Kimberly Cato, OSRP Chair of the Executive Committee and Interim Chair of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Committee, is a Registered Psychotherapist who identifies as a Queen-Sized Black Woman who engages with the world from a wheelchair and intentionally transforms trauma into triumph. With almost 30 years of experience meeting people at their point of need and empowering them to discover and manifest their internal excellence, Kimberly is a sought-after conference presenter, corporate consultant, motivational speaker and award-winning group facilitator.
In the wake of the public lynching of George Floyd and subsequent global racial reckoning, Kimberly launched CHECK-IN CHAT, a weekly support group for Women of Colour and The Men’s Edition, a monthly support group for Melanated-Men, in addition to The Black Mental Wealth Experience that brings together people from the Diaspora and their Allies for discussions specific to the mental health experiences of the Racialized Community.
As a professional with first-hand experience of racism, Kimberly is intimately aware of the painful reality of exclusion, discrimination, micro-aggressions, and gas-lighting. Kimberly has experienced racism and discrimination in education, employment, healthcare, and community engagement. These experiences motivated her to intentionally engage in dismantling racism by decolonizing therapy and to seek culturally adapted therapeutic practices that build anti-racism capacity.
Nikki Bianchi: Can you tell me a bit about your counselling journey, what drew you to the profession, and your therapeutic outlook?
Kimberly Cato: The work that I do really started when I established True Roots Counselling Services way back in the early ‘90s. And so, at the time, when I started, I was not thinking psychotherapy; I was just thinking of helping people sort things out. And I did it in conjunction with what I was doing full-time, which was working with Children’s Aid Society (CAS). I was also working with kids in the community, and I was going to church on the side. So, people would come to me all the time with their issues and concerns about life, and I was able to help them sort things out.
While I was with CAS, I learned a lot about youth and families. I’ve always said I’m an education junkie, so I would hop on any opportunity to learn things through CAS and the other work that I did. Then I would apply that to help the people approaching me from other spaces. This went on for several years. People were always saying, ‘Go see Kim. Go see Kim.’ And, people just kept coming. At the time, I was at a church with a 2500-member congregation. By ‘94/’95, I finally stopped and went, ‘Wait. I could call this something and charge you, people!’ [Laughs] So that’s when True Roots was born. I literally just sat down, gave it that name, and continued doing the work.
Since then, I’ve continued my education by taking courses on the backs of my full-time jobs. I even moved and got hired at different places because they had an education package! I never really took time off. My time off was to take a course somewhere or finish a program. Then around 2010, I became certified in psychotherapy, so that’s when that title ‘psychotherapist’ came in. But for me, it was never something I owned as my own. My thing was always just to come alongside people in distress and find answers that would help them live their lives more abundantly and fully. Being able to dig in and extract the yuck and the muck from life and find the beauty in who and how you are, and really operating from a strength-base, is what I’ve always done. So, it’s that lens that I bring to therapy.
NB: What modalities do you practice?
KC: I’ve always resisted labels in terms of this kind of therapy or that kind of therapy because I feel we get stuck there thinking I can only help a particular kind of person. Or those people who could otherwise be helped by you won’t approach you because your label doesn’t fit what they think is their issue. And so, I tend to stay away from those things, with the exception of trauma. Trauma, I grab ahold of like, ‘OK, there you are.’ Because I don’t care who you are or what you’ve been through, the issue at hand is trauma—always. And that’s the similar and consistent thread I’ve seen through everybody I’ve worked with, regardless of where they come from and regardless of what their circumstances are. Once you start picking, you see, ‘Oh, look! Here it is.’ Then once you address it, it’s as if everything else falls into place and makes sense.
NB: We often assume that trauma only encompasses blatantly severe things. But trauma is nuanced. So much so that many people don’t even realize they have or are presently experiencing it.
KC: Exactly. And they’ll shy away from using that word. But, when you start unpacking what trauma actually is and how it manifests, you realize, ‘Oh yeah, I had that happen to me. That happens to me all the time.’ So, that thing that happened to you that you thought had no real significance is the thing that’s holding you back. And, in the grand scheme of things, that thing is actually called trauma.
