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What to Expect in This Episode

Episode 98 of Utah in the Weeds is the first in a two-part discussion with canna-therapist Clifton Uckerman. Clif has quite an interesting life story, and his background has helped to enrich his occupation as a cannabis-affirming therapist.

Tim and Clif started with a discussion of the challenges of being both a cannabis user and a parent. [03:40]

Then they talked about some of Clif’s recent career developments before going back to the beginning of Clif’s history with cannabis. Clif says he’s been around cannabis for his entire life because his father was a “well-known” cannabis dealer in western Salt Lake County. Clif says his dad began to deal cocaine as that drug became popular. in the 70s and 80s. Clif’s father was shot to death in 1997. [07:30]

Clif told us about an experience in junior high in which he was caught with cannabis and his father’s handgun at Westlake Jr. High. He says he spent most of his teenage years “in the system” as a juvenile delinquent and eventually wound up as part of a gang. He says, at the time, he didn’t imagine his life would last beyond the age of 18. [18:30]

Around the time he turned 18, Clif became involved in a community program, “YouthWorks,” which helped him find mentors and turn his life around. He says he returned to the program in a paid position as a peer leader, and eventually became the program’s director. Meanwhile, he got his bachelor’s degree and received heavy encouragement to get a master’s degree. [29:00]

Clif briefly considered a career in law enforcement but decided to pursue social work as a way of giving back to his community. [36:26]

Podcast Transcript

Tim Pickett:
Welcome everybody to episode 98, bearing down on 100 here, 98 of Utah in the Weeds. My name is Tim Pickett. I am the host. And today’s episode is a two part, the start of a two part discussion with Clifton Uckerman. Clif is an LCSW and now the first Latinx professor at the University of Utah. He recently accepted a position there. He is part of Utah Therapeutic Health Center and has brought his entire practice and his expertise in history into canna therapy and discussing some of this shame molecule.

Tim Pickett:
Today’s episode is the beginning, like I say, of a two part discussion. We go through some of Clif’s history. Clif is a local Utahn and you’re going to want to hear about Clif’s history, his upbringing, his experience with the cannabis plant, and his family. You’ll understand a little bit about his drive to make this something, to make this program something that works to make people … to help people be okay and really help them through their trauma. And if that includes canna therapy and cannabis based therapy or help with the cannabis plant and de-stigmatizing that, you’ll enjoy some of this conversation. Clif’s become a good friend of mine and somebody that I trust to take care of people. I think Utah is just lucky to have somebody like him around.

Tim Pickett:
From a housekeeping perspective, it’s May. And like I said, we’re bearing down on episode 100. We’ve got some special things planned for May. Stay subscribed to Utah in the Weeds. If you need updates for medical cannabis, go to utahmarijuana.org. We’ve got updates. We’ve got education at Discover Marijuana on YouTube. And we continue to drive people through the uplift program, our subsidy program. If you know somebody with Medicaid or terminally ill, encourage them to apply. We have ways for them to get their evaluation and discounts at the pharmacy through that subsidy program. Lots of partners, Beehive Pharmacy, Deseret Wellness, Zion Medicinal, Wholesome, Perfect Earth, and True North joined. We hope to be adding more partners through that program this month as well. Curaleaf is now going to be on board and Bloc Pharmacy with Justice Cannabis is on board as well.

Tim Pickett:
We’re helping people get through, and if you can’t get through immediately and you need behavioral health therapy, we talk a little bit about that in this episode, but utahmarijuana.org/uplift is the place to go to find out more about that great program. It’s something that Clif and I are working on together. We’re just trying to give back to the community there and help the people of Utah find access to cannabis when they need it.

Tim Pickett:
Enjoy this episode, everybody. I’m looking outside. It’s a beautiful day. Go outside, walk your dog, get out and enjoy this beautiful weather.

Tim Pickett:
Do you drink alcohol?

Clifton Uckerman:
Sometimes.

Tim Pickett:
I’ve been drinking a little more since COVID, but I’ve been having this kind of issue with my thought process around alcohol versus cannabis, and my kids. Remember when we were in the panel and Desiree got asked a question, and then she said, “I smoked weed.” And then, “Oh, my kid’s in the room.”

