Pace yourself. — Most people who are changemakers tend to be visionaries, which comes with the desire to execute as many ideas as possible. We want to do so much for the betterment of others; to the point where we can put ourselves on the back burner. Pace yourself. Understand that none of those things can get accomplished without tending to your own physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Honor your personal boundaries by getting adequate amounts of rest, maintaining a healthy diet, carving out time specifically for you to recharge, and exercise for added energy. Don’t feel guilty for taking breaks. The work will be there when you get back.
As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sierra Hillsman, M.Ed., APC, NCC, CCTP.
Sierra Hillsman is a Licensed Associate Professional Counselor and is credentialed as a National Certified Counselor and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional. Her platform, Legacy Speaks, focuses on increasing awareness of mental health issues, creating conversations with marginalized communities, and increasing access to local and national resources by advocating for both equality and equity. This powerhouse clinician is passionate about changing the world one person at a time as she continues to champion mental wellness #ForTheCulture.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/01e4f201764fb28a9892938b15b14bd1
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?
I am born and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I grew up where most people vacation, where the palm trees cast their shadows as the sun shines like there’s no tomorrow. You have to have a certain type of swag to survive our level of humidity. From the parks of Melrose Manors to the historical Sistrunk Boulevard district, there’s so much energy and beauty in being a native South Floridian. I greatly appreciate growing up in such a cultural melting pot. No matter where I travel to, I always compare it to home.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. had a major impact throughout my life. Growing up, I despised math and my 7th grade Library Studies teacher encouraged me to enroll into Delta Academy. Every Saturday, my cohort and I would spend time with these women dressed in crimson and cream who happened to be educators in the area of STEM. As the years progressed, I remained with them through their Delta GEMS mentorship program all the way into my senior year of high school. I gained so much confidence in who I was as a young, gifted, and black teenager. It gave me a greater sense of belonging not only from a communal perspective but from a historical standpoint as well. I was so grateful for the experience that I went on to pursue membership and became a Soror of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. in Fall of 2012 at the University of South Florida. I still uphold the standard of scholarship, sisterhood, and service even now in my adulthood.
You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?
The purpose of Legacy Speaks is to destigmatize mental illness, specifically within communities of color. We create in-person and digital events that focus on shining light on mental health concerns through psychoeducation and partnerships with local and national resources. We create healthy conversations in a manner that makes larger concepts palatable to the typical layperson. We make it okay to not be okay and create safe spaces for individuals to pursue mental wellness.
Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?
In 2014, my family and I were experiencing what felt like an emotional rollercoaster. I had just quit my job and relocated to metro-Atlanta with the hopes of working in the entertainment industry. My family remained in Fort Lauderdale, FL trying to process the approaching death of my Uncle, whom my mother was the primary caregiver for. As a family, we were all dealing with this transition simultaneously but in different ways as we were navigating our own personal issues. Some experiencing severe depression while others were struggling with grief. It made me realize the importance of mental health and how black communities don typically focus on this area of wellness, especially if you’re living in neighborhoods that are underserved and lack the necessary resources.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Definitely. In May, I had the opportunity to present a workshop on how to cope with a having to create a new norm in the midst of a pandemic. It was geared towards women of color and included mothers as well. My mother was in the virtual audience for this particular event and afterwards we had a phenomenal discussion on parenting styles, the stages of change, and other things that I included in my presentation. Although I entered the counseling field because of my family, all of my efforts are solely focused on helping our community. I know they support me in my endeavors but this journey has allowed me to get to know my parents in a different way. The magnitude of it all just hits differently when I see the work that I do change my family for the better. As I am helping others, I’m also helping the ones that I hold near and dear to my heart as well, which in turn makes me a better person.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
In the wake of a pandemic, I hosted our first Mental Wellness for the Culture Conference during BIPOC Mental Health Month (which is July). I wanted to create a space that fostered healing and increased accessibility to information & resources that would be essential to our communities of color. This two-day digital conference featured myself and 17 other clinicians and entrepreneurs of color and covered topics such as women’s issues, men’s issues, relationships, how to empower mental health advocates and more. There were over 200 registrants who were either looking to start their wellness journey or find the support for their mental health goals during this unprecedented time. The feedback I received was phenomenal. I served as a bridge for clinicians to connect with attendees. One attendee stated: “I enjoyed the lineup!! There were panelist discussions, lectures, and yoga. I love love it!! I also loved the PowerPoints with lots of black people in them. It’s so nice seeing a presentation for once that is designed for you. It felt like a safe space.”
