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Christopher LeMark’s path to healing has been a difficult, involving self-examination and learning give himself the space to process and restore his mental wellness. For him, it’s been a marathon, not a sprint. While on this journey, he felt like he needed to give back to his community and help others find their own roadmap to peace. So, LeMark founded the organization Coffee, Hip-Hop and Mental Health, which operates as a nonprofit and coffee shop with the mission of using the revenue made off of selling coffee and merchandise to help eliminate the financial barriers that keep people from seeing a therapist – something that’s been essential to LeMark getting mentally healthy. MenLiving’s Patrick McKenna got to hear about LeMark’s life, what drives his organization’s selfless purpose and why everyone deserves the resources for good mental health.  

Patrick:
Can you tell me a little bit about your journey with mental health and how it led you to creating Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health?

Christopher:
Well, my journey has been quite a challenging journey. I grew up in a very abusive environment. I never really knew my mom or dad. I was placed with relatives, my uncle and his wife and family and so forth. And in 12 years, I dealt with every level of abuse – not just being rejected or ignored as a youth, but also physically, mentally, and emotionally abused. While growing up, I was dealing with all the layers of trauma that go with that and not having a true identity. But music and late-nineties hip-hop became a very, very important tool for me because I was able to leverage the creativity and the concept of writing as therapy. It was essentially my first form of therapy, so I could write whenever I was having a difficult time, whether it be thinking about suicide, feeling lonely, or feeling sad…I was always able to tap into hip-hop. That’s why hip-hop is a part of the logo. It’s the bridge that kept me alive.

Going through the first 30 years of my life was ultra-traumatic. Things like what I mentioned, going through group homes and shelters, being homeless consistently from 2001 to like 2011…the combination of all those different things led me to having the motivation to start the coffee shop. I didn’t know how to live every day because everything was dictated upon self-preservation, protection, and not wanting to get hurt. That was really, really frustrating. So, I try my best to share that because that’s important to why this whole organization matters at all. Having that emotional breakdown with a combination of all those other factors was what led me to go to therapy. Once I discovered therapy as an adult, I was able to start dealing with all those different things that harmed me over the years and the things that wouldn’t allow me to really thrive in life.

Patrick:
What were some of the biggest positives that came to you after you started going to therapy?

Christopher:
All the people who would say, “Your story gave me permission to look at my own life” is huge. Older people, young people, different races — the story was touching everyone. And that’s a personal testimony, right? Knowing that you can help people just by being honest with yourself and by sharing your stories, that’s a personal win.

Patrick:
Totally. It’s one of the most empowering things that can happen just to see your own choice to be open and honest and vulnerable helping others. Knowing objectively that you’re helping because people are literally coming up to you and letting you know that because you shared your story, they feel comfortable sharing theirs.

Christopher:
You’re absolutely right. It’s really important for us to share all those stories, especially when they give people permission to share theirs.

Pat:
I completely agree. I know the mission of Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health is to educate different communities about the importance of good mental health and help remove the financial and systemic barriers that prevent people from getting help. Can you share with me more about what the organization does and how you all work to achieve that mission?

Christopher:
Well, the coffee shop is really important. It was our way of saying that we’re going to remove those financial barriers, right? Look, everyone complains that the city doesn’t do enough, communities don’t do enough. By nature, I’m just not that person who sits back and complains. I have always been very much endorsed. So now, I knew I wanted to build a coffee shop that did just that: provide jobs for those in need and build this model where we can take the sales of the coffee and the merchandise and put it towards free therapy. This means that we pay therapists like anybody else would pay, and we pay them directly to take care of those who sign up for the “Normalize Therapy University” program.

That initiative is our way of saying, “Hey, we’re going to help people launch their healing journey.” We do that work through a very social enterprising business plan. It’s like, I can be like an organization that doesn’t do anything but say, “Let’s fundraise. Let’s get as much money as we can from all the corporations.” And while that’s a plus, I wanted to make a self-sustainable organization. I think that’s very important. If someone does give us a donation, then it becomes a bonus because we’re selling product online every day. We’re selling product in the store, or in the coffee shop every day, so we can continue to be reimbursed. That’s important.

Patrick:
That makes sense as a business model. Was the “Normalize Therapy University” project in the plan as soon as Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health was conceived?

