Mattering, Healing, and Sharing in the Process: Working through the Trauma of Losing Black Lives (Part II)
Mahauganee D. Shaw
Shamika N. Karikari
Miami University of Ohio
In the last edition of Developments, the first part of this two-part article appeared, sharing our personal experiences working through visceral reactions to news of Black lives lost at the hands of police officers. We focused in on the deaths of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, MO and Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, OH. These particular deaths are connected to our respective hometowns and thus provoked deep emotional responses from us. Oddly, it was the experience of feeling the impacts of these deaths on a deeper level that connected us to one another on the journey toward healing. In this second installment, we focus in on the lessons learned from our experiences of journeying from feelings of hurt, sadness, unease, and anger toward engaging in connection, processing, and healing. We encourage readers to read the first part of this article, but also believe that you can gain useful insight from beginning here, with part two.
The Importance of Reflection and Processing
Both of our stories shared in part one highlight the need to reflect on current events and process the impact of those events on one’s life. The importance of taking time to individually and collectively reflect cannot be overlooked. Reflection should not be only seen as an exercise that sounds helpful but one that also provides an opportunity to be honest with yourself, sort out your thoughts and feelings, process with others, and allow some of the “stuff” to be put down (even if only briefly). Taking time to pause and sit with one’s feelings can be difficult. It is much easier to stay busy and active. However, if we do not take the proper time to stop and deal with our feelings in a productive and healing way, those emotions will eventually come tumbling out in a less healthy and more unproductive manner. Acknowledging emotions does not have to be a drawn out process taking several hours. Below are some strategies to consider as productive approaches to personal reflection and processing with peers:
- Google document: Mika keeps a google document that is an ongoing journal of her thoughts and feelings. Some entries are just a few sentences, while others are pages long. This allows her to jot down thoughts when she has them but not feel the pressure to spend lots of time writing and expressing feelings if she is physically, mentally or emotionally exhausted.
- Take 5: Whether you close your office door or leave your office, take five minutes to yourself. Mika may shut her office door for five minutes to breathe and sit in silence, while Mahauganee will shut her office door to either listen to inspirational music or have a small dance party. We both will sometimes leave to walk outside to get fresh air, reflect, and refresh. Those 5 minutes allow us to come back and give in the ways needed.
- Find your people: Each of us has a few people we trust and can always go to. Reach out to them. Allow folks to walk with you and process together. It can be helpful for both parties. Additionally, consider reaching out to new folks who might be feeling similarly and could be helpful. It could feel risky initially, but we have found strength and community results from vulnerability.
For each person, what will work best and what is needed will be different; however, finding out what that is and then acting on it is imperative for well-being. Taking an active role in personal healing may inspire others to do the same.
Interactions with Colleagues
Time does not have to be a barrier to processing what is happening around us. Rather than creating new spaces, use existing environments to process and promote healing. Meetings are an easy place for that to occur. Instead of adding extra meetings to your schedule, professionals can utilize recurring meetings to promote healing. Below are some examples of what this could look like:
- Beginning meetings by asking “How are you really doing?”: This might be the only time someone has asked a colleague or student that question and really took the time to listen. You could have people first write their thoughts down and then open it up for anyone who want to share. You could follow it up by asking “How do you need or want support?” or “How are you taking care of yourself?”
- Weekly Student and/or Staff Meetings: Spend the first 15-30 minutes discussing what is happening on campus and in the world. We might not always know what events are impacting the people around us, but providing a space where people can speak up and share is helpful. Sharing can be freeing, and it allows us to validate the experiences and emotions of our colleagues, thus demonstrating care and concern.
- 1:1 meetings: Consider using some of your 1:1 meeting time to check in on one another. For this technique to be fully productive, trust must be built; however, if the supervisor continues to ask and show care, trust can be cultivated. As well, the supervisee should feel empowered to request time during those 1:1 meetings to be used to process.
- Lunch: Whether one eats lunch with colleagues or alone, this time can be used to be in community. Consider inviting a colleague to walk around campus together or eat together rather than alone.
- Sharing your feelings authentically: Our colleagues and students are always taking cues from us. Although this is not without risk, when we are vulnerable, we invite those around us to do the same. That might look like being the first to share how you are doing or reaching out to a colleague to let them know you are struggling (like Mika’s original email reaching out to Mahauganee). When we share authentically, we are healing ourselves and perhaps inviting those around us to do the same.
Whatever the case, using a time you have already to take care of yourself is important for your healing. Connecting with colleagues is easier than sometimes imagined, and we have found that most people are willing to connect if we just ask. Mika discovered this when she was struggling with her feelings regarding DuBose being killed:
It was so close to home that I could not shake my feelings. I reached out to one of my colleagues who did just what I needed; listened. She listened to what I had to say, validated my feelings, and affirmed me for reaching out. It was just what I needed. I did not need to be told how to feel or what to do; instead, I needed to be heard. Reaching out to a colleague can be helpful.
