Ammie Kae Brooks sits on a bed looking out a window. Brooks is wearing jeans and a black t-shirt that reads Black Therapists Matter
Ammie Kae Brooks: “I did the thing, and I worked tirelessly through the pandemic. But I think it's just uncommon, because there are so many barriers.” Credit: Lauren Lucile Creative

Being a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in Chicago means that you are allowed to open a private practice and bill insurance for your clients’ sessions. It also means that you have attained your master’s degree in social work, completed 3,000 hours of clinical work under a licensed supervisor (including unpaid but graded hours of administering therapy, teaching, training, researching, doing assessments and more), and also passed the Illinois state licensing exam. It’s a lot. 

The majority of LCSWs attain that status later in their professional careers because of the financial barriers posed by each necessary step. And there are accessibility issues for some as well, in that most standardized testing methods by nature fail to meet the needs of different types of learners. Some fail the exam dozens of times, and each time you fail, you have to pay at least $250 to retake it before waiting several months to reschedule.

“The [licensing] exam costs so much money. Doing your supervision costs so much money because you have to pay to get supervised,” says LCSW Ammie Kae Brooks. Supervision can cost anywhere from $200 to $600 per month, “but if you want a good supervisor, you’re gonna pay for them,” Brooks adds. “I did the thing, and I worked tirelessly through the pandemic. But I think it’s just uncommon, because there are so many barriers.”

Brooks, 28, has long, jet-black hair and dark, smooth skin to match. She resembles a live-action version of the character Isabella from the 2021 Disney animated film Encanto (which happens to be one of Brooks’s favorite films). In March, she founded granddaughters, a Chicago-based private practice which centers the healing of Black girls, women, their families, and their communities. Brooks, raised in Texas, was inspired by her own healing journey. Equipped with her love for children, her year-old license, and her expertise in building nonprofit programs, she intends on setting a fresh tone for what intergenerational therapeutic healing can look like for Black communities locally. 


A scroll through granddaughters’ Instagram reveals old and new pop culture imagery and TikTok videos of Black kids and their grandparents in intimate moments of joy or sadness. The posts shared by the granddaughters account are a synopsis of Brooks’s passion and approach to therapeutic healing. A photo of SZA and her grandmother that was posted in March is paired with a caption quoting the matriarch’s narration throughout the pop star’s debut album, singling out the words heard on the song “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” (“If you don’t like me, you don’t have to fool with me / but you don’t have to talk about me or treat me mean / I don’t have to treat you mean.”) A post from later in March shows the animated character Little Bill and his grandma embracing, paired with a caption about how, contrary to how Brooks hears people discussing healing and mental health as a new 21st-century concept, Brooks knows that her ancestors knew inescapable and unimaginable fear and sadness and pain, but still continued to heal themselves.

“For a long time, I had seen my history as a burden, as a weight that I had to carry. And so being able to see my ancestry as a strength and something that could heal the parts of me that were hurting was so valuable to me,” says Brooks, who is named after her paternal grandmother, Ammie, and her maternal grandmother, Kay. “I wanted that to be reflected in my private practice. And I want my practice to be centered around healing all of the Black woman’s descendants.”

At granddaughters, Brooks primarily works with Black children and families experiencing the impact of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which is often derived from trauma that exists in various generations within a family. In response to this, as a therapist, Brooks works to adapt play and movement, music, art, and technology to engage parent and child, and to help the entire family manage the challenges associated with a mental health diagnosis. 

“I’ll encourage my kids to maybe learn a TikTok dance with their parents,” she says. “Or I will encourage a lot of my parents to do things with their children, give them a manicure, because that really encourages a lot of touch, which is promoting a healthy attachment, or rebuilding a healthy attachment where there has been an insecure one in the past.”

In youth of color, particularly girls, complex trauma systems can show up as people-pleasing or perfectionism. “We would have these youth who are excelling in school and are flying under the radar, because they’re seen as really great kids to staff,” Brooks says, reflecting on her experiences working as a clinical therapist at other companies, nonprofits, and practices. “And as they get older, they aren’t able to manage the symptoms of their mental health, because they haven’t been acknowledged by practitioners.” She also noticed, in her experience working other places, that there can be financial incentives to diagnosing quickly, but it’s often more productive for treatment if she slows down and takes her time. 

Brooks has a specialization in sexualized behaviors. This informs her work with survivors of gender-based violence, which includes people with a history of sexual abuse, sexual assault, or long-term sexual abuse in childhood. The specialization also enables her to help both children and parents with communication in cases where a youth has recently identified as a specific sexuality or gender. In Brooks’s practice, she routinely works with people experiencing complex traumas, with people who may demonstrate sexualized behaviors, and with many people who are BIPOC and/or queer. 

