Texas schools can present a tough environment, yet the voices that most need to be heard rarely make it to the ear of policymakers. Ike and Andrew Hairston of Texas Appleseed talk the 88th Texas Legislative Session, lived experience with mental health, and how we can potentially make learning atmospheres more conducive for healthy development.
The full transcript of this episode of Mind of Texas is available on the KUT & KUTX Studio website. The transcript is also available as subtitles or captions on some podcast apps.
Intro I would love to see some real healing in the mind of Texas. The mind of Texas is affecting me very deeply. The mind of Texas is critical to what the future of Texas is about.
Ike Evans Hi, I’m Ike Evans, host of The Mind of Texas podcast from KUT News 90.5. Texas is a big and diverse state, and so are the minds of the people in it. Each episode we bring you a discussion on what’s happening in Texas and its effect on our mental health.
Andrew Hairston All of us deserve abundant grace and compassion in our workplaces and our schools, in our communities of faith, in our general society. But often Black children do not get that benefit. And I think that if you lift the tide for Black children, you lift the tide for everyone.
Ike Evans And we are now about 15 months removed from the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde. And ever since you might say that children’s mental health has been having a moment in Texas. But are there opportunities in this moment that are at risk of being squandered because of a narrow focus on school safety as defined by policymakers? Today on Mind of Texas, we’re talking about mental health in schools. It’s October just after the start of the school year. And with the lingering impact of the last legislative session where mental health in schools was high on the agenda. Joining us is Andrew Hairston, director of the Education Justice Project at Texas Appleseed. Disclosure note: Texas Appleseed is a former grantee partner of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. Andrew, how are you doing?
Andrew Hairston I’m good. I’m just grateful to have made it through the 88th legislative session and to have not had some of the worse outcomes occur.
Ike Evans Yeah, you made it through.
Andrew Hairston I did.
Ike Evans Yeah. What helped you make it through, huh?
Andrew Hairston Kind of the long game of it. All right. So to kind of think about Uvalde in 2022, which very much so contextualized a lot of debates around school safety that occurred in the session this year and to kind of think of the future of young Texans and folks who are coming up in the state. You know, very much so grounds me, especially when I’m in the zone doing 12 hour days waiting to testify that I’m a part of the struggle, but not the only component of it.
Ike Evans So I’m trying to paint a picture of what your day to day might be like during the legislative session. Long days. I know it’s lots of meetings, it’s strategizing, it’s giving testimony. That all sounds like a lot and it all sounds very stressful. And so I was just wondering what things you do to maintain your wellness on the assumption that you don’t you don’t want to let it become an afterthought.
Andrew Hairston Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I set a record in the 88th legislative session of the time of testifying. I testified at 2:30 in the morning at one point during the legislative session, which is just unreal. But also, I think I made a coherent argument at that point. I’m a person who meanders quite a bit. I walked throughout my neighborhood in East Austin, just really appreciate the sights and sounds and scenes and just connect with folks, not to other folks who are walking around and just being in community. It’s very helpful for me in both kind of grounding myself in something that is bigger than myself and that, you know, I have this finite individual experience. I think I’m doing good work and intend to continue. But no matter what, at some point I’ll pass on and want to set up the landscape for my successors to come and be able to continue the fight in their own right and have a nimble and innovative approach to it. But yeah, a lot of connection to kind of that community care. I am, you know, I’m a man of faith, my church is the Ebenezer Third Baptist Church on the east side of Austin. You know, that’s a very helpful and grounding source of hope for me. My family very much so, very admiring of my parents and sister and niece and extended family members and so grateful that I get to spend time with them. You know, even when I’m doing legislative advocacy during the session that kind of get that grander perspective. And yeah, opportunities like this to reflect on various media channels where I can kind of think about my work and contextualize it in a moment in time and also kind of think of the long arc of it.
Ike Evans What were the most significant bills to come out of the last legislative session that impact this issue? And what effect do you think that they’ll have?
