As a peer counselor in high school, Donna L. Wilson developed a passion for helping others—which inspired her to major in psychology in college. After graduation, the first-generation college student returned to her hometown of Denver and began working as a youth treatment counselor, which she calls “the springboard to the rest of my career.”
A master’s degree in counseling psychology and counselor education and a PhD in education and human development with a concentration in administrative leadership and policy followed—as well as professional positions at various national child welfare organizations. Over her career, Wilson has been a marriage and family therapist (she was the first African-American to hold that role in the organization) and a clinical supervisor, and has held several executive management positions. She's also been a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Colorado since 2000. Today, she’s the Director of Operations and Community Engagement, Child and Family Services at the Mental Health Center of Denver.
Here, she shares how she’s helping families and children at MHCD, what roles she’s looking to fill now, and what skills are necessary to succeed in a career like hers.
What led you to your job at the Mental Health Center of Denver?
I’ve wanted to work for MHCD for years because I felt like my personal and professional values aligned with the organization. In 2020, I was selected for my current role, which blends elements from my past portfolio, many of my skill sets, and my points of passion. I am delighted to report that for the first time in my career, I am in a position that combines my skills in organizational management, human capital development, strategic systems improvement, and program evaluation, all through a race equity lens.
What was it about MHCD that made it a good fit for you?
MHCD’s commitment to anti-Black racism and community-based mental health was tremendously important to me because it allows me to fully embrace my commitment to servant leadership. Also, because of the organizational commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, I felt welcome to lead in my most authentic leadership stance. I have worked in other spaces where I had to abandon essential parts and pieces of myself just to earn a paycheck. A bonus for me is that for the first time in my 28-year career, I have a supervisor of color. Representation matters, especially at the executive level!
What are you responsible for in your role?
I oversee both operations as well as the community-based mental health programs for Child and Family Services. The operational component ensures that all of our facilities have the essential community partnerships, resources, policies, and procedures to maximize service delivery. The community-based services I oversee include the intensive in-home, juvenile justice, healthy living, and school-based programs. These programs are co-located within communities to ensure that children and families have access to them, and that transportation is not a barrier to receiving services. We are currently located in 15 schools within the Denver Metro Area and have a strong partnership with Denver Public Schools.
Why is the work you’re doing for children and families so important, especially in light of the pandemic?
Parenting can be a challenging job. However, when combined with the additional stressors related to COVID-19 and systemic racism, normal challenges are exacerbated. The current state of our country has been taxing for both children and their families. Parents and children have had to learn new coping mechanisms and survival tactics to navigate through these unprecedented times. Being able to offer services in familiar places like a family’s home or a child’s school affords them the opportunities to receive help in a safe, familiar place to heal and grow. Transportation challenges are one less burden that the family has to facilitate.
What roles are you currently hiring for?
With the impact COVID-19 and racial injustice has had on children’s mental health, we need to ensure that therapists are positioned in places where children spend the most time: school. We are actively recruiting for Denver school-based health clinics in various locations (including West High School, JFK High School, Evie Garrett Dennis Campus, and Montbello High School), as well as on-site and telehealth therapists.
What skills and characteristics does it take to succeed in a career like yours?
I believe that the most important characteristic to be successful in any public-facing position is having a deep commitment and a passion to serve others. You must also understand the power of forging relationships and allowing people to be the expert of their own experiences. In terms of skills, I believe one must be detail-oriented, an effective oral and written communicator, customer-service oriented, and highly organized. You also need to be able to think critically, solve complex problems, work independently and collaboratively, resolve conflict, and move innovative ideas from conceptualization to implementation.
What’s the best career advice you’ve received?
I have received a lot of noteworthy advice over the years, but three pieces of advice stand out. First, ensure that your purpose and passion are aligned. I feel we were all placed on this earth to make an impact in such a way that the core of who we are becomes seamless with the work that we do.
Someone once told me to “make sure your presence helps, not harms, communities.” I believe when a leader shows up in service of others, they can co-create possibilities and not operate from their own agendas.
Lastly, find a mentor and always try to learn from someone who has done your job before and seek their wisdom—then return the favor and be a mentor. This aligns with my philosophy of collective impact and that knowledge acquired should be shared.