Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychotherapy Bulletin

Clinical Impact Statement: This manuscript provides information regarding how psychology can make positive contributions to collective action in response to incidents of discrimination, hate, and violence. A case example illustrates the impact of a series of community healing workshops aimed at supporting the well-being of those engaged in community action. Reflections are provided in an effort to inform how the field of psychology can support those engaged in efforts to fight oppression and injustice.

A Psychological Perspective on Collective Action and Healing

The field of psychology has traditionally focused on promoting the well-being of individuals, couples, families, and even groups, but has focused less on promoting the well-being and healing of communities as a whole. There is much that psychology can offer to promote connection and health within communities under stress. Specifically, psychology can offer insights into how collective action and activism can support community healing and well-being when impacted by hate incidents that have targeted various marginalized identities. Collective action involves people working together to achieve a common objective typically focused on challenging inequity, exclusion, and/or injustice rooted in the oppression of others (Millward et al., 2019). Activists are individuals who work toward this social change (Millward et al., 2019). Research on collective action in psychology has focused mostly on attributes of activists, predictors of activism, and how to motivate people to engage in collective action to create social change (Curtin & McGarty, 2016; Louis, 2009). However, there is very little existing research that focuses on activism as an act of healing. In this article, a collaboration between the Womxn’s March Denver and the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver aimed at providing healing workshops to generally support the well-being of the community and specifically that of those engaged in community action, will be described. Summary and reflections on the community healing workshops will be discussed as an illustration of how psychology can help support those engaged in collective action. 

Those involved in collective action, whether it is at the individual or organizational level, are at risk of burnout that can impact the sustainability of social movements and social change (Goriski, 2015). The awareness of large and overwhelming social problems can feel unsurmountable. Activists may experience pressure to act to the point where they struggle with saying no before reaching their limit (Maslach & Gomes, 2006). Those involved in collective action may feel shame in admitting that the work takes an emotional toll, thereby further isolating themselves instead of reaching out for support and tending to their personal well-being (Maslach & Gomes, 2006; Plyler, 2006; Rodgers, 2010.)

To sustain oneself in collective action, a constellation of skills such as self-reflection, cultivating mindfulness, and connecting with others are particularly important (Hick & Furlotte, 2009; Griffin & Steen, 2011). Many practices which activists may find to be supportive are similar to those suggested in psychotherapy, including mindfulness, slowing down and seeing the big picture, reaching out to friends and loved ones, and other forms of managing stress (Goriski, 2015). Connecting more compassionately to oneself and with others may be particularly important (Goriski, 2015). 

While potentially stressful and overwhelming, engaging in collective action also has the potential to promote personal development and well-being (Montague & Eiroa-Orosa, 2018). Montague and Eiroa-Orosa (2018) identify various positive aspects involved in collective action. For example, collective action can support the development of self-awareness, identification, and expression of values specific to human rights and social justice. Further, a sense of self-efficacy can develop, which is often linked to positive well-being. Through collective action, resilience and activism skills are modeled by others, strengthening the individuals as well as the larger group of activists. Lastly, a strong sense of relatedness, a major predictor of psychological well-being, can result from a shared sense of purpose (Montague & Eiroa-Orosa, 2018).

Collective Trauma in the United States

The cumulative incidents of hate and violence referenced above, in combination with unknown and innumerable others, reflect collective trauma and stress in the United States (Pinderhughes et al., 2015). Collective trauma is defined as an aggregate of trauma experienced by community members or an event that impacts a few people but has structural and socially damaging consequences (Veerman & Ganzevoort, 2001). Collective trauma has also been described as a shared feeling of being subjected to horrendous events that leave negative marks on group consciousness (Gorman-Smith & Tolan, 1998). 

The impact of collective trauma can be felt by individuals, groups, and even entire generations. The American Psychological Association’s 12th Annual Stress in America Survey found that Generation Z was overwhelmed by fears including mass shootings, the current state of the country and the future of the environment, with reports that the prior generation of “millennials” have the highest level of stress compared to other generations (APA, 2018). Within a social cultural context, collective trauma manifests itself by creating damaged and fragmented social relationships, dislocating social norms, and promoting unhealthy coping behaviors in the community such as violence and hate. Overall, a decreased sense of political and social efficacy can be a consequence (Pinderhughes et al., 2015). Incidents of hate media, which are modeled by people in power, have a pervasive impact on our community. This contributes to a collective fear of one’s safety and well-being as well as that of others. Despite the existence of trauma at the community level and the impact on the social cultural environment, there fails to be a coherent framework for healing at a community level, with much of the focus on addressing trauma at the individual level (Pinderhughes et al., 2015). 

