Douglas Reed is a mental health advocate and host of the "Let's Go Show." Photo courtesy Douglas Reed

Douglas Reed uses podcasting, events and his own story to spread a message of change and resilience, one man at a time

During his six decades on the planet, Douglas Reed has worn many uniforms. He spent two decades in Army fatigues, then did a tour in federal prisons as a corrections officer.  Nowadays he tours the U.S. talking about his mental health journey.

For the last two-and-a-half years, Reed served as director of partnerships and engagement for Black Men Heal, which offers free therapy to Black men. In January, he transitioned to a new gig helping organize the Black Excellence Festival in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He’s also the host of the “Let’s Go Show,” a podcast he uses to encourage, motivate, and inspire.

Reed sat down with MindSite News Reporter Josh McGhee and reflected on what he learned from his time in the Army and as a corrections officer, and how it led him down his current path.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

McGhee: Can you tell me about your work at Black Men Heal and how it has led to your new position?

Reed: I was a co-facilitator of a virtual free space we called King’s corner, which we began after the death of George Floyd. We gathered an average of 30 men involved in this virtual space from around the country to express themselves. We talked about depression, anxiety, police brutality, and mass incarceration. We also did a tour, the Black Men Heal tour, where we went to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta, New York. 

What has now emerged from that is other opportunities for me to go out and tell my story, my lived experiences around first being a Black man doing work in the mental health field, being a veteran with a disability, and being just a kid from Cincinnati. 

I’m now helping out with the Black Excellence Festival that will be held June 16 through the 18th in Atlantic City, New Jersey. My job is to bring in a mental health piece, but more importantly, bring Black men and Black families to Atlantic City. We’re going to show Black men doing their thing, provide a comfortable space to show how we can come back to our families and be who we are – not criminals, or people to be feared, but people to be respected as individuals, as human beings, as Black men.

How did growing up in Cincinnati set you on this life path?

I was the youngest of five. My sisters and my brothers had different fathers. People look at that as a broken home, but I’m here to tell you that in that environment I didn’t receive anything but love. Yes, there were some trials and tribulations, but we operated as a family.

When I was a senior, my girlfriend and I had a baby at 17. Being a father at a young age, I was not able to handle it, to be honest, and there was a split-up. Not really being in my oldest son’s life like I wanted to led to a career in the military: eight years active and 14 reserves.  I had no guidance, I had no leadership. But when I joined the military, I got the discipline and the leadership. 

I’ve been married a couple times. Now, I’m really starting to understand myself as an individual. I’m 59 years old. I’ll be 60 this year. The wisdom is really starting to settle in because I’ve been through so much. Now, I’m here to tell my story.

At Black Men Heal, we have a slogan: “Healed men, heal men.” It means that if you heal the man within himself, he heals his family.

As a Black American, what was that experience in the military like?

That was very challenging because we recognize the disparity. We recognize racism within and around the world. And it happens in the military. There were lots of things that I had to push through, but it did give me a level of understanding of who I am and being a leader. But there was also a good deal of trauma. 

My first duty station was in Frankfurt, Germany. Not only did they not like Americans, they also didn’t like Black Americans in some areas. I was in the military in Frankfurt at a pivotal point. When I was there, a bomb went off at the Frankfurt PX. I was headed to the car wash when it happened. Me and my ex-wife had an argument because she wanted to go to the store. We go into the store and I hear a loud boom. It sounded like a tank. The lights in the store and the building shook. Lights were coming out of the ceiling. We ran to the door, looked to the right and the bomb had gone off in the car wash. 

We just got out of there. The Army never recognized it, never asked who was affected or offered any help, and it bothered me for a lot of years. That was in 84, I just got compensated for that in 2022.  

A recent study compared the likelihood of young men facing gun-related death or injury in major cities across the US to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s your opinion on this issue as a Black Army veteran?

When you look at a warzone, you think about being uncomfortable. You think about the fear. What we have done in some of our communities is become desensitized because violence is such a regular occurrence. Being in a war zone is different. It was fear. I was never comfortable. I was always on alert. But in our communities, even though there’s a fear, I think there’s a level of comfortability. 

