As her son entered young adulthood, conflict triggered in Dr. Kimberly Nao “physical reactions of stomach tightening, shoulder and neck muscle retracting, teeth clenching, breath holding, heartache.” She found healing in yoga.
“As Black mothers we are often unsettled so that coping with stress is completely normalized as a constant way of life,” she has written. “When I began the practice of allowing the time to stretch the tension out of the body … the true healing began.”
For Zoraida Ramirez, it was meditation. Her teen son’s troubles brought up “something much deeper” and she feared that her children would grow up in foster care like she did. Meditation helped her “release a lot of pain.”
In this series, I’ve explored how addressing economic and neighborhood conditions that impact families can directly reduce child welfare involvement. Another upstream investment that can have a significant effect is to scale up community-centered healing. The geography of child welfare’s imprint follows not only poverty and racism — it is also a contour of loss.
Nationally, historical trauma is a piece of what drives the extraordinarily high rates of Native American and Black families separated by child welfare. In New York City, a mapping of community loss tracked concentrated stress from “unpredictable and uncontrollable” losses like incarceration and foreclosure, and found that foster care placement “represents the most severe community loss in the high-loss neighborhoods.” Considering that roughly 50,000 children were in New York City foster care every year a generation ago, this cumulative burden alone is severe.
Much of this loss and pain has been directly fueled by government policy. Yet little public or private funding is devoted to repair. Now, in the deep end of New York City’s pandemic-fueled mental health crisis, it’s clear that our public infrastructure for responding to isolation, trauma, grief and injustice is inadequate — and cannot rely solely on medication and talk therapy. Many people avoid traditional mental health treatment, which they’ve encountered in the context of punishment in schools, courts and child welfare and often pathologizes structural suffering. Further, 86% of therapists in the United States are white.
Most important to a healing agenda is to end policies that perpetuate pain, as New York City’s The New Hood has argued. Another is to expand access to a wider variety of practices that combat the effects of community trauma, prioritizing those valued by communities impacted.
To the extent that our current health system covers trauma care at all, it conceptualizes treatment as addressing individual trauma. Yet trauma itself can be collective, intergenerational and historical. Practices to promote healing from the “soul injury” of community trauma address feelings of exclusion and shame by strengthening communal bonds and confront the impacts of oppression by building collective power. Storytelling and ritual — from the Passover seder to celebrations of Juneteenth — are one way that marginalized groups stay grounded in their collective history and the ways they’ve practiced healing and resistance for centuries.
In the film “We Came to Heal,” H.O.L.L.A.! (How Our Lives Link Altogether!) Co-founders Cory Greene and Thomas “Arocks” Porter describe how learning about Black resistance and Healing Justice helped them coalesce a new identity as community healers.
“At one point in my life I didn’t want to be African,” Greene says to the camera. “That was a deeply stigmatized identity, I was ready to punch someone in the face if you said that was me. That’s how shameful that was — that’s how shameful it was to be Black.”
Filmed speaking with peers in a Healing Circle, he shares, “Last couple years I’ve been really trying to figure out what it means to be accountable to my ancestors, and what it means to uplift my ancestors … to stand on the shoulders of my ancestors and my elders.”
“I really leaned into that identity of being Black,” he adds. “When I came out of that, I was able to respond to the world in a different way.”
Porter explains in the film how learning Black history reoriented him. “For me, learning about all of our ancestors that pretty much put their life on the line … it just told me that … my duty is to help my community, build my community.”
H.O.L.L.A.! is one of a growing number of groups — including Community Connections for Youth, Institute for Transformative Mentoring, Rise and B.R.E.A.T.H.E. Collective — that are using restorative, transformative and healing justice approaches in New York City. Restorative justice is better known as a response to harm, but restorative peacekeeping circles, rooted in Indigenous practices, lay a foundation for healing by building the trust necessary to seek support. As Ashley Ellis of B.R.E.A.T.H.E. explains: “Folks need proof that if they show up in their weakest moment, you’re not going to turn them in, manage them or shame them.”
The Barnard Center for Research on Women, Transform Harm and One Million Experiments all share these nascent approaches nationwide. Many transformative practices appear modest but hold unexpected emotional weight. The Buddy System developed by the Audre Lorde Project, for instance, helps build relationships that can be relied upon. So does Podmapping, which simply asks people to name who they can rely on to respond to violence, harm and abuse. As Mia Mingus of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective has written:
“We found that for many people, mapping their pod was a sobering process, as many thought their pod would be larger than it actually was. It is not uncommon for most people to have 1 or 2 people in their pod … There are many people who do not have any.”
In the U.S., these practices have barely entered the mainstream. Western cultures remain “trapped in a … paradigm that the only way to change is through taking pills or by talking,” says trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk, even though ancestral healing practices worldwide focus on getting “in tune and in rhythm with each other” through dance, music, yoga, tai chi, touch, psychedelics, breathing and play.
Increasingly, mental health experts recognize that human connection is the crux of health, yet
research has only just begun to document the impact of collective care and action. One study of Black youth organizers concluded:
“Organizing, as action-oriented trauma recovery from systemic violence, supported Black youth in transforming their personal narratives; they were no longer just being acted upon by violent systems. In the light of each others’ efforts toward justice and growing political analysis, they could recast themselves as vital actors shaping their collective destinies.”
Importantly, community healing is not just about coping with suffering but also about transforming conditions by building power for change. That means advocating for systems to weave together policies and practices that promote holistic healing. It’s also about power. Shifting greater control over policymaking to those who are most impacted can, in itself, support healing. As trauma expert Judith Herman has put it, “No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery.”
One promising effort is the Bronx Healing-Centered Schools Working Group, a coalition that, since 2018, has mapped out strategies for transforming school environments. Through its Roadmap Task Force with city leadership, it has outlined a broad range of tactics from the interpersonal to the policy level. It encourages teaching techniques like breaking assignments into more manageable chunks for worried brains to curricular choices that emphasize “that everyone has a history and culture to be proud of.” At a school-wide level, the roadmap calls for limiting the presence of police and use of harsh discipline, including calling in hotline reports instead of working to support families.
In November’s election, NYC voters approved a new Mayor’s Office of Equity and a preamble to the City Charter that acknowledges “past and continuing harms” and calls for “compassionate and culturally-responsive health, trauma, and mental health care” and “access and opportunity to participate meaningfully in government decision-making.” In theory, this lays a groundwork for more concertedly allocating resources to healing practices and policy.
It will take flexibility and sensitivity to fund emerging practices in community healing. Too often, funding and scaling efforts lead to a kind of atomization of holistic practices that breaks their spirit. And, to be clear, healing work does not belong within the child welfare system, which operates on dynamics of coercion and threat. In a future column, I’ll address how New York City can approach contracting and procurement around inherently community-oriented work like this. That’s crucial for community groups and government to figure out. Health equity cannot just improve access to treatment; it has to ensure that marginalized communities can flourish. As New York City staggers to rebound from years of loss, rage and pain, we can speed that recovery by investing in healing.
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