By Dwight Hobbes
Samuel Simmons. Say that name at a gathering of psychologists, social workers or both and you will catch someone’s ear. This is because Simmons, a veteran professional with a strong track record for successful counseling, is well known for his singular approach to mental and emotional health.
He forgoes the field’s usual penchant for catchphrases and polysyllabic jargon to speak in plain language about how to solve complicated problems with simple common sense. “If the client can’t understand what you’re saying,” Simmons notes, “you can’t really do him or her much good.”
At a hulking, fairly fit 6’4”, Simmons puts you in mind of, say, Forrest Whitaker, an affable bear of a man who sports a ready smile, extends a hearty handshake, and offers a friendly word. The buzz is still in the air about his June two-day conference, Community Empowerment Through Black Men Healing Wellness, which was, in a word, a hit.
Lissa L. Jones, producer-host of “Urban Agenda” at KMOJ and an advocate for community self-empowerment, readily attests, “Sam’s moral courage in [conducting] the Community Empowerment Through Black Men Healing Wellness Conference has been admirable for the community. It’s a huge source of inspiration.”
She goes on to add, “[His] willingness to speak to the need for healing Black men makes him invaluable to community. Healing isn’t something we give enough attention to, especially when we are talking about Black men.”
Since 2008, Simmons is SAFE families manager at the Family Partnership, whose stated mission is to build strong families, vital communities, and better futures for children. There, he was responsible for the development of a healing curriculum for African American men to address the history of violence and family trauma.
He also developed and implemented Be More Boys, training mentors to support young men and boys in engaging and sustaining healthy relationships. “When you ask individuals in our community, young and old, what is a healthy relationship,” he says, “they’ll give you the typical answer: honesty, trust, communication.
“But, when you ask them when is the last time they’ve seen one, the room gets quiet. So, the thing is, how do we expect folks to get along when they haven’t seen a lot of folks in their lives get along?”
Frankly addressing the issue of adolescent males, he bursts the bubble of imagined invulnerability ascribed to in the inner city, positing something different than media-endorsed stereotypes. “It shows in the music and everything. When you [inappropriately value] your sexual prowess, then you glorify pimping. That’s about being a predator.”
Not a lover. Or even companion.
Simmons doesn’t claim to have all the solutions. He does, however, put teeth in the catchphrase “cultural competence.” Abbott Northwestern Hospital had him on board 20+ years as a veritable liaison that kept Black clients coming in the door and funding flowing to the coffers.
His professional experience as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor also includes over 22 years doing program development, group facilitation, and curriculum development specializing in the areas of anger management, chemical dependency and working with African American men and young people.
For the last 20 years, he’s been successfully self-employed as a behavioral consultant. Simmons has an ongoing association with African American Family Services, the Father Project and the Minnesota Department of Corrections, and he is president of the Minnesota Father & Families Network Board.
“We always talk about ‘Where are the fathers?’” Simmons points out. “The Black man this and the Black man that. One reason I started with this work is that in our society, men’s pain doesn’t count. That’s why the conference was about empowerment through healing.”
He adds, “If Black men are blamed for everything, why don’t we start [by addressing] him? What we forget to understand is [that] hurt people hurt people.”
Accordingly, the abuse that many Black men experienced as children stays with them in the form of unexpressed emotional pain because “It isn’t acknowledged. You’re taught not to talk about it.”
Which leads to acting out, being abusive, “Especially at the worst times in your life. Against the people you least want to act that pain out on. That’s what makes men human beings. Black men were children, too. Black men’s pain ain’t counted at all.
“If we had a conference that said, ‘Let’s deal with returning to the prison system’ or ‘Let’s deal with Black men’s violence,’ it would [have] doubled in attendance. But when we’re talking about healing, healing and Black men don’t go together. Black men and violence go together in America, but that’s part of that conditioning and [history] of oppressing Black men.
“If the Black man learns to heal and deal with his pain,” Simmons sums up, “he is less likely to share it the wrong way with the women and children that he has.”
At the conference, Simmons and I had a couple of words that were, at the time, off the record, taking a look at why not quite everyone in his field is happy with him. In fact, some grouse about his approach and attitude behind his back. There are, for instance, those who object to his referring to slavery as a root cause of Black trauma.
“You know how we have the N-word,” he points out. “Well, we [also] have the S-word. People are embarrassed to say anything about how slavery still has an impact on us. I’m not.”
None of which keeps him up nights, though he finds it noteworthy. When we came back to it for this article, he commented, “Remember when you and I talked earlier and you wanted to know how I feel about people talking about me and my methods and all that kind of stuff?”
I did, and he promptly continued, “Sometimes folks think that, because I’m not the most religious individual in the world, I don’t believe in God, that kind of thing. But, I always loved the quote of Jesus just before he left the world: ‘Father, they know not what they do.’ It doesn’t matter what others think as long as I can look in the mirror.”
Whether or not his detractors know what they’re grousing about, Samuel Simmons’ results speak for themselves. If you missed this year’s Community Empowerment Through Black Men Healing Wellness conference, catch up to someone who was there. You will be very interested in signing up to register next year.
Sam Simmons hosts “Voices” on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM Friday evenings at 6 pm.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.