Doing the Work While Doing the Work

Doing the Work While Doing the Work

How can social justice organizations prioritize mental health issues while finding ways for their staff and members to stay in solidarity with each other?


Toni-Michelle Williams is a 32-year-old Atlanta-based artist, organizer, and activist. As the executive director of Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative Inc., her work is focused on restorative justice and ending police violence. What brought her to her organizing work was not just her own experiences as a Black trans woman but also a long slate of exposure to traumatic events.

“I am a person full of grief. I’ve lost a lot of people in my life that meant a lot to me,” she says. In 1999, her great-grandmother suffered three paralyzing strokes and Williams became one of her caregivers. One year later, when she was 10, her father was murdered. Four years later, her grandmother passed. Later, she lost her grandfather, who was “so accepting of my queerness and my transness.” More recently, she lost her stepfather as well. And throughout her life she has “lost many friends, many of them trans people who’ve been murdered.”

But for Williams, who is now also a parent and caretaker, it is these experiences that motivate her. “That grief is the thing that keeps me organizing, keeps connected to my movements and to my work,” she says. Her trauma informs her activism, like it does for many organizers and activists. “A lot of us do get into this because we find that service, whether it’s a toxic trait or something beautiful, moves us through the seasons that we’re in,” she adds.

As we work to undo the legacies of racism and oppression, we are often facing a history of unresolved trauma—our own, and the histories of those we work with. “Oppression is a concentration of trauma,” says Prentis Hemphill, a teacher, writer, facilitator, and founder of the Embodiment Project. “It’s basically ensuring that some people will experience pain disproportionately and that, simultaneously, they will lose the resources to heal from the trauma they experience.”

But connecting the dots between social justice work and trauma history doesn’t automatically confer the necessary tools to deal with it. “Those wounds, they motivate us to join movement and to become a part of an organization, but at the same time…it can also be a way for us to avoid or ignore the wound that got us there in the first place,” Hemphill says. Increasingly, curricula designed expressly to deal with trauma, including leadership training, conflict resolution, healing retreats and somatic therapy, have become commonplace within organizations to grapple with and acknowledge how our personal baggage enters the workplace and how best to move through it.

The researcher and psychologist Bessel van der Kolk writes in the best-selling The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”

Originating in Greek to mean “wound,” trauma has long been used to describe a physical injury. More recently, psychologists expanded the understanding of trauma to include emotional harm and our experiences with race, class, gender and sexuality. “Racial trauma can result from major experiences of racism such as workplace discrimination or hate crimes, or it can be the result of an accumulation of many small occurrences, such as everyday discrimination and microaggressions,” the American Psychological Association wrote in 2019.

Social movements can suffer when we are unable to process or talk about harm we have experienced in our lives or in our work. At the height of the pandemic and the uprisings that followed a series of killings of Black Americans including the murder of George Floyd by police, workplaces were thrown into disarray when staffers started to air grievances about long-standing racial biases embedded in the workplace. The combination of anger, the disconnect that can happen having these conversations over Zoom and lack of training on behalf of management to effectively lead these conversations reportedly caused breakdowns throughout organizations. The right and some on the left were swift to critique these grumblings as “cancel culture,” but for some activists these moments were symptomatic of deeper issues.

Hemphill has joined a chorus of other progressive leaders calling on organizations to become more trauma-informed, and thus, more functional. Their Embodiment Project works with leaders on an array of training that help them grapple with experiences that may have created what Hemphill calls a disconnect between the mind and the body. For Hemphill, embodiment is “first understanding that we learn things through practice, and when we practice something over and over again, it becomes embedded in us.… We don’t have to think about it to do it anymore.” Trauma histories can mean that we may “come to embody things that actually don’t line up with what we believe or what we want to see in the world.” An “embodiment practice” seeks to move practitioners “towards the things that we want to embody.”

