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Welcome to episode three with Akilah Riley Richardson who is a couples therapist. In this episode we talk about what it is like to be a woman of color from the global majority in terms of the thinking and work you bring as a therapist/coach, how minoritized stress affects intimacy and ways to re-imagine our approach to couples work.
You can connect with Akilah on her website: https://akilahrileyrichardson.com/
LISTEN TO THE EPISODE
Welcome to the Nerve to Lead podcast. Here we explore power, pleasure, leadership, identity, belonging, parenting, and couplehood, and explore stories of navigating through life, finding both authenticity and attachment through the common lens of the nervous system. I am your host Sangheetha Parthasarathy and I'm so glad you're here.
Welcome everyone, it's an honor to be in conversation with Akilah Riley Richardson today. Welcome, Akilah! Akilah is a therapist. She works with couples, minoritized groups and I'm just fascinated by her work. We had a chance to be with each other in a course that she taught recently. And you know my work also sits at the intersection of the collective and the individual. And a lot of my work is very systemic, aware and focused and based. So, just fascinating work that you do. Welcome. And could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit more about your story and what brings you to the work. Yeah, no problem.
AKILAH RILEY RICHARDSON & WHAT IS RELATIONAL PRIVILEGE
So, my name is Akilah Riley Richardson. I am a couples therapist, as she mentioned before, and I am also a certified clinical trauma professional. I've been doing this work for about 16 years, and I have been working in both the NGO sector, the public sector, and in private work. And I also teach social work. So my training is largely in social work. My first degree is in psychology and my stuff after in social work. And then after that I did a lot of other training in couples therapy, trauma work, looking at somatic work, et cetera. So a lot of the work I do is how do we treat trauma somatically, et cetera. And as I deepened my work in couples therapy, I would've exposed myself to various schools like the Gottman School, PACT which is headed by my friend Stan Tatkin, RLT, EFT, different things I would've exposed myself to.
And I realized that, I wanted to build something that acknowledged the realities of minoritized couples. So I understand minoritized couples as couples systems that consists of at least one partner who's in a minoritized group, whether that person is black, indigenous, or a person of color, whether that person is a member of the LGBTQIA community, whether that person is neurodivergent, whatever it is, that person living on the margins because they're marginalized by wider society. That's how I understand a minoritized couple. And I felt that I wanted to create something that accounted for the role of the system, yeah, in shaping how people understand themselves as individuals, but also people understand themselves in relationship. Yeah. So that drove a lot of my work, and it's been driving my work for many years. Yeah.
I think even when I was doing my masters in social work I always was preoccupied with the role of the system always and always been concerned that as a social worker, I didn't wanna just be doing casework. I wanted to be doing, you know, work that accounted for the wider structure. So I saw that interest and that passion emerging from my graduate studies days. And what I noticed as well is that as I grew as a person, I began to become very interested in decolonizing practice.
So I am from Trinidad and Tobago, but you know, all our textbooks and stuff that we study emerge from, you know, the global north, you know, American spaces or European spaces. And so, one of my greatest concerns, and strangely enough, I was doing some work this morning and I felt the concern, like when I was doing something with a client of mine, I asked myself, whose voice are you parroting here? You know, whose imagination are you living in right now? Yeah. And I'm always concerned about in my practice, am I grounded or am I just enacting fidelity to cis-het male models that I've not necessarily originated in my particular space?
DECOLONIZING THERAPY/COACHING SPACES
And so freeing my mind, decolonizing my mind, has become a major interest, a major pursuit of mine, right? Mm-hmm. Now, and I think it's become a pursuit that I want for other persons too, who exist in non-American, non-European spaces, post-colonial spaces. It's a tough thing to stand with. It's a tough thing to pursue. Yes. Because yeah, because I think we have been taught that we are consumers as opposed to producers of knowledge.
And this morning, I strangely I felt a bit deflated when I was thinking about that. It was really an uphill battle to get non-American and non-European folks, and I say even within America, to get BIPOC and LGBTQIA folks to understand that, people on the margins, those of us who are marginalized, we can stop and imagine and create. So it's not just about non-American spaces, because even within America, you know, there is a stratified system when it comes to educationally production of knowledge. Yeah. And so I think it's just this quest that I have that's unfolding now in the different work, the different types of work that I do.
Yeah. Yeah. Thank you for that. I think that was beautiful.
DECOLONISING BIRTH AND TRAUMA
And this thing that you talked about, decolonizing spaces, I think has fascinated me. I came into the, how much colonial thinking I was. I mean, I was born and raised in India, and then I was educated in the US when I lived in the UK, became a naturalized British citizen. And then now we've repatriated back to India. So I am an amalgam of so many different aspects in some senses, but you see that in birth work as well, right? The idea of how we look at medical systems and women's bodies, both from an external in as well as how women perceive our own bodies. Do we perceive ourselves as competent? Do we perceive our bodies as competent? You know? And that shows up in various spaces, specifically birth and that's what got me to the trauma space. And oh, there's such a need to decolonize trauma. I think there is also a huge need to decolonize somatic work, you know? Personally that work has been life changing for me.
