Growing up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Dr. Alfiee M. Breland-Noble encountered limited diversity and safe spaces outside her home. However, home was where she found that safety and inspiration, leading her to found the AAKOMA Project, a framework to create that same experience for other young people of color. 

The AAKOMA Project envisions a world where every child, teen and young adult (inclusive of all points of diversity) feels the freedom to live unapologetically and authentically. Dr. Alfiee and the AAKOMA Project focus on building the consciousness of youth of color and their caregivers on the recognition and importance of mental health, empowers youth and their families to seek help and manage mental health, and influences systems and services to receive and address the needs of youth of color and their families.

We spoke with the Industrious Ballston member to learn more about how the AAKOMA Project came to be, and how she thinks the hybrid way of working will affect children and families.

How did the AAKOMA Project get started?

Honestly, two things. It was growing up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and being a young person of color who grew up in an environment that was not very racially diverse. There was diversity, but it was limited. And knowing that once I stepped outside my house, there were probably going to be some difficulties. I was going to face difficulties. But inside the house, I felt very safe. So I wanted to create that for other young people. 

What made me want to launch AAKOMA was that I spent about 22 years in departments of psychiatry as a professor. And the same work that I’m doing now, it was too difficult to do within the confines of academia, because academia has a very…I think it’s fair for me to say a very limited view of what research looks like and who should be studied. And I didn’t want those limitations.

I was tired of arguing and trying to cajole and convince people that what we’re doing is important and that we had a way to reach people that was unique, that resonated, and that people were going to find valuable. And so I said, “I don’t have to keep banging my head against the wall. There are people out there who want this.” And so I took exactly what I was doing in academia and moved it and turned it into a 501c3.

Why is the AAKOMA Project’s mission so important?

At the AAKOMA Project, we’re rooted in three key ideas. Raise consciousness, empower people, and change the system. All of these are in the context of mental health for diverse communities. We have a very specific focus on really trying to center and move the conversation around mental health so that it is as inclusive as possible. Because traditionally, mental illness and mental health have been stigmatized, but they have not sought to include, in an authentic way, people of different kinds of backgrounds. And so AAKOMA really allows people to know that whoever they are, inclusive of all points of identity with a particular focus, as I said, on communities of color, that they’re important and that their mental health is important.

What are some of the ways you’re working to change that narrative, change that conversation, and support those communities?

We found that one of the most effective is through various forms of media. That’s only one part of what we do because we are research-based at our core. We are unique in that we are an organization that generates the research that drives our work and generates the research that we speak from. It’s especially unique for nonprofits that are led by and focused on diverse communities.

We do things like generate resources that we place on our website. There are all kinds of downloadable materials available where we teach people basic statistics in accessible language. We also host events. We have a segment where the actress, Lexi Underwood, and our intern, Morgan, had a conversation as two teenagers, basically the same age and talked about mental health and access for young people and how young people can be advocates for Black History Month. Over the summer, we had a weekly mindfulness meditation that we did for about six weeks on Wednesdays through our Instagram page. And we had multiple diverse people come in and lead that. 

Through those kinds of opportunities – citations in journals, newspapers, magazines, online, television – we can put the message out. And those are the ways that we try to reach all different kinds of people in different kinds of accessible ways. So if I do CNN, I’m reaching one audience. If I appear in Teen Vogue, I’m reaching a different audience. If AAKOMA is cited by Haus Labs, which is Lady Gaga’s makeup line, last year, they featured AAKOMA Project. Or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. You’re reaching very different audiences in each of those spaces. And so that’s the way that we do our work – we try to reach as many people as possible.

Is there anything that would be helpful for people to kind of think about, about this particular moment in time (adapting to being back in school, hybrid work, vaccinations) for kids? How can parents work through issues that might be cropping up?

During Covid, they weren’t in school dealing with bullies, learning how to at least go advocate for yourself. How do you determine what’s a trusted adult? How do you determine who’s a trusted friend? You can’t learn that if you’re not interacting with people. How do you deal with isolation? And all these other developmental markers that they haven’t been able to hit. Not to mention the struggles for some of our young people who are in homes where they’re not safe. Kids who are out, who are trans or who are LGBT, who are in homes where people aren’t supportive. These are the things that kids are struggling with on top of making this adjustment to a hybrid schedule. 

We know from data that there are literally skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety. What we as parents and guardians and caregivers have to be mindful of is signs and symptoms and how do those things show up in teenagers? Kids are not just mini versions of adults. They have different ways that they express emotion. And so if we’re not attuned to how they express emotion and the variability of it, then we can’t be attuned to knowing when it’s time to dive in and help. 

And finally, if we as adults are not in touch with and aware of our own struggles in places where we’re doing pretty well, if we can’t calibrate that for ourselves, it makes it that much harder for us to engage and calibrate that with our young people.

How does your workplace at Industrious support or inform your work?

It was a value to me compared to some other places because of the open floor space, the people working here, the community nature of it, because of the structure of the office you can see other people, because it’s a warm and welcoming space. And I just love the way I’ve set up my office! 

It’s a manifestation for me. I had this vision of it literally years ago. I have a picture somewhere in here of what I wanted my workspace to look like. Open space where I could see out, where there was lots of light coming in – and that’s essentially what I have.  And so all of those are things that make my workplace wonderful at Industrious.

What’s next for the AAKOMA Project?

Two big things! We are launching an online store. All of the proceeds for what we sell will go back into the AAKOMA Project to support programming. And one of the programs that we have in partnership with Starbucks, who have been amazing corporate social responsibility partners along with Harry’s Shave Club. 

We are also launching Team AAKOMA, which is a hybrid between ambassadors and advisors of young people mostly between the ages of 10 and 18. We want to get young people who represent all kinds of backgrounds, who are passionate about mental health, or maybe they’re just curious about mental health and want to be a voice and an activist in their communities. And we can just really be a galvanizing force for all young people anywhere they come from, whatever their background is, inclusive of all points of identity and intersectionality.