In 1975, Dr. Martin Pierre was a teenager from Trinidad and Tobago who had immigrated to Brooklyn to reunite with his mother during a particularly gritty period in New York City.
Pierre eluded the snares that befell many of his peers. He never touched drugs, he sidestepped the violence in his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and he got into a good college.
Yet, as a student at Boston College, it became apparent that he had not escaped unscathed. He didn’t understand why he’d made it out while others hadn’t, or why he still felt out of place.
“I didn’t have the conceptual framework or the level of sophistication to understand that it was a mental health issue,” says Pierre, who recently became the first Black president of the Massachusetts Psychological Association.
Finding himself in a predominantly white school, he was subjected to fresh horrors: racist stereotypes, microaggressions and outright discrimination.
“I often felt isolated and alienated,” says Pierre.
As he began to meet with other students of color, Pierre realized that they had the same struggles and that these issues affected their mental health.
“I saw psychology as a way of changing the mindsets of people, but also liberating the minds of Black and brown people,” he says. “I saw psychology as a way of serving the needs of the underserved populations, not just in college, but also in the communities that I'm from.”
Pierre formed support groups for men of color and majored in psychology, but it wasn’t until a few years later when he met Dr. Merlin Langley, a Black professor in Lesley’s Master's in Counseling Psychology program, that he saw a path to become a psychologist himself.
“It was a turning point in my life because for the first time I saw a Black male, in academia, as a psychologist,” says Pierre.
He didn’t think twice about enrolling at what was then Lesley College.
“The diversity and the intersectionality that existed (at Lesley) was something that I did not experience in my prior academic settings,” he says.
The program caused Pierre to focus first on his own experiences and traumas — growing up in a single-parent home, in a violent neighborhood, losing friends to drugs, and the overarching stigmas on Black men in America. Lesley faculty guided him through deep reflection and healing, he says.
“I was still experiencing the impostor phenomenon, the idea that I didn't belong here, and they really helped affirm and value me and value what I had to offer.”
While at Lesley, Pierre completed his practicum at Norfolk County Correctional Center in Dedham, Massachusetts. At Boston College he completed his pre-doctoral internship at the Center for Multicultural Counseling at Boston Medical Center and post-doctoral fellowships at Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center and the Boston Consortium in Clinical Psychology. He also worked for a faith-based organization that provided services for youth in the Boston Public Schools and the Division of Youth Services. In public schools, he saw how often the behaviors of “at risk” and “high risk” young men were misinterpreted. Pierre understood them in a way that white administrators and counselors didn’t.
“They were labeled as acting out or delinquent or defiant without understanding the context in which their behaviors were embedded,” he says. "They were living traumatizing lives. For example, either they lived in communities riddled with violence, or they experienced some form of sexual or physical abuse in their lives and their behavior was the outgrowth of this. They were surviving in the moment.”
From his own experiences, Pierre knew that minority communities have scant access to both mental health care and counselors of color. With his new credentials, it became his mission to change that.
After receiving his master’s degree at Lesley, Pierre earned a doctorate at Boston College and co-founded the Ashmont Counseling Center in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. The center focuses on underserved adolescents, adults and families who are primarily people of color. Pierre also works as a staff psychologist at Brandeis University where he co-coordinators the multicultural committee at the Brandeis Counseling Center.
Taking on the role of president at the Massachusetts Psychological Association is simply another way he can contribute to the diversity of his profession and bring counselors into places where they are desperately needed.
“What I want to do is to create conditions and an environment that is inclusive, that would attract historically marginalized psychologists inclusive of all intersecting identities within the association,” he says.
Pierre wants to reach out to students of color, from high school to graduate school, and encourage them to consider a career in psychology.
While he does that, Pierre continues to work with his clients using principles he learned at Lesley.
“There was a sense of mutuality that existed between the students and … faculty. They modeled that by allowing themselves to be vulnerable, by allowing themselves to connect and share with us in a way that was empowering,” says Pierre.
“I model that behavior even today in the therapeutic encounters with my clients. I acknowledge that there is a power differential that exists, but I strive to build a strong therapeutic alliance.”