We had the good fortune of connecting with John Williford and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi John, how do you think about risk?
As a Director of a mental health organization, the way we think about risk is vitally important for the people we serve. Risk, vulnerability, and courage are all tightly woven into the mental health conversation. When I think of risk, opportunity comes to mind. I enjoy the challenge of risk, as it indicates something that doesn’t have an easy, self-imposed outcome. If something I’m about to do is risky, it means that it takes courage; if it goes well we’ll receive a greater reward. Often just the action of taking a risk allows an opportunity for me to grow, even if I don’t receive the outcome I wanted.
When I think of risk I dwell on the people we’re here to serve. The risks I take include things like asking businesses to partner with us, asking people to donate money, or inviting volunteers to join in our mission. The biggest risk for me is being professionally rejected.
This simply does not compare with someone who feels that they risk their entire beings just by waking up in the morning. Many of the people we serve are afraid to continue living because of the hurt and pain that might happen to them. For them, it seems more comfortable to stay locked away, guarded, and defensive. For them, talking to other people, going outside, or being healthy is risky because it’s a departure for what feels safe to them.
If they can get out of bed in the morning and face the world, then I can risk my time and best efforts fighting for them.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I enjoy working at HeartSupport because I love a good fight. From where I’m sitting, the mental illness and suicide pandemic is the fight of the millennial generation. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for all people 10-34, and 90% of those people had severe depression, anxiety, or some other mental illness when they died. The worst part, and the part HeartSupport is here to address, is that 2/3 of all people never seek help and support on their own.
Most of our big institutions in society have lost touch with the people they serve. Many are insulated into long-held practices and belief that stagnate into irrelevant and ineffective systems of support. Now, most mental health programs that are available to people are great – many of them are provided free of charge. But that doesn’t matter if no one’s using them. We have to leave our safe, air-conditioned buildings and go out into the community and start conversations about mental health in a grassroots way. That’s what outreach is, and HeartSupport is the best at it.
Leading the Houston chapter of HeartSupport has been the most challenging endeavor of my professional career. The ambiguity, scale-issues, and entrenched systems have been extremely difficult to navigate. But I know that if culture is resistant to an idea because the idea is risky (i.e. – mental health outreach that matters) then I’m probably on the right track. Plus – like I said above – I love a good fight. I don’t want to sit in an office!
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I live in Spring Branch, so we’d have to start hyper-local. – Coffee at Cambrian Coffee – it’s a newer coffee shop over here that I love to work at (I work remotely), and the owners and staff are amazing salt of the earth people.
– Feges BBQ. I haven’t actually been yet, but I’m a big BBQ guy and I can tell it’s a real one – I’d take my best friend there to get a taste of Texas BBQ.
– Cobble and Spoke, or Lazy Oaks Beer Garden for beers in Spring Branch
– Later in the week we’d hit up Tejas BBQ in Tomball. In my opinion; the best BBQ in Greater Houston. Plus they have a chocolate shop; can’t lose.
– Downtown we’d have to hit up El Big Bad for the custom margaritas, or depending on how much money we have to spend – Hugo’s for the best Mexican I’ve had in Houston.-
– I’d show them the weird underground tunnels downtown, the Japanese garden, things like that in the area.
– For beer later on we’d hit up either St. Arnold’s of Buffalo Bayou’s new buildings – both amazing, with breathtaking views of the city.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
The HeartSupport Houston Core Team deserves so much of the credit for the work we’ve been able to do here. On my own, I’m not able to accomplish a quarter of what we’re able to do together. And it’s not just work volume either. I’m a 34 year old white man. I work very hard to make sure everyone I interact with is supported and loved. But there are so many people, especially here in the most diverse city in the country, that simply can’t related to my life story and culture. The Houston Core team is diverse on purpose, so that we’re able to speak to as many culture and backgrounds as we can, so that we can support as many people as we can, in the right way.
This team has weathered almost 2 years of COVID19 setbacks and tribulations, and are still asking me what they can do to help our mission. They’ve endured long nights of stuffing golf bags with gatorades, or talking for hours with young suicidal teenagers, or walking with me into random businesses to ask for support. They are the best this city has to offer and I’m honored to work with them.