It’s important we take the stigma out of trauma because it’s not always a severe car accident or abuse or what happened in war. Outside of those big things, trauma is also the day-to-day stuff that we just sort of skip over thinking or talking about to make it OK. Through the course of my career, whether it was with Children’s Aid, working as a Chaplain with people who were HIV/AIDS positive or living with other life-altering diseases, as a case manager with the Canadian Mental Health Association, in long term care with seniors or daycare & childcare with latency-aged children, or in secure treatment and custody with young offenders, every single time the consistent thread was trauma.
NB: I’d like to talk a bit about identity. As we know, identity is often nuanced, varied, contextual, and intersectional. This is something you speak quite a bit about on your YouTube channel, specifically as it relates to Black Mental Health. Can you share a bit about your own identity and the importance of representation within the psychotherapy community?
KC: This is an issue that’s near and dear to my heart. One of the things that I’ve found throughout the work that I’ve been doing all along is that there was always lots of funding and lots of support for people who did not look like me. And so, when I was doing things on the side of my desk, it was really within my community, helping people who either didn’t have the benefits at work to be able to afford supportive therapy or counselling, or did have benefits at work, but the EAP programs were all staffed and supported by white therapists. So, they were sitting across the desk, speaking to somebody with maybe 10 available sessions, and the bulk of those sessions were spent educating the white therapist about who they are, what Blackness is, what microaggressions are, and why it’s a problem to have somebody randomly walk up to you and touch your hair. Then at the end of explaining, having the therapists say, ‘Well, I can’t really help you.’ This is how racial trauma is perpetuated.
So, Black mental health is a huge issue for me. Not just because of those sorts of nuances, but also because when you approach people from diverse communities, mental health and mental illness are one and the same—there’s no real distinction. That’s part of why I don’t really use the language of therapy in talking about what I do because the language in and of itself creates barriers. They’re not coming beyond that language because that language has been used to lock them up in mental institutions, test them with variations of drugs and therapies, but never help them. It’s not a notion that’s actually helpful or welcoming.
When the environment in which you come to bear your soul looks clinical, and it’s not warm or inviting, you re-traumatize yourself. Then you’re told to package yourself up and go back to your community, hoping, above all else, that those in your community will not grab hold of the knowledge that something is actually wrong and that you need help. Admitting that you need help as a racialized individual is a huge challenge, even within your own community. Many of the people I’ve worked with, particularly now, are Black women, who are so tired, genuinely, but not allowed to be. Whether it’s because of family, community, or society in general, they’ve been told that they’re supposed to be the strong Black woman who doesn’t argue and doesn’t fight. And, if they do, then they are the angry Black woman. So, you’re either the strong Black woman who can carry it all without complaint. Or, if you complain, you’re the angry Black woman. Where is your ability or permission to seek help in either one of those, and how dare you call it mental health? There’s just no room for that, and neither of those scenarios or stereotypes is favourable or advantageous for somebody to seek out help and be cared for.
Those are some of the barriers that I’ve been, consciously and unconsciously, barreling through. The other big piece is that mental health was crafted by and for white people. God bless ya, but when white men were developing the DSM manual, we, Black people, weren’t even considered human yet. So, we were certainly not part of the creation and understanding of mental health. During slavery, Black people could literally be institutionalized for desiring to escape. It was believed that a mental disorder caused runaway slaves. The whole concept of mental health within the Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities has never been favourable. So, how the community took care and takes care of those within it who are burdened and stressed looks very different. It’s not that you send them away to a space where they’re surrounded by other unwell people and treated with medication and needles. They must be surrounded, loved, and embraced by the community and helped to function so they can get right and back to themselves.
When I think about culturally adapted services and supports, and I’m looking into the community to see how they’ve assisted people who have issues outside of the medical model, those are the things that I’m grappling with, looking at, and digging into more. We’ve had to help our people all along. How we’ve helped is what I think we need to actually start to explore a little more tenaciously.