After your time in the military, you went into law enforcement. Can you tell me how that transition occurred?

I had to make a decision on what my career path was going to be. They were trying to send me back to Germany and I was like ‘I’m not going back” because of the trauma. This was before and Indeed so you had to start doing your own research to find a job. This was 1990. If you think about what was going on in the 90s, you think about crack hitting our communities, the profits out of mass incarceration, and the prisons being built.

What better employee than somebody coming out of the military. Someone who has the leadership, who has the discipline, the uniform and who even has the way they conduct themselves? 

But, if you go back and look at history, you start talking about the Reconstruction years, Black Codes, Jim Crow, there was a setup where Black people would get fines, and couldn’t pay those fines. What corporate America did was say: “Lend them to us. We’ll pay their fines, but we’re only going to pay them pennies on the dollar.” When we talk about slavery – that same concept is still going on today, yet we’re more knowledgeable now.

Originally, I didn’t see the whole picture. I had an inmate tell me: “You’re a part of the system of mass incarceration” and we got real in-depth.

That’s why I love Gen Z. I love this particular generation because of the resources that are available at your fingertips. You can actually see real-life stuff based on whatever your goals are. I appreciate the bravery. I appreciate the outspokenness. I appreciate the frankness. My generation, we didn’t have that. We had a job to do – and that meant we had to sacrifice some of ourselves. That too affects our mental health. We accepted it because we were trying to take care of our families.  

What I’m hearing is you were experiencing this clash within yourself. On the one hand, the military helped instill discipline in you that helped you see yourself as a man. On the other hand, you’re policing Black men inside a prison at a time of mass incarceration and a war on drugs, essentially enforcing a system that denies Black humanity. And these men are dealing with issues like substance abuse and PTSD. Can you dig deeper into that?

That’s why I value my lived experience. Originally, I didn’t see the whole picture. I had an inmate tell me: “You’re a part of the system of mass incarceration” and we got real in-depth. He said: “I’m faced with the same thing you’re faced with. Within the prison system, you got racism, you got all kinds of things, but I’m behind the fence so to speak. Could you imagine how I would be treated if you wasn’t here?”

When I worked as a correctional officer one of my jobs was processing inmates in and out. I had to do strip-searches – that means I reduced you to your lowest point as a man. But I also had the opportunity to release guys. Some guys I released had a good story. His family stuck  with him, kept money in his account. They sent him letters and he’s getting visits. They may even have a limo waiting on him to pick him up, or take him to a halfway house.

But then there was the guy that lost his family and didn’t have release clothes. I gave him underwear. I gave him shoes. I gave him pants. I gave him a coat. And I asked: ‘What are you going to do when you get out?’ And he says, ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I just pray to God that I’m not in an environment where I make a mistake and I return here.”

And how did that get you where you are now?

When I retired out of the system, I knew I wanted to give back. I went to an event in New York that Van Jones was doing –  the Redemption Project. He told a 70-year-old lady – white, red hair – to introduce herself. She said: “My name is Sue Ellen Allan and I’m a cereal killer.” And everybody’s like “Yo, this lady is a serial killer” and she’s like “I’m a serial killer of Frosted Flakes, Cheerios…” After the event, everybody ran up to meet Van Jones, but I ran up to meet her. She was the founder of an organization called Reinventing Reentry, which was going around to colleges, universities, and communities doing prison simulations. I did that with her for a couple years. Unfortunately, Sue Ellen Allen has passed away, but her legacy lives on. But those are the experiences I have had, which positions me now to share my story in a much broader conversation.

My last question: What are your mental health objectives for the near future?

At Black Men Heal, we have a slogan: “Healed men, heal men.” It means that if you heal the man within himself, he heals his family. They heal the community. We heal the world, one king at a time. My objective is to really be vulnerable and to share my stories to encourage you or anybody that’s listening. I’m going to concentrate on peeling those layers off – and help men to become themselves.

Type of work:

Josh McGhee is an investigative reporter covering the intersection of criminal justice and mental health with an emphasis on public records and data reporting. He has covered Chicago on various beats for...