Collective Action: Womxn’s March Denver

The Womxns March Denver is an organization that represents collective action. Their mission   is stated as " ...a collective of womxn* committed to amplifying marginalized voices in the movement to end sexism, oppression, and injustice.” Through community engagement, protest, education, and leadership, they leverage their platform to ignite action (Womxns March Denver, 2018). They work to listen to those who have been silent, unite under the banner of oppression, and work to act with intention (Womxns March Denver, 2018). They are not affiliated with the national movement but work to mobilize those in the Denver Metro Area (Womxn’s March Denver, 2018). 

On January 21, 2017, the date of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Womxn’s March Denver was originated. Of course, the Womxn’s March was not exclusive to Denver. In fact, in the first year, there were 680 Womxn’s Marches throughout the United States and 137 additional Marches throughout the world. Millions of womxn marched through the streets of cities across the world to protest a person in such a high position of power who overtly and actively expresses hate and intolerance. 

The overwhelming response of womxn across the world may be a response to fear among many in larger society, particularly those who are marginalized and underrepresented, of leadership misusing power and dividing the community around gender, race, socioeconomic, among other potential divisions. In the United States, the political climate of the last three years has resulted in a country even more divided, shattered, and fearful as incidences of hate and violence have become more overt and commonplace. Further, incidences of sexual assault and related violence towards womxn have received increasing media coverage due to the “Me Too” movement as well as high profile allegations towards those in power such as Larry Nassar, Brett Kavanaugh, and Harvey Weinstein. 

As stated in a Denver Post Article about the Womxn’s March (Gupta & O’Grady, 2020): 

These last three years have deepened the rift in the moral fabric of our country. Instead of “making America great,” we have leaders who have opened the door for intolerance and would rather divide than unite us. Rather than appreciating and learning from each other, we distrust and belittle those who don’t look, pray, or love like we do. In this quest for “great,” we have lost sight of what it means to be good.

 

In this version of America, womxn are losing access to their reproductive freedoms. Immigrants hear shouts to "go back to where they came from." Schools practice drills for active shooter scenarios leaving children petrified while other children are dying in cages at our borders. Swastikas are painted on buildings and headstones; bricks are thrown through the windows of houses of worship. People are targeted by violence for whom they love. Communities are torn and broken and our world is literally on fire.

 

We are expected to trust those in power, yet the most powerful people do not exercise trustworthy behavior. Instead, they attack the identities of others for their own self-interest. They abuse their power and then hide behind their lies. Where is the America that our parents and elders immigrated to in search of a better life? Does that better life really exist?

Collective Action & Healing: Community Workshops

In response to the adversity, stress, and collective trauma, The Womxn’s March Denver, in collaboration with The Trauma & Disaster Recovery Clinic (TDRC), and the Caring for You and Baby Clinic (CUB) at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, developed a community engagement initiative aimed at ameliorating the negative impacts of the social cultural environment and fostering support and healing for those participating in community action. The TDRC and CUB clinics are training clinics for graduate students in psychology that focus on providing accessible psychological services to the community and particularly those impacted by trauma, broadly defined and including childhood emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse, natural disasters, political conflict, domestic violence and/or sexual assault, and the mental health needs of pregnant and postpartum families with infants and young children. The clinical staff of both clinics bring years of experience working with traumatized and marginalized populations, as well as a depth of understanding of the wealth of strengths, resources, knowledge, and resilience these same populations embody. 

A series of community healing workshops facilitated a discussion of incidents that have divided local, national, and global communities. In the workshops, community leaders, activists, and allies explored the impact if these incidents on their personal and professional lives from the perspectives of their various intersecting identities. Participants were invited to share stories of adversity and healing as well as to mourn the multiple losses associated with collective trauma, with some of those losses tangible and some intangible such as the loss of feelings of safety and alterations to their worldview. Participants were then invited to discuss ways in which they nurture and sustain themselves generally and specifically in the work of collective activism by sharing wisdom from experience and providing resources and strategies to one another. 