Andrew Hairston HB three was pretty big. So this was a school safety funding bill. That time in the legislative session proposed an armed security officer on every campus across the state. My colleagues and I, within the education justice advocacy space, vehemently opposed that as written because, I mean, you can take away the fiscal note of it, right in the millions of dollars it would cost that even our budget surplus the state is not guaranteed to have. But also the idea that in Robb Elementary in May 2022, in Uvalde, there were 400 police officers from various agencies who did not stop that man from shooting up the school. And that is the most salient example on people’s minds. Where it’s like, what does equate to school safety? I answer that school policing does not. And we have seen the investments, especially across the 21st century of millions of dollars from the federal government, from the state government, from local government agencies to school policing. And still the tragedies occur. So we were glad to get the armed school security officer provision of HB three, even as it’s passed and even as it provides some other opportunities for security to come on school campuses, we’re still kind of thinking about the effects of other bills that will become law. There was one SB nine that we opposed a classroom removal provision of during the testimony period. And from our reading in the education justice advocacy space, it would made it easier for informal removals of young people for one off incidents of having a bad day or, you know, kind of talking back to the teacher and might not lead them to, again, a disciplinary alternative education program placement, but also has harmful effects any minute that kid is not in their general education assignment or their special education assignment, it feels like a deprivation of their right to a quality public education. And so it looks like SB nine as passed, does not include that language for one incident to lead to an informal classroom removal. But yeah, even in October, we’re still analyzing the full extent of what passed and what material impact it might have on young Texans in the classroom. But thankfully, coming out of the 88th legislative session, I don’t think that the worst things that could’ve happened did occur.
Ike Evans What was the most stressed out you got during the legislative session?
Andrew Hairston Yeah.
Ike Evans And what was at stake?
Andrew Hairston Yeah, it was the end of April for a number of reasons. I had a couple of hearings in April, in addition to testifying in the legislature, and all of it came together for detrimental results. I lost the hearings in which I was representing clients, and then it was clear at that point that some pretty draconian bills were going to move to passage in the month that we had left. So in a pandemic era development, I’ve tapped into the tears that suppressed for a long time when I was a child, right. I cried quite a bit leading up to my teenage years. And then I think the effective socialization of Boys Don’t Cry Now got seeped in. I didn’t cry very regularly for 15 years, and then the pandemic ushered a dam breakage in. And so I was just crying on a check in with my boss at the end of April, thinking that in my particular line of work, I’m trying to envision a world where Black children are free. And it felt so far off from that point in late April 2023 that I just had to let out a good cathartic cry. And my boss was incredibly understanding and gave me grace as I tried to give myself grace. But I appreciated the ability to be human in that moment.
Ike Evans It seems that these days mental health in schools or just mental health for kids is seen as a subcategory of school safety rather than a funding category in its own right. How do you feel about that, and does that really work for schools in Texas?
Andrew Hairston Most recently, we’ve heard reports of a few independent school districts who are creating their own internal police departments. And this is not a new occurrence. There are hundreds of internal school police departments in Texas. But it’s under the guise or under the auspices of the idea that if the officers are trained in mental health programing, then they can respond to the needs of young people better. And I told folks, as I reflected on this, that sounds good on paper, it sounds good for a press release. But if you were really concerned with the well-being and the mental health of young people, which I think should be paramount in this phase of 2023, then you would absolutely invest in the trained mental health professionals who understand child development very incisively and who can respond to the ongoing crisis of the pandemic that is showing up in schools across Texas. So I appreciate that question. And I push a number of policymakers and education stakeholders to think about the symbiotic relationship between mental health and school safety. Right. If you address mental health on the front end and make sure that young people feel safe and supported, nurtured, and that they belong in their school environments, you are very much so going to decrease the likelihood of some mass incident of violence or some concern coming up where young people would harm each other or themselves. And you’ll just see kids grow up to live fulfilled lives as older young people and as adults.
