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Building an Inclusive Community for Mental Health Clinicians and Clients

May 15, 2024

Chicago Minds' Founders Tracy De and Tianni Wang share a laugh on the beach as the sun sets. Tracy wears a jean jacket over a tank top and Tianni wears a dress with peacock feathers on it. An illustration of yellow loops surrounds them, showcasing a network of tiny outlines of people)

By Vasiliki Marapas

Tracy De and Tianni Wang believe that healing begins with community. Best friends and business partners, the duo launched Chicago Minds — a coworking space designed for mental health professionals — as a way to break the isolation of private practice, and create an inclusive community for clinicians and clients alike.

Tracy De recalls the moment she was finally ready to open her private practice. A recent graduate in clinical social work, she had been working in community mental health until she felt prepared enough to branch out on her own. In researching what it would take to launch her own practice part-time, Tracy quickly became overwhelmed.

“I felt really intimidated by all these logistics,” she admits, remembering how she struggled to find the resources to navigate the transition. And, with the smaller caseload of someone who was just starting out, she had a hard time finding an affordable place to practise.

What she wished for was a communal space – somewhere she could meet fellow therapists going through similar regulatory and financial challenges, as well as rent a room according to her needs.

As far as she could tell, no such space existed.

Tracy brought her frustrations to her best friend, Tianni Wang, over dinner. “At that time, I was finding it difficult to look for a therapist who fit my needs as an Asian immigrant,” Tianni says.

A paint night hosted in the Chicago Minds space. There are two rows of community members with easels, painting on canvases. Someone leads the group at the front of the room with their own canvas on an easel. The room is large with high ceiling and an exposed brick wall at the front with windows that have closed blinds. Paint night at Chicago Minds

In both their experiences, as client and practitioner, the two saw a palpable need for community. With Tracy’s background in social work, and Tianni’s expertise in business, they set out to create a space where therapists could support each other through the bureaucratic hurdles of the profession, have an open dialogue around mental health care, and ultimately, bridge the gap between practitioners and the public.

From there, Chicago Minds was born. Along with a communal space, the organization offers flexible room rental and resources for therapists looking to start, grow, or develop their practice.

“In short, we are Chicago’s first inclusive coworking space specifically designed for mental health providers,” says Tianni.

A coworking environment designed for dialogue, networking, and connection

The women wanted to create an environment that was warm and inviting, akin to a coffee shop rather than a traditional clinic. Beyond the aesthetics, what they loved about these spaces was that they were specifically designed for gathering.

“In order to have community, you have to reach out,” says Tracy. Understandably though, if you’re a clinician servicing clients all day, going out to network might be the last thing you want to do. “Our goal here is [to try] to blend that community to be part of the therapist’s work, in a way. The whole coffee shop concept is when you step out of your office, you’re surrounded by therapists who are doing similar work.”

Their intention was to remove some of the pressure that comes with networking. “Our hope is, with time, you naturally form relationships, and you naturally find your community,” says Tracy.

A look at one of the rooms in the Chicago Minds coworking space. It has an exposed brick wall with a window lined with potted plants. The room is designed in hues of green, grey, blue, and brown. There is a green chair with a reading lamp opposite a grey couch with toss cushions, including a polka dot white and green pillow. A table with a vase sits in the center and underneath that is an area rug. A pendant light hangs from the ceiling. There are framed pictures on the wall of different leaves and foliage.

The concept was innovative, and spoke to a real need in a profession that can feel quite isolating. Yet it did not come without its challenges. “We started at the very beginning of the pandemic,” says Tianni. “And so we had to completely pivot this idea of starting as a physical location into ‘how do we start as a virtual community?’”

Tracy and Tianni began by designing online workshops under three main categories. The first was continuing education, focusing on the work of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) professionals to expand what healing means for different communities. The second was business development, featuring experts outside of the clinical realm, like lawyers, CPAs, and marketers, each specializing in mental health.

The third and final category was self-care, where they considered how healers can fill their own cups. The result was a creative online offering, ranging from yoga and meditation to improv classes, all geared towards preventing burnout.

Overcoming barriers to visibility, inclusivity, and representation in mental health

Another challenge for the pair came during their hunt for commercial real estate, where they felt conscious of their identities as immigrant women.

