Humans of TCGMC: Alvin Prince Akibar

Dr. Alvin Prince Akibar, a New Yorker-turned-Texas native and former psychology professor at St. Catherine University, has recently made a rare transition from academia to the Urban League, where he is a powerful advocate for racial justice and equity.

My name is Doctor Alvin Prince Akibar as of 2020 – graduated on Powerpoint! I have a Ph.D in Experimental Psychology with a minor concentration in research measurement and statistics. My research is social psych, developmental psych, and health psych kind of cobbled together. My work right now is straight up building a policy research center. It’s not no research, but it’s so much less research and more of, “Have you built a budget recently,” applying for grants, outreach and advocacy work, creating policy briefs and documents. It’s a different direction than I thought I would be in right now. I’d been told that my work in advocacy and anti-racism was, in no uncertain terms, a waste of a career, so doing it now is a nice, big, “Fuck you” to them.

Is that something people told you in academia? Can you tell me more about your transition from an academic mindset to more of a service, non-profit one?

Yes. Well, I definitely got swept up in academia. Academia tends to encourage making that academic, scholarly thing a core part of your identity. Sometimes it’s a cool thing, but other times it’s a manipulation tactic, and there’s not always a clean divide between them. I started my career as an engineer. I did a high school program, and I got into an engineering program at the University of North Texas.

I tried to stick with it longer than I should [have], because I was told it had the most job security. I spent a lot of time trying to be pragmatic about school. A lot of things that came to light later in life, in terms of neurodiversity, make a lot more sense now. School then only worked when my best friend would re-explain the topics to me in ways that our professors didn’t, and when he graduated, I suddenly found myself losing love for the field.

Would you care to tell me more about your neurodivergences? How did you end up in mental health after engineering?

Last year, I confirmed that I’ve had ADHD (inattentive type) to the 90th percentile. It’s one of those things like, you know, but you don’t know. In psych academia, they tell you not to self-diagnose. Even though I wasn’t delivering therapy, I knew how to do diagnostic interviews. 

The transition during undergrad was… jarring, and wonderful. I was in the middle of a messily-dissolving relationship, but my ex-partner told me I should be doing things you want to do that don’t make you feel miserable. And so I was like, well, I wanted to do psychology when I first got here. I’d taken a psych elective last spring, and I enjoyed it more than everything I’ve done in engineering.

So after you finished your Ph.D and you had the possibility of an academic career, were you ever an adjunct professor, or did you find a tenure-track position?

For two years, I was a tenure-track assistant professor at St. Catherine University. I was happy to be a black professor – specifically a black psychology professor, because that’s not something most students will have. I’ve never had a black psychology professor in my entire teaching career. 

At my alma mater, I was one of the only black faces in the department, and I felt like folks didn’t really understand the cognizance of, like, hey, this is like a very white, normed place, and you’re telling me to follow my research. They also gave me no structural support in the way they gave other students, because other students had research tracks that were already existing and established. Their tracks were viewed as legitimate by the folks who were evaluating them. 

I was trying to do research with hard to reach populations and on more emotionally sensitive topics: racial trauma, discrimination, substance use, anxiety, depression, and LGBTQ people of color. Even after making it to tenure track, while I loved my students, and they thankfully seemed to reciprocate, my faith in the institution was eroded by how leadership handled pushback about pay and course cuts.

I think I was mid, something like mid-June last year when I saw the post for a job at the Urban League. I’ve now been there for 9 months.

Could you tell me more about the Urban League and its mission?

The Urban League does a lot of work for the advancement of racial justice and racial equity, and especially to mitigate the particular harms of anti-Black racism and colonization. So, really trying to create, through advocacy and programming, um, means by which we can achieve a more equitable future for Minnesota,

Consistently, Minnesota ranks among the top ten states in terms of, you know, quality of life, life expectancy, and overall health. If you separate by race, though, you see that for Black folks, Minnesota is in the bottom three states consistently in life expectancy and overdose death disparities. It’s also one of the worst states for American Indians, period.

A lot the Urban League’s work is program-based – housing assistance, building wealth and finance management, and job placement.

You mentioned some very recent accomplishments with the Urban League. I’d love to hear about them!

We recently partnered with The Great Rise Minnesota to craft social equity language for the cannabis legalization bill. We’ve seen that cannabis was one of the primary vehicles of criminalizing black, brown and indigenous folks for things that everybody was doing. And we did lot of that work to make sure that we can actually prioritize, um, opportunities, licenses and whatnot for folks who were impacted by the criminalization of cannabis.

At the beginning of this month, we hosted representatives from the United Nations for a community testimony about impacts racism in law enforcement. They came to several cities, and I was the point person for Urban League’s part of hosting them in Minneapolis. And so we held a community forum. We had folks who had been survivors of criminalization or incarceration in Minnesota, as well as those who had lost family members to police violence, such as family members of George Floyd and Philando Castile.

Wow, that’s incredible, and you’ve done those things after only nine months at UL. Has all that activism taken a toll on you personally?

Yes, but it’s good that we’re able to do work for folks who do want to stay here, because to do this work, you typically have to uproot yourself from your community and be willing to float in the wind and hope you land somewhere close. I think that uprooting from my family (biological and found), switching fields, switching jobs, switching cities, and losing my comfort zones, has been hard.

Part of why I brought up the whole ADHD diagnosis thing was like, applying for jobs outside of academia was the result of realizing that I’ve been living with one hand tied behind my back, and have been told I’m not as good as my peers. I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to change aspects about myself to fit a predefined notion of who I should be or how I should do things. One of the things I’ve been trying to do over the last few years is rediscover who I actually am. I’m a goofball, nerd, and compassionate person who is snarky at times in ways that people are often surprised by. 

Doing things that I’ve previously found terrifying or impossible to do is something that I’ve been really trying to lean into. Moving forward, I’m going to be led by excitement or by a challenge, rather than fear.

Josh Elmore (he/him), singer and member of our small ensemble OutLoud!, created Humans of TCGMC in 2018. He graduated from Carleton College with a B.A. in Linguistics and has since worked in sales, higher education, and, most recently, as a bilingual insurance agent (Spanish). Endlessly curious, he has dabbled in improv theater, stand-up comedy, sword fighting, the cello, and modeling for fantasy-themed photo shoots.

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