NB: You and I have previously spoken about the very important cultural shift that is taking place right now around racism and systemic/institutional oppression. We’ve also talked about what constitutes safe public spaces for Black people, the risks that often accompany sharing your truth, white guilt, and the idea that progress and real change demands discomfort. I wonder if you can talk about where Black mental health fits into that wider conversation and how we can move through this shift in a meaningful way?
KC: I think meaningful change can only come from internalized recognition of that need and of the fact that we’ve missed the mark. Change is required, and it’s not an external change; it’s an internal change first. And that’s for everybody. It really is recognizing that what we’ve done up to this point has not worked, it’s not right, and it’s not OK. We must be OK with grappling with doing that and not doing it quietly. Not off on the side and in secret. There needs to be that public recognition, individually, collectively, that we’ve done something wrong here, and we need to right it.
I think what causes us to hesitate to do that is discomfort. Recently, in Florida, Governor DeSantis advanced a bill to make it illegal to cause white people and children discomfort. Not a word of a lie. So, when I say we’re going to have these conversations, we’re going to execute change, and we must be comfortable with discomfort, understand that is literally radical. And illegal in some places.Thefact that such a bill was created is a clear indication that it is known that this is required. That bill says, ‘Don’t make us uncomfortable. We don’t want to learn. We don’t want to know. We don’t want to change. We don’t want to look at what we’ve done. We don’t want to hear about what is happening. We don’t want to do this. It’s over. It’s done. That was then, and we’re here now, so let’s move on. It was a long time ago.’
It was not a long time ago.
For context, I live in Oakville. I love where I live. I love my town. We moved here when I was eight years old. The day we moved in, my parents, siblings, and I drove down in our little beige station wagon. As we were coming down the hill toward our new house, I saw this red stuff on the bricks, so I said, ‘What’s that?’ My dad started to slow down, and suddenly there was this distinct tension in the car. I’m looking at this thing, trying to make out what it says, and finally, I can see someone had spray-painted the word ‘nigger’ in red spray paint right across the side of the house.
Not only did that word then enter the car, but this energy filled the car also. Of course, my eight-year-old mind started to race. ‘What is that?’ ‘Who did that?’ ‘Was that there when you bought the house?’ My mom and dad were just like, ‘No, no, no. Stop. Let’s just get inside the house.’ So, we rushed in, I really didn’t understand, and they didn’t know how to explain it. How do you explain that? What was really beautiful was that about an hour and a half after we arrived our neighbour, Mrs. Boydell, who was a home-ec teacher at a high school, came over with a bundt cake, a casserole, and a whole package of paper plates, cutlery, cups, and pop to introduce herself and welcome us to the neighbourhood. Her husband and son tried to help my dad with the spray paint, but it wouldn’t come off. So, because my dad worked in construction, he had to put aluminum siding up. That was my introduction to Oakville, and that was the same flavour that permeated my school life.
NB: What an analogy for racial trauma—once you were exposed to that word, you couldn’t scrub it off.
KC: Exactly. We never did find out who wrote that on our wall, but our assumption was that white people were not very happy with our moving into the neighbourhood. At the same time, we had our neighbour, Mrs. Boydell. This beautiful white woman welcoming us and demonstrating genuine love and kindness. So, I was left to think, clearly, there are two types of people here. There are those who won’t overtly tell me that they have this red spray paint notion of who I am in their mind as they greet me, and there are wonderful white people who will welcome me with open arms. And so, I was always then left to determine, friend or foe?
Though my story and introduction to racism might look different than many others, we all end up in this place where we must determine, friend or foe? Allie or enemy? And walk accordingly. When I think of creating a welcoming space for everyone, I have these things in mind. I know that some will come, but they will come watching and waiting and wondering, friend or foe? They will ask, ‘Is this going to be good for me, or will it be a problem?’ ‘Are they going to require more of me?’ ‘Am I here simply because they need somebody here now, and they want something from me?’ Or ‘Is this actually going to be a benefit for me?’
