On Trauma & Resilience

There were an eclectic mix of plastic school chairs, rolly office chairs, and little stools all huddled together in a circle around the gallery. The gallery opened to a high lofty ceiling enclosed by smooth white walls, each decorated with a series portraits of Minneapolis residents. Their photos warmly peered down on us like protectors of the space, and it might have felt cold and unwelcoming had the core of the room not been softly filled in with a knit blue rug and a heap of colorful pillows. And of course, there was that freshly brewed coffee smell encircling the space. No Saturday morning healing workshop would have been complete without it.

“I once was powerful. I still am powerful. I will be powerful again. We are powerful together.”

Our workshop started with a collective chant and continued on the theme of power through the opening question: What is the first moment that made you feel powerful? It took a couple seconds for me to rewire my brain and cast aside the moments of powerlessness that I often replay in my mind. But it came to me: “At age 14, going back to my mother’s country and seeing what a powerful woman I came from.” My moment of power took its place in the hat along with other slips of paper. We each took one and read it out loud for all of us to hear.

When I made my brother stop crying.
Picking out groceries at the grocery store for my family.
When I refused to pledge allegiance to the flag,
and they couldn’t do anything to make me.

The Restoring Power: Trauma & Resilience for Organizers workshop had been advertised on Facebook — my only network here in Minnesota — and to be honest, I had gone in with very low expectations. I think a part of me had (wrongly) believed that “radicalness” existed outside of Minnesota. And another part may have been that I was just wary of another trendy workshop on “healing,” “collective care,” and “ancestors” in some uncomfortable manner that fetishized traditional practices, to ultimately leave me feeling empty and hollow.

I can honestly say that the entire six hours of the workshop left me feeling energized and full. The workshop didn’t aim to give me knowledge or skills in a didactic manner; rather, it helped to unearth and discover things that were already inside of myself. It was an incredibly thoughtful workshop — and I think that’s what caught me off guard the most. Accessibility wasn’t done for good ally points or for “those” people, but with the mentality that they themselves would be recipients of others’ care someday. There was plenty of food and coffee to keep participants well-fed, and everyone was free to walk around or sit on the ground during the workshop, as they felt comfortable.

Ricardo and Molly were the facilitators for the workshop, and they were incredibly wise and generous, seeming to believe in my body’s capabilities much more than I ever had. Scattered in between stories and discussions about healing were acupressure point demonstrations to keep our bodies at the same pace as our minds. I think it’s very rare to get an opportunity to feel your body and become aware of its pain & breath outside of a medical office. At times, my body still feels like a long lost cousin I haven’t seen since childhood. It’s always an uncomfortable and clumsy meeting, an awkward “hey remember me?” reintroduction. But gradually the tension softens with each touch, and this time was no different. I had the opportunity to explore the “letting go point,” which can be found if you cross your arms in an X on your chest, which each arm pointed towards the opposite shoulder, and then you press down with a couple fingers from each hand, and then the “speak your truth” point found in between your clavicles on your chest. Molly walked around to gently guide our hands in the right direction. The facilitators also noted that we could look to the earth as an extension of our bodies and for inspiration around our own healing abilities. Our bodies know how to heal itself, just as the soil knows how to cleanse itself over and over again. It just required that we trust our bodies and recognizing the histories & wisdom it holds. The body is the way we know everything we know.

***

At the very core of healing trauma is that trust we have to develop with ourselves. Trauma is an act of violating our boundaries (physically, emotionally, mentally) and being put in more danger than we can handle. The traumatic experiences may result in hypovilgilence (the feeling that nothing is dangerous or threatening; a numbing of sorts / ex: oppression feeling normal) or hypervigilence (the feeling that everything is dangerous or threatening / ex: little things setting you off) as mechanisms of coping. Often times, the trauma becomes embedded in our bodies and held in silence, only rearing its head when triggered and exploding in unpredictable ways. Opening up that bottled silence by speaking your truth is a powerful act of reclaiming power that trauma once held over you.

However, it is also important to recognize that healing does not come from continually retelling that story of trauma, but rather simultaneously working towards reframing the experience. Healing lies in this process of discovering the light on the other side of darkness / in speaking about our survival, not only our trauma / in telling a different story about yourself than the one assigned to you as the “victim” / in realizing that the struggles of recovery are also a testament to the great resilience and power that your body holds. It was difficult for me — and it still is — to look at my body and not focus solely on its crooked spine, spiraling dark thoughts, and aching knees that frequently give out from underneath me. But more frequently now, I can also notice the tight bundle of determination that arises in my chest every time I make time to exercise my body and the discipline I needed to build greater control I have  over my breath to ease and soothe my mind. In those small moments, I feel a sense of awe at the realization that wounds and pain are not a sign of defeat for my body, nor the end. That there is more that can come after the pain.

I believe healing needs to be discussed more in organizing circles, because it is a framework that can be used to organize communities in a more revolutionary way. Healing allows you to shift the focus from the pain (i.e. oppression and victimization) to identifying the survival methods that communities have developed for themselves throughout time, as well as the possibilities and potentials of what can arise from this struggle. During the workshop, Ricardo told a story of how Ojibwe children, who were forcibly sent to boarding schools, were not allowed to speak their own language on the campus grounds. Instead, they would go jump on the trampoline to speak Ojibwe to each other in short clips — in the air, and not technically on campus grounds — as a way to sustain their relationships and language. It was a reminder to honor the ways that our communities already do “resilience.” This type of re-framing immediately places more agency and power into the hands of a community formerly defined only as “oppressed” and “marginalized.” It also allows you to challenge the type of “victim determinism” that pervades current political discussions — a type of thinking that the actions or situations of people are entirely determined by their oppression or traumas (i.e. she acts that way because she’s a survivor of intimate partner violence and grew up in a low-income immigrant Korean family). We all know that it’s more complicated than that.

I believe that larger social movements could learn more nuanced ways to hold both the oppression and resilience of our people, if we were able to draw more from healing justice work. After all, organizing isn’t about lecturing at people about the revolution; it is about making possibilities visible to people and willing them to shift our society. The possibility that I could become something more than my broken pieces — that we would not have to be constantly defined by our traumas and oppression, that our world could mend and heal into something softer and more gentle. That is the reason I joined the movement, and also the reason I left it.

For more information on the Restoring Power: Trauma & Resilience for Organizers workshop, visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RestoringPowerMN.

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