DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Presentation at the Northwest Community Research and Action Conference

October 12, 2012

Lewis and Clark College


Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities

Shelly Stratton

Pacifica Graduate Institute

Using recent community psychology fieldwork experience in Rwanda, participating in an international community convened for the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) training, this innovative session will explore the influence of engaged community involvement on the developing relationship between fieldworker and fieldwork. Communities share unique and distinct relationships shaped by values, traditions, history, and socio-economic conditions. Developing an understanding of these relationships is essential in gaining a deep awareness of the nuances of such collectives. Noticing distinct influences while also observing how they shape fieldwork experience and interpretation is vital in constructing successful and effective community-based programs. As participant observers, the researcher witnesses, listens, and by immersing herself in the community, becomes an influencing, as well as an influenced, element of community relationships. This presentation will also highlight successful elements of the HROC program, designed to bring together perpetrators and survivors of the Rwandan Genocide for trauma healing and reconciliation.


Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities:

Exploring Response-Ability in Fieldwork

            As was mentioned in the introductory narrative for this presentation I recently returned from three weeks in Rwanda. I will tell you a bit about this experience but I would also like to focus on the experience of fieldwork and the work of finding authenticity and the courage to engage deeply with others in our experience of diverse communities. I will explore the challenge in fieldwork of facing complex social, political and psychological dynamics that are often difficult to understand, or are difficult to see from our particular social or cultural perspective.

            We enter our fieldwork and research with these social, cultural and academic frameworks that structure our initial expectations of the experience, and we have often been asked by our academic institutions to clearly define our goals, our questions and the boundaries that should inform, shape and contain our work. We are asked to use a particular research approach and to understand what we are witnessing, through the lens of theoretical perspectives that informed our disciplines. Yet, I propose that some of the most powerful work and incite comes when we open our hearts to complexity, surprise, vulnerability, and dare I say it in an academic research setting, Love.

            We are often called to our research questions and our fieldwork settings by strong influences on our personal lives. As I speak I hope you will reflect on some of the influences that have brought you here, and that have inspired the passions you find yourself pursuing. As researchers we work at attending to the risk of being swept up by personal agendas, or self interest (psychology would call this the projection of complexes, while social sciences might refer to it as bias), but it can also be helpful and important to consider the ways in which those personal stories do in fact influence the experience as well as fuel the passion that we feel towards a particular topic. As social scientists we need also to grapple with the dynamics of changing and being changed by deep engagement with people who speak to our passions and our concerns. We need to draw on our courage to be vulnerable to the ways that we situate ourselves in the world, with an awareness of the blinders we might have, or the soft spots that we might turn away from. To be aware of the pain that might come too close to reality, or that may seem so unbelievably alien, rocking our sense of belief in the world, as we know it. not to deny or control these vulnerabilities but to recognize them and place them gently in the context of the research and the relationships that are formed.

            I recently came across Brene Brown’s Ted talk, which has been viewed over 7 million times while I have been immersed in doctoral studies. Though very engaging and well articulated, there is nothing particularly new in her findings. The likes of bell hooks, “ethics of love”; Ruth Behar’s call for an “Anthropology that breaks your heart”, or Watkins and Shulman’s “psychology that breaks your heart”; Kelly Oliver’s “Witnessing beyond recognition”, Martin-Baro’s “opening towards the other” and Julia Kristeva’s “accepting 3rd space” are just a few of the many voices calling on us to rethink our relationships with “others” whom we encounter in our efforts to promote social theory, social justice, or solutions to difficult social problems.

            Perhaps people have found Dr. Brown’s message not only accessible but inspirational because she begins by naming her own resistance to negotiating vulnerability and shame, and that she recognizes the courage that it takes to sit with the unpredictable messiness. She acknowledges the Western obsession and deeply engrained desire to believe in the power of control and carefully diagnosed solutions. She opens a space for the millions of us who, with good intentions, set out to solve the problems of the world equipped with confidence and a “can do” attitude. We are empathetic, well informed and come bearing the wisdom of our years of training and experience. But with these good intentions and windows of understanding can also come the baggage that both provides opportunities for deeper understanding and thus connection, or challenges our ability to listen deeply to the stories that want and need to be told, the stories that need to be heard deeply and compassionately.