Clifton Uckerman:
Yeah.

Tim Pickett:
I wanted so bad to stop everybody and say, “Okay, listen.” That goes to show you that even us in this room, the literal people who are trying to de-stigmatize cannabis, can’t even sit up here on a panel and not worry about our own kids seeing us or knowing that we’re smoking weed.

Clifton Uckerman:
That shame molecule. We still carry shame and it’s embedded.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah. How the fuck are we going to get rid of that? My father-in-law goes to my sister-in-law’s house and is yelling downstairs and the junior high kid’s in the kitchen and he’s yelling downstairs, “Hey, Brandon. How much of this gummy should I be taking?” And his daughter just ripped him a new asshole. She was so pissed off because he’s talking about something that … And I talked to my wife about this this morning and I said, but she said, “That’s none of anybody’s business.” And I said… I’d go in and I’d say ibuprofen. And I would say, “Well, honey, how much of this ibuprofen should I take?”

Clifton Uckerman:
Right.

Tim Pickett:
And that’s okay.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right.

Tim Pickett:
But cannabis isn’t like that.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right.

Tim Pickett:
Why is that? Really, it’s the shame molecule that’s embedded when we’re young.

Clifton Uckerman:
Yeah. I mean, think about it. I mean, the war on drugs started in the ’70s, maybe the ’60s. So we’re talking, I mean, it’s 2022. So we’re thinking 40 plus 20, that’s 60 years in the making of it being criminalized, penalized, punished, shamed, so generations.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah.

Clifton Uckerman:
That is bad. And if you are associated with it, you are a bad person. Don’t talk about it.

Tim Pickett:
Don’t talk about it. Don’t do anything. Even when we’ve come so far that I literally do this for a living. And we still have this in the back. I mean, I’ll pour a drink. I’ve said it on the podcast. I’ll pour a drink in front of my kids, no problem. But won’t consume cannabis in front of my kids.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right.

Tim Pickett:
I know it will change over time.

Clifton Uckerman:
Yeah.

Tim Pickett:
And I guess the answer is time is the only… Time, and then repeating. I mean, what do we do?

Clifton Uckerman:
Time and people that can make the change. I mean, time goes on, but it’s the people in that time or within that time, like you or me that can… Or anybody else that’s willing to take that risk, have that courage and be open and honest and transparent and forthcoming about it. If I have asthma and I have my children or my child in front of me in the same room and I’m having asthma attack, I’m going to take my inhaler and use my inhaler in front of them. I’m not going to keep it secret and go into the bathroom to use my inhaler.

Tim Pickett:
No, of course not. But we do still associate with cannabis with both the recreational side, the medicinal side. We’re using it for both, now. Hmm. Anyway. Okay. Well back to basics.

Clifton Uckerman:
Yeah.

Tim Pickett:
I kind of imagine this as… I mean, let me introduce Clifton Uckerman. You’ve never been on the podcast before.

Clifton Uckerman:
Never.

Tim Pickett:
That’s a tragedy in itself. And Clifton Uckerman is LCSW, licensed clinical social worker, and, congratulations, the newest professor at the University of Utah in the Latinx-

Clifton Uckerman:
Position.

Tim Pickett:
Position.

Clifton Uckerman:
First of its kind.

Tim Pickett:
I’m so excited. For listeners out there, I mean, this is the episode. If you are not subscribed, you should subscribe now and get the downloads every week, because Clif and I are going to have multiple conversations throughout the year. We’ll publish. We will definitely not get through all of this today.

Clifton Uckerman:
Hmm.

Tim Pickett:
Right?

Clifton Uckerman:
Right.

Tim Pickett:
I mean, you have a really fascinating story. We’ll just see where this takes us.

Clifton Uckerman:
Yeah. Cool.

Tim Pickett:
When was the first time you were exposed to cannabis?

Clifton Uckerman:
Cannabis?

Tim Pickett:
Can you remember?