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Making a difference means finding a way to utilize your innate, God-given talents and skills to be of service to others. It doesn’t necessarily have to be on a grand scale like moving to another continent to do missions work. It can start by sharing your experience, strength, and hope with the person sitting next to you on your daily commute. One can make a difference by simply being of impact — just like a pebble being thrown into a lake. Wherever you land, be sure that your contribution creates a ripple effect that transcends cultures, generations, socioeconomic status and so on.
Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.
First, I saw a need and filled it. I recognized that there are mental health disparities within communities of color so I decided to explore what ways I could work towards changing that. My personal journey started off with enrolling into a Clinical Mental Health Counseling graduate school program so that I can educate myself and become a licensed therapist. Once I acquired the knowledge, I started taking the larger concepts and making them more palatable and relatable through social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. I then started collaborating with local organizations and other clinicians of color to advance the mission of mental health awareness and advocacy. From there, I started hosting my own events where people could walk away with tangible and practical ways of tending to their mental health concerns with the help of local and national resources.
Top 5 things you need to know as a changemaker:
- There’s a space for everyone. — I started my YouTube channel because I didn’t see any black counselors using video to talk about mental health on the platform, especially people my age. I wanted to provide a multicultural perspective as well as give other amazing therapists the opportunity to share their expertise. Even if you come across someone doing something similar to you in your field of interest, know that your voice, delivery, and style are what sets you apart. Be your authentic self and your audience will grow.
- Aim for impact. Don’t get caught up in the numbers. — Early on, I used to judge myself based on the numbers game; comparing my watch times, subscribes, and likes to other channels. Then I had to sit back and remind myself of my “why”. If my content happened to change one life for the better, keep one life from ending, or help one life cope with moments of distress then I’ve done what I came to do. The goal is to be of service to others even if the notoriety does not come with it.
- Teamwork makes the dreamwork. — That sounds super cliché but having an amazing network of individuals to help accomplish your goals is essential not just for emotional support but for instrumental support as well. Although I am a solopreneur, I am grateful to be connected to fellow clinicians and professionals of color who are willing to lend their time, talents, and expertise for the betterment of our communities. As I mentioned before, for the first annual Mental Wellness for the Culture Conference, myself and 17 other amazing mental health & wellness champions delivered a spectacular 2-day event that was completely free to the public. I could not have done that without them. I also could not have done it without the love and support of my friends and family who shared the flyer, bought me food when I had tunnel vision, and checked in on me throughout that entire process.
- Become a lifelong student of your passion. — The world is constantly changing and rapidly evolving. Research, findings, and new ways of doing things are happening daily. It is important to remain up to date by reading books and articles, listening to podcasts, and attending conferences and trainings. Gain access to masterminds and think tanks, find a mentor, and form alliances with accountability partners. I am a member of the American Counseling Association, attend 2–3 conferences annually, and participate in 5 hours of clinical supervision per month. I love what I do and will go over and beyond to become the best clinician for my clients as I possibly can.
- Pace yourself. — Most people who are changemakers tend to be visionaries, which comes with the desire to execute as many ideas as possible. We want to do so much for the betterment of others; to the point where we can put ourselves on the back burner. Pace yourself. Understand that none of those things can get accomplished without tending to your own physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Honor your personal boundaries by getting adequate amounts of rest, maintaining a healthy diet, carving out time specifically for you to recharge, and exercise for added energy. Don’t feel guilty for taking breaks. The work will be there when you get back.
What are the values that drive your work?