Christopher:
Absolutely. I knew I wanted to help people with therapy because I knew therapy was super expensive. When you do the research, you understand that poverty is a huge component of mental health. Food insecurity, trauma, poverty, all those different things. When I originally started, people would reach out to me and ask if I could find them a therapist. I would go online, search Psychology Today, and I would find therapists for them. That’s why it originally happened. I just taught them how to customize the search for what they wanted or needed. So, it was always a part.

 

Obviously as you’re building a plan, there are all the goals, but it’s also like how do I do it? That’s why the cool part was finding out how to do it. We said, “Let’s just open a coffee shop early,” because the coffee shop wasn’t supposed to open until 2024. COVID rushes along and we couldn’t do the bigger events we wanted to do. So, we open up a coffee shop. Coffee is essential. We said, “Let’s start as a popup.” So as challenging as COVID was, it was also very much a blessing.

Patrick:

Why do you think dealing with a person’s trauma and mental health issues from the ground up is so important?

Christopher:
If I’m hearing you correctly, I think about the importance of peeling back all the layers.

Pat:
Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean.

Christopher:
Right. So, let’s take me as an example. The first 30 years of my life was ultra-traumatic, and I didn’t take therapy seriously or think I really needed it until I was 39, so I got 39 years of stuff. Right?

Pat:
Yeah. It’s a lot.

Christopher:
It’s a lot. And the thing I think is really important to look at is the behavior that comes from the abuse. “Why do I act like this? Why do I do this? Why do I talk like this?” When you are going through your coming-of-age story or you’re an adolescent, those are the days where you’re being grown. When you’re looking at that 3 to 12 years old period, you’re soaking up everything around you and you are sort of learning your personality. But if you are being abused in the midst of that, you would be emotionally stuck. I tell people all the time that I always seem passionate and don’t mind talking, but I struggle with social anxiety really bad. And on top of that, I don’t really like people to look at me too. I really don’t like all these things. It’s because I was locked inside of a basement a lot as a child.

 

I’m watching how I relate now with my behavior. I’m in a relationship, and I’m watching certain things that pop up between me and my lady. I’m getting ready to have my first child as well, so there’re all these things that I’m looking at and have been looking at for so many years. I’m like, “Wow, my behavior is based on the stuff that I went through.” Talk therapy or any form of therapy is good to sort of help you learn how to navigate this life. It’s important to go to therapy to talk it over, deal with it, to find a way. You got to find the ins and outs. You got to really understand what’s going on.

Patrick:
Totally. I mean, I’ve heard you say in interviews and on your Instagram the mantra of “Healing is a marathon.” I love that message so much because I can relate so deeply. I’ve struggled over the last 6 years with depression and bipolar disorder. And while the healing and work never ends, I really have come out the other way.

Christopher:
I’m proud of you, man.

Patrick:
Thank you. I appreciate it. There’s such a solidarity when you’ve gone through it, and even though we both have come out the other side better and stronger, that healing still goes on and can’t stop. But I love that message that healing is a marathon. It really is a lifelong journey.

Christopher:
Absolutely. You know, even deeper Pat – is it okay if I call you Pat?

Patrick:
Yeah, absolutely [laughs].

Christopher:
Thank you. I sort of nickname everybody.

Patrick:
No, you’re good. Pat is a frequent one. I’m here for it.

Christopher:
Nice, nice. So, the reason why I tell people that healing is a marathon is because it is. There is no rush. We’re all trying to sprint and rush, and we can’t compete. We can’t try to figure out who’s going to get to healing faster or first. There’s no contest with this. When you think about a marathon, the very concept is about what’s your pace is. Run at your own pace. When it comes to healing, you should take your absolute time.

Patrick:
For sure. So we’ve been talk about embracing vulnerability and showing it. Why do you think it’s so important to be emotionally vulnerable and honest, particularly for men?

Christopher:
I think for men it’s really important for us to be okay with being vulnerable because it’s a sign of strength. And it’s actually very weak of us to think that we can walk around and carry all the weight without allowing someone to give us the space to release. Every day being a doer, it’s overwhelming. It’s an exhausting life, constantly doing, doing, doing with so much output. But there’s no body feeding you, so where’s your input? You need input. And for men to walk around thinking that they can just hold on and be strong all day, it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to them and it’s dangerous to everybody around them because somebody’s going to feel that blow up at some point.

The other thing that’s important for us to redefine is what strong means. I mean, there are a bunch of cool and strong men walking the ground, and they look strong on the outside, but inside they’re struggling. And you know how I know they’re struggling? Because they’re telling me.

Patrick:
Yeah, there you go.