Clifton Uckerman:
Yeah. Since I was born. My dad was a pretty well known marijuana dealer back in the ’60s and ’70s. I mean, he had pretty rich connections. I remember, as early as I can remember, I mean, there would be pounds and pounds in the closet. I mean, I think I asked him one time when I got older how much weed did you have in the… That must have been at least a couple hundred pounds sitting in the closet.

Tim Pickett:
Holy cow. Wow. And you’re just a little kid.

Clifton Uckerman:
I’m just a baby. Yeah.

Tim Pickett:
Was this here in Utah?

Clifton Uckerman:
Here in Utah, on the west side of Salt Lake. My dad built and owned a house on property in a neighborhood called Chesterfield. Are you familiar with that neighborhood?

Tim Pickett:
Not really. I think I’ve heard of it.

Clifton Uckerman:
It’s the last to be incorporated. Even with curb and gutter, it was still dirt road, in West Valley City. The last neighborhood to be incorporated, Chesterfield.

Tim Pickett:
Oh, wow.

Clifton Uckerman:
They called it Teepee Town because everybody, 20 years before my dad built his home, a lot of people lived in Teepees. My play shed growing up was actually my grandparents’ old chicken coop. And before it was the chicken coop it was an actual little piece of housing for somebody to live in.

Tim Pickett:
Wow. !hat was it like growing up there? I mean, we can talk as much about this as you want, really. Look, you’re a therapist. You got into therapy. I know that this is a lot of, I don’t know. Tell us the story. Yeah.

Clifton Uckerman:
Well, have you seen the movie Blow with Johnny Depp?

Tim Pickett:
Yep.

Clifton Uckerman:
That’s kind of my dad’s story. And I grew up in that story. I mean, there’s this kind of cliche ’60s and ’70s of the big time drug dealer, marijuana, turning into cocaine, and then cocaine dismantling it all and ending in nothing good. My dad had pretty rich connections in the ’70s, sold a lot of marijuana, all of his brothers and all of his children. I was the youngest, so had I been 10 years older, I would’ve been selling for him. When I did become a teenager, I was selling at 12 or 13 years old. But all my older brothers in that time in the ’70s and all his brothers, they all had a pretty profitable distribution. And they were selling a lot up here-

Tim Pickett:
Here in the west.

Clifton Uckerman:
Here in Utah, yeah. I was born in ’81 and by the time I was born that’s when-

Tim Pickett:
Oh, you were moving into Coke.

Clifton Uckerman:
Yeah, he was into cocaine. And the problem there is he got pretty addicted to it. And everybody that was selling his weed also started selling his cocaine, and then everybody that started selling his cocaine, and him included, got hooked on it.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah. You went from a drug that was dangerous because it was illegal, to a drug that was just plain dangerous.

Clifton Uckerman:
Yes.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah. That’s too bad. But you can see the progression, I guess, of the thought process in society, how everybody thinks, oh, weed’s a gateway drug. Look at this story.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right.

Tim Pickett:
But really that kind of had nothing to do with it. It was just that it was illegal and profitable.

Clifton Uckerman:
Plus it was part of the trend. It was a societal trend. That’s what was just kind of coming in and moving and moving through people’s lives. I think it’s another form of medicine. Probably much more addictive than marijuana.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah. It’s a lot more addictive from a medical standpoint. No question.

Clifton Uckerman:
And probably brings with it just a major onslaught of additional consequences. The criminalization and the incarceration and the legal involvement that can come with purchasing, selling, distributing, using is probably the most major consequence of them all.

Tim Pickett:
I believe you. I’m sure there’d be people out there who don’t think that. But I think that the criminalization of it just made everything… It just destroyed the whole thing.

Clifton Uckerman:
Yeah.

Tim Pickett:
And then you had addicts who couldn’t get any help.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right.

Tim Pickett:
Period.

Clifton Uckerman:
Period.

Tim Pickett:
We just put them in prison. And then we blame them and shame them.

Clifton Uckerman:
We shame them and punished them. And with addiction, I mean, the way that I look at it, in the marijuana days, I mean, of course I wasn’t really alive in the ’70s, but when I look back at photos and heard stories of my family and all the outings and the crowds and community that they were involved in, I mean, that seemed it was a really fun time. Right?

