What Are Therapy Reparations?

What Are Therapy Reparations?

What Are Therapy Reparations?

Kamilyah Jackson-Cooper

In June of 2020, New York–based therapist Kamilyah Jackson-Cooper started a movement with a single Instagram post: “If anyone wants to support my clients, I am accepting funds as a way to offer free sessions for some of my clients who have had a particularly traumatic few weeks.”

“We were living through a pandemic, in the midst of a racial uprising. Being a Black and queer therapist, it felt like I was doing so much but not doing enough,” Jackson-Cooper said. “I felt like it was unfair to talk to Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks about racist trauma and oppression and require them to pay for it. It also did not feel fair to not get paid for it as a Black queer woman.”

The support she received initially was overwhelming. And it inspired her to create a permanent fund for therapy reparations—an ongoing effort to provide free therapy sessions for Black clients and reduced fees for clients of color. Here, she tells us about her therapeutic process, why therapy reparations matter, and how we can all support and continue her work.

A Q&A with Kamilyah Jackson-Cooper, LCSW

What’s the ethos behind your therapy practice?

I’m a queer, Black, femme woman. I’m not a traditional psychoanalytic therapist. I like it to feel like we’re two people talking in a room, and one of us happens to be a clinician.

I like to have fun in therapy, and I like my clients to have fun, too. I use a lot of humor. It’s also a lot of listening: processing things, naming things, figuring out patterns. I tell people that they’re the captain of the ship, and I’m their first mate. The client leads the charge, and they come to therapy with what they want to talk about, things they may want to work on or process. My job is to say, “Hey, this looks like some rough waters ahead. So here are some tools.” Or “Hey, that sounds familiar—like when you told me about the conversation you had with your mom. Tell me what came up for you.” I try to help connect the dots, point out patterns. It’s a lot of processing, a lot of naming things, and holding space for folks.

That sounds simple, and it is simple in the practice of it. But some people have never had space held for them to be able to even talk about the way they feel or think or leave room for pauses to help them figure out what they’re feeling. Behavioral therapy approaches, somatic exercises, and breathing are part of it, too. A huge part of my approach is just being a person who may have gone through similar some experiences.

Do you find people who come to you have previously had negative experiences in other therapeutic spaces?

Oh, absolutely. My clients have had bad experiences. I’ve had them with other colleagues. I’ll give an example. I was in a training recently, and we were in a small group practicing the intervention we just learned, and a White woman, while giving me feedback on this practice exercise, said to me, “Oh, that seems so natural coming from you. I wonder if it’s because you’re a Black girl and I’m a White woman. I wonder if that’s just it, if you’re just cool.”

On the surface, that’s a compliment. She’s trying to say, “Oh, that seemed so natural for you.” But what was underneath that feedback was that she was questioning how that seemed so easy for me to do. She was not taking into account that part of our job is to make things seem organic and natural. That is my job; it’s about the client. Maybe she was feeling a bit insecure or unsure about how to implement the intervention, but instead of talking about that, she made it about my race.

After that practice my first thought was, God, if she has any clients who are Black, Brown, or Indigenous, how would she show up for them and what kind of microaggressions would show up in therapy? I’ve been lucky enough that my two previous therapists were White women who brought up race each time because it’s their responsibility as the one in that position of power and privilege. They both said something along the lines of “We are not the same race, and I don’t know how it is for you and your experience as a Black woman, but I can hold space for you. And if you’re ever uncomfortable, please talk about it.”

It’s about acknowledging the privileges that we all have and addressing them or bringing up how they can show up in the work. When we don’t discuss our differences in identity, we aren’t seeing the people we work with fully. Which leads our differences in identity to become an issue, because we aren’t seeing and acknowledging our differences in identity.

What are therapy reparations?

Therapy reparations are about providing therapy for Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks given that racial trauma is inherent in the Black, Brown, and Indigenous experience in this country. I want to provide a safer space for people where cost doesn’t have to be a factor. Some people have had harmful and racist and oppressive things happen to them at work and at school, and they bring that to therapy. It’s heavy; it’s traumatic; they have to be so vulnerable. To then, as a clinician, be like, “You have to talk about these things that you have no control over, that are systemic, that are still an ache in our country, and then also let me charge you for that”—it just doesn’t sit right.

A therapist named Tamara Turner and her colleague came up with the idea of therapy reparations, and I borrowed the idea and wanted to adapt it for my clients. It happened in June of last year, and it started from being in a place that felt really, really heavy. We were living through a pandemic in the midst of a racial uprising. Being a Black and queer therapist, it felt like I was doing so much but not doing enough. I said to myself, “What else can I do?” I felt like it was unfair to talk to Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks about racist trauma and oppression and require them to pay for it. It also did not feel fair to not get paid for it as a Black queer woman. So when that idea fell into my lap, I knew it was a way to make my work even more impactful and meaningful by removing a huge barrier—cost—to therapy for Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks. I created a fund for people to donate to for therapy reparations. The money I receive allows me to provide free or discounted sessions to my Black, Brown, and Indigenous clients.