The hope of creating a space in which people feel safe is a tall order. I think we can create a place where people feel a little safer than they did before and build from there. But to think that we’ll be able to discern everybody’s intention amid that space is something that I know I don’t rightly believe until I see it. Experience has taught me that to do otherwise is detrimental.
NB: Recently, especially on social media, we have seen a surge of people stepping forward, identifying themselves as allies, and offering up ideas on how to make meaningful change. But, even the most well-meaning person often misses the mark. It’s going to take a lot more than platitudes and repentant fanfare to usher in real change.
KC: Yeah. It has to be done in collaboration with racialized communities, not from a place of ‘I’m doing this for you.’ That is the model of arrogance and colonization all packed into one. Like ‘Oh, look, let me go save the Negroes’ or ‘Let me go save the Indians.’ Back up. We don’t need saving. Not from you. You have to come with genuine recognition that there is wisdom here. The unlearning we need to do to make room for the truth is essential. That’s where we need to start. That’s how you create safety. You begin to create safety by doling out respectfully the knowledge that we are ignorant and need to learn. Approach people not from a place of, ‘I’m here to teach you’ but from a place of, ‘We’re here, and can we co-create a space where we all feel safe?’ Work with not for or about.
Whether that’s me as a woman and having male doctors or politicians deciding what they’re going to do with my body or what I can do with my body. Or doctors sitting down and deciding what’s going to happen to my legs and whether I will be able to access services, medications, or a wheelchair. Or white people deciding what’s going to happen for me as a Black woman regarding my mental health and that of my community. Or what I should be allowed to do about childbearing or child-rearing. Or, God bless them, skinny people who think they get to decide what I can do with my fatness. Whether it’s desirable, likeable, or tolerable. Any of that. Regardless of how my intersectionality happens to live on the tip of your tongue, it’s not about me without me.
NB: You were formerly on the Board of the OSRP, however, opted to leave. Can you talk a bit about why?
KC: I initially came to the OSRP to Chair the Professional Development Committee in 2017, and I just loved it. During my first year on the Board, I brought in two speakers to host two workshops on Clinical Supervision. They were a huge success. Towards the end of my first year on the Board, I interviewed for a position with the CRPO. One of the requirements for this position was that I couldn’t be on a Board or Chair a Committee in an Association supporting psychotherapists because it would conflict with the position I would be stepping into. So, I spoke to the Board about this conflict and was told, ‘You have to make a decision.’ Ultimately, I decided to step down from the volunteer position in favour of the paid position. I sent an email to OSRP Board informing them and apologizing for my departure, but I never received a response. I opted to renew my membership the following year despite the continued silence, but by 2020 I decided to leave and go elsewhere.
Then George Floyd happened.
Shortly afterward, I got a call from the OSRP saying that because of the workshops I had previously done, which were met very favourably and had made a lot of money, they wanted to honour me. I just said, ‘Firstly, I am no longer a member. Second, though I am not here to question your heart or your intention, I will not accept this acknowledgment of the work I did two years ago because there is no way you can convince me that this is not a result of George Floyd’s murder and the public, global outcry that you are now looking to me as the only Black person who has ever sat on the Board.’
What they did do was create space for me to talk about my experience as a Black person on the Board. It was in that explanation and discussion that I connected with Liz Phillips [former Board member and Chair of Connect]. Liz called, and for me, she was like Mrs. Boydell. She said, ‘I know that all of this yuckiness is happening, but I am just here to welcome you and love on you and recognize that you are wonderful. Because she checked in on me and sent me genuine messages from her heart, I kept my eye on the OSRP. Eventually, it became evident to me that she was in a position where that energy was going to be executing change. That warmth, the welcoming, that ‘Let me meet you where you are with all of your excellence, learn from you, and create the space for co-creation,’ spoke to me.