Eveline Shen, who is now a leadership coach, was the executive director of Forward Together for 21 years. In that role, she oversaw multiple transitions of the group’s work—it evolved from an organization with an explicit focus on reproductive justice in the Asian American community to an organization that is fighting for the rights of “people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQ and Indigenous people” and to build “a world where all families have the rights, recognition and resources they need to thrive free from oppression.” She observed that one of the reasons that breakdowns in communication can happen within an organization is that organizers are very good at identifying an enemy. And “we apply the same techniques of dealing with our opposition to ourselves,” she says. “So when there’s conflict within the progressive movement itself, we don’t know how to really deal with that in an effective way. And we then turn the people that we’re in conflict with into the opposition and to our target. And then we begin to demonize them, and then that’s at a place where it’s escalated to the point where it’s really hard to come back together again.”

For Shen, somatics therapy, a Western therapy modality that incorporates movement—often dance, yoga, or exercise—with talk therapy, has been instrumental in helping groups overcome disagreements. She says at its core, social change is about movement, so it makes sense that actual physical movement helps people move through conflict. “Our minds can spin out and create all of these narratives about why people are behaving in a certain way…but if we work with our body, we can intervene and we can be able to be a lot more grounded and thoughtful and make decisions that are reflective of the values that we’re seeking,” she says.

For Emily May, the president of the anti-harassment organization Right to Be, formerly Hollaback!, somatics coaching has been essential in her ability to lead the organization for over a decade. “As women we’re socialized to basically not have boundaries and to be a doormat to everyone,” she says. This presented challenges as a leader: “If anything went wrong in the organization, it was ultimately my fault…. in some ways it was encouraging the staff to blame me for everything. But in other ways, it was really disempowering the staff from holding their own problems and solving their own problems.” Somatics coaches and therapists will sometimes have you speak while you move, share experiences or recount particularly harrowing ordeals while walking you through a series of physical activities. May’s somatics coach would walk towards her until she could identify when a boundary was crossed—which came sooner than she anticipated. That prompted her to consider how frequently her boundaries were crossed at work and in her own life. Recognizing what was hers to deal with and what was her team’s responsibility helped her hold better boundaries and be a better leader.

Incorporating trauma-informed perspectives and general mental health awareness has sprouted up in many different places in an effort to counter narratives that we should ignore or override these feelings. Tricia Hersey, founder of the Nap Ministry, calls herself the “Nap Bishop,” and proselytizes about the radical power of rest, specifically for Black women. “You were not just born to center your entire existence on work and labor,” she writes in her book Rest Is Resistance. “You were born to heal, to grow, to be of service to yourself and community, to practice, to experiment, to create, to have space, to dream, and to connect.” Yumi Sakugawa, as artist, has garnered a large following with her mindfulness coloring books and exercises to help people reconnect with themselves after feeling stressed out or spending too much time online. Or consider the growing resistance to “workplace trauma” and the refusal to work through or hustle harder at any cost, regardless of how toxic and challenging your job might be.

As talking about mental health becomes less stigmatized, are we opening the door to calling “traumatic” experiences that are merely uncomfortable? “At many levels of human interaction there is the opportunity to conflate discomfort with threat, to mistake internal anxiety for exterior danger, and in turn to escalate rather than resolve,” Sarah Schulman writes in Conflict Is Not Abuse. This challenge is particularly acute in the context of social justice activism, where activists are regularly having discussions about oppression and how that impacts their lives. Discussions like this can escalate quickly, losing sight of the purpose and rather than lead to an opening or connect, resulting in people shutting down. Is that trauma? Or bad conflict resolution?

For Shen, these two ideas—the importance of prioritizing mental health, and of finding ways to remain in solidarity with each other—are not in opposition. The proof came as she saw how effective somatic therapy was for conflict resolution. “It helped us develop a common language. It helped us to inform the culture of the organization to be more proactive, more solution-oriented, more understanding about pacing and knowing when to ebb and flow,” she said. Now the group “knows how to support each other and have each other’s backs.”

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