Stand Up!: An Interview with Connie Alexander, President of Santa Barbara’s NAACP, Part II of II

Connie Alexander is the co-founder of Gateway Educational Services, advocating for Santa Barbara’s underserved students through education. She is also the current president of the Santa Barbara NAACP. On April 20th, the NAACP is holding the “Black Women’s Health Equity Conference”  in Santa Barbara, a free event for Black women from Santa Barbara, Ventura, Santa Maria & Lompoc. PGI President & CEO Dr. Leonie H. Mattison will be speaking at and participating in the conference. I’m delighted to hear more about Connie’s work in Part I of II of this interview, which is part of the Pacifica Soul Promise Series. 

Angela Borda: As the Co-founder of Gateway Educational Services, what was the impetus for forming an educational support service here?

Connie Alexander: We intervene to provide reading and math support. All our work is 1-to-1 with students and is assessment-based. We have a college readiness program for underserved students, STEAM Camp for Girls, and Photojournalism Camp. We also support parents in learning to advocate for their children. We started the Parents of Black Students Advocacy Council, which supports parents in learning what they can do for their children. I’m excited to see their growth as a group. It’s become a regular space for those parents to interact with one another and find community around how they are raising their children. Not everyone parenting a black child is themselves black, so we have a mix of parents. PBSAC helped launch our Black Youth Leadership Summit, and our 2nd Summit is scheduled for August 17 at SBCC.

Numbers don’t tell a complete story, but a population of students is struggling and has been for a long time. In this county, you may have only 35% of students reading at grade level. It’s that way for the whole state. Why? Good question. There are so many factors: access to instruction, funding, and systemic racism; and COVID has been devasting. What’s the answer? As far as we’re concerned, it’s direct intervention. When a student comes to Gateway, it’s at least a yearlong engagement where we help that student improve. Most people we sit down with are two grade levels behind and not reading at grade level. We see an average 18-25% gain for students we work with.

Angela: Becoming President of the Santa Barbara NAACP is a great honor and a lot of work. What has your time as president so far been like? What have you been focusing on in your work there?

Connie: It’s been a good experience. It’s a lot of work. The NAACP is a volunteer army, so the volunteer part is a lot. And the work right now is in areas like education and health. Next, we’re going to be doing some things about black-owned businesses. And between all that, we are called upon to help people with discrimination issues, particularly in employment. We’re not attorneys, but we can often help mediate situations and help employers do better for their employees. A lot of our time goes into that. I appreciate the opportunity to serve the community in this way.

Angela: On April 20th, the NAACP is holding the “Black Women’s Health Equity Conference” in Santa Barbara, a free event for Black women from Santa Barbara, Ventura, Santa Maria & Lompoc. Dr. Lee, PGI President and CEO will be joining you and lending her beautiful skills of guided visualization and community bonding. You’ve said it’s your aim to “shine a light on the health of Black women and challenge the systems that create disparities and lack of access to health care.” Tell me a little about this event and how it is part of that mission?

Connie: This event is three branches of the NAACP coming together: Santa Barbara, Santa Maria/Lompoc, and Ventura County. We’re uplifting and illuminating healthcare disparities that aren’t being addressed. We decided to focus on cancer, maternal health, and mental health. Black women die at the highest rate of breast cancer in this country, mainly from late diagnosis. We have the highest rate of many forms of cancer as a result. It directly parallels the healthcare system. Not everyone has healthcare. We’re going to talk about this and give out information.

My mother died at 45 from ovarian cancer. She went through the experience of doctors not paying attention to her symptoms. She was ignored by doctors who said she might be premenopausal. A doctor told her it might be stress that she should “go home and make some tea and relax.”  They didn’t find it until it was Stage 3. She had six months to live before we lost her at 45 years old. Doctors do not listen to Black women. I experienced this at a dentist’s office. I was trying to tell him I was in pain. I had to sit up and say, “Look, this is not working for me.” I almost walked out halfway through the procedure. If a patient tells you it hurts, then it hurts. Post-dental surgery, I asked for pain medication, and he wouldn’t give it to me. I inquired why. He said, “Sometimes in your community, there’s a high abuse of these medications.” I had to call my regular doctor to get pain relief. People do things out of bias, including doctors.

This is why we must discuss these topics, like maternal health. Black women in the United States have the highest rate of death in childbirth. When Serena Williams had her daughter, she almost died. And it was the lack of communication between her and her doctor. Prenatal care and its lack is a big issue.

This conference is about uplifting people and putting these issues on the map. I hope it can be a yearly thing. We want to work with organizations to create support groups for black women with cancer. Next year, I hope we can talk about Alzheimer’s and dementia, which black people also have the highest rate of per population.

Angela: One of the projects that Dr. Lee has underway is Pacifica Soul Promise, which aims to secure funding to allow people from underserved communities in California who want to pursue degrees or certificates at Pacifica in depth psychology, to do so. As someone intimately familiar with both these communities and the state of education and healthcare in our region, what would you say the importance of having more diversity in the workforce of mental healthcare is, what impact would that have on underserved communities?

Connie: This relates to kids in schools. Trauma happens to children. I think about Black students who’ve been called the n-word and even assaulted and how difficult it’s been for families to get support from someone who will understand and believe them. Usually, they have to defend their kids and the need for help. Parents with kids who are having anxiety or eating disorders will often ask us, “Do you know mental health professionals or color?” They don’t have a place to go where they feel comfortable. That’s hard for a lot of white people to understand because they get to sit down with white healthcare professionals who mirror their experiences as white people.

I’ve had friends walk out of white therapists’ offices because they’re not willing to argue with the therapist about whether or not racism exists or racist things happen. The therapists tend to think they’re exaggerating. So imagine a parent needing help, trying to figure out where to go and who to talk to. Changing the mental health workforce is critical for the next generation of people in this country. We want people to access mental health and get support. We need more professionals. Based on what I’ve seen the kids in this community go through. We had a young man who was severely assaulted, and it took five months for his mom to find a black therapist to help him. And that was in Santa Barbara. Imagine what he went through in those five months and what he’s still going through.

Letting our kids know this is a career path they can follow would be huge. And certificate programs are incredible entry points for people. One percent of U.S. mental health professionals are African Americans.

Angela: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about upcoming plans or events that you have?

Connie: If they want to support the Black/African American community, please support organizations like Gateway. If your values align with ending racism and discrimination, you should join the NAACP. It tells the world that your values align with ours. It’s about people coming together to lift their voices and say, “I support the Black Community and believe we should end anti-blackness and discrimination.”

Angela: Thank you so much for sharing your work with us, and I look forward to the conference.

If you missed Part I of the interview, you can read it here. 

For more information on the NAACP’s “Black Women’s Health Equity Conference,” visit their site.

And to learn more about Gateway Educational Services, please visit here.

Connie Alexander, Co-Founder, Gateway Educational Services, President, Santa Barbara NAACP

Connie Alexander is Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Gateway Educational Services. She has 30 years of experience in education, including teaching and student services. She holds degrees in Political Science and History. Her role with Gateway includes daily operations, curriculum development, training, the College Readiness Program, and Summer Camps.

Connie Alexander has been President of the Santa Barbara NAACP since 2022. She is also a facilitator, trainer, and motivational speaker.


Angela Borda is a writer for Pacifica Graduate Institute, as well as the editor of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Her work has been published in Food & Home, Peregrine, Hurricanes & Swan Songs, Delirium Corridor, Still Arts Quarterly, Danse Macabre, and is forthcoming in The Tertiary Lodger and Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Vol. 5.