of individuals, ending the cash bail pretrial system, ending criminalization of people who have mental health needs and substance use treatment needs. A large percentage of incarcerated people have mental health problems and/or need substance use treatment. That is not something that should be criminalized. Instead, individuals should get the proper care for conditions, and every city needs resources to prevent those with these needs from being incarcerated. That is what we are about and what we are trying to make happen in our communities.
What's a typical day like in your job?
A typical day involves going to different community events, faith-based communities, local government meetings, and local businesses, and talking to Black and other communities of color, as well as folks interested in volunteering about our legal system, mental health services and substance use treatment access issues. In these conversations I listen to them and then we create a plan of action on how to solve these issues together. It is about setting aside time with them to talk about how we can work together to make our communities healthy for each other through response-based solutions and solutions that prevent harm as well.
Tell us about the Black Mama’s Day bailout campaign
The Black Mother’s Day bailout campaign is a program that we started in 2019. Volunteers, community members and MI Liberation staff members come together for the week leading up to Mother's Day. The purpose is to advocate and bring awareness to the harsh environments and inhumane conditions of prisons. Prisons are the places that are detaining black women and gender nonconforming folks. In that advocacy, we also work to raise funds to free black women and mothers from these environments. The reality is, we have a money bail system that is highly utilized. Some would refer to it as the wealth-based pre-trial detention system. We focus on freeing black women and mothers because 80% of them are parents and 60% of them have not been convicted of a crime at all and are just waiting for trial. I cannot imagine what they go through and how it impacts their mental health; that is not okay.
The Black Mother's Day Bailout program focuses on freeing these individuals and trying to figure out ways to keep them safe after being free. The impact of being incarcerated and being away from their family does a lot of damage and we ultimately want to get them to have care services, ultimately this will keep them safe. We do the Black Mother’s Day Bailout campaign every year. It always takes place around the week leading up to Mother's Day. And year round, we educate communities on this issue and pursue campaigns to end the cash bail pretrial system statewide. We understand that with the way the laws are set up, it’s likely to happen to someone we know.
Tell us about the Mental Health and Wellness event
The Mental Health and Wellness Event is about the mental health of Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). It was started mainly because of their mental health needs and how they impact communities of color. The CDC said that one in four people will be impacted by mental health disorders or have a mental health need at some point in their life in this country. That is how large the number is: one in four. This is something that affects everyone! There is a mental health crisis in this country and the lack of access to care is one of the big reasons for that. BIPOC communities do not always have the access unlike upper class communities, but local services could change this.
I remember a community when a neighbor called me in Southfield, and they told me about how their teenage son was suicidal. He said he heard me mention mental health one time when I was on the My Brother’s Keeper program member meeting. I was just passionate about mental health and was just talking about something I saw on the news. He contacted me after the call to try to get support. He was panicked and worried because his son was suicidal; he didn't know what to do. That is just scary! I do not want anybody to have to go through that.
That is one of the big reasons why I do this mental health event. I want to make it where mental health crises can be prevented. I would like to see mental health mobile teams that work to make sure people don't suffer from depression or get to the point of suicide.
These are some of the ultimate goals. Even in our schools, some of the ultimate goals at Michigan Liberation is for K-12 schools to have a mental health curriculum where foundational information on mental health of low income, as well as Black and brown communities is incorporated into education.
The mental health event being in July is significant because of Bebe Moore Campbell. She was an advocate, journalist, and very passionate person about mental health because of her experiences. She was a Black woman and she saw the stigmatization that happened in her family with her loved ones who had mental health needs. She advocated in Congress so much that in 2008, July was declared a minority mental health month. That is another reason why I do the event in July. To honor her, and to make care over criminalization a reality.
What was the catalyst that made you passionate about mental health?
Through work experiences, and personal experiences with racial inequalities, I have learned that existing problems within our criminal legal system often intersect with problems pertaining to mental health, addiction services and access. My grandmother battled addiction most of her life, and it wasn't until she passed away in 2021 that I learned about her struggles with depression. I often wonder what her life would have been like if she had access to resources to help her overcome addiction. I wonder about how much easier life could have been if she had other ways to cope with her sadness.
