Let’s Include People with Mental Illness in the Diversity and Inclusion Discussion

Carolyn Naseer (middle) from “My Change Agent” introduced me to the team at the Farm at Penny Lane

As a diversity consultant and trainer, I enjoy how much the diversity and inclusion field continues to evolve and expand into new areas (link to blog.) One of the key constituencies that many organization and companies now focus on is full inclusion of people with disabilities. But so often left out of the discussion are those with severe and persistent mental illness. Can they have a productive place in our society? And are they even employable?

A thoughtful and innovative program which can become a model for efforts worldwide is the Farm at Penny Lane in rural Chatham County, North Carolina, but still within 30 minutes of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. I recently visited the facility to explore and witness their outstanding work.

I was introduced to the Farm at Penny Lane by a consulting colleague, Carolyn Naseer from “My Change Agent,” (link), a boutique management consulting firm with a focus on making a positive impact through collaboration. She is currently assisting the Farm at Penny Lane through XDS, Inc., the non-profit with which the Farm at Penny Lane as one of their initiatives.

Thava Mahadevam and Matt Ballard proudly showing off their “small home” model.

During my visit to their beautiful peaceful 40 acres just north of Pittsboro, I met Director Thava Mahadevam, Social Worker Matt Ballard, and Farmer Jessamine Hyatt. They all passionately shared about their work with me. Some of the current efforts around “whole person health” that are helping people with mental illness gain self-worth include:
• Utilizing people with mental illness to assist with farming and packaging efforts, including growing healthy food and caring for egg-laying chickens.
• Training emotional support dogs, which can often even more therapeutic than meeting with a human counselor.
• Building of small homes in a cluster community environment to provide space for people to productively live on their own.

So often there is negative stigma around suffering with a mental illness, and we all need to be more understanding and caring, providing pathways for recovery and enhanced quality of life. And providing employment, which many of us admittedly dislike and would prefer vacations and holidays instead, is actually a great way of engaging people with mental illness to provide them purpose and meaning. And the staff even refer to those with mental illness serving in these jobs as “volunteers” instead of “patients.”

The colorful building where volunteers train emotional support dogs

The vision of the farm, established through a partnership with the non-profit XDS Inc and the University of North Carolina Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, is for “our community members with severe mental illness to live longer, healthier, inclusive, and more self-sufficient lives. And their mission: “The Farm at Penny Lane partners with individuals with mental illness to grow nutritious food for themselves and others and offers integrated, community-based, therapeutic programs in an inclusive farm setting.”

I inspect the tomato plants with social worker Matt and farmer Jessamine

Perhaps in the future, industry may even be able to learn from this model to provide meaningful employment for people with mental illness, which will benefit the individuals, the companies, society and our economy!

To schedule a visit and learn more about this uplifting work, do peruse The Farm at Penny Lane’s website. And volunteers and financial support are truly welcomed, check out their “get involved” page.

Explore transgender diversity through a cool one-woman show!

JJ Marie Gufreda spends time at the piano composing more songs about her experience as a transgender woman.

I am a big proponent of transporting people out of their daily lives through the performing arts to give them a fresh prospective on societal issues, and have written a few blogs on this subject (see list and links at the bottom of this blog.) I am also a diversity and inclusion consultant and trainer, and one area I often consult in is around policies and best practices to support transgender employees. (Link to my 12 question transgender organization self-assessment.)

Now let’s bring these two areas together!

Since the transgender topic is so often misunderstood and even frightens some people, one ideal way to educate people in a more lighthearted way is via the performing arts. You can credit much of the advancement in terms of gay and lesbian acceptance to the portrayal in televisions and movies, and now the performing arts can also help made strides in the transgender area.

So I would like to introduce an incredible transgender woman and business associate, JJ Marie Gufreda. JJ realizes that often, deeply personal views are not changed by logical arguments, but instead via human interaction, personalizing the discussion, and through humor. JJ delivers her 90-minute show, “Left-Hander in London – The Earthquake,” with a tongue-in-cheek style and uses sarcasm and music to share her experiences as a transgender woman.

The show is edgy and thought provoking. She talks about family, business, religion and politics from her personal perspective. JJ believes, that if this show, which includes original music and songs, can get people to laugh a little and connect as humans, we can then make progress towards positive change.

JJ Marie often engages her audience in dialogue following her show.

This show is ideal for a variety of venues, including businesses, community organizations, schools, and even churches that want to start or deepen a discussion on understanding and treating transgender people fairly. The show can be used to launch a discussion and create a safe space where all people can honestly dialogue about diversity topics and their personal views.

So, for your organization, consider transporting everyone from the typical presentation and training into this fantastic one-woman production that can truly open eyes and hearts.

For more information, check JJ’s updated website at https://www.crossdreamers.com/2019/04/left-hander-i-london.html or contact her at [email protected]

Below are some words directly from JJ, and links to some of my related blogs.

From JJ Marie: Diversity can be a difficult topic to discuss in corporations. What is the real organizational benefit to improving diversity and including minorities? Many organizations have made public statements and have visible initiatives for diversity in their employees, suppliers and customers. But not everyone in the organization may agree with a company’s efforts to improve diversity and inclusiveness. Society is certainly divided about diversity. If an employee shares his or her (negative) feelings about diversity, minorities or any related topics, they may be risking their job. Incongruence between corporate and personal views can cause problems in the organization – especially when even discussing these topics can lead to people losing their jobs.

Since the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same sex marriage, the fight for LGBTQ rights has focused on transgender people and issues, making JJ’s story relevant as it relates to all minorities. Her experiences from 30+ career in facilitation, speaking, training and consulting can be helpful in assessing real progress in diversity, helping people to positive discourse regarding diversity and assisting a company improve operations and the bottom line because of their diversity programs and policies. Just as it is strategically important for a transgender employee to be able to safely and comfortably transition at work, it is critically important to help employees improve their attitudes around people that are different from them. JJ and her consulting colleagues can use experience to help employees, management and the company improve in these areas.

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Links to related blogs about social issues being addressed through the performing arts:

“A great diversity experience – Theater Breaking Through Barriers” about enjoying an off-Broadway play in New York City which featured actors with a wide range of disabilities.

“Promoting Diversity and Inclusion Through Bluegrass Music,” is about an innovative annual concert called “Shout and Shine” of diverse Bluegrass musicians. This celebration came about in 2016 as a direct response to North Carolina’s oppressive HB2 “bathroom bill” discriminating against our LGBT citizens.

I introduce the Justice Theater Project, a social justice theater company whose mission is to produce compelling theater experiences that create community dialogue and give voice to social concerns through my blog “The Justice Theater Project – Societal Impact Through the Performing Arts.”

A two part blog featuring a mother / daughter – director / actress pair using theater to make a positive impact in England. Link to part 1 which then contains a link to part 2.