When Nicole Franklin opened Live Free Counselling Services in Toronto in 2016, she had a specific vision for what she wanted to create.
She’d completed her Masters of Social Work at Ryerson University, researching the experiences of young Black girls in Canadian society, and had worked with youth in Kingston and Toronto. Now she was ready to build her own space.
“A lot of my practice at Live Free is based on some hard experiences in life,” Franklin said. A noticeably calm and positive person, Franklin specializes in counselling services for families, youth and women. She said being a Black woman with her own practice also gave her another early and unexpected differentiator when starting out.
“Even in a city like Toronto, there have not always been a lot of Black therapists available within our community, who have their own private practice. When I started Live Free you could go on Psychology Today,” an online therapist directory, “enter ‘Toronto or ‘Mississauga’, and I would be one of the only faces that would come up.”
Soon Franklin said she noticed a trend of Black clients reaching out, expressing relief to have found someone that would be able to relate to certain aspects of their lives. “They said ‘I just wanted someone that could understand certain things,’” she said, such as the sometimes subtle expressions of racism in Canadian society, and the complex, nuanced experience of a Black identity.
She said offering that service felt like a way to uplift her community. “It’s like fighting back, providing a safe space for people of colour, for them to be able to rest as a form of resistance, to be able to take care of themselves as a form of activism, to be able to really take off the mask that we have to wear every day to walk through different spaces that are not for us, or safe to us. Live Free is kind of like my love letter to people like me.”
In her Masters research at Ryerson, Franklin dug into what she said is a common shared experience of young Black women — the stress of having to change which “version” of themselves they project in order to be accepted in certain spaces.
“We started to call that ‘our mask,’ wearing different faces in different places. The stress and anxiety that it creates, having to take off one version of who you are and put on another one,” she said.
“At work, for example, we may have to ignore a lot of microaggressions and hold our feelings in. We may have to do that as a way to literally keep our jobs,” she explained. “It’s like an armour that we may have to wear as a way to move up or be successful.”
Franklin runs Live Free promoting a message of rest and joy, prioritizing self care for her clients. It’s a message that she said she feels Black women in particular may have not always heard.
“There are not always a lot of people telling us that it’s okay to take care of ourselves. That’s where that self care base of my work is coming from.”
A large part of her work now is also mentoring other Black therapists, she said. “People that are just coming up, that want to eventually run their own practice. We’re just showing them how empowering it can be to empower others. That’s a big part of what we’re doing right now.”
Her Kingston roots
Franklin moved to Kingston as a child, at the end of elementary school.
With her parents still residents, she considers it her hometown. When her family arrived, Franklin remembers her mother looking for ways to be more connected and engaged, helping others.
“She wanted to be a more constructive member of her community. It was important for us to volunteer together, do community work together and just be more involved.” Franklin remembers it as a turning point in her own life. “She passed that down to me and I decided I wanted to do more to give back.”
She started off working at the Boys and Girls Club of Kingston. “I was doing youth programs and different initiatives that they had. They would send me to Toronto and other places to facilitate workshops for youth. We would do fundraising initiatives. That’s where a lot of my social work roots came from,” she recalls.
She then left Kingston for Toronto where she worked at a grassroots organization called Sketch.
“It’s basically a youth organization that focuses on art-based support for young people who are at risk of homelessness, or who are experiencing homelessness and significant mental health challenges,” she said.
“That agency was defining for a lot of other anti-oppressive and grassroots elements that I incorporate in with my day-to-day practice now,” she added. “Our staff meetings would happen on the floor with pillows in a circle. We would talk about what’s happening in the world and our lives. There would be a big paper in the middle, and we would all be writing or drawing on it.”
She said working at Sketch gave her an inspiring experience of unity and equality. “People would say that when you walked into Sketch, you couldn’t tell which people worked there. It gave me this real feeling that we shouldn’t be defined by what we look like, our race, our class, our gender,” she said. That was not something she remembered feeling in Kingston.
“I love Kingston for so many things that it gave me, like my passion for social work,” she said.
“Growing up as a Black woman in society, I think especially in Kingston, it allowed me to see things that I wanted to change in society. I experienced a lot of inadvertent and direct racism as a result of being one of the only Black people in my class, in my school, in my neighbourhood.”
