Adelphi University Professor Kirkland Vaughans, PhD ’85, who has had a decades-long career as a clinical psychologist treating Black youth, is this year’s recipient of the Diversity Award for Psychology in Division 39.
It is a national honor presented to an individual whose contributions have expanded knowledge and advanced issues of diversity within psychoanalytic psychology or psychoanalysis.
The impetus behind Dr. Vaughans’ work was a horrific incident 66 years ago that sparked nationwide outrage akin to the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
“I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, where Emmett Till came from,” Dr. Vaughans said, referring to the Black teenager lynched by a white mob in Mississippi in 1955 after a woman falsely accused Till of offending her. Till’s mother kept Emmett’s casket open during the funeral, so everyone could see how the mob had disfigured him.
“That memory, which will stay with me forever, and similar attacks on Black people are what led to my mission,” Dr. Vaughans said.
Enhancing Mental Health Training at Adelphi
Dr. Vaughans has delivered 140 presentations to his peers, treated Black youth in Brooklyn’s East New York section for 25 years, and spent 13 years treating mostly Black and Latino boys in Hempstead. He has spent the past eight years at the Derner Hempstead Child Clinic, where he developed the program in community-based psychotherapy and previously served as clinic director.
“Listening to students and faculty who have known him a long time, he makes learning fun,” said Jacques Barber, PhD, dean of the Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology. “He is very much liked by our graduate students, who do not seem to have enough of his time.”
Dr. Vaughans is also appreciative of the students from the Derner School and the School of Social Work who volunteer at the clinic.
“The doctoral students who are providing the clinical and social services are outstanding,” he said. “Most of them are white, and they ask to work with the youth in Hempstead. It’s not an assignment. They want the training, and it’s very intense training.”
Police Brutality in the Black Community
Dr. Vaughans has presented on topics such as anxiety among Black youth caused by systemic racism, generational trauma and police brutality. One manifestation of that anxiety is adultification bias—a misperception that Black youth are older and physically stronger than they are. Hence, they are viewed as threats, not as children.
As an example, Dr. Vaughans cited the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in 2014. Rice, playing with a toy gun in a park, was shot by a white officer who then reported, “African American male down. 20 years old.”
“The anxiety is born out of the history of racism and policing in America,” Dr. Vaughans said. “The origin of policing comes out of slave patrols. Police saw it as their job to keep Blacks in their place. That approach to policing continues, so Blacks have always been subjugated, limited to certain places. I can document how police have denied Blacks entry into what should be open spaces.”
Improving the School Environment in Hempstead
The relationship between Dr. Vaughans and Adelphi remains strong, he said, because both are committed to providing quality services to the underserved.
“We started the clinic in Hempstead because of the high suspension rate and low graduation rate among Black high school boys at the time,” he said. “But there were societal factors that also needed to be addressed. Instead of just focusing on therapy for individual students, we also focused on treating the school environment—teachers, support personnel, parents.”
Suspensions decreased and graduation rates increased because of the clinical work.
Police Reform Needed, Not Defunding
When asked what would improve the mental health of Black youth, Dr. Vaughans called for quality education, healthcare and residential living, and a better relationship between Black communities and the police, who are often perceived as an occupying force.
“Black and brown neighborhoods want the police and need the police, but the problem is those neighborhoods are over-policed,” he said. “If Congress passes the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, that would be a first step.”
Dr. Vaughans said he himself has been subjected to mistreatment from police.
“When I’m not wearing my suit and tie, I get messed with sometimes,” he said. “Fortunately, I have my age and white hair to somewhat protect me. I look professorial.”