Ike Evans So my girlfriend works with kids in schools. Legally, she can’t call herself a therapist, although, you know, her job does have a caseworker element. Certainly. Yeah. And it’s constant. You know, the stories that she tells that always seem to involve in some kind of way the constant checking in with kids and following up and hey, how are you doing? And you know what has happened since the last time that I saw you, whether there’s no problem whatsoever or in fact, it’s a situation that has gotten pretty acute. And listening to you talk, I just can’t help but think what schools really need is a core of her, right? Not not cops, but messaging that is always a challenge, you know, because we’re talking about a very long time horizon to be able to show results for any kind of an intervention that you might propose. I mean, how do you get people who are coming at it from a security first perspective to even begin to glean just what building a healthy child actually requires? And have you had any, what felt like breakthroughs?
Andrew Hairston Yeah, it’s a tightrope, certainly. And I want to be very empathetic as a person. I reflected on it earlier this week who is increasingly removed from K-through-12 education. Right? I’m older each day and I just don’t have as much investment in that material way as I did 15 years ago. But as young people and parents talk about their experiences and what they desire in their schools, you’ll often see common threads emerge that safe and supported school environments emerge from safe and supported kids, and that if kids feel that they have a sense of community and care and belonging, there will not be these incidents again that come up where police and surveillance have to even be pitched as the solution to these concerns that come up on school campuses. A bit of a breakthrough, right? The policy world is very incremental, as listeners may know. But in the eighth legislative session, a bill passed that Texas Appleseed got behind HB 473. That will increase parental involvement in the threat assessment process. Four years ago, during the 86 legislative session, we got behind this more evidence based approach to school safety and security incidents rather than more terroristic threat prosecutions by local prosecutors. But having more of the parent voice of the community voice in school safety conversations, I think lifts the tides for all, and especially for young Texans. And if you create those opportunities for young people and parents to have those conversations and discuss what secures school safety in their minds, they will see those points of resonance, I believe, and then be able to use that community model to ensure that wherever they are in Texas, right from Diboll to Lubbock to the Rio Grande Valley, that the kids in those environments feel completely safe and supported.
Ike Evans Tell us about your role at Texas Appleseed. And what it is that you hope to accomplish for kids in Texas.
Andrew Hairston Yeah. So I’m a civil rights lawyer and writer. I have been at Texas Appleseed for four years. I came to the organization from D.C.. I previously worked for national racial justice organizations, called the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Advancement Project. And in my role at Texas Appleseed, I’m focused on dismantling the school to prison pipeline. And when I came to the role in 2019, that was my job title: School to Prison Pipeline Project Director. In 2020, as the pandemic was unfolding, I rebranded it a little bit to call myself the Education Justice Project Director, because I’m certainly fighting to dismantle draconian laws and policies, right? School policing and surveillance and things that make young people feel like they’re in prison when they’re in school. But also, I want to think of the affirmative vision of what young Texans deserve in their schools, a beautiful infrastructure, a culturally relevant curriculum. These teachers, these adults who are charged with their care, who deeply care about them and who understand it for humanity and acknowledge that complexity and the ways in which they interact with them.
Ike Evans You have a particular focus on school discipline. I want to ask how big a problem in tests Texas have with unequal discipline? And what is the evidence for it?
Andrew Hairston So Texas Appleseed is 27 years old, and for at least 20 years, we’ve been engaging in the examination of the school to prison pipeline and efforts to dismantle it. My boss, Deborah Fowler, joined the organization in 2005 and soon thereafter engaged in research around school policing and suspensions and expulsions and saw these very stark disparities for Black and brown children, for kids with disabilities. And we all should then see LGBTQ young people facing the brunt of exclusionary discipline and zero tolerance policies. I think in so many ways in Texas, we have just seen that philosophy of zero tolerance and that children are to be seen and not heard pervade so many classrooms across the state, and particularly as young people try to express themselves and understand their position in the world. If there is an interrogation of social injustices like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Right. These Black folks who are murdered by the police, you will see perhaps this machine kind of bear down upon them the philosophy of zero tolerance, but then also the infrastructure like alternative education, suspensions, expulsions, the tens of thousands of school police officers who patrol campuses and it unfortunately leads to some hard physical and psychological outcomes for young people.
