Tomas Alvarez III
This profile was prepared when Tomas Alvarez III was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.
The New Idea
Tomas Alvarez has developed a new model of mental health therapy that has systemic implications for how we reach, engage, and heal youth with mental health needs. He is the founder of Beats, Rhymes and Life (BRL), which is dedicated to improving mental health and social outcomes among young people of color by using hip hop and other forms of youth culture as catalysts for healing. Our current therapeutic model of talk therapy and case management has not been successful at engaging diverse youth – and young men of color in particular.This is in part because current efforts are rarely developed with cultural appropriateness in mind, and mental health workers themselves lack gender and ethnic diversity. As a result, there is significant reluctance and stigma to seek out help – and dropout rates are high among those who do – despite high levels of violence and trauma within urban American communities. The cornerstone of Beats, Rhymes and Life is a Therapeutic Activity Group which reinvents how mental health services are designed and delivered for communities of color and other marginalized groups. These so-called TAGs combine teaching artists, trained clinicians, and peer mentors to guide a process of creative expression and music/art development, all within a therapeutic setting. This unique combination is more effective at attracting youth in the first place because it incorporates therapeutic components to avenues already reaching young people. In addition, it sheds the pathology framework for a more empathetic youth-led framework that is ultimately about providing young people with the tools for self-care and resilience in the face of episodic trauma. In this sense, more than a new treatment model, BRL has crafted a system for early intervention and prevention that youth groups, families, schools and whole neighborhoods can use to build communities of care. While the use of music for therapeutic purposes itself is not new, several components of BRL are distinct: the TAG model that integrates music and art with evidence-based therapy practices, the premium on youth agency and peer learning, and a youth academy that trains former participants to become the next (and more diverse) pipeline of clinical social workers. Perhaps most important, Tomas has a unique focus on facilitating broader shifts within the existing mental health paradigm. He and his team are collaborating with mental health agencies across California that want to improve how they approach and serve diverse communities – a widely acknowledged failure. By working with institutions and public health systems as well as individuals, Tomas hopes to disseminate a new blueprint for our mental health apparatus that is more culturally relevant and that focuses more on prevention and on helping communities help themselves. BRL was founded in Oakland, CA in 2011 and has served more than 800 youth across the Bay Area and in New York City. In 2012 BRL developed a partnership with Seneca Family of Agencies, one of California’s premier mental health agencies.