Feb 27, 2024

This Black History Month, we remember and honor two Black women leaders who made great strides advancing justice and equity: Dean Elizabeth “Betty” Rawlins and Dr. June Jackson Christmas.

"It seems to me that I’ve often been in places where if you wanted to make life better for yourself, you had to work to make life better for everybody." - June Jackson Christmas, M.D.

By Danna Mauch, Ph.D., MAMH President and CEO

Celebrating history is a complicated idea. Recognizing and honoring the leaders "on whose shoulders we stand" is a critical part of understanding who we are, how we got here, and where we want to be. At the same time, history isn't always something to be proud of, and it's acknowledging the shameful parts that allow us to move forward and be better.

Nearly 100 years ago, two African American leaders started their lives in Cambridge, MA. Throughout their lives, they endured, challenged, and overcame prejudice and discrimination to inspire generations of university students and young professionals - including me. Dean Emeritus Elizabeth “Betty” Rawlins and Dr. June Jackson Christmas recently left us, both late in the tenth decade of their lives, and it is an honor for me to remember their legacies with you as we recognize and celebrate Black History Month.

Bettyrawlins

Elizabeth “Betty” Rawlins

As Professor and Dean at Simmons University for decades, Elizabeth "Betty" Rawlins supported, mentored, and advocated for generations of Black clinicians and leaders. She also was for decades an active member of the MAMH Board and our former Board President. During her years of MAMH Board leadership, Betty Rawlins deepened our understanding that racism and the trauma it creates undercut mental health and well being and drive unequal access to care and treatment quality once in care. Betty inspired MAMH’s understanding that education is a key to opportunity and path to equity for all, applauding MAMH’s Kids On Campus Program.

Betty was a vocal supporter of MAMH’s mission to advance social justice and health equity. Retired MAMH Executive Director Bernie Carey relied on her sound insights and sage advice throughout his more than 40-year tenure leading MAMH. "As President of the MAMH Board, she provided leadership and direction to obtain increased funding and support in the state and federal budgets for community-based programs," he said. "When Rosalyn Carter heard Betty speak at a National Mental Health meeting in Philadelphia, she came over to her and pledged her support for mental health."

“Betty was an outstanding leader, advocate and human being. She will be missed by all who knew her, and by all who benefited from her dedication, wisdom and friendship.”
Retired MAMH Executive Director Bernie Carey
June jackson christmas

June Jackson Christmas, M.D.

Dr. June Jackson Christmas was the pioneering Black psychiatrist who helped lead a movement toward community psychiatry in New York and beyond. She broke down barriers as a Black woman heading New York City’s Department of Mental Health and Retardation Services under three mayors. She served as the chief of rehabilitation services at Harlem Hospital Center and led the transition of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to a Democratic administration for President-elect Jimmy Carter.

During her lifetime, she achieved dozens of prestigious professional titles and awards, many of them "firsts" for Black women. She was the first Black woman to serve as president of the American Public Health Association of NYC and cofounder of the American Psychiatric Association Committee on Black Psychiatrists. She was the third Black woman ever to graduate from Vassar College.

But the recitation of her professional titles does not do justice to her 99 years, most of them focused on service and commitment to others. Dr. Christmas was a leader in the most important, fundamental ways - in the classroom, in the community, and with the people who she always felt honored to serve.

As her student during my doctoral education at Brandeis University, I benefited from Dr. Christmas’ mentorship and her fundamental teaching that supporting people with mental health conditions in their homes and communities is both a privilege and a broad responsibility for those of us who do this work. Speaking from her own experience as a Black woman, she once said, “It seems to me that I’ve often been in places where if you wanted to make life better for yourself, you had to work to make life better for everybody.”

MAMH Board Chair Betty Rollins and Dr. June Jackson Christmas have legacies that will continue to inspire future generations of education and mental health leaders and providers. And yet the celebration of their lives and contributions seems inadequate without a hard, honest discussion of the systemic inequities and hardships that are not just part of Black history but also Black reality, even today. Disparities in income, home ownership, education, and access to culturally responsive mental health treatment are pervasive, and there is no question that the disparities that exist today are rooted in our long history of slavery, violence, and oppression.

To truly honor the contributions and accomplishments of Black leaders requires us to acknowledge these systemic inequities and, most important, to pledge to address the roots of discrimination and exclusion that they respectively worked so hard to address. This Black History Month, I remember my fellow MAMH Board member Betty Rawlins and my teacher and mentor, June Jackson Christmas with fondness, gratitude, and the hard knowledge that continuing their work is a responsibility we all must share.


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