Ike Evans Yeah. And the connection between unequal discipline and the school to prison pipeline. Maybe you could kind of flesh that out a little bit and how one impacts the other.
Andrew Hairston Certainly. So we saw it in the U.S. during the civil rights movement. We can go back to 1950 and move forward over the 73 year period, where so many young people across the U.S. and in Texas were lifting up their voices against racial injustice in the U.S. at that time. And they participated in sit ins and they were with their church members and engaging in this deep intergenerational organizing. And it led to some watershed moments in the sixties. You had civil rights legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But as that period transitioned into the seventies and eighties, there was very much so a backlash to the participation of those young people in racial justice protests. And we saw a proliferation of zero tolerance policies under the guise of suspensions and expulsions in schools across Texas and the U.S. in the latter half of the 20th century. So if young people were lifting up their voices still and, you know, you had various movements like the Black Power Movement and other efforts for Black people to achieve self-determination in their schools, they saw that if you go against the status quo too much or if you push back on this model of industrial education that is commonplace in so many school classrooms, then you’re going to be met with a suspension and expulsion. And that’s very true in what we’ve seen across the pandemic, even even as young people were in hybrid learning environments, as they might have been learning from their homes if they loggged on enough to the Google Chromebooks or to the school supply technology, they would face discipline. And then as they got back from the coronavirus pandemic the expectation was to largely act like you didn’t just see a million people die in the U.S. more than would have occurred in another three year period. So, yeah, I think all of that history kind of converges for a number of young Texans where they are not often given the opportunity to express their perspectives and lift up their voices without serious consequences.
Ike Evans It’s not just kids of color that we’re talking about. So this issue impacts, you know, kids who have been marked out as different in other ways, for example, kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities. What can you tell us about that and how that ties in?
Andrew Hairston They are very much so married to each other, how those components of the school to prison pipeline will push out young folks, particularly when there’s an intersection of Black and brown children who have disabilities. And there are certain provisions of federal law like Section 504 or RDA that might have pretty robust provisions in place. Let’s say if a kid is suspended for more than ten days in academic year, then a manifestation determination needs to occur to see if the child’s behavior is leading to the discipline that they’re receiving. And that can be a very helpful procedural tool for parents trying to navigate it. But often there can be both this under identification of children for special education services and then this overriding identification where the behavior of Black children might be examined in a manner that says, “Okay, you’re acting out, but we’re just going to say it’s because you’re unruly or disruptive.” This is language that was very commonplace in the 88th legislative session. But then it might be that the children have a disability, right? They might have ADHD. They might have kind of these different ways of learning and expressing themselves. And so particularly around intellectual disabilities, I think that folks don’t just fully understand how disability justice should be showing up in school environments. And so there might be this inclination to push young people with intellectual disabilities out of the classroom without scrupulously following the provisions of federal law. They’re required.
Ike Evans Yeah. Is there a sense in which when it’s Black kids that they are in some sense less legible to white teachers as being anything other than whatever word someone might use that really is just a synonym for having a disability? Misbehaving, unruly and helping to make that translatable is a big part of the work, I would think.
Andrew Hairston Not legible. I like that framing and that expression. Nobody tries to really understand Black children. You know, you can kind of think about how children are treated generally in the U.S. where there are not as many protections and legal rights available to them because you trust that the custody of their parents will get them to a certain point in their lives. But then you add the pernicious stereotypes around Black people in the U.S. and generally the society not being interested in interrogating the Black experience and knowing why Black folks show up in spaces the way that they do. But how Black folks have survived after being deprived of so many resources across generations. And so those two stereotypes might converge to say, well, you know, we have a Black child with a disability, zero tolerance. We don’t care why the child is acting out on a particular day. We just want to push them out of the classroom, push them into a disciplinary alternative education program, and not fully understand the complexity of their experience. And that nuance, Ike, that complexity is so important coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, where everybody has been transformed in radical ways and all of us deserve abundant grace and compassion in our workplaces, in our schools, in our communities of faith, in our general society. But often Black children do not get that benefit.
Ike Evans I meant to ask, do you have kids of your own?