“I think that there is a lot more possibility here for me to be creative. And for me to support youth who are queer and who are struggling. In Texas, it’s really, really hard to do those things. I think that the conservatism in Texas has really hurt me personally. I’ve had experiences interpersonally with racism and misogyny. Here I’m able to see the fruit of it in a much better, clearer way than in Texas where I think that for clinicians, it’s a much slower process.”

Brooks started undergrad in Texas in 2013 expecting to pursue education, but by her sophomore spring, an introduction to social work class left her enamored with the idea of “meeting people where they’re at in any situation and attacking systems that oppress and harm them,” she says, and she desired to be part of that work.

Taylor Crumpton is a widely-published freelance journalist and a friend of Brooks who met her on student orientation day the summer going into their freshman year at Abilene Christian University. Eventually they would also find camaraderie in each other as Black women at Abilene’s School of Social Work. “[Ammie] was beloved by all on campus, because she always had a welcome, open, honest approach, and aura to her,” Crumpton says. She describes Brooks as someone with a natural maternal instinct who was approachable and, therefore, often approached. 

“It can be as simple as—you’re having a rough day, you’re needing a hug,” Crumpton continues. “She just had this way about her and still to this day, of just, ‘Whatever I can do for you in that moment, I’m going to show up for you and be that for you.’”

In addition to providing individual, partner, and family therapy, Brooks’s practice also offers nonprofit consulting and promotes community engagement through mental health workshops, awareness campaigns, and educational programs that get “people of all different generations healing together.” This summer she’s organizing programming for parents and children to protect youth’s mental health on social media. But the capacity she has to create through this leg of her practice is best understood when you know Brooks’s professional background working in the nonprofit world and with kids. 

The industrious therapist got her master’s in social work in 2018 with an additional certificate in nonprofit administration. She’s held positions as a therapist, supervisor, and eventually clinical director in child welfare and violence prevention organizations. Shortly after college, her first job was working with women on the perinatal spectrum who were considering what they were going to do with their pregnancies, and providing postabortive counseling for people who sought therapy after an abortion.

Brooks was hired at that position in part because of her experiences in grad school building programs for nonprofit organizations. That job eventually tasked Brooks with developing the clinical part of their organization. Later in Chicago, as a clinical director at Kids Above All, she supervised clinicians twice her age as well as graduate interns, saw her own clients, and advocated for clients in interprofessional spaces and courtrooms. All the while, she managed grants and their budgets, and kept files in compliance with business standards for Kids Above All. Brooks also received a $3 million dollar federal grant to expand clinical services at the organization, with her at the helm of decision-making regarding how best to use the funds and provide programming. 

Ammie Kae Brooks is seated on a stool and looking at the camera wearing a white button down shirt and blue jeans
“I think that there is a lot more possibility here for me to be creative. And for me to support youth who are queer and who are struggling. In Texas, it’s really, really hard to do those things. I think that the conservatism in Texas has really hurt me personally. I’ve had experiences interpersonally with racism and misogyny” Credit: Bekah Wriedt

Brooks tells the Reader that she believes her age and culturally adaptive approaches to therapy brought nuance to the team. A training she developed, called “Technological Integrations for Clinical Therapy,” helps clinicians engage in virtual therapy more effectively. Dr. Heather Ferguson-Tillman, a social worker of 35 years, agrees. Ferguson-Tillman, who was supervised by Brooks at Kids Above All, says that when Brooks became clinical director at their agency, the young clinician introduced a new approach to family outreach that looked more organic, less coercive, and empowered clients to feel they were partners with clinicians in their recovery. 

Brooks encouraged Ferguson-Tillman and others to try to get clients laughing, or to use art supplies and movement when practitioners felt burnt out and at the end of their rope with solutions. In one particularly difficult case, Brooks encouraged Ferguson-Tillman to take her client to a Golden Corral restaurant for an experiential therapy program Kids Above All was trying out. 

Ferguson-Tillman was unfamiliar with the approach and cautious to attempt it. She was worried about client confidentiality and more, but she returned singing Brooks’s praises. Ferguson-Tillman says that having a session occur in a nontraditional setting like dinner out or at Sunday brunch after church can be a good way to have a family session because it’s therapeutic but doesn’t look intrusive. “[Families] are able to get a lot of things out that they probably wouldn’t in a restrictive setting,” Ferguson-Tillman says. 

“And I had just had so many interactions like that, where it was like, ‘This is a case where this client is in critical need,’” Brooks says about that experience. “The ‘We’re going to have to place them in a treatment facility or hospital’ [cases], and I would do anything I could [to avoid that]. I know that research says that children and people in general do not heal in institutions. We heal best in our communities and our homes. And so if we can do anything to take kids out of a hospital or institution, I will . . . it just takes a little creativity.”

