Bridging a Divide

Kente Circle CEO and Trauma Recovery Project Workteam Member Larry Tucker is focused on healing people of all races and cultures.

Larry Tucker was 17 when people told him that his life was over. He and his high-school girlfriend had just had a baby and to some, the young family’s future looked bleak. Tucker didn’t see things that way. “I didn’t feel like my life was over,” he recalls. “I felt like my story hadn’t been written yet and I wanted to write my own story.”

More than 25 years later, he and that girlfriend, Pam, are happily married and parents to three children. Tucker is a licensed marriage and family therapist, a career choice inspired as much by his own circumstances as those of his mother. Growing up poor in Mississippi with 17 brothers and sisters, she had Tucker when she was 15 years old. “She raised me as a single mom and even though she didn’t have a high school education, she was always pushing me to do more,” he says. “I think that’s what made me get into a helping profession so I could help others.”

Today, as co-founder and CEO of Kente Circle, a Minneapolis-based mental health agency that specializes in providing services to a diverse range of clients, particularly people of color, Tucker works with people who often don’t get the services they need from traditional mental health programs.

“The system doesn’t always recognize and honor differences across cultural and ethnic backgrounds and experiences,” he says, explaining that Kente Circle intentionally focuses on people’s strengths while considering differences, such as how people care for themselves, approach problems and seek support when they need it.

In addition to overseeing a clinical practice, Tucker facilitates cultural competency trainings and workshops for therapists and community members at various venues, including the Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC). He is also one of several health practitioners working with UROC’s Trauma Recovery Project, for which UROC was awarded a $187,530 Bush Foundation Community Innovation Grant in 2015.

The project aims to find ways to help heal trauma related to social issues, including mental health problems, family violence, drug use, mass imprisonment and out-of-home placement of children. Minneapolis’ Northside community has experienced these challenges disproportionately to those living in other parts of the city, and one of the things Tucker likes most about the project is that it engages the community at all levels. “Folks in schools, religious groups, researchers, young people and teens; that’s what’s exciting for me because we are able to define and talk about trauma from different perspectives,” he says.

In the practitioners’ group, he recalls, trauma was discussed as one of the symptoms of mental illness and because it is often developed and experienced in isolation, healing can be difficult. “It’s easy to get tunnel vision on your own,” he says. “Expanding our viewpoints on trauma is what’s needed right now so we can understand what is and isn’t working.”

Recently, Tucker was awarded a $100,000 Bush Fellowship for personal professional development, which includes spending a month in Singapore to study, and experience first-hand, the ways culture influences healing practices. He hopes to use what he learns in his work with Kente Circle’s interns, who are often white and have little or no experience working with people of color. 

“Something unique happens in those sessions where therapists in training get to see that there is a reason why people of color fear majority-culture folks, and clients get to see that white people are not all the same. It’s interesting to see how healing happens for those clients, and interns too, sometimes unexpectedly.”

Kente Circle has provided 110 students with intensive, yearlong internships since 2004 and facilitated about 100 workshops and conferences. Buoyed by interest in both efforts, Tucker established the non-profit Kente Circle Training Institute (KCTI) in 2015. In the wake of recent local and national killings of black men by police officers, requests for KCTI’s trainings have surged, serving hundreds of professionals in mental health, education, juvenile justice, and social services.

Tucker is now working to secure grant funding to expand programs that support the professional development of clinicians of color while continuing to provide opportunities for white professionals to develop meaningful relationships and practical skills to address the role of race in their work. Acknowledging that it’s not easy to remain hopeful in the face of unrelenting challenges, Tucker says: “I am optimistic that my team and I are helping counter the effects of systemic racism in clinics, schools and the broader community.”