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What Nelsan Ellis’ Death Can Teach Us About Building Addiction Programs That Work

When news of True Blood-star Nelsan Ellis’ sudden death hit social media feeds last week, the outpouring of grief was immediate. The official cause was heart failure.

But yesterday, his family released a statement to The Hollywood Reporter that gave more details about how the beloved actor had died:

Nelsan has suffered with drug and alcohol abuse for years. After many stints in rehab, Nelsan attempted to withdraw from alcohol on his own. According to his father, during his withdrawal from alcohol he had a blood infection, his kidneys shut down, his liver was swollen, his blood pressure plummeted, and his dear sweet heart raced out of control.

On the morning of Saturday July 8th, after four days in Woodhull Hospital, Nelsan was pronounced dead. Nelsan was a gentle, generous and kind soul. He was a father, a son, a grandson, a brother, a nephew, and a great friend to those that were lucky enough to know him. Nelsan was ashamed of his addiction and thus was reluctant to talk about it during his life. His family, however, believes that in death he would want his life to serve as a cautionary tale in an attempt to help others.

Ellis’s reticence to discuss his addiction doesn’t surprise Dr. Debra Warner, a forensic psychologist, and professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology’s program for clinical forensic psychology.

“Trust is the big issue,” says Warner, who has designed community programs helping law enforcement and government agencies better address substance abuse and other traumas in underserved communities. “Black folks don’t talk about their problems and there are real reasons why.”

Research shows that while African Americans consume less alcohol than the general population, they encounter more of the problems associated with alcohol use than European Americans. (Lower incomes, social sanctions for alcohol use, and increased law enforcement presence in their communities may be some of the reasons why.) And while white drug users are more likely to be seen as sick and in need of intervention, black drug users remain largely stigmatized.

Warner says people of color often don’t want to alert people in authority or government when there is a problem because there is so much distrust. It goes way back. “Think about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments,” she said, referring to the government-sponsored “study” that allowed the disease to go untreated in black men for decades. “Think about what often happens with the police. Black people and people of color don’t want to talk about things that are going on in the family because something bad might happen.” And then there’s the stigma. “It’s very embarrassing.”

But there are ways to design interventions that work, and corporations are in a position to make a big difference.

Warner suggests companies start by underwriting programs that partner with individuals from the community who have a personal connection to the issue. “You need to get the people who have lived the experience to lead the way,” she says. “Program participants need to know that people actually understand what they may be experiencing — within their cultures — and are speaking to them without judgment.”

If you’re running a recidivism program, for example, formerly incarcerated people should be involved from the start. “They’re going to understand the challenges that people face in ways that other experts never can.”

This holds true for other uplift programs as well. For corporations that want to focus on education for underserved kids, be sure to support the parents first, she says. “Give them travel stipends and furloughs so they can afford to get their kids safely past gang or substance-abuse zones into the programs.”

When I caught up with Warner, she was on her way to The SCRIPT Conference, an annual meeting she produces on male trauma and survivors of violence. (SCRIPT stands for Summit on Community Resilience, Intervention, Prevention, and Training.) Government leaders, law enforcement officials, experts and ex-gang members would be presenting together, sharing stories and best practices. “Talking really makes a difference,” she said, sounding wistful.

“I admire the Ellis family for speaking out on this,” she says. In an ironic twist, she had met Nelsan one day in 2013, when she found him standing in her classroom. He’d been looking for a location to screen a short film he’d worked on with a friend. She invited him to stay and built her class around him. The subjects ranged from art, identity and LGBTQ issues, which was the focus of the film. “He was wonderful and it was all so eye-opening,” she recalled. The two bonded on the topic of trauma and hope. He’d promised her that he would speak one day at the SCRIPT Conference. “He cared so much about people.”

On Point

Tech employees to their bosses: No confidenceA new survey of 20,000 tech employees reveals that one in three believe their bosses have a negative impact on the company’s culture. Women were slightly more likely than men to hold this view, while older workers were also more likely to report that company leaders were hurting the culture. What do direct managers need to do in order to improve things? Better communication was the overwhelming response. When asked to prioritize the goals leaders should focus on, survey respondents chose “vision and strategy” as most important, followed by “improve office culture.” Increasing employee pay came third. There are lots of other fascinating tidbits. Turns, out the less education you have, the more likely you are to think you can do a better job than your boss. But here’s a chilling one: Employees in legal departments were the least comfortable offering negative feedback to managers.Fortune