Tim Pickett:
I mean, it had to be. Because nobody died.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right. And it was just kind of use your medicine, come together, have fun, live life. And then the ’80s came and I think because of the societal trend, my dad, those rich connections that he had… my mom showed me pictures of all his connections and we’re talking big lawyers in Utah, big doctors in Utah, big real estate agents in Utah that are my dad’s connections. And my dad is really half Filipino, half German mixed race, biracial, general contractor that just lives on the west side.

Tim Pickett:
Right.

Clifton Uckerman:
So here comes the cocaine and he’s just kind of following suit. And these connections are just giving him more feed on what the supply and demand is and he’s distributing whatever the trend is at that point in time.

Tim Pickett:
Of course.

Clifton Uckerman:
But he did get busted in a really big way. I’m four years old, I was having a sleepover. And then all of a sudden, I see, just from the movies, all these agents, all in gear, black sunglasses, guns out and they come and bust in the house. And they seize everything. They go into his bedroom, they’re pulling out kilos of cocaine that he had duct taped under every drawer in his bedroom.

Tim Pickett:
Oh my gosh.

Clifton Uckerman:
And they take him to jail and they have all of his cash, wads of cash. And then my friends are like, “What the hell? Let’s go.” Their parents had to come pick them up.

Tim Pickett:
Oh yeah.

Clifton Uckerman:
And then my sister came and got me from the house. But at that point in time, I think that’s when things really started to go downhill because he didn’t get adequate treatment, and he was already in an addictive process. So the most counterintuitive thing that you can do, having worked in addiction myself as a clinician and as a provider, the most counterintuitive thing that you can do to somebody that’s in or coming out of or wants to come out of an addictive process is shame them. Because, really the triangle of addiction, the recipe of disaster for the addictive process is unmourned loss and grief, unprocessed or hidden trauma. Hidden because it gets buried and nobody talks about it and it remains a secret. And then the internalized shame that’s packed into or embedded into that trauma memory. So if you’re shaming somebody that’s in an addictive process or coming out of an addictive process, so counterintuitive and counterproductive, it’s like throwing gas onto a fire.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah. Now you grow up and when did you start using cannabis?

Clifton Uckerman:
Let me do a little bridge-

Tim Pickett:
Okay. Fill the gap.

Clifton Uckerman:
a bridge to that. He went down, didn’t get adequate treatment, was shamed and criminalized and penalized. And I think a lot of people, if they have the support and the resources and tools, most people don’t know what they don’t know until they’re getting busted, they go to jail, some bad consequence occurs and then they realize, and then they wake up and they’re like, “Oh my gosh. I didn’t realize. Now I feel guilty and ashamed.” And then they just need help.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah.

Clifton Uckerman:
So for my dad, because I don’t think he got adequate help, he just became more ashamed. Couldn’t share more of his traumas, wasn’t mourning any of the loss and grief that was coming from this major life consequence. And so just continued to spiral down. I think if I look back at it, reflecting and looking at how I witnessed everything, I mean, I think he got… I could see him… At the time I didn’t realize this, but looking back at it now I do, getting more and more depressed, feeling more and more ashamed. Having lost a lot-

Tim Pickett:
Yeah.

Clifton Uckerman:
because of the criminalization and really couldn’t recover. And so ended up back in an addictive process until I was about 14 or 15. Because he got so heavily addicted to cocaine and crack cocaine, injected for several years, but in his last days as a crack addict, he was inevitably, eventually shot and killed in a crack house. One of the most reputable ones in Salt Lake City in 1997.

Tim Pickett:
Wow.

Clifton Uckerman:
Probably a few years before that, I had found some weed, in his truck. I think he was still trying to do a little bit of side hustling, but he didn’t have the major connections that he had had before.

Tim Pickett:
No.

Clifton Uckerman:
But my brother did and my other brother did. And so both my brothers, while my dad was kind of going downhill and getting more entrenched in his addictive process, but my brothers were still selling a lot of weed and I had found some in my dad’s truck. And I also found a little .22 millimeter handgun as well. So I’m 12 years old, lacking parental guidance and supervision. Family is broken up and falling apart.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah.

