Partner Spotlight: Justine Cruise-Roberson, Licensed Social Worker & Therapist

Earlier this year, Y-WE launched the Healing Justice Collective, an initiative that connects current and past Y-WE participants to trusted mental health practitioners and covers the cost. In this series we are highlighting the partners and practitioners who make the Healing Justice Collective possible. Justine Cruise-Roberson is one of the therapists actively holding spots for Y-WE clients. She is a licensed social worker who specializes in a variety of therapies, and we connected with her through our partnership with Deconstructing the Mental Health System (DMHS)

Portrait of Justine Cruise-Roberson standing in a garden
Listen to the audio recording of this interview between Justine and Y-WE’s Community Wellness & Mental Health Specialist, Shaena.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about you, your background, experience, interests? Where do your passions live?

A: Yes, absolutely. So my name is Justine, I’m a licensed clinical social worker. I am the daughter of two really incredible educators and organizers. And it’s always really important to me to talk about them, because I’m so in awe of their work. They’ve totally shaped me in ways that I’m really grateful for. I’m also the sister to two awesome sisters who do really different work, that they love, which is like, a gift to be family members to them. And before I was a social worker, I was a union organizer. And so a lot of my work is informed by that sort of movement building, and that sort of interconnection, and the power of collective action. So I think about that, even in my work as a therapist.

As a therapist, I’ve worked in a lot of settings, I’ve worked in schools, I’ve worked in community mental health centers, and now I work for myself. I’ve gotten to work with primarily young people through some of the wildest and most challenging times that I personally have experienced, and that they reported to me that they have experienced as well. And that really shapes how I’m thinking about the bigger picture. My interests as a therapist really lie in helping people understand the full breadth of their experiences and emotions. I’m really interested in helping people connect to the nonhuman world as they connect to themselves and to other people. So, based on interests, that looks like being outside in nature, cultivating plants and taking care of pets in their home, ways to access a greater sense of belonging and safety in the outside world around them, especially coming out of the pandemic and being inside for so long. That’s kind of what I’m interested in.

Q: How long have you been doing healing work, which can include therapy, but also welcome any other healing experiences that you have? 

A: I have been doing healing work explicitly for other people for about seven years, but my own healing journey is the foundation that I build that off of and I’ve been doing that for a very long time.

Q: What are the values that guide your practice?

A: I would say agency, personal agency, helping people understand what power they do have, and have a greater ability to access it. I am really interested right now in interconnection. I personally, you know, despite the foundation that I came from at home, I’m in a culture that really lionizes individualism. And I’ve only recently been able to recognize and challenge that within myself. So I’m really interested in, as the foundation of my personal practice, and as I help people build the support networks that they need to be well, I’m really interested in interconnection. So personal agency and interconnection. 

Q: Can you tell me about your work with young people? Why does it call to you and what do you love about it?

A: Oh my gosh, just developmentally it’s such an incredible part of a person’s life. I was actually listening to something today – it’s kind of really big picture — but I was listening to something today from a psychologist who talked about the sort of changes in the brain that happen during adolescence, and that’s the period of time that I really focus on. And they include an increase of dopamine, and it explains why our adolescent memories are so powerful, why our emotions are so high, have such breadth and depth and salience. I think it’s just such a, it has the potential to be, of course, a foundational time, incredibly memorable time. As somebody who is no longer in adolescence, I really value that period of a person’s life for the questions that people ask, the things they don’t take for granted, the values that they’re exploring, how they’re understanding who they are at that time. It’s such an honor to be with somebody during that period of time, honestly. 

Q: What drew you to the work that Y-WE’s doing with the Healing Justice collective? How long have you been connected and what has that been like? 

A: Bigger picture for Y-WE, when I was in graduate school, I knew somebody who was working with Y-WE to do some really cool organizing and educational work. And it was just mind blowing. I had just started my work and this kind of work with young people, so I was just really blown away by the level of leadership that people were developing and having. I was always asking my classmates, “what are you doing now? What are you working on? Tell me more.” And then to this project (Y-WE), a colleague of mine sent me the information about it. And I’ve just worked in a bunch of contexts where people don’t have a lot of choices about who they see for their healing work, especially when they’re young people, somebody else is choosing for them, if it’s not their parents it’s their school, if it’s not their school — you know. This context is just really cool, where people don’t have to worry about how much it costs, they don’t ever have to worry about protecting the adults feelings in their lives, they can just make a choice and choose their therapist if they want to. So that seems really cool to me.