Working with Graduate Students
Within Student Affairs, many of our colleagues are graduate students. As campus professionals we may be assigned as supervisors, instructors, or advisors to graduate students who are enrolled in higher education/student affairs professional preparation programs. Working with these students is arguably the most important part of our positions, as we help students to prepare for full-time employment in the field. One of the largest mistakes we can make is to not provide space and opportunity for graduate students to process events happening in the world outside of our campus. Although this article is focused specifically on incidents surrounding the loss of Black lives and the criminal justice system, there are other incidents that also warrant processing. Some examples from the recent past include: White supremacist rallies in Charlottesville and other cities, student activism at the University of Missouri and other campuses, the ongoing Flint water crisis, active shooter incidents at multiple institutions and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the flurry of targeted executive orders in the Trump administration’s first 100 days, terrorist attacks in various countries, and the Boston Marathon bombing.
There does not need to be a constant focus on current events in one’s interactions with graduate students, but there should be acknowledgement of impactful events in our relationships with students. The suggestions in the previous section can be adapted to supervisory relationships with graduate students. In the same way that space can be provided at the beginning of a class meeting or a 1:1 supervisory meeting, similar space can be provided in advising sessions with students. Whether one meets individually with advisees or hold group advising sessions, there should always be time to check on students’ well-being. This check-in may lead to processing current events. If one is uncomfortable with processing, an alternative is to direct the conversation toward understanding how an event may impact a student’s ability to focus on their work. This understanding is helpful in better directing the student toward other people or resources that may be more helpful than discussing their feelings with their advisor.
While advising and supervisory meetings may provide one-on-one space to discuss current events, the classroom provides a group processing space. Given that courses usually begin with a plan for how time will be spent throughout the semester, it is easy to approach course structures as rigid and unchanging. However, minor adjustments to weekly course meetings can provide the space needed to process impactful events. Because graduate-level courses usually have longer meeting times, there are more options in terms of how to adjust in-class time to incorporate current events:
- Intersperse current events into discussion of pre-planned course topics: For example, the incidents surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Jr. and Sam DuBose can be used as pedagogical material in course meetings that focus on several different topics: counseling, institutional governance, leadership, diversity, race, equity, emergency management, campus environments, or ethics. Many courses in student affairs professional preparation programs incorporate such topics. Using a current event to digest a pre-planned topic can advance students toward learning outcomes by helping to make deeper connections to the material.
- Include time at the beginning of a course meeting to acknowledge current events: Depending on how much time can be set aside for the conversation, this time may also be used as space for processing people’s thoughts and experiences around those events.
- Devote a complete class session to the topic: Sometimes, there are events that are so impactful that there may be a need or desire to redirect an entire course session to focus on the event.
An event on our campus in 2015 provides an example of how to incorporate current events. There was a tragic student death that occurred in the local community (Aughagen, 2015); the available details around the death left many with questions regarding campus safety, domestic violence, and emergency counseling services. Upon learning of the student’s death, on a Sunday afternoon, Mahauganee decided to act on that information:
I immediately reached out via email to my graduate student advisees who I was able to identify as living in the area of town where the deceased student also lived. My message noted that I was aware of the incident, wanted to check on their safety, and wanted to know if they were in need of additional support. In my class that week, at the request of students, I provided time at the beginning of class to process the incident and the resulting details that had emerged since the initial reports. I began with a general processing question and allowed the conversation to develop from there. We left that conversation with action items and plans to check-in with various campus offices and administrators to compile a list of the resources in place to assist people within the campus community. Finally, I alerted the other faculty in my program to the conversation in my course. Some chose to provide similar space in their courses, but notifying the students ahead of time that the conversation would occur at the beginning of class. I did have an advisee who excused themself from the conversation in a course; instead, this student spent time in my office processing their thoughts and rejoined their class for the remainder of the course meeting.
What you decide to do in providing space for students to process will likely vary based on your own comfort level with the topics at hand. However, acknowledging that students may be impacted by recent events is essential.
Why Does this Matter?
We are living and working in a time where tragic incidents are commonplace. Self-reflection, care, and healing are important and necessary actions for those of us in helping professions. We cannot fulfill our responsibilities as student affairs educators if we are not working to be healthy and whole. This article is a result of our shared journey toward mattering and healing. This journey has led us to embrace and apply three familiar lessons: trauma is real, healing is necessary, and individual stories matter.