And I'm also very keenly, and this is my body of work that I'm building, is that, it comes from a lens which I think we need to take and then juxtapose our collective wisdom and intuition on that and collectively, I think when we talk about trauma, we also talk about triggers. And I think there's a lot of space for the glimmers, all of the innate strengths that the culture brings. And sometimes we either downplay it, reword it as triggers when that whole context is missing.
So I think it's, it's really fascinating what you do. Thank you. Thank you for that. Yeah. Tell me a bit more about kinda how this work has progressed for you in all of these years that you've been doing work. Because you know, what you do sits at the intersection of therapy and social work, and I think that's so needed in today's radicalized, politicized structures. Can you walk me through a bit about your practice and how it's changed and evolved, especially after, you know, the last few years of politicization of non-white bodies?
THE PROGRESS FROM ANTI-COLONIAL TO PRO-MINORITIZED
I guess I would say that my work progressed as my eyes became more open, and it moved from being anti-colonial to pro minoritized groups. What I mean by that? I realized that there was a phase of my work where I was so focused on challenging, challenging, challenging, and not creating. And it has moved as well, it has moved outta adapting to creating, you know, there's this book I actually have in the back there, about it's written by Mel Gray and another author, I can't remember. but it's about this whole thing about indigenizing social work practice. And they talk about these different phases of this process. And the second phase is in indigenizing, which is where we take existing models and just kind of create it and shape it. But then we have another phase called authentisation. That's not authentication, authentisation. And in this phase, you're generating and creating and I'm reading this book now called The Politics of Trauma by Staci Haines.
Oh, yes. Staci Haines. Yes. I just finished it, actually. Amazing. Yes.
Her work solidified and validated all this stuff that I've been thinking, which is thinking about possibility and critically examining your longing, like your longing has a political context, your longing serves someone else's interests. You know, and I've been thinking it all the time. I've been feeling it in my, my entire body has been telling me this, but there's this other level, it says, you're not allowed to get, you're not allowed to create. You're not allowed to imagine. You're not allowed to even think that you should be. And you know, this book is now giving me the oomph that I need Yes. To develop what I've been developing. Yes. And she locates herself you know, as a white woman locating herself, locating her privilege, et cetera, et cetera. and what she's managed to do is not dump a bunch of theories in your head about how you should live, but give you the space to examine, which is what I want to do as well, you know?
Yes. and I wanna acknowledge that for me, it might be a little bit difficult because I'm at a different social location. I live here in a post-colonial space in Caribbean, and so the rumbling with that is going to be harder, but it's a beautiful rumble. Yeah. Yes. So, this is where I'm at. The work has progressed from being anti to now being pro imagination, creation, generation. That's where the work is. And to be very deliberate about what I read. Yeah. Oh, yes. Oh yeah. I'm reading still, but I'm very deliberate about what I read. And I also want to you know, I am a black Caribbean woman. My ancestors hail from West Africa. So sitting with the wisdom of my ancestors, I think also becomes important, you know? and figuring out which pieces do I want to honor, which pieces I probably wanna say Mm, but all of that, just giving myself deep breath. Yes. You know, to imagine. Yeah.
INTERPERSONAL HEALING PROVIDING SPACES FOR CAREER AND PERSONAL GROWTH
I feel like my work, whether it's the social piece or the trauma piece or like the therapy piece, the more my nervous system lands and the more secure attachment I build with my partner, the deeper and more vulnerable and authentically I show up for my work, for my clients, for people who work for me, and generally how I show up in the world. And so if, whether it's in the therapy piece or in the more entrepreneurial space, for me it's just so amazing how much the interpersonal world has an impact on how you show up in your work and vice versa. So tell us about that a little bit, and this is your work as well.
And now a small break to talk about more resources, we've created a guide called The Immigrant Nervous System, which walks you through first generation rerootedness in all its various aspects.
It is free for you to download and use. It is available as a link on the episode show notes, now back to our conversation.
My work is a lot around what I call relational privilege. And relational privilege refers to those conditions that people who are not marginalized, how they allow them to be able to feel safe with other human beings, right. And especially to be feel safe with their partners. And sometimes when we sit with our clients, like our couples, we talk to them about, being more, like treating their partners better and feeling safe with their partners. And we teach 'em how to build intimacy, but we don't think about the wider context. So in my work, I think about, okay, is this person living who has his or their own truth? Is this person feeling safe physically and psychologically? Yeah. does this person accept her, him or themselves? Does this person feel accepted by the society at large? Because all of those conditions, those four conditions or conditions that persons who have privilege have more access to.
