Tomás Alvarez says he always gravitated towards working with young people, and he also had a passion for hip hop. Today, he says he feels blessed to be able to have a job that blends his two loves together. He pioneered an innovative rap therapy model which uses the process of creating rap music to engage troubled teens in need of mental health services.
In 2004, the young social worker founded his own non-profit, Beats Rhymes and Life, which uses this rap therapy model which is now offered in many schools and mental health settings with programs in Oakland, and San Francisco, Calif., and the Bronx, NY.
“We’ve only seen positive impact,” says Alvarez. “In Oakland, young people are having a very hard time…While I was in Oakland High School, we had lost a student every year to gun violence…A lot of young people are constantly having to watch their back. We help to build trust and relationships.”
It was when Alvarez was in his early 20’s that he landed a job as a behavioral specialist for children and families in San Francisco. He says it was there he saw therapy through backpacking and different wilderness activities. One case which would normally take two years to see signs of improvement only took four days.
“I became completely inspired with this idea that there are other ways of doing therapy,” says Alvarez. “I was inspired to learn more and go back to school to get a BA in social work and then my master’s at the top clinical social work school in the nation…I knew I wanted to create a type of therapy especially for youth of color, because of lack of services.”
Alvarez says because there is a huge stigma towards mental health among youth of color, a lot of young people don’t identify with it. It’s not palpable to them.
“I went back to my supervisor, and said we have to try something different that aligns with their worldview and values. I called it the rap therapy view to create freestyle and perform. In the process we would use writing music with what’s going on in their lives and each other and try to accomplish all the goals that other therapies try to accomplish.”
He says he created his first program during his first year in graduate school. Eight kids joined for 10 weeks, and they had 100 percent retention.
“Half of these kids were on a list that were demonstrating failure in school or had behavioral problems and were at risk for expulsion,” says Alvarez. “At lunch they were often writing or singing raps. They were using hip hop as an outlet for capturing their ambition.”
Then the group grew through word of mouth.
“I know a lot of friends and people around me in this neighborhood that have parents that are doing drugs,” says Haniya Muhammad, 20, a student at Beats Rhymes and Life who tries to recruit more friends into the program. “I know they don’t have real parents that give out love and who they could share what they are feeling.”
She says when you speak about your issues through music, it makes you want to bring up things and get them off your shoulders — it’s even fun.
“Something positive was happening,” says Alvarez. “They reported that the group allowed them to get to know each other. A lot of men are brought up to not talk about feelings. The group created an intimate space to talk about feelings and experiences. What made it socially accepted was hip hop.”
Essentially, he says they were witnessing each others stories and validating them. By the time he graduated, three high schools in California were interested in incorporating his program into their curriculum.
“We now have 13 albums that our youth have produced…about grief, joy, trauma,” says Alvarez. “It’s all there, and it’s very rich. People have a lot to say.”
He says hip hop is such a powerful tool because when a young person learns to create music, it has an effect on them and the community.
“A lot of times young people feel they are alone in their struggle,” says Alvarez. “Hip hop creates community building and self-confidence.”
He continues to say that when one student is helped, it also starts paying forward.
“A lot of our young people come back to train to be social workers,” he says. “We now have eight interns…one youth is a year away [from getting] a degree in counseling.”
Damonte Wilson, 21, benefited from Beats Rhymes and Life and is now in the process of getting his GED. He wants to eventually become a social worker.
“I’ve seen a lot, but I’ve never seen a program like this,” says Wilson. “They meet you where you’re at and help you develop yourself. They work with you outside of school, even when you graduate; they keep in contact with you. The program doesn’t end after high school, Beats Rhymes and Life is there for you your whole life.”
Alvarez says he’s working to change the face of social work and mental health.
“We have to invest in youth to be change makers in their community.”
Sandy Hooper contributed to this report.