Founder and CEO, Stronger Than Stigma, Inc.
Photograph by Tiffany Manning
You came up with the concept of your nonprofit, Stronger Than Stigma, while in college. What sparked the idea and how did you make it actionable?
I learned in college that by sharing my story, others would open up about theirs. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel alone. In fact, it seemed like everyone was struggling. But only a few were taking advantage of the free counseling resources on campus. Then I realized our campus culture reflected society’s stigma – it kept people quiet and embarrassed to seek help. And there were suicides. I had to do something. I got some friends together and we began to brainstorm about how we could help break down the barriers keeping people struggling in silence. Shortly thereafter, we incorporated the nonprofit and began operating our social media platforms. People wanted to engage in real life, so we started organizing live events. I declared a minor in nonprofit leadership and Stronger Than Stigma was my case study. My studies had immediate real-world application. To me, that was thrilling.
Your family has a history of cultural and non profit leadership. Can you tell us about that?
Yes, we do! It’s cool to see it in print like that. In my house, it’s just the norm of how we keep busy. Valuing community was always a huge part of how I was raised, and has been part of my family’s legacy for generations. My grandparents, Dr. Roy and Audrey Baker, were notable philanthropists and leaders in the spheres of public health and government. My parents also led by example; if ever they had extra time, they gave it away. I’m particularly proud of my mom’s leadership in the cultural community – she’s a super supporter and audience member. I want to take credit for that. I was a theatre kid growing up, so she got her start cheering me on at piano recitals, dance recitals, chorus concerts, musicals – you name it, she was there. It warms my heart to see her doing that for the whole community now.
Do you believe that your generation is suffering with mental health issues more than previous generations? Why or why not? Does social media play a role?
I don’t like inter-generational comparisons because they are often used to imply a lack of mental fortitude in millennials. Everyone “older and wiser” wants to talk about “kids these days,” when in reality the suicide rate is increasing in all age demographics. What’s changing in today’s landscape is that mental health has become a topic of conversation. I believe millennials are willing to engage and are well positioned to become a force for change. Mental health issues are nothing new; they are part of the human condition, resulting from a mixture of genetics and environment. Social media is an environmental factor. People of all ages are subject to its influence. It’s a double-edged sword because it connects us to each other more than ever before and yet simultaneously isolates us behind our screens. With Stronger Than Stigma, we do our best to harness its potential for good.
Stronger Than Stigma’s first pop-up space, The Living Room, was a huge success. To what do you attribute its success?
Thank you! The Living Room is a pop-up installation for conversation. Part interactive art installation, part venue, the idea behind it was to bring people together and provide a setting for authentic dialogue on mental health, free from stigma. We wanted to create an intimate atmosphere that inspired conversation, and we did. The real key to its success was the team behind it, and I am proud of bringing these amazingly talented and generous humans together. I hired The Castano Group who brought to life the impact I was looking to make and the vibe I wanted to create. I can’t imagine it any other way. The Jacksonville chapter of The Mission Continues, Raymond D. Scott of ARDUS Design, Matthew Clark, Jamie Armstrong, and Madison Taylor all helped execute the project. We knew we were successful as we watched the space spark conversation between strangers. Then, volunteers emerged! And that doesn’t even touch on the success of the venue space, its twenty-eight programs, or the fact that over fifteen-hundred people came through.