Then I saw that the OSRP was launching a BIPoC Scholarship & Bursary, a Mentorship Program, and that they had put a call out for BIPoC individuals to join the Board. This arrived right around the time when all of the solidarity statements were everywhere without genuine action. But this felt like action more than a statement, and I wanted to be a part of that. I sent Liz an email and said, ‘I’ve been watching, and I am very impressed. I see you’re making a call for BIPoC members on the Board. I’ll come back. If you’ll have me.’ So, it really is because of Liz’s reparative work, commitment to change, and energy for change that the tide turned for me and brought me back.
The issues I was having when I initially sat on the Board, I never spoke about with anybody at the time. But part of that is that I didn’t feel safe enough to do that. Who am I going to say something to? I can’t speak about my experience as a Black person sitting in a sea of whiteness. But, something happened to me in terms of my ability to speak and advocate for myself after George Floyd. I can no longer be silent in the midst of oppression and racism. That’s the one thing that I hold as my truth. And so, the call came at the right time for me because my tongue was loose, and I was able to speak, and a space was created for me to do so. That, with the love and persistence of Liz and the genuine determination of the Board to execute change and create things such as the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) committee, the BIPoC Scholarship & Bursary, the Mentorship Program, and request that People of Colour be on the Board, those sort of boots on the ground actions, speak far louder than any solidarity statement can.
NB: Since returning to the Board of the OSRP, you’ve joined the Executive and Mentorship Committees, and you are the interim chair of the EDI Committee. Can you talk about some of your hopes and goals for the future of the OSRP?
KC: I’m excited about everything I mentioned so far, but I’m really excited about the Mentorship Program because one of the barriers to the practice of psychotherapy is that People of Colour are not getting through CRPO. Not in the numbers that they should, and definitely not in the numbers that are comparable to white people. And that’s a problem. The only way we will change that is by doing town halls, going to the schools, having these conversations, and actively recruiting People of Colour. Once recruited, the BIPoC Scholarship & Bursary and the Mentorship Program will help them get through CRPO and develop as RPs in Ontario at the required standard. I think we need that wraparound support to do that.
Recently on LinkedIn, I stumbled across a Master of Social Work graduate who shared that after completing her last paper for her last course of the program, she closed her laptop and exhaled only to realize that there was more to that exhale. She just erupted into a puddle of tears as a result of the weight of a myriad of racially charged things that she had endured throughout her years in the master’s program. She said that she started the program knowing that education is not a friendly place for Black individuals but thought social work would be different because it’s the business of caring for people. Unfortunately, within the first week, it became clear to her that the microaggressions, racism, and oppression that she’d always feared and always known were alive and kicking in the Master’s of Social Work program.
There are countless untold stories of women and men who have backed out of the profession entirely because of the pain and the burden of pressing forward. Women and men of Colour who are actively fighting the system that is continually squashing them back and pushing them down. It’s gruelling. So, these are the places that we need to be. We need to be supporting People of Colour through this, enabling them and strengthening them to make it through so that they can then barrel through CRPO. Even once registered, having that wraparound support to develop an understanding of the standards, grow their practice, and build their clientele, is necessary. They need to see those people with the frickin bundt cakes! We need to be greeting them and warmly welcoming them in spite of the stuff written on their walls. We are here. We are helping you. We together will get through this. Instead of feeling like you’re there in that space by yourself with those things written on your walls, understand that we will do everything we can to get those things off your walls and support and feed you all the way through this.
That’s my hope for OSRP. And everything is already in play. Now the question is, how do we let Black, Indigenous, and racialized people, really anyone who feels othered, know we’re here? That we’re friend, not foe.
I know it’s hard to pick through all the associations. I know exactly what you’re going through. You’re looking for a place where you feel safe, but you don’t think that place is out there. We are that place. We are that place that is safer than where you are. And these are the things that we put together to help you get through. Honestly, especially now that I slide so nicely in that ‘othered’ category with my wheelchair, my Blackness, my fatness, and my femininity, I’m so excited about being able to make sure people know that we have bundt cake here.
Come one. Come all.
The ORSP would like to thank Kimberly Cato for granting us this interview and for her continued hard work, dedication, wisdom and time.
Bio supplied by Kimberly Cato and written with the support of Shequita Thompson-Reid.