“You don’t feel you’re being taken seriously,” Tracy comments, adding that they were often perceived as being young and inexperienced. “We encountered a lot of doubts,” she adds. A couple of offers fell through before they found their current space.

The main coworking space at Chicago Minds. A table and two chairs are in front of the exposed brick walls and windows. To the left, there is a countertop with barstools.

“The reason I want to mention this is because I think [it’s] a reflection of many other people’s experiences. If you don’t have any connection with business, if you don’t have any mentors, these experiences can be very discouraging and it can become a barrier for BIPOC therapists to put themselves out there,” Tracy continues. The result is a trickle-down effect that makes it harder for clients to find therapists they can relate to from a cultural or racial perspective, much like in Tianni’s case.

“When I started, I found myself always being one of the few East Asian, not to mention one of the few first-generation immigrants, doing therapy. It’s hard,” Tracy reveals, referencing the pressure a clinician might feel to assimilate into an environment, along with feelings of isolation, shame, or guilt.

Yet, these experiences will also show up in your clients’ lives, she adds: “If your clients step into a space where they feel part of their identities won’t be welcomed, naturally they may hide it. But what would that do in clinical work, where you’re going to a therapist feeling like you can’t open up?”

Promoting diversity through continuing education

There is a real need for diverse perspectives in client care. “Historically, many teachings are coming from white clinicians,” Tianni tells us.

Offering a platform for speakers from different backgrounds is just one way she hopes Chicago Minds can be part of the solution. “That, to me, is something I’m very, very happy we’re able to do. We never police the content of our speakers because we’re a small business. We don’t need to fit it into a particular model.”

What they’ve observed is that there is a strong appetite for the material. “People want to learn about these communities, ideas, and modalities of healing that are different from what they’re taught in school,” Tianni reflects.

Educators from out of state have even started sending their students to Chicago Minds’ workshops. Tianni notes the benefit in expanding this conversation to future mental health providers. Another bonus? Inspiring students from historically marginalized communities to pursue a career in mental health in the first place.

Another view of paint night in the Chicago Minds space, this time from the perspective of the painters. A diverse group all paints the same image on their canvas: a swirl of red, yellow, and orange against a blue backdrop.

“Knowing there are other supportive therapists who are people of color, I think, will encourage future generations to enter the field,” Tianni says.

In the spirit of mentorship, the partners have put together a directory of BIPOC supervisors on their website. It is complemented by a Facebook group that meets monthly, offering members a chance to speak freely about their lives and careers. “A lot of them are either the only one or one of the few clinicians of color within their practices,” says Tianni.

Helping practitioners make connections is one of the most rewarding aspects of what Tracy and Tianni do. “When we give them the tour, [and] they understand what this community is about, you can just see the fear melt away from their faces,” says Tianni.

Thinking about diversity in your mental health practice

What would they say to anyone who is attempting to make their own space more inclusive? For Tracy: be curious, listen, and finally, let go of power. “It’s very important to acknowledge and understand your power and your ego, to put that aside, and to really listen and be curious about the people who are working for you,” she says.

Tianni reflects on her points, adding that while it can be hard to let go of our societal conditioning, we should aspire to push past the fear of reaching out for help. “A lot of private practice owners might think running a business is like competition, like you can’t reach out to other providers,” she says. But she doesn’t buy into it. “You’re serving different clientele.”

And, even if you’re not a part of a coworking space like Chicago Minds, there’s no reason you can’t seek community within your own neighborhoods and professional circles.

“You can always find community somewhere,” Tianni emphasizes. “[Community] helps you create support.”

The insight is rich in its simplicity: Leaders without support can’t support others.

It’s also a lesson that lies at the heart of the Chicago Minds’ business model. No one can, or should have to, do it alone.

Want to see more inspiring stories like Tianni and Tracy’s? 💡

We love seeing all stages of your journey — whether you’re starting your own business, trying out an innovative approach, or growing into something new.

You’ll find tons more inspiration in Front Desk magazine. Go ahead and sign up for print issues, and we’ll make sure they’re delivered right to your clinic! 📖

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This article was originally published in issue 1 of Front Desk magazine and has been modified and updated.

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