I have seen a similar sadness present itself in family members who've experienced trauma from racial profiling by police officers. With my brother, I remember rushing home one day because my mom called me. My mom was saying that she didn't know what to do because my brother was really sad; he was feeling depressed. My mom just didn't know how to talk to him; she didn’t know what to say. The reason for his sadness was because there were a few times where he was followed home by Livonia police officers. He worked in Livonia, but lived in a different city that was close by. It happened multiple times. This was prior to 2020, but then 2020 happened and the murder of George Floyd and the national protests brought back the trauma of that experience for him. I tried my best to comfort him and just listen. He shouldn't have to experience that. He didn't do anything, and he doesn't deserve that. For me, being part of creating the right solutions feels like a way to fight back.
What advice would you give to families of someone who has mental health problems?
Listen to them when they say they’re not ok, validate their feelings with your words and body language, learn about the city services that exist for mental health needs/or contact your local government to express why your city should have local services. Always stay curious and informed about new developments with mental health resources. Advocate for your child; ask the city to provide free mental health first aid training as well as trauma informed mental health training to all residents and those who often recreate in the city. Ask for that because that is something you can do to help your family. When we go through a crisis, we panic. We are very used to calling 911, but instead families should call the 988 lifeline and request mental health services that are alternatives to police instead. These services may not be locally accessible if your city is not funding a mental health crisis response team, but they can tell you what all of your options are.
Ultimately, we know having the 988 hotline is a decent resource, but we must get more familiar with using it and being clear with our city representatives about creating mental health departments so that 988 can be useful for us.
What would you say is the best way to advocate for change?
There are a lot of ways, but one of the best ways is to lead with your personal story. Everyone has a story and when you tell that to the world, other people feel empowered to speak up. With all of these issues and the things we're seeing happen in the community pertaining to mental health, there are people behind that. These numbers, this one in four, like those impacted or incarcerated, those are people! We need to humanize mental health and break the stigma. To do that, we must lead with our personal experiences, why we care, and why it needs to change in our lives. I will also say the best way to advocate is talking to other community members, whether it be at different events, businesses, or faith-based communities, just talk to people. Ask them what they know about the issue and gather people together to form solutions. Having the right information is fundamental before you even begin advocating.
That is where research comes in. Look into sources like Project LETS. It's a great educational resource pertaining to mental health. Reach out to local groups that are working on these issues such as MI Liberation. Reach out to the Detroit Safety Team. They are doing great work! Utilize Action Network, which allows you to do letter campaigns. A letter campaign is you can write a letter to your elected official and sign it and then have it sent through a link. Anyone who clicks that link can then sign their name and it will send it to that same group of elected officials. You can tell them that we, the community, would like mental health prevention and crisis response teams provided under the healthcare department or an unarmed mental health response team, etc. That is one way to add pressure because when there are multiple community members asking for the same thing, it shows the importance and urgency of the issue.
What do you consider to be your biggest challenge when advocating for mental health?
Some of the challenges are the miseducation that is out there and the lack of resources available to people. People tend to think that when people say “break the stigma,” it’s about breaking the stigma on a personal and family level. But breaking the stigma actually means preventing prisons from being the biggest mental health provider in America. Breaking the stigma means that we can call 988 and actually receive support from community based unarmed mental health professionals that have local funding. Breaking the stigma means that a mother and daughter can have a conversation about depression or suicide and be confident that they have peer support to help them through the conversation.
Another challenge is not having access to local platforms, resources, and education on harm reduction and humane violence prevention resources. I feel this is largely because of it not being shared in our everyday environments such as schools and businesses.
It’s also important for us to center those mostly impacted by mental health, stigmatization and criminalization. Center these individuals and center the story and humanize it. The problems we have with stigmatization of mental health and criminalization are human made issues, meaning we have the power to deconstruct it and form something new.
What do you consider to be your success and how did you achieve it?
In 2020, a lot of my advocacy around mental health and de-incarceration intensified given the time we were in, the emotional state I was in, and just my passion for these issues. I did a lot of groundwork where I connected with community members. I educated them on job placement options for those who are unhoused and showed them how that looks in some communities. I showed them how secure housing looks and provided examples of communities that achieved it. I showed them what safety could be for them and that showed them that it is possible to build community with those folks. The knowledge sharing is definitely one of my greatest achievements because of what it caused afterwards. It gave them optimism and that hope that they didn't have. It gave them hope knowing that something was going to change or could change. It allowed them to know that they are deserving of a better world and what they currently have is not enough.