            I recently wrote a paper for one of my classes, on a panel discussion about the Truth and Reconciliation process that is taking place between the Wabanaki people and the State of Maine. In this discussion the panel talks about the challenge of working with social workers who seemed to be open to trainings on “cultural sensitivity”, “white privilege” and expectations that the Indian Child Welfare Act be more accurately implemented, but they found that at some point they seemed to “hit an invisible wall”. As they explored this issue, they realized that social workers were getting stuck when they began to feel vulnerable in the face of shame, fear, and anger, and ultimately there was a protective numbing that impacted their ability to engage deeply in the process.

            While they had been attending to the trauma and the pain of the Wabanaki people, and had worked to share the best approaches to understanding oppression, racism, the history of genocide, privilege and power they had not accounted for the numbing of feeling shame for a very long and painful history of remaining complicit, blissfully unaware, or actively participating in institutions that continued to perpetuated this history. As Brown indicates in the Ted talk, we tend to go to great lengths to avoid our feelings of shame. Shame can be toxic to our sense of well-being, triggering fear of inferiority, defect, and feeling unworthy of love and connection. If we consider the “good intentions” of these social workers to connect, perhaps steeped with unexplored or even unrecognized shame, we can better understand the unconscious drive to numb, distance and create safety with emotional and professional boundaries.

            Kelly Oliver calls us to think of “witnessing” as an opportunity to develop “response-ability”. To relate deeply to that which you experience with others, and to discover agency and healing in relationship that can hold both pain and the ability to imagine new ways to respond to both struggle and possibilities. To fully witness the stories of Wabanaki communities required that the complicated cross-cultural and historical dimensions be recognized and that all parties grapple with the many layers of complex historical as well as personally felt guilt, shame, and need for forgiveness and reconnection.

            In our fieldwork and research we will inevitably stumble with our own humanity and will become entwined in complex relationships but if we listen carefully, if we notice carefully, or as James Hillman, the father of Archtypal psychology conceives, if we “see through” these complexities, we are more likely to hear, feel, see and engage in something different than we expected. A space is created where opportunities for transformation and more complex understanding can emerge.

            And this is where I wish to draw our attention. Those moments of rupture where we must look to the wisdom of our mentors, our guides, our friends, to the uncomfortable vulnerability of our own hearts, and to those who have challenged our view of the world as we know it. I would argue that there is much work yet to be done regarding our understanding of shame, guilt and the path toward forgiveness and reconnection, particularly as we engage in efforts to attend to the injustices of the world. It is my hope that we will be challenged to think compassionately and courageously about the ways that we position ourselves in the fieldwork experience; as we facilitate participatory research and community interventions; and as we work at articulating the concerns not only of diverse populations, but of our own hearts.

            As academics and mentors, people in this room are likely to be in positions where we influence the ways that young researchers, educators, psychologists, social workers and anthropologists will position themselves in their experience and interpretation of communities. Enthusiastic about the latest theories or best practices we may forget to share the importance of expanding the depth and the breadth of personal and professional perspectives, of shifting our cultural lens to better see and hear others, of listening to and witnessing from our hearts things that our minds may never fully understand. My daughter is an anthropology student here at Lewis and Clark and is currently working on the thesis for her bachelor’s degree. As she builds relationships with Somali girls in an after school program I imagine her holding their stories in her heart, knowing that she can never fully understand their struggles, but believing that she can witness those stories with courageous vulnerability and compassion. As she writes up her findings and relates her experience to the literature and the theories I hope that she can also find the voice of her heart, as this is truly what those girls need her to articulate. Their stories, their words, their smiles and perhaps their tears need her to accompany them with her heart, and to articulate the things that they learned together and the things that they learned about one another.

            I emphasize the reciprocal relationship between Ella and these girls because I believe that it is through the relationships that we overcome alienation, stereotypes, narrowly defined observations that tell us little about the deepest needs and wishes of those we hope to support, and the shadow of our own misgivings. It is in these relationships that we will create the space to better understand the complexity, the pain and the joy. 

            Last year my fieldwork placement took me to the Kakamega Care Center and Orphanage in Kenya. I worked with children to create a mural for their dining room wall and learned a great deal about a very different approach to creativity than I was use to seeing in my work using art with children as a psychotherapist and in classrooms. I noticed how a more collective sensibility played out in the techniques used, in the things that got expressed and in the ways that the children worked together to create their masterpiece. These were things I had prepared myself to be attuned to.

