Photo by Lauren Stoner
Interview by Thomas Agnew
Our 4th “On A Mission” feature is Founder of Steel Smiling, Julius Boatwright. The black community has started to focus more on mental health working hard to be more educated in ways to seek support, lending an ear for more individuals to be comfortable with speaking on hardships, and Julius is delivering a service with Steel Smiling that is connecting the Pittsburgh community to much needed resources. Below we talk on how the brand has made personal impacts, building foundation connections to serve for people, and more.
How does your life align with what you’re accomplishing with Steel Smiling?
How we serve through Steel Smiling directly aligns with my personal story. I lost one of best friend’s from college to suicide and I fight daily battles with managing my own mental health. It’s because of these experiences that I’m able to empathize with the suffering of our neighbors in the community. We’re able to find true beauty in their traumatic stories because they’re broken, yet hopeful just like us. Everyone’s fragile and we need to know that there are people willing to let us lean on them during our dark hours.
What pushed you to build a platform to help others to get the service they needed?
While serving as a community-based therapist, I realized that something wasn’t quite right with how we were supporting families. We’d be called to implement a month long intervention at the point of a crisis and the therapeutic approach felt reactive to me. At that moment, it almost seemed like it was too late. I’d leave sessions with families thinking about how their circumstances could’ve been different had they known about resources or developed skills prior to these challenges. Then, I began researching who was doing preventative work locally to reduce stigma and connect community members with mental health resources. I concluded that I was helping people put Band-Aids on deeply rooted wounds that needed to be handled with a bolder, preventative approach.
Being more hands on going into the community has done great for the brand. Did the personal approach make it easier for individuals to open up?
Our grassroots, culturally competent approach makes it easier for us to create intimate connections with community members during our conversations. We’re intentional about meeting people where they’re at because we believe it helps to reduce the stigma. We found that by sitting with people in the comfort of their own spaces, they were more open to sharing details about traumatic experiences. We want people to know that they can harness the support they need to thrive mentally in their everyday environments.
At what point did you know the strategies of the brand were starting to make an impact?
During one of our community-based conversations, there was a gentleman who said something that hit a nerve with me. I was searching for someone to share a connection with and I remember driving past him 3 times before we finally spoke. After we talked and identified his needs together, he asked a question that threw me off guard. He said, “What made you stop and talk to me?” I sat there in the driver’s seat looking into the distance for a few seconds feeling confused. When I looked back at him, the only thing I could say was, “I don’t know sir.” He replied, “I know why … it’s because you’re an angel.” At that point, I knew our service efforts were much bigger than Steel Smiling. I realized that everything was being driven by a force much more divine and serendipitous in nature.
What other opportunities have opened while continuously building up Steel Smiling?
We’ve been blessed with so many opportunities as a direct result of support from our friends, donors, and community partners. Without their guidance, patience, and faith in us, we’d be absolutely nothing. We recently received a Small and Mighty Grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation to help strengthen our service efforts. With their resources, we’ll serve a cohort of 50 community members from our Hilltop neighborhoods. We’ll provide them with opportunities to become certified in Mental Health First Aid. We’ll also connect them to community resources and intimate, educational opportunities to engage with mental health professionals.
When it comes to those in need who struggle on if help is available or afraid to take the 1st step, how do you advise they move forward getting mental healthcare?
In my humble opinion, it’s important for us to be gentle with ourselves when we experience mental and emotional pain. For some, being empathetic and sharing compassion with those in need of support comes easy. However, when we’re in need of that same type of tenderness, we beat ourselves up because of societal or self-imposed pressure. We’re all hurting and just trying to figure this thing called life out. There’s nothing wrong with being a transparent human-being with feelings and emotions. When we embrace our vulnerability, that’s when real change happens on our path to healing.
Check out more information on Steel Smiling here: http://www.steelsmilingpgh.org/