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A Look at Collective Trauma and Collective Healing

Posted on July 7, 2021
Hands of different ages of people placed on top of each other

By Alie Huxta, Associate Director, Partnerships and Strategic Planning (Building Wealth and Health Network)

Trauma-informed care is becoming more of a priority for organizations around the country who understand that “what happened“ to their clients is just as important as the behaviors they are presenting in the here and now. There is a lot more work to do, but this is important progress in treating clients and customers with the dignity they deserve.

Taking this work even further, organizations need to address the collective trauma in their staff and clients by creating collective healing spaces that resist re-traumatization and also hold themselves and institutions accountable for the harm caused.

What is Collective Trauma?

Collective trauma is an event or series of harmful or life-threatening events that a group of people experience that has lasting adverse effects on their mental, physical, social, emotional and/or spiritual well-being. It can be a natural disaster like an earthquake or forest fire or political wrongdoing such as genocide, police brutality, or Native American boarding schools. Collective healing in these contexts is a cultural, political, social, and physical process of acknowledging wrongdoing/hardship and beginning an active process of accountability, restoration of resources, and repair of the harm done.

Building Wealth and Health Network

The Center for Hunger Free Communities’ Building Wealth and Health Network (The Network) have been doing this work within the welfare system for the past six years. The Network is a trauma-informed, healing-centered financial literacy program that integrates emotional and peer support to promote self-efficacy and resilience in traditionally under-resourced communities.

Identifying Oppression and Discrimination

At the Network, we address collective trauma by first educating our staff and members (participants of our program) about the very local and specific forms of oppression and discrimination members have experienced. When we work in North and West Philadelphia with predominately Black women, we learn about federally supported redlining and racial housing discrimination that occurred from the 1920’s through today that created the current conditions of their neighborhoods. With our new more rural population in south central Pennsylvania, we explore how the opioid crisis has impacted their communities. We are learning about how pharmaceutical companies caused the crisis and will be creating a class lesson around this content.

This approach helps members see and understand that neighborhoods and communities look the way they do because of discriminatory policies, not necessarily because of the individuals in those communities. This allows them to take a lot of blame off themselves and use that energy towards their own empowerment and move toward collective change.

Seeking Accountability

Once we identify the collective trauma, we have to hold those accountable (including ourselves) for causing the harm in the first place. The Network focuses on empowerment of the individual and the community to start change with themselves. This is also done by holding leaders and institutions accountable for the current and historical harm they caused. For us, this looks like demanding changes within human services and systems on local and national levels. After members complete Network classes, they are invited to join the Network Advisory Council (NAC), a collective that advocates for changes within the cash welfare system called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and other public benefits. The members of the NAC and its Leadership Team speak directly to legislators, Department of Human Services, and others about changes needed to make to the welfare system work for families.

Just this past year the NAC convened a panel to meet with the USDA to demand changes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/food stamps). They advocated to raise the monthly TANF amount, which hasn’t changed since 1990, as part of the statewide Meet the Need campaign. They also spoke at the Pennsylvania Workforce Development Association Conference about why TANF is specifically traumatizing to Black families. They called out the years of criminalizing recipients and stigmatizing their participation with racist false images of the welfare queen as a major cause of collective trauma.

Other ways to show accountability for collective trauma include:

  • Apologizing
  • Continuing to educate ourselves
  • Providing reparations
  • Changing policies to reduce future harm/trauma
  • Repairing and restoring resources for the impacted community

Reflecting and Educating Ourselves

One way we hold ourselves accountable to address harm done and resist re-traumatization is through our own self-reflection and education. Our staff assess how their identities, power, and privilege based on age, race, gender, sexuality, religion, education background, neighborhood they live in, etc. could be perceived by Network members. They reflect on how they can create spaces to openly discuss these dynamics. The staff looks at what biases, challenges, and also common ground can be found in these identities and power differences.

For example, I ask myself as a white woman, in a room of all Black women Network members, “What has been their past experiences with White woman social workers? What is the historical and political relationship between White women social workers and Black women who receive TANF?” By asking these questions I am more equipped to understand how my very presence can be a trigger for a Black woman who may have only interacted with White woman through state mandated programming or institutions that perpetuate the image of the “white savior” and anti-blackness. I may be more able to understand why I wouldn’t be trusted based on those past experiences of institutionalized racism.

Through this self-exploration our staff is postured to have hard conversations in classroom about race, class, gender, political oppression, and financial inequity that inevitably come up when we discuss the political and social contexts of members’ neighborhoods and lives.

Creating Healing Spaces

Lastly, we intentionally create healing spaces for people to talk about the collective trauma they experience by building a nourishing a space for peer support and mutual care. In class we talk about what collective healing looks like on larger levels and how we can activate this in our communities. Not only does collective healing look like holding leaders accountable but it also happens when members talk about how their communities are already full of vibrancy creativity, and resilience, and lift up the healing happening there. Too often when we discuss trauma we forget to honor and name how far people have come.

Through celebration, a focus on joy, and creating a space where members see each other as a source of support - instead of just the staff person in the room - members continue the collective healing they have been a part of for generations.

  • Healing from collective trauma can take many forms, including:
  • Engaging in creative outlets like poetry, visual art, or music
  • Creating autonomous systems of support and mutual aid
  • Sharing of elder wisdom and story telling
  • Embracing a mindset of hope
  • Developing intergenerational resiliency
  • Celebrating vibrant communities
Posted in Trauma and Healing, Oppression and Discrimination