Christopher:
I mean, they’re telling me this. Some of the most successful men here in Chicago and across the country have reached out and said, “Look, I can’t say this in my stories, I can’t say this publicly, I can’t say this in my relationship. But I can say it to you because I watch you do it all day, and you have given me enough strength to at least say it to someone, so I’m going to start with you.” Because it’s a safe space for them, right?

Patrick:
Right. Totally.

Christopher:
I think it’s important too because at some point you’re going to start dealing with domestic violence. Domestic violence is such a big deal. Obviously, there’s no comparison and there’s no justification so I want to make sure that’s clear. But there are men who have been abused just as there have been a ton of women that have been abused.

Patrick:
It’s that cycle.

Christopher:
It’s a terrible cycle. There are a lot of men walking around with that anger too, especially if you’re a black man and you already feel like you’re not empowered by society. Because no matter how successful you are, through systemic racism and oppression in society, it doesn’t allow you to truly thrive as a black man. You’re holding that frustration, that pain, that weight. Then if you in a relationship and you feel like you’re not worthy at home, you’re either going to implode or explode. Again, zero justification, but that’s part of why it’s really important for men to have the space. It’s not just about being vulnerable, but they have to be given the space and the grace to do so.

Patrick:
Going off that, how do you think systemic racism and inequality play into this lack of health and mental wellness resources for black and brown communities in lower income neighborhoods, particularly in Chicago because that’s obviously your lived experience?

Christopher:
I’ll give it to you. I mean, Chicago’s one of the most segregated cities in the country if not the one, right?

Patrick:
Right.

Christopher:
I feel like a Black man very much every day, just by how people look at me. If I have the Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health shirt on or the hat and someone sees it, they smile. They smile and give me a “Hey, how you doing,” right? But if I’m just walking in regular clothing, like a hoodie or something, then I don’t get the same response. Now obviously every white person in America and in Chicago is not racist. You may not be racist, but there’s a stereotype. You may think you have an idea or understanding of what someone thinks or represents. And that’s the tough part.

So how do I think it directly affects our mental health? Well, we have been given crumbs. We have been given crumbs, the least bit. You see it in simple things.  Like if it’s a snowstorm, you see how fast the trucks move in certain neighborhoods.

Patrick:
Yeah. No, you’re not wrong. I’ve seen it.

Christopher:
Yeah. The differences in resources are ridiculous. And that’s not just in Chicago; that’s all over the country. So, if I don’t value your neighborhood, I’m not concerned about your neighborhood, just as long as you don’t come to this neighborhood. Here’s another example with a fast casual restaurant versus just a local fried chicken or food that’s probably not the best or lesser quality. Something like a Panera for instance. There aren’t very many Panera’s or restaurants similar to that in a local neighborhood. It’s a bunch of liquor stores and the lesser value of meats. Even our grocery chains are the lesser value. That’s how systemic racism plays apart. It gives you the lesser version of a resource.

I don’t have a fresh fruit stand or a holistic market where I can get all the goods I need to live a healthy life. This is why somebody can only survive to 60 years old in Englewood, but just five miles of the street in the well-to-do neighborhood like downtown Chicago, Streeterville, or Gold Coast, they can live to about 80 or 90 just because there are much more resources in the area to help you live a thriving life. So, we have been getting crumbs every day. And that’s why we have to go get it, you know? Poverty is violent.

Patrick:
Absolutely. So, with everything you’ve done and continue to do with this organization, if you had everyone listening, what’s the biggest message that you’d want to get across about Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health?

Christopher:
The biggest message is that I want people to just see each other. I think that in order for us to truly normalize therapy, we have to meet people where they are. And in order to meet people where they are, you have to see them. The reason why we moved the coffee shop to the north side of the city is I just want the people on one side of town to see another area. It makes no sense for me personally to try to sell coffee in a food desert. I wanted people to look at the south and west side or any poor part of the community, especially the Black community, and see we are lacking value, we are lacking hope, and we are lacking resources. So, I’m going to sell you this expensive coffee and this expensive sweatshirt so I can take these funds and put it back into the community. I just want people to see one another. That’s really important to me.

At the end of the day, I am saying that I stopped complaining about my own life and I went to go get some help so I can see myself and I can love Christopher. While I’m up here on the mountain of healing, I want to be able to pull other people up because I also see them. And seeing them, I just want to help.

To learn more about Coffee, Hip-Hop and Mental Health, click here and donate toward building their own official coffee shop location here.

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