Brooks has loved kids for her entire life. She grew up working at a summer camp with kids, as well as at Vacation Bible School at her church on top of babysitting for pay in her free time. In her college town, she pioneered a new Boys & Girls Club chapter, and she ran the after-school program as associate director of that location. When Brooks first moved to Chicago, she started a free meal program in Harvey, located at Harvey Church of Christ. Regardless of where she’s worked, she made sure statements disclosed about abuse or suicidal ideation were taken seriously. 

At every job Brooks has worked, there were certain procedures or processes that she told herself she would not replicate should she build her own practice. This includes turning away people because of their lack of ability to pay who are clearly in desperate need of services, and policing Blackness or motherhood within therapy sessions. “But then there were also things that took place that made me feel like ‘your practice or mine?’” she tells the Reader, “I cannot do that.” In her practice, she centers Black girls, women, their families, and communities at the most basic level. 

“I don’t judge my clients when they show up in session in their bonnet, or sitting in their bed, or in their pajamas, or with their hair not done. If they’re taking down their braids, we do therapy, [even] if they have half of their hair done and the other half not done yet,” Brooks says. “I genuinely don’t punish or persecute my clients for being late. I don’t charge late fees.”

She has Black women—their stories and narratives—represented as often as possible in her practice, and uses treatment centered around them. She spends a lot of time studying African methodology and spirituality, inquiring how our ancestors healed themselves during slavery, post slavery, and throughout the African diaspora. 

Brooks develops her own parables to help therapists and clients understand various therapeutic concepts. When she’s training other therapists, one model she uses involves seeing one’s role as therapist on a spectrum between “police officer” and “pastor.”

“There is a lot of encouragement and empowerment that needs to happen. And there is a degree of information gathering that needs to happen. But I think that sometimes as therapists we kind of shift out of what’s therapeutic,” Brooks says. “To help describe this to the therapists that I train, I will draw a line and put therapists in the middle. And I will let them know that this is a spectrum. And on one end of the spectrum, I’ll write ‘detective’ or ‘police officer.’ And on the other end of the spectrum, I’ll write, like, ‘preacher’ or ‘pastor.’ And I will let them know that as therapists, we want to fall in the middle.”

On one hand, therapists aren’t supposed to convert clients into what the therapist thinks the client needs to be—they need to meet them where they are. A therapist also needs to gather facts to better understand the client, but they shouldn’t come off so investigative that it feels like an interrogation.

Brooks uses another metaphor. She compares our traumatic experiences to a fire, and says our trauma responses show up for us like firefighters. 

“But I also have a parable about learning to ride a bike, and how therapy is like learning to ride a bike because the client gets to steer the bike and determine where we go. And the client gets to pedal the bike and determine how fast or slow we go. And as the therapist, I will just be there to hold you up. And it’s this really beautiful metaphor about how like one day they will let go. And they won’t know that they’re riding the bike all by themselves. And we won’t leave, we’re still here, we’re still watching. But instead of holding you up, it’s now us in the background being like, ‘yay.’”

In her personal sessions, she always has her clients complete a 90-day art project that could range from a diorama of what safety looks like for a client (one person made a terrarium because they feel at home in nature), to a photography project of what their sadness looks like, or a painted picture where a client slowly depicts their own anxiety or sadness. The inspiration for this, for Brooks, came from the fact that a lot of her own personal healing would take place between sessions with her therapist, and she wanted a physical representation to connect that reality to her client, in a way they’re comfortable and familiar with. 

In September 2020, Brooks spoke with the group To Write Love on Her Arms for their National Suicide Prevention Day programming about how she works as a Black clinician to prevent suicide, and how others can do so too. On April 25 this year, Brooks sat on a panel for the Beauty Turner Academy of Oral History at the National Public Housing Museum, hosted by the renowned Dr. Eve Ewing, about how oral history and telling stories can be a vehicle for healing.

What does the young professional have in store for her future? Her goal is to raise money by connecting with grants and private donors so that she can make therapy absolutely free for children in Chicago. She’s worked at various nonprofits and programs that allow kids to access therapeutic services if their parents’ income falls below a certain threshold, if they live in a certain neighborhood, or they’re dealing with a specific issue, but those prerequisites are barriers for children to receive treatment. She believes no child should be denied therapy simply because it isn’t financially viable for the family.

“But I don’t expect them to see the value in something that they haven’t been able to experience yet, or oftentimes not in a dignified way. I want to put the treatment in their communities and their neighborhoods, knock out all barriers to it completely. And say, ‘Hey, just show up. There’s no limit to how many sessions you can receive. It doesn’t matter how much money you make.’ That’s my goal . . . getting people of all different generations healing together.”

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