One of my biggest achievements includes planning an event focused on bringing awareness to my family’s experiences with racial profiling and it being publicized with National Public radio on the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. Currently, I'm working with community members to establish a local mental health crisis response team in Detroit, Michigan.
I didn't expect the rally to be the cover story of the day. It was really emotional, because I do this work because I care and it's what my heart calls me to do. It is where I feel like I need to be. But when the outcome is that great, it makes it even better because I know others will listen to it and know that they can also make positive changes in their community; they have a power within themselves to do it. They don't need to be wealthy or have a ton of resources. It starts with us!
Why did you choose to live in the City of Southfield?
I chose to live in Southfield because I enjoy the city's willingness to embrace Black culture, history and its willingness to celebrate Black community members. Southfield’s elected officials are pretty responsive and easy to contact, and that’s nice. I also appreciate the Black businesses in Southfield, such as the art galleries and book fairs. I’ve had good experiences in Southfield. Southfield isn’t perfect, and there’s many improvements needed in the city; but, I think admitting to the problem, seeking input from community members, and making a commitment to tangible things is a good start.
What do you see as the biggest issue facing the City of Southfield?
The biggest issue is about public health. In order to use 988, the national hotline for mental health to work, there has to be services that it can rely on and connect callers to. The City of Southfield does not have a local healthcare department for behavioral health or physical health. Having that would make it where more people felt like they had someone to call when they had mental health needs or are unhoused and in need. Another issue is that Southfield does not have mental health crisis prevention services, like free trauma informed mental health first aid training. It would be great to have community-based resources that support this or have a healthcare department that offers these services.
Not everybody has transportation and not everybody is able to get around and go farther into other counties for services. Southfield has a majority Black population and there’s a pattern in our country of Black communities not having access to mental health services, which is more reason why residents of Southfield should. I would like to see Southfield focus more on mental health and behavioral health. Specifically, I would like to see healthcare issues being solved through its own independent department, with an unarmed mental health response team, similar to Denver Colorado's model, the mental health first model in California, or the CAHOOTs program in Oregon.
What is one takeaway that you hope people gain from learning about your experience?
I hope that they would know that they are deserving of a better world regardless of what they have done in their life, what they've been through, what they look like, where they come from. We are all deserving of a world where we feel comfortable and safe and at peace. I would also hope that they gain optimism: If those who learn about my experience want to see healthy options in their community, more substance use treatment and community based mental health services, and job placement opportunities and a community rooted in compassion, support and equity, they themselves can make that happen. You don't have to have thousands of dollars to be able to make a difference in your community. Healthy community change could be achieved with those you go to church with, those in your school, and your coworkers. If there is a wrong happening, you are fully allowed to push back against it. We should be looking at ethics in all of our environments and pushing back against any policy or culture that harms people. People should be at the center of everything we do. Life is what matters most. It's time that we invest in the community. Invest in safe and secure housing and safe clean water, locally funded healthcare departments. It is okay to not be okay with homelessness. It is okay to take a stand.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I strongly encourage people to check out Michigan Liberation and Advancement Project’s FreeBlackWomxn Bailout campaign page to learn about how to donate and support. Follow me online to stay up to date on these topics. For those who’re interested in setting up a meeting with me, you can message me on Instagram at @alexandriaj_hughes. If you have questions about organizing tools and mental health education resources, feel free to visit my Instagram bio to contact me via email. Overall, I'd like to see our environment prioritize humanizing humans regardless of who they are. When we prioritize human life through policy, through our actions, our culture and our procedures, regardless of what the person looks like, regardless of their cognitive ability, regardless of where they come from and regardless of what they believe in, everyone's life gets better. A ban on Black history and experiences being taught in K-12 schools is harmful to every American; we are Black history and futures. I highly encourage people to send emails and call their local officials so that city funding goes towards the creation of public health departments with free mental health-trauma informed first aid training for all residents and those who recreate in metro area cities.
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