Andrew Hairston I don’t have children. It’s something that I’m thinking about more and more. I’m celebrating this year, four years at Texas Appleseed, and I’m incredibly grateful to be in this position doing this work as the Education Justice Project Director. I do have an adorable three-year-old niece who keeps me busy. She lives in Oklahoma, and I tend to see her every month, if not more frequently. And to think about that child who was born in 2020. She very much so represents, you know, of course, somebody that I’m individually invested in. And I’m very concerned about her well-being. But also, I don’t want to say it like this, but perhaps a litmus test, right? If a Black child in 2020 can get the full robust investments that she deserves that they deserve, then I think society will benefit at large. And if I can continue to point to my niece and make sure that the structures are in place for her to have a fulfilled life in her community, in her classroom, and in whatever endeavors she takes on in her adulthood, then that can be very much so a microcosm of what can exist for children across Texas, children across the United States. Right. And hopefully we’re building something here in the 21st century for children like her to fully thrive and feel like they’re seen and heard and that they can be themselves.
Ike Evans I guess a follow up to that is not being a parent, but do you ever have conversations with parents regarding your work and what things do they leave you thinking about?
Andrew Hairston Conversations with parents these days are the lifeblood of my work, and I approach it with a very humble spirit because I don’t at all want to impose my views or my perspectives on parents raising their children such deep admiration for my parents and what they have given to me over 32 years. I don’t want it all to be seen as instilling my will into a particular situation and conversations with parents. But what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard and observed is that parents are deeply concerned about their children and all children. They understand that a number of incidents of violence are in the public consciousness, from mass shootings in communities to those in schools, but deeply in that human connection that will be made right from parent to child or from advocate to parent. There will be this desire that comes forth that emanates from these conversations that even in dire circumstances or dire straits, we believe that a better future is possible. And we see it in our children. We’re investing in it in real time in the schools that we’re sending our children to and then the community activities they participate in. But we also are thinking ten, 20, 30 years down the road and are willing to engage in this imaginative vision of what safe and supported schools and communities can look like. One thing that I am working toward, especially is the 89th legislative session comes in 2025, is getting more parent voices into the legislative process. It is notoriously prohibitive that you get 48 hours usually during the committee process, to come to Austin to testify. Maybe your bill is heard in the first 15 minutes. Maybe like me, you testify at 2:30 a.m. as certain point for a bill which is just not made for working class people that process. But I think over the next year and a half, if we can really engage in those conversations with parents, get them prepared and incorporate their voice into some of the policy advocacy that we have planned for the 89th legislative session, I think it will be of tremendous benefit to the legislative process as a whole, and I think that more parents will be able to connect with one another across the state and kind of build this education justice work from various geographic regions of Texas.
Ike Evans You have done policy in both Texas and DC. Are there threats to kids well-being that are unique to our state?
Andrew Hairston Not unique per se, but I do think that living and working in Texas in 2023 presents an intriguing opportunity. So many folks will point to the notion that Roe v Wade came from Texas, Medicare and Medicaid. In this sense, with LBJ and the Great Society, programs emerge from Texas. Right. And so there are incredible organizing opportunities in the state and working class Texans very much so will express to you in conversations one on one and in policy arenas that they deeply desire affordable health care and education and housing and social services to benefit themselves and their children. But to think about living and working in Texas. There are opportunities, but there are challenges. Given the composition of various lawmaking bodies, lawmaking entities, the state government. And so, you know, if you were working in D.C. at this time, I would say, and I have shared this with the legislature when I testified during the 88th legislative session, there’s been a bipartisan commitment to the notion that Black children in particular need to be brought to heal. And they might be a little more challenging in a space like D.C., which is, quote unquote, a more liberal place. Right. And has more politicians who might, on their face represent the interests of the community. Right. In their lived experiences. But, you know, folks in D.C. are also struggling with trying to actualize their demands for, let’s say, police inside schools, for having the mental health supports in place to replace these very hardened and military like school environments that a lot of young people might attend in D.C. or in states on the East Coast. And so when thinking about the work in Texas, in a sense, you just kind of know what you’re getting and there can be incredible power in that as you seek to reach out to parents and young people and create an organizing network and say, “Hey, over the short term, it might not yield as many material victories for us. But if we engage in this conversation again over decades, over 10 to 20 to 30 years, then we can start to chip away at some of these pernicious stereotypes and give Black Texans and historically underserved Texans the future that they deserve.”