            I had embarked on my fieldwork experience with a critical analysis of the dynamics of colonization and racism, with an open mind to recognizing cultural differences, to bear witness to the disparities that would shake my sense of justice, but I was not so prepared for the influence this trip would have on my heart. When I returned home I wrote to friends and family “I left for Kenya with clear intentions about attending to vulnerabilities of children at the orphanage in their development of relationships with me. Having concern that I could become yet another loss they must endure. I did not however, expect the extent to which my heart would take hold... The children and staff proved to be incredibly resilient and resourceful. It is me who is left looking for the deep connections, the gentle touches, and the smiles that beamed with such genuine love. It is me who misses the typical, extended handhold of staff, as we shared our lives and greeted one another. It is me that wishes I could join in the movement of joyfully singing children. My heart is a bit broken today... But how good is that!”
            My most recent fieldwork placement, in August, was spent in Rwanda where I participated in the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities training for trainers. This is truly a community-based intervention, which is very committed to recognizing the importance of creating space for people to explore the complexity of individual and collective trauma within a community context. Perpetrators, victims and bystanders of the genocide within identified communities come together to develop an understanding of the impact of trauma, and to promote healing and reconnection. HROC has developed a three day curriculum that walks people through a process of learning, sharing and healing that has been derived from the work of trauma specialist, Judith Herman (1992). HROC draws on Herman’s identification of the need to create safety and healing relationships; to have opportunities for remembrance and mourning; to build opportunities for reconnecting with self and others; and to find “commonality” by sharing experiences and redeveloping community relationships that have been fractured by violence.

            HROC also acknowledges the use of the Alternatives to Violence Project model for facilitating groups. The AVP model draws on the wisdom of the participants, minimizing the role of facilitators as experts. Rather than breaking down information into neat packages and definitions the focus is on drawing out stories that are relevant and that will touch people deeply while also expanding their understanding of trauma. Opportunities for fun, community building and connection are also vital to the overall process.

            An important element of HROC is the emphasis they place on understanding that perpetrators as well as victims of violence, experience trauma, shame, loss, mourning, fear and disconnection. They are very clear that all of these experiences of trauma and reactions to trauma must be addressed if communities are going to heal and rebuild. The expectation that we engage with compassionate hearts, noticing the range of our own emotional responses to stories was also very important.

            I participated in the training with a group of 24 people from Rwanda, the US, Kenya, Nigeria, Burundi and Congo. While the experience of being immersed in a rural village in Rwanda was extraordinary, the experience of learning about and negotiating the dynamics of this diverse group was equally important in my fieldwork experience. With very little preparation we began the training as participant observers alongside Kabari community members in the HROC basic training. Experienced trainers and interpreters facilitated the workshop, and we were asked to fully engage in the process, not as experts, but as members of the group with our own ideas and experiences with trauma. Despite language barriers and very different cultural perspectives a great appreciation and connection was developed within these groups.

            Following this introduction we spent the next week learning more about the HROC approach and developing skills as facilitators for HROC trainings. During this time I learned a lot about diverse African perspectives and many American/Western stereotypes were challenged. But most important was the opportunity to build a strong community with this remarkable group of people. It provided a safe community for learning to recognize different ways of viewing, understanding and experiencing the world. We were forced to practice shifting our cultural frame to better understand people we had come to love. And, for anyone who has not experienced the African context this entails a very close, community and collective frame of reference. Relationships were sometimes messy, but mostly expansive and transformative. And, as is typical across Africa, we were quickly embraced as brothers and sisters, mothers, daughters and sons. We became family with a very diverse group that expanded all of our horizons, and our sense of self in this world. How can this not affect how I engage with and interpret my experience?

            While in Africa I have found myself in relationships with young men and women who have told me in moments of deep connection that I have stirred tender memories of their mother who died, or who was killed under excruciating and unjust circumstances. I have negotiated a desire to give away large amounts of money knowing that it would make a huge difference for people I have grown to love, but that the impact is much more complex than the improved life of an individual. These situations can present challenges to our experience of shame or guilt, but also provide an opportunity to explore expanded possibilities for forgiveness and reconnection, not just with others, but also with the rough edges of our own souls. It is when we can encounter our own vulnerabilities with courage and compassion that we will be truly embraced by the fullest capacity of our experience. As Fanon and Freire have conceived in their dreams for decolonization and dialogical relationships we create spaces for love and forgiveness that bear true witness without appropriating, sensationalizing or dominating the stories of others. Our witnessing becomes embedded in relationship that can imagine great possibilities, as well as recognize opportunities for heart-felt “response-ability”, expanding our observations, interpretations and contribution to communities.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.