Dr. Alfiee M. Breland-Noble (known professionally as Dr. Alfiee) is a pioneering psychologist, scientist, author and media contributor. As founder of The AAKOMA Project 501c3, she envisioned and built The AAKOMA Project into a thriving Woman of Color led, million-dollar mental health nonprofit.
An in-demand expert in BIPOC mental health, she hosts a video podcast, “Couched in Color with Dr. Alfiee,” and is a regular broadcast, digital and print media contributor for outlets such as NBC, CNN, PBS, the New York Times and the Washington Post among dozens of others. As an advisor for the Ad Council’s Sound It Out campaign, Dr. Alfiee is an expert voice that helps parents and caregivers have meaningful conversations about emotional well-being with their middle schoolers.
We talked to Dr. Alfiee about the national state of mental wellbeing and what people can do to support mental health in their community.
Could you tell us about why you created the AAKOMA Project, and how it has grown over the years?
I created The AAKOMA Project in 1999 because so much of what we know in the mental health space (from diagnosis to engagement to treatment) ignores and minimizes the unique needs of intersectional people of color. After witnessing then Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher deliver his seminal research report on mental health disparities (at the American Psychological Association convention in 1999), I was moved to further my work in studying the mental health needs of people of diverse backgrounds so that I could create solutions to engage these populations in culturally relevant mental health care.
We started as an academic research lab reaching about 2,000 people in our first five years of existence. Since 2004, we have evolved into a full-fledged 501c3 nonprofit reaching millions.
Today we have an international reach as exemplified by our engagement of over five million people in 2021 and our collaborations with Lady Gaga, Charlemagne tha God, MTV and Audacy radio and Carson Daly (via the I’m Listening campaign). I don’t know that I could have ever predicted any of these opportunities back in 1999 and I am so deeply humbled and grateful for the ways in which people of widely diverse backgrounds have embraced us and our message.
What are you most proud of accomplishing in your work?
I am most proud of the sheer innovation of our work; the long-lasting community, scientific and stakeholder relationships that my team has developed over 20 years; of our science that blends traditional clinical research with community engagement and of the ways in which people have come to recognize us as a leader in mental health for people of color.
An important focus of this campaign is to address the additional barriers and challenges faced by Black and Latine communities who need support. Could you talk about why you felt it was important to get involved and what the experience has been like for you?
My experience on the Sound It Out project has been grounding and phenomenal. I am elated every time I see one of our videos or hear one of the songs because I know viscerally what it means for children of color and families of color to see themselves reflected positively through media. This is groundbreaking work that I am very proud to have contributed to and to be a part of.
As you look ahead, how do you hope this conversation on mental wellbeing evolves? What role can media and advertising play to shift this in a positive way?
I hope that this conversation evolves to embrace the understanding of our vision at The AAKOMA Project, which is that we all deserve a world where every child, teen and young adult (inclusive of all points of diversity) feels the freedom to live unapologetically and authentically within an environment that allows them to rise and thrive. I want that for us adults too; we all deserve to be seen, heard, valued and respected for who we are.
Media can continue to uplift diverse stories, amplify the voices of diverse people and ensure that representation always matters (in word and in deed).
What can people do to support mental health as a cause or within their community?
Remember the AAKOMA Project pillars for youth of color mental health: We must raise consciousness, empower people and change the system of mental health identification, diagnosis and treatment. Then people can find ways in their communities to center and uplift their own and others' mental health. It takes only baby steps to start a revolution of positive change.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
My mom (RIP) and all the women in my family have said some version of this, and my dad tells me this all the time, too: “Everyone in your life (other than your family) may not always love or even like you, but you are required to always like and love yourself.” You deserve to be accepted for exactly who you are, and you must demand that people always engage you as such.