Reflections and Insights Related to Community Healing Workshops

The community healing workshops specifically addressed the socio-cultural-environmental aspects of collective trauma including rebuilding social relations, revitalizing damaged or broken social networks, and strengthening/elevating community connections. The workshops explored changing the narrative about community and the people within as well as organizing and promoting regular community engagement. These methods of promoting community relationships are suggested as a possible means to addressing the broken social and cultural environment that can result from collective trauma (Pinderhughes et al., 2015). The workshops integrated psychological concepts related to giving voice to experience, bearing witness, creating stronger relational bonds, and developing strategies to sustain oneself amidst challenges that speak to self-care and mitigating vicarious trauma. Below is a summary of themes that emerged based on the reflections and self-reports of the participants and facilitators. 

Shared emotional experience

Participants expressed experiencing a shared emotional experience, wherein they reflected on ways that they were impacted by the social and cultural incidences of hate and violence locally, nationally, and globally in their personal and professional lives. Stories of being invalidated, silenced, and minimized were shared. Stories indicative of feeling fear within their own community were explored. In concert with these stories were emotional themes of anger along with hopelessness, burnout, exhaustion, and lack of motivation. The desire to fight injustice conflicted with feelings of wanting to give up. The themes paralleled trauma reactions in the desire to fight injustice, the desire to flee because of lack of hope, and the feeling of being frozen in a state of fear and disbelief around the pervasive and overt nature of incidences of hate and violence. 

Developing connections

Participants bore witness to the experience of others. Although some reflected shared experience, there was an acknowledgement that differences exist related to various intersecting identities. A shared experience of distress and suffering was acknowledged as it related to various hardships in the community. Some described the shared experience of suffering related to the experiences of oppression; having been silenced and invalidated by others. Bearing witness to this in a brave space was reported to promote connection and understanding. Participants reflected on how witnessing and hearing the stories of others within this shared space promoted empathy and compassion. Participants expressed that this brought forth a strong sense of connection and common purpose that they experienced as energizing. In speaking about how to support one another, the need to come together for something (i.e., not against something or someone) was acknowledged. The need to uplift one another was named and emphasized, contributing to a shared sense of togetherness. Shifting from an “us vs. them” mentality to uplifting one another through recognition of the need for insight, healing, and action during the workshops was a powerful indication of community healing. 

Sustaining ourselves in challenging times

As a way to support one another, participants were invited to discuss ways to sustain themselves during these challenging times. Suggestions for self-care were shared that allowed for new insights and also affirmed what people were already doing. For example, participants spoke of the need to find a community of like-minded people and reaching out to for help when needed. Participants spoke about a need to say “no” and setting boundaries related to work, despite the guilt that exists related to the belief of needing to be selfless to fight injustice. Participants discussed ways they take care of their bodies that included eating healthy and regular physical activity. Discussions about the need to focus attention on positive emotions, acknowledging accomplishments, and uplift one another and working collaboratively was emphasized. At the end of the workshop, participants expressed their hopes and wishes on a ribbon and reported motivations to continue to gain insight, heal, and take action, along with supporting their own well-being and the well-being of their community. 

Summary

Psychology has much to offer to collective action and activism. More specifically, pervasive incidences of hate and injustice ripple through the community and can lead to collective trauma where individuals and communities fear for their safety, experience distress, are overwhelmed, and become isolated. This lack of community connection can negatively contribute to each individual’s overall well-being as well as the health of the community as a whole. Psychology offers opportunities for connection through sharing experiences, bearing witness, and the expression of emotion. In doing so, can support the well-being of communities. This article described in detail the collaborative efforts of a community activism group and a department of psychology as an example of the beneficial impact of collaboration across these endeavors. Further research on collective action and healing as a way to mitigate or intervene with collective trauma would greatly benefit the discussion surrounding how psychology can not only support the well-being of individuals but also of communities.

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Cite This Article

Gupta, R., & Vozar, T. (2020). A psychological perspective on collective action and healing. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 55(1), 23-28.

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