Collective Trauma

Events can take a psychological toll, not only on individuals, but on groups and entire populations—and can affect health for generations.

The pain that racism and marginalization have created in our communities—and that the pandemic is making worse—often shows up as trauma, a body/mind reaction that can damage mental, behavioral, and physical health in communities already struggling with other problems.

This intense physical response can be short- or long-term, immediate, or delayed (like PTSD). And it’s not only individuals who suffer: a legacy of traumatic experiences like genocide, slavery, and forced relocation can permeate entire communities and affect them for generations. Today’s pain—poverty, homelessness, decaying buildings, gentrification, forced removal from home, lack of chances for educational and economic uplift—can make trauma worse, and worsen the health deficits that marginalized communities and communities of color suffer.

Our usual response is to have a therapist treat one sufferer at a time. But art-driven community projects aim to heal entire communities by working “upstream” against the negativity of trauma: building collective pride by creating places of beauty and sites or actions that celebrate community history, amplifying community voices, and crafting positive images of community people. Making landscapes, streetscapes, parks and buildings more accessible and usable can have a big impact on people’s physical health, and with it, other types of health too.

Art-powered community projects can change the narrative the community tells itself about itself—and real healing can happen.

Video: Peace & Love billboard by R & R Studios (Rosario Marquardt and Roberto Behar), from "Inspiring Community Healing After Gun Violence: The Power of Art." Video courtesy R&R STUDIOS & Aaron Glickman.

The Black (W)hole

Dance to Mourn the Losses, and Celebrate the Resilience, of a Black Community

Location: Oakland, California Artist Role: Dance Producer, Filmmaker, Organizer Partners: Community residents

The Black community of Oakland, California, has been enduring racism, economic challenges, gun violence, drug-related deaths, and gentrification for generations, and the current situation is acute. The premature deaths of many young people in the community are tragedies that play out against a backdrop of rising costs of living and other economic and cultural pressures that have led to the displacement of black families from the area. While black residents made up nearly half of Oakland’s population in 1980, that figure dropped to 28 percent by 2010—a loss of neighborhoods and culture that is a trauma in itself. (And in 2018, when a white woman called the police on a black man using a charcoal grill near a local lake, the incident ratcheted up community fears about race relations and gentrification in Oakland.)

There are many ways to address collective trauma; Oakland’s Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company chose dance. Its Black (W)hole project mourns the deaths and celebrates and honors the lives of six young people who died in and around Oakland before they reached the age of 32, and was written after conversations with their loved ones.

DAYPC members Desmond O'Shea (left) and Theo Sanders' (right) jump shot during Black (W)hole film production. Photo by Yoram Savion.

Ten public performances and six site-specific installations were originally planned, but with the advent of the pandemic, the project was turned into a film. Then, after the killing of George Floyd and the demonstrations that followed, the project’s filmmaker, Yoram Savion, became interested in the organizing work that one activist member of the company, Shayla Avery, was doing. The response of Black youth to the killings of Black people became a major theme of the film.

In June, Avery organized a march against gentrification in Berkeley, inviting her fellow Destiny dancers to take part. Outside a BART station in South Berkeley, they performed some of the choreography from The Black (W)hole—which by this time had become an act of protest—in real time—as well as an act of memory.

"When I was dancing I felt like I was bringing in all the spirits from those people­­—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin. I felt like I was dancing for all of the young lives that couldn't be with us right then and there."
—Ny'Aja Roberson, Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company member, quoted in the New York Times

TOP: DAYPC member Shayla Avery behind the scenes of The Black (W)hole film. Photo by Yoram Savion. BOTTOM: Veve portrait for Yasmeen Vaughn, one of six young ghosts honored by the Black (W)hole project. Artwork by Brett Cook. Photo by Yoram Savion.