Clifton Uckerman:
So I go to school and I pack my locker with a couple ounces of weed and I’m carrying around a little .22 at 12, 13 years old in seventh grade.

Tim Pickett:
Oh, I didn’t know about the .22.

Clifton Uckerman:
Yeah.

Tim Pickett:
God.

Clifton Uckerman:
Scary stuff.

Tim Pickett:
That’s scary stuff. I mean, the weed alone at that time…. Okay. You’re going to school in West Valley?

Clifton Uckerman:
West Lake Junior High.

Tim Pickett:
West Lake Junior High. It is 1992, ’94.

Clifton Uckerman:
About ’94, ’95.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah. ’94, ’95. So we are in the midst of… I mean, we’re changing laws to make it harder on people so we can prosecute kids as adults. We’re building three strike rules. And you’re not white.

Clifton Uckerman:
Yes.

Tim Pickett:
Let me, I mean, add that to the mix.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right.

Tim Pickett:
And whoever says that’s not an issue doesn’t know anything from anything else.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right.

Tim Pickett:
So what is this like for you in junior high? You making money?

Clifton Uckerman:
Yeah. Well-

Tim Pickett:
You’re kind of making your own money.

Clifton Uckerman:
I’m kind of making my own life based on what I saw all my elders and my dad do.

Tim Pickett:
Sure.

Clifton Uckerman:
So I’m just kind of following suit and I don’t know what I don’t know. What does a 12 year old know? I mean, I was so young and stupid.

Clifton Uckerman:
I’m just driven by anxiety, fearful of what the future holds because I have to survive and I don’t know any other way but to just do what everybody else does. So yeah, I’m making money, but I’m also a delinquent juvenile because I have no parental supervision and support. My family is broken. It’s just me and the world. And I’m finding family through other kids and peers my age that are coming from similar backgrounds and home lives, because that’s what I can relate to and identify. I don’t feel like I belong with the normal kid. I feel estranged from the mainstream kid.

Tim Pickett:
From the mainstream at that time. You’re finding comradery and friendship in the kids with similar situations, broken homes and drug use.

Clifton Uckerman:
Yep. And then it’s just fun. It’s like, oh, this is cool. We get freedom. We get to do whatever we want. This Peter Pan and the lost boys.

Tim Pickett:
Wow.

Clifton Uckerman:
So I get kicked out of West Lake Junior High because of all that. I went, got put in the system. I was in the system for most of my teenage years. Did a lot of alternative schooling at a lot of different youth in custody classes in the valley.

Tim Pickett:
Talk about that a little bit. There’s a few of these kind of schools. If you get kicked out of one school, you go to another. If you get kicked out of two schools, you end up going to the special… I don’t know what that’s… What is that like in the ’90s to be you in these schools?

Clifton Uckerman:
Well, I get suspended from West Lake.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah.

Clifton Uckerman:
And then I have to go enroll at Central, the old Central High. Which is where all the bad kids went.

Tim Pickett:
That’s where the bad kids go.

Clifton Uckerman:
And I got kicked out of there, because they have strict attendance policies.

Tim Pickett:
And you’re just not showing up because you can’t get there or because you’re stoned at home. You don’t give a shit about school.

Clifton Uckerman:
Yeah. All of it.

Tim Pickett:
All of it.

Clifton Uckerman:
All of it. Yeah. It just wasn’t even part of the normal life routine for me.

Tim Pickett:
I mean, do you feel like once you stepped outside of that mainstream going to school, you just feel like you abandoned care of it as a kid? I just don’t…. It’s not my story. I’m really fascinated with that sense of being a teenager and not knowing what you don’t know and really not knowing anything.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right.

Tim Pickett:
Not only do you not know what you don’t know, essentially you don’t know anything.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right. I think when you say abandoned care, I mean, I think the care was probably abandoned by the adults in my life that were dealing with mental health and addiction issues. And so really at that point in time it’s not necessarily that I’m-

Tim Pickett:
You’re trying to survive.

Clifton Uckerman:
I’m in survival mode. Yeah. Because care was abandoned with me.