Q: What has been the most joyous and/or motivating part of this work? Either in general therapeutic work or specifically working with youth?

A: I just love hearing what people think, and what people are exploring in their world and inside of themselves. It’s just so incredible and interesting and to be able to develop the kind of a relationship that a person has with their therapist, create a level of — I won’t say safety all the time, because sometimes things feel really unsafe when we’re approaching things that feel overwhelming or that have been harmful in the past — but the level of comfort that it takes to to heal things that feel too big to even approach. When I’m able to collaborate with people to do that work it’s really incredible.

Q: What kinds of things have you learned in this process?

A: I think I’ve learned the long view, for lack of a better word, I’ve learned how to zoom out and take a bigger picture of a person’s life. I think in the work that I’ve done as a therapist, our system is modeled to address crises. And that’s really important for, you know, protecting people’s safety, helping them navigate those things, but the big picture can kind of get lost sometimes. And so that’s the place that I am now – my work is really understanding that long view. And, you know, that’s a really big question, and there’s so many things. But I just know and have seen how much a person’s life can change for the harder or for the better. And I really appreciate being able to help people learn how to roll with that.

Q: What is the thing that keeps you going and keeps you in it? 

A: I’m having a big upwelling of emotion, because it’s this is so incredible to me. You know, we just really need young people to be part of our society, we need, you know, people’s thoughts and energy and not taking things for granted. You know, we really, really need them. And just helping them learn to live with what can feel overwhelming, and to understand what power they do have to shape the world that they know should be is just really cool. And I’ve done therapeutic work, and so the active organizing stuff is less a part of that. But when I’ve done the organizing work as well, that’s something that means just so much to me. 

Q: Why do you think that a youth centered focus in providing additional pathways to care and mental health and wellness is important?

A: Yeah, a lot of things in our world are built for people who have total power over their lives like many adults do. So creating more ways for young people to have choices and to access what they need is so important. And  it’s such a critical period and it’s such a foundational time that if you can really learn some of those skills around like, “what do I do with things that are really hard, really painful, really challenging? How do I form relationships with other young people and trustworthy adults to face my challenges? How do I just, like, navigate the world for myself?” You know, I think it just has to be there, their needs need to be in mind because everything else is kind of focused on adults.

Q: What does healing mean to you? And how do you know it’s happening?

A: I think “it’s happening” is a really good framing because I think that we think that a lot of the way that healing gets framed is like an endpoint. It’s like, you have done this thing and then you can check the box, you’re healed. And it’s a process I think, and I think people will spend their lives coming closer to what they believe is healing for them. So I think that healing is so many things but I think healing is developing an understanding of where you are and where you’ve been, it’s developing flexibility and honesty and compassion around your emotions. And generally, I think it’s really dependent on the person, it looks like what the person believes that it is, you know. And part of the process is to define it for yourself. Yeah, even our physical bodies are constantly — every time you exercise, you’re experiencing an injury and healing. So it is a constant process.

Q: In a dream world, what does youth liberation look like to you?

A: It wouldn’t be so much pressure and so many consequences, like given to youth in this period of time. I think that we structure our world with so many intense expectations on young people, like, “if you do this, it’s going to destroy your entire life. If you don’t learn, if you don’t graduate from this — it’s going to determine the entire course of your life.” So I mean, in addition to just giving young people the honor and the respect and the place in our society that they deserve as decision makers and actors, taking some of the pressure off of their decisions also would be really important, because that also is a restriction. And it’s such a normative time, this is when we experiment, discover things about ourselves and each other in the world, and the stakes just are too high. You know, so I think that liberation is liberation from being defined by that period of our lives moving forward. And of course also, young people are dealing with the consequences that we make and that our parents have made without having had really any say in the decision making process, so I think that they should be more deeply involved in that as well.

Q: If you could go back and talk to teenage you and tell them something they really needed to hear, what would it be?

A: God, you are so freakin’ cool. You’re an amazing person. And you should trust yourself. You know? I would tell myself that.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share, anything else you feel like readers should know or keep in mind?

A: Pay attention to what lights you up. I think that having that skill in general is really important throughout your life but having it now, having it at any time in your life and especially in your youth, it’s just a really important guide and can take you to such beautiful things. You will live, I hope that you will live so many lives and put less pressure on yourself right now.

Y-WE’s mission is to cultivate the power of diverse young women to be creative leaders and courageous changemakers, through transformative programs within a collaborative community of belonging. Learn more about the Healing Justice Collective and how you can support this work.

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*those who identify as women, girls, trans, non-binary, or gender expansive