Published: November 2, 2016
Heaven Cisse grew up seeing the mental health crisis in her South Central Los Angeles community and at times, within her own family. She has seen the need for more culture-based treatments, and understands the impact a legacy of slavery has had on those around her.
But she’s no longer merely a witness.
Within days of earning an M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Pacific Oaks College, the May 2016 graduate was offered a full-time job working at the Weber Center in South Central Los Angeles—the same agency where she completed a Pacific Oaks practicum as a therapist-in-training.
“I’ve always been passionate about the issues facing my community, but thanks to Pacific Oaks, I can now stand in the gap between the hurt my community has felt, and the healing we can create,” says Cisse, who completed an African-American Family Studies specialization as part of her master’s degree program. “What’s happening in the political climate with the black community right now is so relevant. I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to explore more cultural contexts to see how our history has impacted our current situation.”
The Weber Center, in part, provides clients experiencing chronic illness with the mental health and medical resources that are normally difficult to come by in this underrepresented community. It is also contracted to provide services through the Black Vision of Wellness (BVOW) program, which creates alternative treatment options that research has shown the black community is more culturally open to.
“I did my practicum as a therapist-in-training at Weber, and shortly after my practicum was done, they offered me a full-time case management position,” she says, explaining that BVOW incorporates non-traditional therapies such as acupuncture, dance, and even cooking into treatment programs.
For example, Cisse recently completed certification as a yoga instructor and plans to hold sessions for her fellow “healers” during lunch breaks at Weber. “Ultimately, my job is to counsel and connect,” she says. “I counsel my clients for improved mental health, and connect them to needed services, such as housing, transportation to and from medical appointments, job placement training, or even a 12-step program.”
Being able to do this kind of impactful work in her own community is exactly what Cisse hoped for when she first discovered Pacific Oaks’ African-American Family Studies specialization at an Association of Black Psychologists Conference.
“Dr. Bree Davis, who became my mentor, was leading a discussion about how the program has helped African-American students make meaning of circumstances in their lives,” she explains. “Understanding the pieces of our history as African-Americans and how that history continues to impact our families today appealed to me.”
Cisse’s journey to Pacific Oaks required a move from West Africa, where she had been living with her husband, who is a native of Senegal. But her experience in the program revealed a different kind of journey—one that helped her address unresolved issues from her own childhood.
“Someone very close to me in my family, a loved one, was an addict. As I continued in the program at Pacific Oaks, I began to see how life stressors and socioeconomics impact a person’s choice to get into drugs and what the impact is like on children,” Cisse says. “I did a lot of my own healing at Pacific Oaks. Through my experiences in the African-American Family Studies specialization, I was able to look at my own life and see the people in my community with a little more compassion. They are just trying to survive in South Central, where drugs and crime are prevalent.”
She says she’s grateful to Pacific Oaks for this transformation and the opportunity to be where she is today, serving her own community in new and non-traditional ways.
“I feel that this has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I am very proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish at Pacific Oaks,” adds Cisse, explaining that after she completes the requirements, her next step at Weber will be to transition into a full-time therapist position. “I came back as an adult student and now I believe I have found my purpose. I know my impact. Pacific Oaks gave me that gift.”