Diversity Spotlight: Jessica R. LoPresti, PhD

The current spotlight focuses on the specific contributions of Dr. Jessica R. LoPresti, licensed clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. LoPresti received her B.A. in Psychology and American Studies from Williams College and earned her M.A. and  Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Dr. LoPresti received training at the Women’s Stress Disorders Treatment Team at VA Boston Healthcare Systems during her pre-doctoral internship and engaged in the Women’s Health Fellowship as a part of the Women’s Health Sciences Division at the National Center for PTSD.

Dr. LoPresti was born and raised in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, a majority Black community outside of Pittsburgh that was impoverished but nurturing. Growing up she saw firsthand pervasive racial trauma as well as the resilience and self-sufficiency needed to cope with the aftermath. She has spent her career working to understand and dismantle systems of power that create barriers to accessing the social determinants of health for people and communities of color.

Dr. LoPresti’s research has three primary foci: The first area includes two components (1) to gain a deeper understanding of the mental health consequences of cultural, institutional and systemic, as well as individual, racism, (2) and to explore protective coping resources for people and communities of color facing the mental health consequences of racism. Secondly, she is passionate about elucidating and addressing barriers to quality and effective mental healthcare for people and communities of color. This is best highlighted in her work as an advocate.

As an advocate, Dr. LoPresti collaborates with her colleague, Dr. Tahirah Abdullah-Swain, as co-founders of Black Advocacy, Resistance, and Empowerment Mental Health and Wellness (BAREMHW). BAREMHW’s provides workshops, consultations, and training to empower education, health, and community-based organizations and institutions to meet their goals related to culturally responsive and anti-racist care, recruitment, hiring and retention of a diverse workforce. BARE engaged in direct support to people and communities of color facing oppression and systemic inequities.

Dr. LoPresti maintains great humility regarding her advocacy, research, and dedications to communities of color. It was a great honor and pleasure to interview her. I posed the following 4 questions in bold and her responses follow:

1) Many developing scholars and clinicians may have an interest in cultivating similar programs that you and Dr. Abdullah-Swain initiated with BAREMHW. How would you best advise graduate students and early career professionals with interests in advocating at this direct level?

Find someone who does this work and see if you can help! We have hired folx* to train with us and get this learning and experience. Additionally, push your graduate programs to provide this kind of training in the context of elective course work.

2) You have written about the toxic stress response amongst communities of color. As a Black woman, a mother, a clinician, a scholar, and an advocate, how do you work to cope or address your experience of toxic stress when navigating these higher-level roles?

I think centering your own wellness is the absolute key. As women of color, we are so often expected to do it all and do it all perfectly. We must remind ourselves that we are human, surround ourselves with folx who value our humanity, and set strong boundaries around our time, energy, and effort. This is something I’m still working on and not so great at doing quite yet. However, I’m working to teach all of my mentees and those who seek my advice around this to center their wellness above all. There is no career, job, research project, or administrative responsibility that is worth dying for. To some it might sound dramatic, but for women of color it’s often the reality that we are working ourselves into physical and mental health crises for systems and institutions that do not necessarily care about our well-being.

3) You wrote a strong and beautiful article during the pandemic titled “Fighting for our Lives” on the physical and psychological injuries of racism, and how Black parents such as yourself can introduce these conversations to their children. As we enter a post-pandemic era, and with our current socio-political climate, are there any additional words you would like to share regarding this topic?

As it relates to racism, we are not post-pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic pulled away the veil and exposed racism that has long thrived in our society. As a mother of 2 kids of color it has been a challenge to raise kids in a world that has already injured them through racism and will continue to do so. A few  important things I’d say:

  1. Please teach your children about history. Real history. Don’t water it down. There is a systematic campaign to erase any  knowledge of the history of people of color in the US and when we don’t know about this history, we are destined to repeat it.
  2. I know it can be devastating, but we must allow our kids of color to have their full emotional responses to racism. This might mean we, as parents, have to face our emotional responses to racism. Our kids will experience racism in school, on the playing field, at playdates, and everywhere in between. Racism is pervasive and we must teach our kids that having an emotional response is natural and also support them in managing those emotional responses as they work towards building the life they value and deserve.
  3. Parents must teach their children anti-racism. It is not enough to ignore race, not talk about race, and teach your kids that everyone is human. Racism is here, and ignoring it is tantamount supporting it.
  4. For our children of color, it is so important they know and understand their beauty and value in this world. Lift them up, introduce them to their racial identity and help them cultivate it. Let’s show them how to resist oppression and be the change they want to see.

4) Is there anything else you feel called to share with us about your important work?

I am so very heartened by the hard work our fields of mental health are doing to address oppression at all levels. But, we can’t rest. There is so much work to do and we can’t pull our feet off the gas pedal.

Written by Esther Lapite, M.A.

*Folx is used in place of “Folks” as part of an intentional practice to produce gender-neutral and comprehensive terminology that signals the inclusion of commonly marginalized groups (DeCarlo, 2021; Robertson, 2018).

DeCarlo, J. (2021). Understanding folx as a linguistic marker of progressive social personae.

Robertson, N. (2018). The power and subjection of liminality and borderlands of non-binary folx. In Gender Forum (Vol. 69, No. 69, pp. 45-76). Prof. Dr. Beate Neumeier.