Returning regularly, with both family and friends in town, she said she has seen Kingston transform over the years. “I think that it’s changed a lot. We all still have work that we can do. I definitely try to be someone who constantly is working towards making those changes.”
Attending Kingston’s BLM demonstration
Franklin was in Kingston during the summer of 2020, one that saw people all over the world unite to support the Black Lives Matter movement, decry white supremacy and racist violence. Marches, protests and creative projects took place across North America, including in Kingston.
Kingston’s Black Luck Collective hosted a vigil on Tuesday, Jun. 2, 2020 “to mourn the lives lost to anti-Black Racism in Canada and the lives that continue to be impacted by anti-Black Racism in Canada.”
At first Franklin was hesitant to attend. “When it came up I was like ‘I don’t know.’ It’s almost retraumatizing to go to these events because it brings up experiences that you’ve really tried to shut out. I was having mixed feelings.”
When she arrived, Franklin said she was overcome with a rush of emotion.
“I’m walking into the park and it’s a circle, and all these different people are coming in from all these different directions towards the circle. I had thought ‘it’s probably going to be so small.’” However approximately 800 people attended.
“Just seeing the amount of people, the vision of it was so overwhelming. I broke down. It was so beautiful, to be in a place where I kind of learned what racism is, it was a full-circle moment. It was just so emotional for me, because I felt like ‘oh my gosh, people are really wanting to make these changes here.’
“For a place that I consider my home city, it was just so powerful. It has stayed with me and made me feel a lot of hope for this city… I commend the leaders of that event because they definitely made it feel like everyone was one. It was just such a unity project.”
“It almost felt like — this is going to sound strange — like the apology I needed,” she added. “This was a commitment from the whole community to make change, like we’re waking up.”
The Black Mental Health Fund
As the summer wore on, Franklin said she noticed it taking a toll on the people around her.
Stories of racist violence continued to make headlines, while anti-racist activism became the centre of heated political division in the United States. All the while, the COVID-19 pandemic carried on.
“It was impacting me personally, my family, my friends, those that I work with,” she said. While she knew there were probably many members of the Black community that could be benefiting from therapy, for many the cost made it inaccessible.
“There are a lot of people who see therapy as a luxury,” she said. “Maybe they don’t have benefits or they’re struggling financially.”
To solve this, Franklin decided to launch something called the Black Mental Health Fund (BMHF), to subsidize or fully cover the cost of service for clients of colour.
“We wanted to be able to offer this other option that says ‘Come. Come as you are, tell us about your needs, and we will provide that support at a supremely reduced cost.’”
Franklin started off by crowd-funding, and then progressed to fundraising through the launch of an online clothing store, the Self Care Shop Toronto.
“All the proceeds go to our BMHF as well. Along the way we’ve had community partners, artists, doing things for us at no cost to contribute to the fund. Everything — from the person who supplied the logo, to the person who gets us the shirts, who prints them — everyone is donating at least in part their time, their effort, their creativity to the fund.”
The shop sold out at the end of December. Due to high demand for the black and white ‘Self Care’ clothing line she is working to restock it for a second round of sales.
“Our goal is to raise $10,000 and we have raised 50 per cent,” she said.
Besides the subsidized therapy sessions Franklin has also started offering free community wellness workshops.
“Because of the pandemic, they’ve been online. That’s great because some of our workshops have had attendees from across the world — Guyana, from different parts of Canada, northern regions that have just never had access to people of colour leading in the wellness space, or maybe haven’t felt safe in their communities. They’re coming and having this opportunity to do a workshop online 100 per cent free.”
The final component of the BMHF is mentorship. “We’re doing some youth mentorship, and also some therapist mentorship as well.”
As the second month of 2021 begins, Franklin said she is feeling positive and poised to press on.
“We’re redefining self care, diversifying what wellness means, and now providing funding for those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access therapy,” she said. Despite having an eye on the big picture, she said the grassroots feeling of her practice has not changed.
“At the core, I like to call it keepin’ it real social work,” she said. “I’m not coming in to tell you what your life should be. You’re in the driver’s seat, I’m in the passenger seat. Honestly I think a lot of people’s shoulders go down when they hear that.”
Story by Samantha Butler Hassan, The Kingstonist, for The Local Journalism Initiative