Ike Evans If and when you did have kids of your own, what would you imagine saying to them or demonstrating for them about what it will be like to grow up in Texas?
Andrew Hairston I would say to them that you’re following in a rich tradition of Black Southerners who have organized and fought and strive for a better life despite circumstances in any time period, in any epic of American history, where the odds seem completely stacked against them. But yet generations have persevered. It is a beautiful and complicated state I often reflect on. But I’ve chosen to build a life here for a reason and chosen to bring children into this world in Texas for a reason. And so I think that tapping into your full humanity, knowing that you know me as your father will be incredibly supportive of the need to laugh and play and cry and mourn and think about how you, and your individual efforts, are contributing to a collective vision of a better future. But also to know that, again, because of that rich history that you’ve inherited, you’ve seen blueprints of folks, you’ve seen, you know, the Barbara Jordans of the world who emerged from Texas, who changed history in so many respects. And so I would urge them to feel it all deeply, right, to know that I am their thought partner in all of this and truly their supportive rock as their father, but that they are on earth for such a time as this, and they should be encouraged that their paths are righteous ones.
Ike Evans So not everyone identifies as mentally ill or as struggling with mental health. We’ve all been kids once. Yeah, we’ve all had experiences of being, for lack of a better word, disregulated. You know, in the presence of adults who show varying degrees of patience and understanding and forbearance. So I just can’t help but want to know about your own personal experiences with this issue.
Andrew Hairston [laughs] I thank you, my therapist, and the work that we’ve done since 2019.
Ike Evans Or is that just a way of me wanting to say, “Were you bad as a kid? Were you? Were you bad?”
Andrew Hairston I was poster child, right. I’m a preacher’s kid and this sounds so egotistical, but I really was afraid, if you kind of marry my identity as a person of faith with my rearing in my household and my understanding, that I wanted to be a representation of my parents. I very much so was a kid who dotted the I’s and cross the T’s and did not really get in trouble. As I got into even my late teenage years in my twenties, I started to think about this very unrealistic expectation that you need to be perfect. And you know me as a Black person, you know, once a Black child, now a Black adult in America, I had to really push back on this notion that I had to nail every single thing that I did or, you know, do it perfectly because I’m a human being who should be given that full grace and compassion. And so in my twenties, it looked like kind of doing what was expected. I went from kindergarten through the end of law school with no breaks, but did get to a point in my second semester of my second year in law school where I was just tired and I called my parents and I said, “Hey, you know, I’m not doing that well academically. You know, this has been grueling. You know, I think I just want to take a step back.” And they were like, “Hey, man, you’ve come so far and, you know, look at what you’ve done. And also, if you don’t come here to Oklahoma City with that law degree, we’re not we’re not opening up the guest bedroom for you.” So I was glad to ultimately finish law school and go up to D.C. to start my career and then move to Austin. But then also was kind of considering in my early Austin days in 2019, “At what cost? I’ve done all the stuff so well. It’s like, have I given myself the grace to just kind of be?” And for me, right, it’s showing up in different ways. I’ve adopted my full identity. Yeah, I’m a bisexual man of faith. That was something that I felt I couldn’t quite reconcile earlier in my life. But in 2023 makes the most sense of how I am and show up in the world and do this work at Texas Appleseed and in other capacities. And I’m so glad that I allowed myself to evaluate my mental health, especially in my adulthood, and say, “Things have gone well in your life and you should be proud. But also, you know, where do you want to give yourself grace and say, you know, you don’t have to be perfect and you can kind of take this journey at your own pace.” And I hope that in my life’s work that is extended to truly all Black young Texans and all Black children across the U.S. and across the globe. And I think that if you lift the tide for Black children, you lift the tide for everybody.
