Providing culturally responsive care is Katy Armendariz’s (MSW ’09) mission, and it’s an intensely personal one. Her birth mother, homeless and suffering from an untreated mental condition, was unable to take care of her. Katy wound up shifted and shunted through an orphanage to a foster home to an all-white family. And in the process, her cultural and racial identity were lost.
“That’s what made me want to get into social work,” she says. “I realized my story was one of many in a child welfare system that was perpetuating these disparities.”
Her experience also inspired her to create Minnesota CarePartner, a mental health service that strives to meet the needs of children and families of color in a culturally responsive way.
“I wanted to combine my interest in business with social work to fulfill a personal passion of advocacy and activism at several levels of social work: macro, mezo, and micro,” Katy says.
She did not start the company right after graduation; instead she concentrated on getting her full licensure, working with group homes, adult mental health, and post-adoption social work, which she found especially rewarding. “That inspired me to focus on child welfare. Being that person who would do the searches for the birth parent,” she says. “Helping to connect people made me want to start at the beginning of child welfare, especially families of color.”
“We can improve healing of centuries of racial trauma. That’s the next step hopefully in the next two years.”
In 2013, Katy was ready to make that next step and founded Minnesota CarePartner. As it is intended to address disparities among people of color, it became obvious that services should be provided by the same since they naturally have the experiences and understanding necessary to offer effective cultural care.
“Every agency I went to was very oppressive around racism and had a lack of representation,” she says. “I intentionally created a company that would be different, founded and led by BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color], safe for BIPOC, and provided by BIPOC as much as possible.”
Matching clients with therapists with similar backgrounds has been a successful recipe, but it wasn’t always easy. “Starting a business from the ground up required a lot of hustle and working 12-hour days on top of my job,” Katy says. “There were a lot of growing pains, a lot of moving pieces, and a lot of balls in the air at all times.”
But what had started as a two-therapist operation has now become an effective business, with 65 staff members and Katy as CEO. “There’s a team now versus a bunch of random pieces,” Katy says. “So things are very stable now. It’s not a constant balancing act.”
Although her company has grown, Katy is not interested in having franchises or going corporate. “I don’t want to be at the mercy of a board of directors,” she says.
Instead, she hopes to turn Minnesota CarePartner into a nonprofit, as well as open a racial trauma clinic.
“It would address a huge gap in effective healing for a real phenomenon that has not been acknowledged due to white supremacy,” she says. “We can improve healing of centuries of racial trauma. That’s the next step hopefully in the next two years.”
Currently, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t identify racial trauma as a diagnosis. This needs to change, Katy says. “The end goal would be to transform the way we think about mental health,” she says. “But it would be a starting point if we could have it formally recognized.”
Katy’s drive and determination leave little doubt that it will eventually happen. Her experience in the MSW program inspired her voice and activism and her focus on macro-level and systems-level change. “In an indirect way, it taught us valuable lessons in how to advocate for ourselves and for the broader BIPOC community,” she says.
Story by Kevin Moe | Photos courtesy of Greg Helgeson, Katy Armendariz | Winter 2022