Service, creativity, and ethics are my driving values. Everything I do is to uplift the communities that I serve. I know what it is like to be on the receiving end of therapeutic services and needing an emotional and mental remedy for my personal hurdles. My goal is to help others reach optimal functionality and if I can’t personally do that, I will provide them with the referrals to other resources that meet their specific needs. Every piece of content that I put out is a reflection of me and my experiences. I love bright colors because I remember the times when life wasn’t so vibrant. I know who my target audience is so rather than taking my textbooks and just firing off interventions and concepts at random, I like to create pieces of information that will get the gears rolling and create healthy dialogue about mental health. It all starts with a conversation with one individual, who will then share what they’ve learned with other individuals, and before you know it, communities and generations are changed for the better. That’s why I aim to be as precise and ethical with the information that I provide so that it doesn’t create harm.
Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centered in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?
I am a therapist with a therapist so going to therapy has truly helped me stay grounded. For the longest time, I struggled with finding the intersectionality between various parts of myself. I lived so compartmentalized and I felt like I had to operate as this chameleon as I navigated throughout the multiple spaces that I operated in — work, church, time with family, and so on. Therapy has helped me to love and appreciate all aspects of myself unapologetically. This has helped me to pursue my purpose with such audacity. Prayer and reading the Bible are daily practices that I personally can’t live without. Seeking the wisdom of God in relation to the direction of my life and the guidance for the days ahead comes through spending quality time in reading the Word. It also is vital for gaining a better understanding of who I am and who I am called to be, which helps with eliminating comparison, anxiety, and over critiquing myself.
In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!
I want to live in a world where equality and equity are real things rather than trendy words during election campaigns. I want to live in a world where black and brown infants, children, teens, adults, and elders have access to resources that cater to their holistic wellness. This includes affordable healthcare & housing, quality education without outrageous student loan debt, entrepreneurial grants, and communities without food deserts. It feels like sustainability. It feels like the freedom that our ancestors fought so hard for their kids and their kids’ kids to experience. It feels like walking down the street with a hoodie on without fearing that someone could accuse them for simply just being. It feels like clean air circulating through the healthy lungs of a little boy or girl who will grow up to become the world’s next greatest leader. It feels like that undying warmth we get from being of service to others without wanting anything in return. That’s my vision for the world.
We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?
I would create grants and scholarships for BIPOC individuals wanting to become licensed mental health clinicians. This will boost representation within the field and increase accessibility for those wanting a therapist they can relate to. I would also help agencies and hospitals develop multicultural competency curriculum to teach to their providers how to improve the quality of patient care. I would also work with government officials to lobby for changes in training local police officers and develop trainings that will educate them on how to address civilians with mental health concerns. I would also fund police departments so that they can have on-site mental health professionals when those calls come in. This would help significantly with the de-escalation process during times of crisis and reduce the utilization of deadly force. I would buy neighborhoods and renovate them and ensure that schools had enough teachers and modern textbooks and technology. I would also partner with local community centers to roll out personal development workshops, home ownership courses, and business development programs.
I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?
All schools need to be fully staffed with teachers, administrators, mental health professionals, and environmental service workers so that no part of the school is overwhelmed and overworked. I have come across schools where teachers are not only required to teach students but also operate in roles like hall & cafeteria monitors and social services. School boards need to be given the funding to support heavily populated public schools. There definitely needs to be some changes made in the curriculum where life skill classes are added. That way students can learn personal finance skills like budgeting, investing, and credit building early on.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
What we do today creates the foundation for the generations after us. Create the things that you wished your parents had when they were your age. Imagine how much father along you would be if they had whatever that was. Be fully present, enjoy your youth, have the time of your life but also be intentional. You have a voice; don’t allow anyone to try to diminish that. We are all threads, connected together to create a larger tapestry. So do your part with excellence.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would absolutely love to have breakfast or lunch with Janelle Monae. She is a phenomenal singer, songwriter, and actress but I appreciate how she advocates for mental health and speaks openly about her history of depression. She understands that going through the highs and lows of life are a part of the human experience and champions affordable mental healthcare. I love her style, creativity, and natural dopeness. I am definitely a Fandroid lol
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Head over to www.legacyspks.com to join our email list to remain up to date on announcements. You can also connect via Instagram and Facebook at @LEGACYspks or YouTube at ‘Legacy Speaks’.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!