Ike Evans So he was not a child. Jordan Neely, though.
Andrew Hairston Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ike Evans Things like that really mess with me. I’ll, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll be real with you because from my own experiences as a weird Black adult who was once a weird Black kid, but I could kind of code switch it to the point where I didn’t experience the worst of how the grown up world can respond. But if, you know, if things had been a little bit different, there’s just no telling where I’d be now. And I’m not trying to in any way appropriate. Jordan Neely’s experience as an unhoused person right now with the particular challenges that he had. But I ain’t that far from that.
Andrew Hairston Wow.
Ike Evans And the conversation about punishment really dredges that up for me, you know what I mean?
Andrew Hairston Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing and for your vulnerability and the sense of resonance between us. Another personal milestone is I’ve been sober for 100 days into 2023. I guess at this airing it will be a little bit longer. But you know, something that I thought about when I was drinking more heavily in my twenties and I didn’t evaluate it much at the time that it occurred is that I’ve been in circumstances where, you know, I like to walk around, you know, walking around drunk as a big Black guy could lead to some different circumstances. Right? If I encounter, you know, people who are not is kind of aware of that or kind of understanding me, I’m just a person meandering around and not intending harm. And I feel so deeply for Jordan Neely and his family and for so many Black folks who do not get the ability to have a bad day. Right. We see it in their schools for Black children. Right? If you talk back, if you fight, if you smoke a vape pen, you’re getting suspended. And it’s like, why am I doing these things? And who is the adult who comes into my classroom to ask me, you know, why are you speaking back to your teacher and say, Oh, your uncle died from COVID 19? You have to work to support your younger siblings and your parents, right? Like, very material things are happening in your life that, you know, we would hope that kids wouldn’t want to have to deal with or need to deal with, but they do. And then you extend that all the way to Black adulthood where it’s like, yeah, you are grateful to have gotten to a certain point in your life and to be continuing along that path. But you know, that’s never certain and you have to be just so scrupulous and so diligent and not, you know, move in a way that kind of alarms the wrong person or you end up like poor Jordan Neely and not be able to live the full extent of your life.
Ike Evans There are things afoot in this state that can drive a man to drink and kind of being somebody who reads as a big Black guy, you got to keep your stuff tight. Yeah. So I just can’t help but I want to check in with you how things are coming with your sobriety and also how real is the struggle, you know, to stay on an even keel?
Andrew Hairston Yeah. Thank you for this question, because the personal is indeed political. My sobriety is coincided with my Deacon’s service at Ebenezer Third Baptist Church in East Austin, and that is a helpful accountability structure for me, being accountable to my church in the spiritual leadership role as a deacon. I do want model as best as I can, recognizing that I’m human and that I will make mistakes and strive to correct them when I do, but generally that I want to be on a path that exemplifies some sense of maturity. That’s been very helpful for my sobriety journey. I think many listeners will reflect on their relationships with their parents or with older relatives who have influenced them. I think my father in particular has influenced this. He’s a teetotaler. I’ve never seen my father drink. And it was interesting that relationship that I had to witnessing him not drink right as a younger person. And then going into adulthood, there probably was a sense of rebellion in my twenties that, oh, I can drink and have some sense of a balanced life. But going into my thirties. Right, and taking on deacon service and doing policy work in Texas in this unique landscape, I’ll tell you, during my period of sobriety, I have not missed substance use. I think as a writer in particular, I draw in my past experiences and I have plenty of stories I could tell you about times when I was under the influence in the past. But for now it feels steadying to be sober. No one can predict the future, right? Never say never. But I feel very content in this decision that was pretty much organic and inadvertent. I didn’t start this year even as I was leading up to my deacon ordination service. I didn’t quite say to myself that I was going to stop drinking. But know what has ensued over these past several months has been beautiful and clarifying and, you know, kind of one less concern to have. There are other things that diluted could take me out, but, you know, generally not having to worry about alcohol and its consequences is a good thing for me in this phase of my life.