Tim Pickett:
Yes.

Clifton Uckerman:
And so then I had to do what I had to… Be the adult that I thought I had to be in order to get by in the world and survive.

Tim Pickett:
And school’s not part of that equation.

Clifton Uckerman:
And schools not part of that.

Tim Pickett:
That’s a lower priority.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right. And the people that I were hanging out with, so the groups or the crowds that you tend to kind of fall into that I fell into, have their own hierarchy, call it gang life. And so part of that survival strategy is to prove yourself, to become one with the gang and then do what you can do to help sponsor and support all the activity that the gang life provides and the support and care that they bring to your life.

Clifton Uckerman:
So then I’m proving myself. I’m stealing cars. I’m stealing stuff from stores. I’m jacking purses. I’m selling drugs. I’m moving and shaking things. I’m doing all kinds of crazy stuff. And school’s just completely out of the picture at that point in time.

Tim Pickett:
You don’t seem this type of person now.

Clifton Uckerman:
Not now.

Tim Pickett:
I’m sitting here across from you trying, not really trying, but the mind starts to envision this situation. And I’m envisioning myself at that point in time. Because we’re not that far in age. I was born in ’78, so somewhat similar in age. I’m in junior high, high school at the time. My world is not at all like this, at all. Right. I’m watching you on the news.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right. Oh yeah.

Tim Pickett:
I don’t quite know how to wrap my head around that, knowing you now.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right. Yeah.

Tim Pickett:
Huh.

Clifton Uckerman:
It’s a huge change for me. I mean, I’ve completely changed my life and the trajectory that I was on. I didn’t think I would make it past 18. I thought I’d be dead or in prison.

Tim Pickett:
You just didn’t have a… Okay. Is it normal teenage development that you cannot see beyond a certain future? Or is it that your situation was such that you didn’t see past your 18th birthday?

Clifton Uckerman:
Well, I think it’s part of natural, normal human development, especially as a teen for the imagination station to start to take place. All this neuronal activity and all these new neural pathways that are developing inside of the brain, I think most teenagers are going to think far enough or as far as they can see and imagine something in their future.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah. Imagine getting married or having a house, or what it looks like to be the X, Y, Z person after high school or after college.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right. And my imagination only just took me to death or prison, or a big time drug dealer with all the power and a big old crew.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah. You would still have the imagination running. It would just run in a… Was it really that limited?

Clifton Uckerman:
Yeah.

Tim Pickett:
It was prison, death or a mansion with a crew.

Clifton Uckerman:
Oh yeah. Well, and that’s all I seen.

Tim Pickett:
That really is the only… Because the imagination wouldn’t go on the street. Right?

Clifton Uckerman:
Well, you can’t-

Tim Pickett:
Wouldn’t go addict.

Clifton Uckerman:
You can’t think of an alternative world if you don’t come from that alternative world to begin with.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah.

Clifton Uckerman:
So the only world I’m living in is death, destruction, drugs, gangs, crime.

Tim Pickett:
What happened? How did it-

Clifton Uckerman:
How did it all change?

Tim Pickett:
Yeah. What was the catalyst?

Clifton Uckerman:
Well, I was locked up a lot in my teenage years. From 12 to 18 I was in and out, in and out of detention, juvenile settings. So I was on my way… I was this close, people can’t see my fingers right now, but I got half a millimeter between my thumb and my index.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah. There’s no space. There’s no light there.

Clifton Uckerman:
This close from youth prison. Because I was involved in quite a bit of stuff. I was a fighter. I had lots of road rage. I carried lots of drugs. I carried weapons, all that kind of stuff. But my dad got shot and killed when I was 15, 14, 15. I probably would’ve went to prison had I… at that point in time, we went to try to look for the guy that killed him. And had we found him that night, I’m certain that I would’ve killed him and been in… still been sitting in prison. But he had a fleed and went to California and time had passed and I had grown and became more emotionally mature and learned how to later accept and forgive and all that kind of stuff.