Therapy reparations are not a handout or Black, Brown, and Indigenous people asking for donations. They’re about the fact that throughout this country’s history, there has been inequity. Therapy reparations soften some of the shit that happens on a daily basis to people in this country. Therapy reparations take maybe one weight off someone’s back. It’s not, “Oh, I’m going to do this because I feel sorry for you. Let me do it because I acknowledge I have privilege, and I feel bad about that.” Not at all. We all have privileges, and the point of therapy reparations is to acknowledge the oppression that Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks have endured and continue to endure, and to provide one small step toward healing and atonement.

Therapy reparations are a great way to get people who have never been in therapy into therapy and people who can’t afford even to think about therapy into therapy. In addition to that, they’re also about ensuring therapists of color are fully compensated. Those two things go hand in hand.

What has the response been since you started therapy reparations at your practice last year, in June?

The response was overwhelming. I was able to raise over $23,000. I was extremely shocked and surprised. At the height of the racial uprising and the protest and marches, people were giving left and right. I was able to sustain my therapy reparations program from the middle of June until late November, when I unfortunately had to end it because I ran out of money and the donations stopped coming. I think that is because a couple of things: People have short attention spans, and people don’t realize that this is not a moment.

I have two people who have committed to giving me a set amount every month, which I am so grateful for and appreciate. I have four clients that I divvy up the money for each month.

I tried to have another round of reparations in September, and the same people who elevated that platform last year either told me no this time or didn’t respond at all. It was great to get it going for a hot minute, but people are still experiencing racial trauma. People are still going through things. I would love to be able to sustain this movement.

What’s your vision for therapy reparations, in their perfect form?

Well first, I get emotional. If I think about my great grandmother, who is still alive at ninety-eight, her experience in this country, and then the world in general. My great grandmother didn’t have access to therapy, not to mention a therapist who looked like her. So the idea that I, her great granddaughter, can not only go to therapy and have access to therapy but also be a therapist to people who look like me—it’s a huge deal, given the way this country treats Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks.

I look at therapy as lifetime work. You don’t go to the doctor one time; you don’t move your body one time. You’re not with the same therapist your whole life—you could have different iterations of therapy; you may take some breaks—but I do look at it as long-term work.

What I also know is that the things people come to therapy with usually stem from something in the past—stuff that happened five years ago, ten years ago, thirty years ago, when they were kids. That includes racial trauma. If I woke up and Utopia were here, I want to have a sustained amount of money every month to share with all of my Black, Brown, and Indigenous clients.

My idea of therapy reparations is to help people who experience the burden of the oppression that is so ingrained in this country. My goal is that we have a sustained amount, and that it will always be replenished. I won’t even have to ask for it.

Are there White colleagues of yours who have supported you in this work? How can White therapists help?

I have a few answers to that. There are so many amazing things that come with being a private practice clinician. I get to create my own schedule; I get to work for myself. I get to pick and choose the people I work with. Financially, it feels different for me because most people, if they are Black, Brown, Indigenous, or queer, usually need a sliding scale because of systemic reasons. The percentage of people I work with who don’t pay my full fee is higher than it is for my White colleagues. That is just the reality. I’ve talked to some White colleagues who see only a certain number of clients and they get paid their set amount by every client. They never, ever take less than that.

I don’t have the privilege to do that. So that’s another reason why reparations are important: I won’t make as much as a White counterpart because I am inevitably going to accept people who cannot pay me my full amount. A goal of therapy reparations is that if I have a client and my rate is $200—and I have a client who can pay me only $100—I don’t want to say no. If I have a reparations fund, I can say, “Cool. I can do that.” And the other $100 can come from therapy reparations. You get this service, and I also get paid.

I have a few White therapist colleagues who not only amplify what I’m doing and talk about it and give but also put their money on the line and say, “I am committed to doing this. And I want to be able to find colleagues who can support you.”

I have a few White clients, and with no soliciting at all—they’ve seen my reparations fund on my Instagram—and they said, “Can I pay an extra $50 a session to go to therapy reparations?” That’s a way that people can give back. Just whatever you can do. If you can, you add it on to your session rate, or contribute when you can.

Kamilyah Jackson-Cooper, LCSW, is an LGBTQIA- and kink-friendly therapist and consultant. Jackson-Cooper is a licensed clinical social worker who graduated from University of Delaware with a BS in psychology and earned her MSW from New York University’s Silver School of Social Work.