For those of us who exist on margins, I wouldn't say we have none of it, but we certainly or relatively, we hold relatively less of it. Right. Less of it than others. Yeah. And, you know, you said something that I wanna just touch on and integrate into my own thinking about relational privilege. You talked about, sorry. When you feel safer with your partner, you're able to do your external work better. And when I think about relational privilege, I think about two things. I think about so how do we create a context of safety for the person outside of their relationship, but how do we also make the relationship itself a hub? Yeah. A hub of those conditions, right? So that people can show up better for their partners, but also show better for the world. And showing up better for the world isn't just be, isn't just about being able to do work, but being able to deal with the conditions of marginalization, the racism, the sexism, the heterosexism, all those different things, the homophobia, the ableism, all these different things that people have to face on a daily basis. How do we make, how do we build the sense of relational privilege within the relationships so people can do their work and deal with the wider 'isms' that they have to deal with? And I think a lot about what it means to be in this body. And when I say this body, I mean being black from the global south, from Trinidad and Tobago, and I think about some many things that we may struggle with as opposed to, let's say how white American cis-het woman or a cis-het man, mostly cis-het men.
But some of it is around living in your own truth. Yeah. Some of it is about feeling your full personhood, the strength of community, you know, what slavery and what colonialism has done to people, to post-colonial people is strip their sense of self and strip their sense of community. And when communities are fashioned and formed, they're often formed as resistance. Yeah. Yes. And the way the day by day, minoritized people are stripped from the communities. If you think about, for example, in the US just see ways that just the higher rates of imprisonment of black men in the US Yes. And how black men are stripped from their families and and what that does in terms of stimulating all the historical woundings around black families being stripped apart. You know, you think that especially here in the Caribbean, many LGBTQIA young persons are stripped from community, meaning that they're stripped from their families cause they're not accepted. There are different ways in which people who are on the margins are always stripped from communities.
If you are differently abled, if you are deaf, you're blind. You'd have to find community with people who are similar to you because the able-bodied community tends in different ways, structures itself so that you are not situated comfortably in the community. So constantly you live a life that where we are not belonging as a central feature of your existence.
And instead in Staci's book where she talks about the politics of trauma, she talks about this whole thing about belonging. Yeah. And how not belonging can feel like punishment in the body and how essential belonging is to wellbeing. And when you think about all of these things, especially when you think of the ways in which that sense of belonging can be limited for people of color, for people of LGBTQIA folks, et cetera. You can see how without that, they may struggle to form healthy relationships, be able to tackle the challenges of all the different phobias and isms of the world. And so my work has been essentially about how do I, within couple's therapy, nurture a sense of being able to live one's own truth, a sense of belonging, a sense of self-acceptance and a sense of safety. How do I build that within a couple's system?
And I wanna say it's not just couples, because I do believe in various relationship forms. So how do I engender that in a polyamorous setting? How do I create that sense of community and belonging so that we can set people up to thrive? Because the structural stuff limits the ability to thrive. How can now our communities at home set people up to thrive, which is essentially so relation. This work around relational privilege for me is not just couple work or partnership work. If you're thinking about polyamorous settings, it's wider social justice work.
Yeah. Yes. For people to feel safe, to survive and to thrive through these various systems. If we can't get our communities home to address the central features that limit their ability to thrive in the safe space.
That's beautiful. And I'm thinking, that it's beautifully segways into the intimacy. So I work with couples on all of these aspects and intimacy, right? And it's sexual intimacy. It's almost like power and pleasure. You know, there is two sides of the same coin, and you can't have one be restricted and not feel the effects of that in the body. And I think post, especially in the Indian, like South Asian, specifically Indian setting, I think that's been one of the, to me, I think that's the deepest trauma that postcolonial India has is this dissociation from pleasure in the body.
Historically, right, when you think about the land of Kamasutra and in religion and, and in spirituality, there wasn't this split. And the shame that came with pleasure, even sexual pleasure, right? Because it was really embodied with pursuits of higher orders of sexuality, and then colonialism, religious conversions, et cetera has just split that, and made us so dissociated from pleasure. You know, I feel like that's the biggest colonial trauma that post-colonial cultures grapple with is both power and pleasure, right? I think if you take one away, you also take away the other. And just the ability to hold pleasure in the body, not just sexual pleasure, but pleasure in general.
That concludes part one of my conversation with Akilah. Join us on the next episode where we talk more about relational privilege and Akilah's work. Thank you for joining me today on Nerve to Lead Podcast. The music you hear in this podcast was created by Sound Creed. You can find their link in the description. Thank you to Vaishnavi and Pavithra in team Sangparth for producing and editing this podcast. Did this episode resonate with you? If it did, please share it with your friends, family, coworkers, or clients. We would also love to hear from you. Drop us a note on www.sangparth.com.
Thanks to Sound Creed for the music, you can visit them here https://www.youtube.com/@SoundCreedLLP
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