The Power of Art: Inspiring Community Healing After Gun Violence

Five Florida Artworks Helping Communities Heal from Gun Violence

Location: Parkland and Coral Springs, Florida Lead Organizations: Cities of Coral Springs and Parkland Artist Role: Creation of artworks, workshops, and performance Cost: $1,000,000 total for five projects (grant funded by the Bloomberg Philanthropies' Public Art Challenge Partners: Coral Springs Museum of Art, Via Partnership, many community organizations and community members

Violence perpetrated with guns has traumatized far too many American communities and continues to imperil civic health and personal safety. Following one of the worst instances, the tragic 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD) in Parkland, Florida, the cities of Parkland and neighboring Coral Springs decided to use art against violence.

They applied for, and won, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2018 Public Art Challenge, and received $1 million for a project about healing after gun violence. Their proposal, inspired by the Coral Springs Museum of Art’s art therapy program Healing with Art, which was created in the aftermath of the shootings, called for five projects that used the arts to bring the community together for healing and reflection. Many collaborators, including the museum, consulting group Via Partnership, and community members, worked on each project. The cities are currently in the middle of a multi-month process evaluating the project’s impact.

Scroll down to learn more about all five projects.

1.

The Temple of Time, by California artist David Best, was an intricate 35-foot wooden structure erected for three months in Coral Springs, symbolizing the 17 lives lost in the MSD shooting and the 17 lives saved. Visitors could mourn, remember, reflect, and leave mementos or messages on its walls. Then, on May 19, 2019, thirty-four community members, representing families with lost loved ones, injured people, hospital staff, first responders, and the special needs community, set the temple afire. The burning, viewed by around eight thousand members of the two communities, was a ritual intended to help them send their pain up in smoke. “I urge you all to let go of something that has burdened you,” Coral Springs mayor Scott Brook told the crowd, “and like the smoke from the temple, release it to the night sky.”

“I urge you all to let go of something that has burdened you, and like the smoke from the temple, release it to the night sky.” —Mayor Scott Brook of Coral Springs

Photos by Julia Nelson-Gal.

2.

Scrollathon: Growth & Strength by Steven and William Ladd brought members of the community together at MSD, the Coral Springs Museum of Art, and Broward Health Coral Springs in April 2019. The New York–based artists, who are brothers, invited more than 900 participants to create tiny rolls of variously-colored fabric material secured with a pin—scrolls—that expressed an emotion, an ideal, or a part of their personal story. One was theirs to keep—and the creators were invited to give it a title and talk about its meanings in front of the other attendees. (Titles included “The Nature of Misunderstanding,” “The Heaven Within the Illusion,” “My Hair’s Aura,” “Empathy,” and “Forgiveness.”)

Participants then created more mini-scrolls, which were eventually put together into a huge, colorful, and hopeful seven-by-five-foot wall piece—4,900 little spirals of cloth in total--on view at the Parkland Recreation and Enrichment Center for a year. Participants were interviewed and photographed as a way of documenting and celebrating their contributions.

Over two weeks in April 2019, the brothers collaborated with more than 900 community participants on a Scrollathon project, creating Growth & Strength. The artists invited participants to make a keepsake scroll from colorful trimmings. Photo courtesy Steven and William Ladd and City of Coral Springs.

Participants were photographed and interviewed. Photo by Steven and William Ladd.

Photo courtesy Steven and William Ladd and City of Coral Springs.

3.

The Big Picture: Resilience was a series of photography workshops for community members led by award-winning Miami Herald photojournalists Carl Juste and C.W. Griffin, whose Iris PhotoCollective is dedicated to chronicling the lives of people of color. In the summer of 2019, fifteen community members joined them in the four-part workshop, using photojournalism to tell their own stories and explore multiple themes, including healing, resiliency, bearing witness, and their place in history.

Their images were gathered in a catalog and became part of an installation displayed at Pine Trails Park in Parkland from February 14, 2020—the two-year anniversary of the shooting—through May.

Photo © 2019 Big Picture- Resilience / Iris PhotoCollective

Photo © 2019 Big Picture- Resilience / Iris PhotoCollective

Photo © 2019 Big Picture- Resilience / Iris PhotoCollective

Photo courtesy Kate Gilmore and the City of Coral Springs

4.