Clifton Uckerman:
But through my teenage years, and being locked up all the time, I got to about 18 years old, 17, 18 years old. And with being locked up all that time, I actually was in places where there were people that did mentor me. Now, a lot of them, very few of them, were people of color. And so when I ended up in detention centers and I was in a day treatment program through Valley Behavioral Health called ARTEC. I was in there for a while.

Clifton Uckerman:
Then I got into a program in the community. It was a prevention program where we would just build homes. They would pay us, teach us all these life skills and whoop our butts when we got into trouble. They became the parents that we never had. So this group of friends that I had developed at this later point in time in my teenage years, we were all just roughneck kids with no family support, lack of parental guidance. And it was the people in the community that actually stepped into raise us. So along the way, I had probably a handful of mentors that just stepped in to my life, guide and direct and try what they could to help me change my life around.

Clifton Uckerman:
And so by the time I was 18, 19, I just ended up with some really good mentoring, getting involved in the community. I remember walking, knocking on doors with Senator Pete Suazo, other legislators like Duane Bordeaux. And I was angry though, because I felt a lot of police brutality. My dad before he got killed was beat up really badly by the police for stealing a pack of cigarettes at Smith’s. My brother had already gotten locked up and went to prison for carrying a firearm. And I was just angry and I got involved in the community.

Clifton Uckerman:
I just wanted to make a difference. I wanted to make a change. I wanted to make sure that people could actually have a chance to succeed and not have to suffer on top of the family problems and kind of the generational and racial kinds of traditions that tend to carry through because of systemic racism and injustices and oppression, I didn’t want people to have to also experience extra discrimination and oppression in their own community, in the villages that they were living in. So I was angry and I was knocking on doors, just trying to get people involved and get support and ended up on a pathway of education and really linking into the community and really relying on the people that were there to mentor and support me along the way.

Tim Pickett:
When did you decide to get into, start to get into clinical practice and realize… It seems, to me, this is somewhat of a calling for you. Or certainly would feel like that likely when you decided to do it.

Clifton Uckerman:
Right. If I think back to those teenage years and all the programs that I was in, I was always a leader. I always took charge. I’d backtalk. I’d smart mouth. The other kids saw that courage and they kind of just followed me in that. And then this program that I was in, where we built homes, it’s called the YouthWorks program through NeighborWorks Salt Lake on the west side of Salt Lake, I ended up coming back to that program as a peer support, a peer leader. I was getting paid. I was one of the first peer… We have peer support specialists now. But back then, you just called it a peer leader and there was no certification.

Clifton Uckerman:
And I got involved in this program. I got really involved in the community. I kind of went through the ranks and I became a site supervisor, was wearing my own tool belt, carrying my own nail gun, teaching other kids like me how to build homes. And then I became the coordinator of the program doing a desk job and paperwork. And then I ended up becoming director of the program and I was writing multimillion dollar grants over the course of five years. Did a lot of grant work grant writing, did lots of projects in the community

Tim Pickett:
This is when you were a teenager, you were involved in that program and working and building houses and working your way up. Did that come with a lot of education, formal education? Or was it on the job?

Clifton Uckerman:
On the job.

Tim Pickett:
And they were like, “Here’s a grant. I need you to learn how to write one just like this.”

Clifton Uckerman:
On the job, the opportunity presented itself. I stepped in. A lot of it was just the social skills training from all of the programs I had been in and the people that had mentored me, but the opportunity came to write the grants. And one thing, one talent that I always had, even in junior high and high school as I was attempting to get an education, is writing. I’ve always had really great technical writing skills. Sometimes I write too much.

Clifton Uckerman:
It just kind of presented itself. And I spent about a week, when the opportunity came, to get this grant in, because it was due a week. And the old director in that position had left, so really it was me as the coordinator to step in and see what I could do. Did a week. Stayed up really late most nights and was just typing away, doing research, getting the information, collecting the data, running the budget so that I could submit this grant to Salt Lake County and have the county pay for more services for youth in the community.

Tim Pickett:
Wow. Did you parlay that into college?

Clifton Uckerman:
After that people kept telling me you need to get your master’s degree. Because I had, I actually had gotten my bachelor’s degree in that time. By the time I was 18 and going through all the programs and getting out of the system, I was able to get a GED in the alternative setting, which gave me my last five credits for a high school diploma. So my high school diploma allowed me to get into Salt Lake Community College. And I used FAFSA and government funding because of my family’s income-

Tim Pickett:
Sure.

