At the end of summer as many of us go back to school or start new projects at work, I can’t help but think of the high numbers of people of color affected by violence in our communities – especially the courageous Black people who have been in the streets all year protesting state violence – who have to push forward and return to school or continue work after facing violence. When I allow myself to feel the scope of violence that our communities face – whether it be sexual assault, domestic violence, or state violence – I sometimes feel overwhelmed to the point where the only solution I can see to ending violence, is humanity’s extinction. In these dark moments, it is my ability (and privilege) to care for people who have been harmed that illuminates my faith in people again. The act of caring counters acts of harm, which teaches me that our power to fight back and thrive in spite of violence lies in our ability to take care of each other.
One way we can care for each other is to create trauma-informed communities in schools, organizations and activist groups so that caring becomes a group responsibility, rather than an individual one. A trauma-informed community aims to restore that which violence takes away. As a therapist, coach and consultant, I don’t believe that therapy can be the main solution for caring for people affected by widespread violence. That is why part of my work is supporting schools and organizations to be trauma informed. Here are four simple (yet not easy) ways we can build trauma-informed communities to care for people affected by violence:
1. Build on and affirm our cultures and history
Violence often undermines people’s sense of self and associates people’s identities with danger. At it’s most basic, this means that we must make every effort to actively challenge identity-based hatred and biases, which further trigger and harm survivors who have been targeted because of their identities. Yet a truly caring community not only challenges identity-based hatred, but also affirms the identities and histories of those most affected by violence by using cultural and historical knowledge to care for each other.
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When we build on our cultures and histories we are able to access inspiration and wisdom from the ways that our ancestors and elders cared for each other in the face of violence. It is clear that our ancestors have always been resilient and resourceful or we wouldn’t be here today. Before we move forward, it is imperative we look back and ask our own families and communities about how they cared for each other and then share and practice this wisdom together.
2. Increase physical and emotional safety
Violence robs people of their sense of safety. The most basic and necessary component of caring for each other after violence is the re-establishment of a sense of physical and emotional safety, as defined by those most affected by the violence.
Many institutional safety measures increase policing and private security, which rarely make people of color feel safer. Advocating for institutions to protect us is often complicated because many institutional and educational safety measures are in conflict with what makes the community them feel safe. If an institution does not provide adequate protection or causes further harm, what alternatives can we create together? Violence is never our fault, yet this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take responsibility in protecting each other.
For example, on university campuses across the US, students are setting up informal safety escorting services, using apps that notify 6 friends at a time if help is needed, and creating a culture where asking for, accepting and offering help related to safety is the cultural norm.
3. Build trust
Violence is a betrayal of trust—trust between people or the basic everyday faith that we will make it to class or work ok. Restoring trust is essential to feeling secure and moving forward when violence persists. While trusting our schools or jobs to take care of us might not feel possible, what about trust in our relationships and communities?
Systems of oppression, be it capitalism, racism or misogyny, foster distrust and competition among us. When we do not do the work of trust building amongst each other, we further perpetuate the divisions caused by oppression. If we cannot trust each other, how can we possibly offer sanctuary and solace to one another in the aftermath of violence? Becoming trustworthy and choosing to trust each other is not only a mechanism through which we support each other in community, but is also a direct action against oppressive systems that want to keep us divided and conquered. Doing the work needed to trust each other, as people of color, is an act of political resistance.
4. Foster collaboration, power sharing and choice.
Violence is used to deprive people of their power and to gain power over others. Violence also takes away people’s choice and control. A trauma-informed community collaborates and shares power with survivors of violence and is fueled by survivors’ ability to make choices and decide what they need to feel cared for.
The rise of the non-profit industrial complex, coupled with women’s rights and anti-violence movements, created a host of government funding and services for people affected by violence and abuse. And while these services can be life saving and essential in an emergency, they have also denied survivors power and collaboration in decision-making that directly affects their lives. Out of all of the non-profit programs I have worked for, I have never seen survivors denied more power than in domestic violence shelters, the very place that was founded to keep people safe from the abuse of power and control. In our attempts to protect survivors, we began to police them and forget the strengths and resources they possessed as people who had survived ongoing violence and abuse.
In order to care for survivors in community, we must remember that the people most affected by violence are the ones who had the ability to survive violence. This means that although survivors need support, they also have the most knowledge about what they need to feel cared for and the ability to participate in developing systems of care (if they choose to). When trying to figure out how to care for people affected by violence in our community, we must ask ourselves these simple questions:
- Have we asked the people most affected by violence what they need to feel cared for?
- Have we actually implemented what survivors said they needed?
- Have we developed systems that support the leadership and decision-making power of survivors?
If we can’t say yes to all three of these questions, we can’t effectively care for those most affected by violence.
Violence is a social problem, which makes caring for each other a social responsibility.
Ultimately, our power as a community lies in our ability to take care of each other. Our choice to love each other in the face of hatred is our strength.
CarmenLeah Ascencio is a public health social worker, community theatre facilitator, trauma-sensitive yoga instructor, educator and proud Boricua 2nd generation queer femme. She is currently the director of Get Free, a BGD program, and is the creator of Freedom Labor Love, a consultancy business that helps organizations and schools be trauma informed, emotionally healthy and inspired social change environments. She facilitates BGD Get Free workshops at organizations and schools. To find out about booking CarmenLeah, go here.
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