Trump administration delays a federal rule that would allow foreign entrepreneurs to come to the U.S.
The decision, announced by the federal government yesterday, disappointed the venture capital and tech industries, which benefit from start-ups founded by immigrant technologists. In a statement, the president of the National Venture Capital Association said that while other countries were welcoming immigrant talent, “The Trump administration is signaling its intent to do the exact opposite.” It gets worse: The administration also signaled that the delay would likely become permanent. The policy, known as the International Entrepreneur Rule, was approved by President Obama last January. The rule was designed to make it easier for entrepreneurs who already had significant financial backing to come to the U.S. to build their companies.
New York Times

Study: Immigrants have started more than half of America’s billion dollar start-ups
Research conducted by the National Foundation for American Policy, a non-partisan think tank based in Arlington, Va., shows that as of March 2016, immigrants had started more than half (44 of 87) of America’s startup companies valued at $1 billion dollars or more. They also create an average of 760 jobs per company. Immigrants are also key members of management or product development teams in over 70% of these companies. Also worth noting: Tesla, Apple, Reddit, Google, Yahoo and even Amazon might not exist if rules had been in place to prevent their founders (or their founders’ parents) from coming to the U.S.

One of the Valley’s leading technologists laments: My God, What have we done?
An instrumental force in the creation of the iPod and iPhone and the founder of the smart thermostat company, Nest, Tony Fadell is partially responsible for the outsized role tech plays in our daily lives. When he took the stage at the Design Museum in London, Fadell expressed some regret. “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world?” he says of fake news and a generation of screen addicted, selfie-taking kids. The program was part of the Museum’s current show, California, about the history of digital culture in the Valley and beyond. Faddell was part of a panel called “Selling Freedom,” which explored what happens when such a high concentration of revolutionary technology originates from just one place. The all-white panel included Fadell; Bethany Koby, the cofounder and CEO of toy company Technology Will Save Us; David Edgerton, a historian of science and technology at King’s College London; and Judy Wajcman, a sociologist at the London School of Economics who studies the social impact of technology. Wacjman pointed out the obvious. “Some of the design that you get is the reflection of the limited cultural understanding of the young guys who are doing the designing.”
Fast Company

The Woke Leader

When powerful men say they’re sorry for hurting women, we’re too quick with the applause
Annalisa Merelli pulls no punches in this opinion piece for Quartz. Three powerful men, Jay-Z, Dave McClure and Chris Sacca have all made heartfelt public mea culpas for their transgressions against women, and all have received an extraordinary amount of public praise for their growth and courage. Merelli’s not having it. “These men’s apologies may well have been sincere and signal a commitment to change, but the responses to them—all that back-slapping and praise—had the effect of diminishing the gravity of their actions, reducing them to forgivable, forgettable episodes on the trajectory of their personal growth,” she says. That’s not brave, she says. “Brave is speaking up against assault,” she says. “It’s demanding a voice, and continuing to pursue success and power in a world where men are still the gatekeepers, and are still celebrated for being “bad boys” —before they’re praised for apologizing for their misbehavior.”

Jihad is my life
This poignant opinion piece from writer Shaheen Pasha is a response to the firestorm created when Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour called for Muslims to fight back against white supremacy in a speech at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual conference. Sansour used the term “jihad” which means “struggle,” and shared a story from Islamic scripture that said that “A word of truth in front of a tyrant,” was the best form of jihad. But in Pasha’s daily life, jihad is the daily struggle to be a good human – a loving parent, a generous provider, an effective employee, a loving spirit in a challenging world. That the term has been hijacked by extremists and Islamophobes as a “war cry” is the tragedy, she believes. “It’s a semantic drift that is robbing a whole generation of Muslims from appreciating and taking pride in Islam’s call for individuals to struggle to improve themselves from within,” she says. “It’s time we reclaim our word.”
Dallas News

When art imitates life and texts you cool stuff
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a very fun new tool that lets you receive texted images from its permanent collection, personalized to your mood, taste or curiosity. Send Me SFMOMA is pretty simple: Just text the words “send me” to 572-51, then follow with some keywords (emojis are also accepted) describing what you might like to see. The museum is only able to showcase about 5% of its 35,000 works at any given time, so the tool is a smart way to leverage the entire collection. It’s also an easy way to feel connected to the wider world of art and expression, particularly when the mood for inspiration strikes. And it’s awesomely random. “Send me politics” got me an image created by Keizo Kitjima of the funeral of rock singer and Christian activist Igor Talkov, who was shot killed by the Russian mob in 1991 during a concert in Moscow. Mind blown. I texted “send me peace” immediately and got this.


To this day, the Tuskegee study makes some Americans think twice about donating blood, or taking their children for vaccinations, or signing an organ donor card.
—Vice President Al Gore