Clifton Uckerman:
to get me through college. And during this time as I was transitioning my life and my lifestyle and getting involved in the community, I actually ended up getting a really good opportunity to meet the president of the University of Utah, Bernie Machen, through a really great mentor of mine. Her name was Irene Fisher and she was doing a lot of work on the west side community and developed what’s now called University Neighborhood Partners, on the west side of Salt Lake. So she took me to his office. We were in his office and he asked me if I wanted a full ride scholarship. He would just give it to me, because of where I had come from and what I had been through and all the work that I was doing in the community and my leadership ability.

Clifton Uckerman:
So he said, “I will give you a scholarship. What do you want to do? Do you want to come up here?” I said, “Give me a week to think about it. I don’t want to say yes right now.” I actually wanted to be a cop. And I did a little bit of training in the police corps, the academy, and realized really quickly that it was so much of an us versus them mentality, and because of where I had come from, I couldn’t live with myself hitting the streets and arresting people that looked me, that came from families that I came from and putting people deeper into the system. I wanted to help in a different kind of way.

Clifton Uckerman:
So I got the scholarship, got my bachelor’s degree, became the director of that program, youth program. And then people kept telling me, “You need to get your master’s degree. You need to get your master’s degree.” And so I applied for some scholarships, sold everything that I had, really went nearly homeless and broke to get my master’s degree. And then finally got my master’s degree, 2009, 2010. Didn’t know a thing about diagnoses, didn’t know a thing about DSM, didn’t know a thing about mental health disorders. I just knew that I wanted to help people. And I thought social work was the way in and I submitted the application and got accepted to the program.

Tim Pickett:
Do you still feel that way, that social work is the way to help people?

Clifton Uckerman:
I think there’s a lot of different ways to help people. What I used to tell people is, because in the early days social work didn’t make enough money. I was making maybe 35,000 a year.

Tim Pickett:
Yeah. Everybody I know who went into social work said the same thing. It was just hard. I mean, I’ve got an uncle who went into social work and ended up back in construction, owning a construction company, because you just made a better living at it.

Clifton Uckerman:
I would tell people, because I used to chair the Chicano Scholarship Fund. We would give thousands of dollars in scholarships a year up at the U of U. And I would tell these social work students turn back now.

Tim Pickett:
Turn back, hurry. Hurry,

Clifton Uckerman:
Become an architect or a doctor and donate to charity.

Tim Pickett:
Accountant. Anything else. Anything else. But that has somewhat changed. We’ll talk a lot about this, I think, in maybe a whole future discussion. But it is different now from an income standpoint.

Clifton Uckerman:
Oh yeah.

Tim Pickett:
That’s for sure. And really because of COVID, there was a lot of changes with COVID, too.

Clifton Uckerman:
Well before that-

Tim Pickett:
Oh, and the ACA.

Clifton Uckerman:
with the parity law. With the commercial insurance having to cover mental health and addiction. Being a social worker, and especially doing clinical services and providing therapy, wasn’t just something you did with Medicaid or the nonprofit or government sector, you could jump into the private sector and really work with commercial insurance. I learned that you could, for me, the more people I helped, the more money I could make and the more money I make, the more people I can help. And that’s been my philosophy.

Tim Pickett:
I’m glad you’ve come to that because it is true. I don’t know that it’s… I think it’s universally true. And I think when you focus on helping people, you definitely have more opportunity to make money. And you’re right, money is fuel and businesses need fuel, which means you can help more people.

Tim Pickett:
Thanks everybody for listening to part one of a two part episode and discussion with Clifton Uckerman. Stay tuned for next week when we finish up our conversation of essentially phase one of what Clif is up to and his background and story. Really an inspiring story for us to pay attention to those around us and how drug policy is affecting our youth and how it affected Clif. We really need to reach out to people and lend a hand. Looking forward to episode two next week. Stay subscribed to Utah in the Weeds. Stay safe out there.

 

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