By Vivian Todini 

Barbara Ella Milton Jr.

Dr. Milton Jr. received her MSW from Rutgers School of Social Work in 2001 and is the author of Inherited Wisdom: Drawing on the Lessons of Formerly Enslaved Ancestors to Lift Up Black Youth (Cognella Academic Press, 2022) and Heeding the Caregiver Call: The Story of Barbara Ella Milton Sr. and Alzheimer’s Disease (2nd Edition coming Fall 2023, Cognella Academic Press). She spoke with Vivian Todini about her background in social work and how her education and experience in storytelling shaped her career — and her life.

What drew you to use storytelling as a way to transform communities?

When you are a clinician working with youth from high-risk environments, you learn quickly about the power of stories, many of which contain so much drama
and trauma. Yet, the trauma—and hence the story—of Black and Brown youth is so deeply misunderstood and miscast. As a result, the stories of Black children are not grounded in compassion and love. Rather, they are mired in harmful tropes that perpetuate the vicious cycle of racism that led to their trauma. These narratives form dangerous cultural norms that devalue and dehumanize Black lives.

I realized that my social work skills could help Black youth transform their inner stories and my advocacy skills could help transform the outer stories that are told about youth of color. So many youth with whom I worked felt hopeless and had no sense of future orientation, which always made me sad. My listening, validation, and connection with them became their lifeline; it helped them rewrite their stories. Through our work together, their stories had new beginnings and new endings. So many of them, with whom I am still in touch, are now parents. They transmit love, hope, confidence, and achievement to their children, thus helping to mitigate the clamor of damaging narratives. By helping individuals and communities shed destructive messages that bear down on their well-being, we help today’s youth manage the outside myths that continue to threaten their emotional and physical health.

How do you use storytelling to shift the cultural narrative?

To begin to change the external narrative, we have to change external systems. While working as a clinician in a ninth grade school-based trauma reduction program, a fight broke out in the hallway between two students. Although order was quickly restored, I will never forget how the school was suddenly enveloped in the whir of helicopters and an onslaught of media stirring up an unfounded story that there was a “riot.”

That experience, once again, demonstrated the presumptive myths about the children of inner-city schools, unjustly mischaracterizing them as wild, unruly, and scary. I wanted to do something to change that perception. I contacted the editor of the local newspaper and registered a complaint. I said rather bluntly that it seems his paper runs only negative stories about Black and Brown youth, which I found shameful and against the public good. I implored the editor to find someone who knows the value of youth of color and who would tell positive stories. I suggested that if they didn’t have someone on staff, I would do it. Long story short, I was hired to write a weekly column called “Our Pride and Joy” where I told stories about the resilience and beauty of Black and Brown youth.

When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2015, we went searching for the stories of Black and queer women like her who were experiencing the disease. Yet, we found none. At that moment, my mother asked me to write her story to help other Black and queer women know that we get this illness too. By telling my mother’s story, I heard over and over again how the book helped families of color to feel less isolated; they were relieved to better understand the challenges and the resolutions in a way that were never reflected in the general press. By sharing the narratives of Black and Brown families, we not only support families of color, but also shift the dialogue and disrupt the negative stereotypes that undergird systemic racism.

How do you use the power of past stories to move us toward a better future?

My mother was a strong Black woman, as was her mother and her mother’s mother. They were survivors and resilient. When contemplating a topic for my doctoral dissertation, I wondered what were the roots of Black resilience? The question led me to the Library of Congress and the collection of slave narratives called “Born in Bondage,” a trove of more than 2,000 stories of men and women born in bondage who were teenagers around the time of emancipation in 1865. I wanted to examine how these teens survived that cruel and decimating bondage. By combing through their stories, I learned that the keys to their survival and resilience spanned a range of behavioral, psychological, and attitudinal strategies that carried them out of bondage into lives of freedom.

I qualified those experiences as markers of historical resilience and made use of those strategies in my work with their progeny in my clinical practice. This approach of going back into history to fetch knowledge and sustenance is called Sankofa. That research and application of the findings is contained in my latest book, Inherited Wisdom: Drawing on the Lessons of Formerly Enslaved Ancestors to Lift Up Black Youth.

How did being a practicing LCSW therapist inform your choice to become an author?

In July 2012 I was diagnosed with bladder cancer, which now, 10 years later, has led to end-stage renal failure and a life fighting the good fight against stage 4 cancer and dialysis. This medical reality forced me to leave direct practice. The transition was difficult, as I loved working with clients and helping new LSWs work towards their clinical licenses. It was during this transition that I found my way to writing, as I knew the sum of my 40 years of social work experience could be helpful to others. Now, I do advocacy in a new way through the power of the pen. My lived experiences and worldview, when expressed in essays, newspaper columns, and through my books, have helped transform the lives of Black people. Tragically, Black youth are still victimized by state-sanctioned violence and at the hands of the resurgence of white supremacy. Black youth need allies, social workers, other mental health workers, and educators to have compassion and knowledge about ways to help them navigate the hostilities of the world that are directed at them. That's why I wrote Inherited Wisdom. The Book provides tools on how to safeguard their precious lives.

What were the experiences at Rutgers that informed the direction of your career?

I admired my professors at Rutgers and had excellent and versatile fieldwork experiences that kept me excited throughout my MSW program. In my first year I was placed at a child welfare agency; the second year, an outpatient child and adolescent treatment program. Through these experiences, I learned so much about clinical disorders and psychopharmacology. The MSW seminars, where we processed field placements, were intellectually stimulating and very helpful in enriching my fieldwork experiences. I am still in touch with classmates from my MSW classes. Kudos to the professors who emphasized group work, which allowed me to forge deep connections to my peers. I advanced my research and writing skills throughout the program, which serves me well today. Throughout the MSW program, I had a great advisor who guided and supported me and for that I am grateful.

What role can social workers play in forging social change?

The Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic changed the landscape of social work. The nation woke up more to the realities of systemic racism, disparities, and the economic exploitation of Black and Brown people. Social work chapters took up the mantle of the moment and movement to work even harder on social, racial, and economic justice issues. This recommitment to our core values, life learning, and allyship from the NASW has made me proud to be in the profession. I have a part in facilitating social change in my personal interactions. I do this through my quest for professional development and in using my talents, time, and treasure, including storytelling, in service of social change. I know from my own lived experience that an encounter with just one person who saw me for who I was, who treated me with respect, who had a genuine interest in getting to know me, who listened to me, who did not judge me, who showed compassion for me and who validated the value of my life as a Black lesbian, helped me to survive the trauma of my upbringing and to forge a life of purpose and success. Onward! The world needs us.