“I realized that I’d tapped into something powerful that could redefine what therapy is for this population.”
Name: Tomás Alvarez
Occupation: Nonprofit Executive
“As a young social work student, I interned at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California. It was my job to meet with young people who had been referred to us for mental health services.
Most of these students were young men of color, and at the time, 75% of social workers in the state were white women. I was the only male clinician of color on staff, so all of them got sent to me. But when I reached out to them to offer my services, they often turned me down. I knew that something about what we were offering didn’t appeal to them.
At the time, mental health issues were being viewed not as mental health issues but as disciplinary issues. Young folks were treated like they were the problem, and the system mandated care that didn’t resonate with them. So, because of zero-tolerance policies, young folks were being pushed out of school in great numbers. But it wasn’t the young people who were failing; it was us who were failing them.
I desperately wanted to connect with these young folks, because if I didn’t, I knew they’d be put on a completely different trajectory in their lives. My lightbulb went off when I saw them at lunchtime, freestyle rapping in the quad. I’d grown up with hip-hop, but it was only then that I realized it offered young people what I wanted to offer them: a natural outlet for expression, development, healing, and connecting with their peers.
I realized if I could build a therapeutic model that incorporated hip-hop, I had a chance of breaking through. These young people could be not only the recipients of care but the cocreators as well—we could create conditions for them to help each other. After all, each person is an expert on their own life.
We ran it as a pilot, and it worked. We started seeing improvements in attendance and academic performance, and a reduction in acting out.
I realized that I’d tapped into something powerful that could redefine what therapy is for this population. It was more than creating a program, it was creating a new paradigm. I quickly realized that I needed to study it, understand it, and grow it. It felt like I was sitting on the cure for cancer.
That was the start of Beats Rhymes and Life in 2004, and that started my journey as a social entrepreneur. I ran it as the executive director until 2015, when I realized I wanted to shift the status quo inside of mental health.
I still consider myself a social worker, but my methods have evolved. Currently, I focus my energies on my new company, Idea2Form, and my nonprofit, Collaboration for Talent.
Idea2Form is a full-service collaborative design studio that demonstrates the power of heterogeneous teams to innovate and create change. Collaboration for Talent promotes diversity and inclusion in the social sector, and the two organizations support each other.
I’ve been blessed with a gift for seeing things for what they can be, not what they are. Throughout my journey as a social entrepreneur, I’ve had faith that if an insight is revealed to me, I need to lean in and follow it.
Korn Ferry empowers ambitious individuals and businesses to Be More Than: Seize opportunities. Embrace new perspectives. Never stop learning. Be ready.