Black History Month: Dr. Kofi-Len Belfon

Dr. Kofi-Len Belfon photoDr. Kofi-Len Belfon
February is Black History Month, and the CPA is spotlighting contemporary Black psychologists throughout the month. Dr. Kofi-Len Belfon is a clinical psychologist who works with children, adolescents and families. He wears many hats, one of them being as the Associate Clinical Director at Kinark Child and Family Services.

About Dr. Kofi-Len Belfon

“Are we actually thinking about programming itself in an anti-oppressive way? Are we considering the content?”

Dr. Kofi Belfon is a clinical psychologist who works with children, adolescents and families. He’s the Associate Clinical Director at Kinark Child and Family Services, has a private practice called Belfon Psychological Services, is a member of the board of trustees for Strong Minds Strong Kids (formerly the Psychology Foundation of Canada), and sits on the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee at the College of Psychologists of Ontario. He is a measured speaker, and thinks carefully about his answers to every question. The theme of “thinking” comes up quite often in our conversation.

Born in St. Lucia, Dr. Belfon immigrated to Canada when he was about five years old. His family moved to live in the Caribbean when he was about 15, and he stayed with friends of the family to finish high school in Canada. His parents emphasized education, and encouraged him to go to university. His brother is a physician, and at first he went to McMaster for his undergrad intending to follow the same path and become a medical doctor. Soon though, he discovered that not only did he do extremely well in his psychology classes, he really enjoyed them. A new career path beckoned.

After his undergrad, Dr. Belfon went to work at a paint factory. While there, he wrote his GRE test (Graduate Records Examination – a general, standardized test to measure graduates’ academic abilities) and applied to grad school for psychology. What he didn’t do, which may have made a difference, was take the specific GRE exam for psychology. Every grad school rejected his application – every school but one.

“The only place I got in was Guelph. I had a really great supportive, nurturing supervisor in Dr. Michael Grand. But I always had this sort of impostor syndrome, doubting myself. ‘I didn’t get in anywhere else, why did I get in here, are they just trying to fill a quota? Am I getting in because I’m Black and male and they want to increase the diversity in their program?’ I had all these doubts about myself and they lingered for a long time. It was a fairly small cohort, maybe five or six of us, and I was the only one without a scholarship. I applied year after year, and never got a scholarship, and that fueled some of that imposter syndrome and the feeling I didn’t belong.

The silver lining for me was a couple of things – one, it forced me to work because I didn’t have a lot of money! I worked a ton in the field. I worked at the Toronto District School Board throughout my PhD and I got a lot of experience doing that. I worked at a private practice, I worked at Syl Apps Youth Centre, and I got lots of really neat clinical experience. I was also always really happy about my research. One of the things I appreciated about Dr. Grand was that he didn’t get in the way of me doing what I wanted to do.

My research was in chronic community violence in the Scarborough region, and then for my PhD it was about the mental health needs of kids in custody and detention. At the time at least 50% of those kids I was working with were BIPOC. Some of that research was because in university I had a close friend who died as a result of gun violence. That was the impetus for me starting that research, and even today I wish I had more time to do research and that sort of thing because it really means a lot to me.”

With all the different positions Dr. Belfon holds, and all the hats he wears, there is precious little time for research – or anything else for that matter. Especially now, when he says the pandemic has increased the workload significantly. Wait lists are getting longer and longer, and more and more children, youth, and families are reaching out for mental health help. He says this increase in demand predates the pandemic. Anecdotally, he says he’s seen more young people seeking help for depression, anxiety, and mental health disorders over the past five years. It’s not clear whether that is because more youth are suffering, or because work to destigmatize these conditions has made them more willing to reach out for help.

Those who reach out to Dr. Belfon are often Black families who are looking to connect with a psychologist who looks like them, and presumably shares many of their experiences. Often, they are willing to wait for a very long time, more than eight months on occasion, in order to see a Black psychologist. He thinks this is not ideal – it’s a really long time to wait when you’re having serious difficulties, and there’s no guarantee that you will connect with a professional. As Dr. Belfon says, “we confound race and culture all the time”.

The rarity of Black psychologists remains a difficulty in communities of colour, and is keenly felt in Southern Ontario. At one point, Dr. Belfon says, he thinks Belfon Psychological Services employed 60% of the Black psychologists in the region – there were three of them. Another reason EDI is so important going forward in the field of psychology.

He brings an EDI lens to all his ventures, working to make programming more inclusive at Strong Minds Strong Kids, at Kinark, and in his own practice. Dr. Belfon says that it’s good to make an effort to use more inclusive language, and to choose images and examples that feature a more diverse group of people. These things are helpful in terms of access, and get more people through the door. But doing those things are still ‘on the surface’. Once you get people through the door, is the programming itself delivering for their needs? Is the program they’re accessing as inclusive as the messaging that brought them there in the first place?

“I don’t necessarily know what the answers to that are going to be. These are still early days for psychology in thinking this way. But we need to evaluate these things while thinking about diversity, and how different families might think about these things differently. For example, a parenting program where we’re talking about parenting practices and what we view in North America as healthy practices. That might be totally different for a family whose parents didn’t grow up in North American society and maybe don’t hold the same types of values.”

This is when Dr. Belfon comes back to the theme of ‘thinking’ – what matters most in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion efforts is that they are top of mind when a program is designed, a committee is set up, or a policy is implemented. If we all start to look at those things through an EDI lens, and start from that place, it is more likely that the end result will be truly inclusive and more than window-dressing.

“We think systematically in agencies, about all the inward-facing things. Executive structures, hiring practices, policies and procedures, thinking about how we treat one another. Maybe we’ve changed some language, and done a better job with basic stuff like not having binary language related to gender on our forms. Once we establish a framework with those sorts of things – and we’re doing some of that work at Kinark right now – the next step should be getting down to the actual clinical practice, and thinking about that more carefully. That will take some time, and maybe nothing changes! Maybe we look at a program and decide ‘the content is what the content is’. But did we think about it? Did we think about whether the content is relevant or not, instead of assuming that all these constructs are culture-neutral? I think that matters a lot.”

With the College of Psychologists of Ontario, the EDI committee is not on an island, but is rather a group of people who are there to influence all the other groups that can benefit from their input. Dr. Donna Ferguson is the Chair of the committee, and Dr. Belfon is working with her and the others to make EDI part of the overall culture at the College.

“We’ve done some work learning about the experiences our membership has had with EDI and the college, starting off with some questionnaires and collecting some data from the membership. We’ve done some training in EDI with the other committees – like discipline, quality assurance, my own committee which is Client Relations – so we have some language with which to think about EDI as a starting point. What we’ve asked is that following that training, members on those committees are challenged to think about how EDI might be related to their work.”

Dr. Belfon, Dr. Ferguson and the rest of the EDI committee are going to each other committee, one by one, to discuss how EDI is related to their work.

“For example, if the registration committee is responsible for our oral exams, in the oral exams are there things we have to be thinking about from an anti-oppression or inclusion perspective that might have to be rethought?”

Thinking. It is the central theme of everything Dr. Belfon does – and it is the key to moving organizations, companies, groups, and even psychology itself in a more inclusive direction. It’s all well and good to do something – but before you did, did you think about it? Did you consider it through the lens of inclusion? And how are you ensuring that your programming is inclusive, rather than just looking inclusive?

It’s something worth thinking about.