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David Oaks
Vocations for Social Change [David Oaks '77]

“PBHA helped lead me to a career as a community organizer in mental health, and helped me appreciate that cliche of making lemonade out of lemons.”

Back in the 1970′s, I was a rebellious working class kid from the South Side of Chicago going to Harvard on scholarships, including the Teamsters. I ran into a lot of significant mental and emotional problems, and ended up inside locked psychiatric wards five time over three years on the sharp end of the needle. In brief, I found some of my experiences with mental health institutionalization traumatizing. In the beginning of my senior year in 1976, I attended a PBHA open house and said to someone behind a table, “You ought to have a volunteer program to change the mental health system. It can be medieval in there.” Kindly, a young representative from PBHA asked me to meet for lunch. She cautiously told me about a potential volunteer opportunity in one of the early radical activist groups run by “psychiatric survivors.” I remember showing up at my first meeting of Mental Patients Liberation Front in a storefront near Central Square that said “Vocations for Social Change” over the door. How true. I wrote my senior paper about how the experience, somehow graduating in 1977 with honors. For 35 years now I’ve been a community organizer of, by and for people who identify as having experienced harmful human rights violations while in mental health care. I direct MindFreedom International, and I’m on the board of a key USA disability alliance, USICD. Only recently have I discovered that PBHA had placed volunteers in past years as advocates in psychiatric systems. I look forward to hearing more about that history, and I hope future PBHA leaders keep that up. Congratulations and thank you, PBHA community!

David Oaks ’77

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