Trauma is Real
News events carry the power to traumatize. We see this time and again. When residents of New Orleans, Louisiana were forced to evacuate their homes and city for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, several recalled the 1965 evacuation from Hurricane Betsy and the resultant destruction. When nine Black parishioners lost their lives inside of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015, people who regularly gather in houses of worship were alarmed for their own safety, and many who were following the media trail of Black lives unnecessarily lost in 2014, 2015, and 2016 were left weary and burdened with sadness. In this same manner, the July 2015 events surrounding the death of Sam DuBose awakened memories for Cincinnati residents, like Mika, of the disarray and trauma that followed a similar incident in 2001.
The reactions described in the preceding paragraph, as well as our personal narratives described in part one, are reflective of people who have experienced trauma. In particular, Mahauganee’s experience of drawing inward may trigger mental health concerns for some readers and Mika’s style of recalling (e.g., “I remember…I remember…I remember….”) her reactions to small incidents following Sam DuBose’s death is reminiscent of how people often retell traumatic experiences. Even the exercise of writing this article together had the risk of resulting in a re-traumatization based on racialized experiences (Lowe, Okubo, & Reilly, 2012). While Mahauganee was able to recognize her emotional downward spiral in retelling her experience, she did not recognize it when it originally began. On the other hand, Mika recognized her ability to spiral and reached out for support. It is important for each of us to have the ability to recognize when we are in a traumatic experience, and to identify methods or strategies to heal from that experience. The first step is acknowledging that trauma is real. The information we consume on a consistent basis, whether through the news, social media, or our acquaintances, has the power to traumatize us. Being aware of the power that information consumption holds empowers us to more diligently monitor where, when, and how we consume.
Healing is Necessary
Healing is a process; we hope this is evident in our stories. We cannot ignore the importance of taking the time to heal. Healing is important to do individually and collectively. As individuals, we have found healing to be a necessary and hard process. It does not happen overnight and requires intentionality. For us, individual healing has looked like journaling, meditation, prayer, taking moments to go outside, and being alone, to name a few. Each of these actions has provided us the space and means to go through the healing process.
Healing can also occur collectively. In attempting to heal, we have sought others to come alongside us and relied on community. One of the most powerful ways this has occurred for us was through the Mobilizing Anger Collective (MAC), a group whose members strive to create space and community in which to process instances of injustice, organize actions that make literal and symbolic statements about their shared commitment to social justice, and to galvanize their collective power. Three faculty members (Mahauganee being one of them) organized this group. The first time MAC came together was in December 2014. The faculty members provided a space where the campus community (staff, students and faculty) could come together and start to heal (Quaye, Shaw, & Hill, in press). The two-hour event was filled with honest dialogue, authentic feelings, and vulnerable reflections on how people were really doing. The space was powerful; the energy and sense of community left people wanting more opportunities to connect. MAC continued to meet after this first event and continues to provide a space for people to heal collectively.
Your Story Matters
We began this journey of writing as a way to help ourselves process our experiences working through racialized incidents that triggered in each of us a flurry of emotions. The journey only began, however, because Mika sent an email when she was at the height of emotional turmoil, seeking someone with whom her experience would resonate. We have shared our stories as authentically and vulnerably as possible, hoping that they will help someone else to gain the courage to share their own.
Whether one plans to heal individually or collectively, taking the time and space to heal is essential and powerful. When others see us engaging topics that are happening around us, they can feel empowered to do the same. We are all human. In this series of articles, we have allowed our humanity to show, and we invite you to reciprocate.
We want this manuscript to be the impetus for conversation. Below, are reflection questions that may assist readers in moving forward with beginning conversations with others.
- How can you recognize when the information you are consuming is likely to lead to trauma, and what strategies do/could you employ to assist in your healing?
- What ways has your institution assisted you or others in the healing process, and what are some ways your institution or your colleagues can do better?
- How can you advocate, within your current sphere of influence, for space and time for healing?
As you reflect on these questions, and other topics raised in this article, we invite you to engage in conversation with us in the twitter-sphere. If you are willing, please share your thoughts, responses, and comments with us using the hashtag #BLMhealing. Our personal healing processes were aided by sharing it with one another. We hope the opportunity for a larger conversation can help you to reflect, share, heal, connect, and ultimately claim that your experience matters.
Lowe, S. M., Okubo, Y., & Reilly, M. F. (2012). A qualitative inquiry into racism, trauma, and coping: Implications for supporting victims of racism. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 43(3), 190-198. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0026501
Quaye, S. J., Shaw, M. D., & Hill, D. C. (in press). Blending scholar and activist identities: Establishing the need for scholar activism. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. Advance online publication: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dhe0000060
About the Authors
Mahauganee D. Shaw is an independent scholar whose research focuses on moments of crisis and tragedy that impact campus communities, how institutions respond to such incidents, and the process of recovery and healing that follows.
Shamika N. Karikari is a doctoral student in the Student Affairs in Higher Education program at Miami University of Ohio. Shamika’s developing research agenda is focused on the experiences of Black women in student affairs leadership roles.
The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.