Ike Evans So, Andrew, feel free to answer this as comprehensively as you like. You can be cagey if you want, but I just can’t help but wonder if there were ever a what we could call a Texas specific situation or moment that either drove you to drink or just posed a real threat to your efforts at staying sober.
Andrew Hairston I didn’t quite feel it in the moment because it was such a, let’s say, 30-day rapid response mode I was in. But May 2022, after Uvalde, after the shooting at Robb Elementary. We were moving so quickly at Texas Appleseed and I think we needed to. We were putting out press statements, we were writing blogs about it, and since it falls under my purview, I was the one most responsible for getting that content out. It was helpful to reflect on something so sorrowful and so challenging to the long term organizing efforts ahead of us. But also I can think back to that period over a year ago at this point and think about times when the substance use or the willingness to drink was a bit more intensified because of the unending reflections on police as the solution to that concern. When specifically in Rob Elementary in May 2022, the hundreds of police officers, not just school police officers, but, you know, state agents, federal agents did nothing to stop the act of mass violence. So I had to be aware of that. And hindsight is 2020 in so many respects, right? I didn’t quite realize it then, but there were certain points where I drank during the late spring of 2022 into the summer of 2022, likely because of that stressor. But coming into this period over a year later, again, nice to have the clarity of sobriety in this moment and to know that unfortunately other such incidents may occur. But there are some better coping mechanisms in play in my life that I can use to navigate that.
Ike Evans Andrew, you have the platform beyond everything that we’ve talked about, is there anything you want to leave in people’s minds about minority mental health having to do with Texas?
Andrew Hairston Yes, as I said in previous responses, this is a challenging time, but a time of great opportunity. I think about myself. I’ve had a therapist since 2019 and I’m one of the few, if not the only family members in my orbit who is seeing a therapist and talking about it openly. And I think that speaks to a great possibility in this moment. Mental health has come into focus so necessarily and been destigmatized even over the past five years. We can go before the pandemic era and talk about how there are certain shifts and conversations around mental health that were occurring, let’s say, in 2018. But I’d say for Black and brown Texans, for other historically underserved groups, there is no shame in leaning into the very real concerns that you have around your mental health to give yourself grace and compassion is to be human after you’ve survived the pandemic, to sit with the grief, to not know where the tears come from. Maybe it is that individual loss you face, but maybe it’s the million people that you saw pass away more than would’ve from 2020 to 2023 because of the lack of government response to a global health crisis. There is reason for our grief. There is healing in it. And to speak about your mental health concerns and to carve out space as much as you can in your home life, in your work life, right in your community life. To say that this is a fundamental part of who I am as a human being. I think it can lift the tide again for everyone. Create material benefits for you in the short and long term. And I hope that something that continually leads to deeper human connection and ultimately growth from this period of uncertainty.
Ike Evans So in the conversation that you just heard, we had a lot to say about kids mental health, both in the abstract but also we got to learn a fair amount, even about Andrew’s youth and the experiences that shaped him. One of the things that I think that you can take from the conversation is that building a healthy child is a community project. It’s an all hands project. I mentioned during the conversation the work of my girlfriend, just as somebody who works with kids in schools and everything that that entails, I really want to get across that children’s mental health is a fraught and complicated area, and it always seems that it’s our kids who are downstream of our nonsense as adults. So we’re always within our rights to ask, is the focus on kids really coming from a place of being responsive to their deepest needs? Or is it more just damage control? Is it a Band-Aid, you know, where something that really attends to root causes is what is needed? I don’t have all the answers, but I’m sure that it is something that we will learn more about as time goes on. Thanks for listening to Mind of Texas. You can find our full list of episodes at kut dot org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on your preferred podcast player. It really does help. Mind of Texas is a collaboration between KUT 90.5 and the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. Original Soundtrack by Jaron Marshall. This episode was edited and executive produced by Jack Anderson for KUT Austin. I’m Ike Evans, Communications Manager for the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and host of the Mind of Texas podcast. Thanks for joining us. Hope to have you back soon. See you next time.
This transcript was transcribed by AI, and lightly edited by a human. Accuracy may vary. This text may be revised in the future.