The Yellow Walk was a 26-hour performance piece led by Guggenheim Fellow Kate Gilmore. During three days in early November, 2019, Gilmore and performers from Coral Springs and Parkland continuously walked on an 800-foot long yellow carpet installed on Coral Springs’ pedestrian-friendly ArtWalk linear park. Onlookers of all abilities were invited to participate by walking alongside a performer in an embodiment of the healing idea that we never walk alone.

5.

Peace & Love, by R & R Studios (Rosario Marquardt and Roberto Behar) was a 120-by-30-foot “super billboard” with the words “Peace & Love” written in thousands of silk flowers. The sculpture was unveiled on February 14, 2020, the two-year anniversary of the shooting.

It was designed to create an instant public square and reflection space for people to gather under a “beacon of compassion and care for the community,” according to the Miami-based artists. They describe the work as “a social sculpture to bring people together and explore the politics of hope through the universal language of flowers… an emotional monument and instant landmark that provides an alternative vision for the future.”

Photo courtesy R&R STUDIOS

A Park to Help Native Youth Stay Healthy, with Art that Celebrates Their Heritage

Location: Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico Lead Organization: Zuni Youth Enrichment Project Artist Role: Local artists advising on park design, creating murals and floor art Cost: $3,200,000. Three million came from ArtPlace America's Community Development Initiative; $150,000 came from Nike N7 Build the Field Initiative and $50,000 from other funders.

H'On A:wan Park Youth Center. Photo courtesy ZYEP (ZYEP Facebook).

"The artists had these amazing ideas for how to build the space in a way that’s going to make families want to be there [while also] gaining a deeper sense of who they are as Zuni people.” —Joseph Claunch

In many ways, Native youth inherit the trauma experienced by their ancestors and elders, and the result can threaten their mental and physical health. The Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (ZYEP) partnered with community artists to create a place where kids can become healthier and stronger physically, spiritually, and psychologically.

The park features a trail, an athletic field, a community garden, and a basketball court. There’s also a community center with Zuni-themed murals on exterior and interior walls, and Zuni art adorning the floor. It’s a space where local artists can teach their craft to generations of youth.

In the pueblo, 80 percent of adults self-identify as artists. ZYEP worked with local artists on the park, designing, “a space that would promote cultural affirmation, the cultural transfer of knowledge, and inspiration and healing through the arts,” says Joseph Claunch, a member of the Tacoma, Washington Puyallup Tribe and co-director of ZYEP. The organization recognizes that passing along Zuni traditions—language, cultural systems, religious practices, and history—is a high priority for local families, and building a park integrating traditional art aligns with that priority.

Fifteen local artists participated in a 2015 meeting with ZYEP, where it became clear that the park project was a good fit for the community. The artists then advised on every step of the process. For example, instead of a chain link fence around its perimeter, the park uses fencing made of local wood, a type the community has used for thousands of years.

During the design phase, Claunch remembers one local leader saying that the space should be place where public art can help guide youth self-awareness and cultural learning. “The community wanted a park consistent with Zuni’s holistic view of health, which does not separate the physical from the spiritual,” he says. “Zuni artists were able to take the community feedback and translate it into a park design that helps us serve a broader set of needs beyond physical activity.”

The artists and culture bearers "could take youth development to a deeper level because they had grown up in Zuni. They had a different language and way of approaching youth development that was culturally responsive, with a deep sense of what local kids need. "
—Joseph Claunch

Muralist Keith Adaki wanted to find a way for all the kids to participate in a large-scale mural. He asked them, “What does it mean to be Zuni to you?” The kids painted their ideas and designs as petroglyphs included in this 4’ by 8’ mural. Photo courtesy Shiwisun Productions.

Potter Noreen Simplicio worked with all 700 kids at the local elementary school to create a mural representing Zuni migration from the Grand Canyon to its current location. Each child made a pottery shard and painted a traditional Zuni design on it.

ZYEP artist committee meeting. Photo courtesy ZYEP (ZYEP Facebook).

Photo courtesy ZYEP (ZYEP Facebook).

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