In the second part of Organizations Like Bamboo: Resilience in Colombia Andrew Willis Garcés discusses training and resourcing and shares some prompts for reflection.
TRAINING TO MULTIPLY
Some psicosocial practitioners see themselves as “popular therapists,” inspired by popular education, and focus especially on multiplying to scale the number of people that can be trained as lay practitioners of psychological wellness promotion. As Hada Luz explains, “we start from the root ‘psycho-’, of recovering experience and understanding the context of community life. Sociopolitical violence impacts our lives and it’s worth articulating the effects on our emotional well-being.”
Workshops with this goal of recovering from traumatic experience articulating its effects are often designed for up to several dozen community members to participate, with many activities taking place in smaller groups. AVRE emphasizes drawing support from others in reenacting trauma, often using expressive arts and sometimes psychodrama. Participants are asked to focus both on telling the story of the traumatic event and expressing the feelings they experienced. AVRE also encourages reflection on how community members responded in the moment and afterwards, and draws attention to the supportive practices already in use in the community towards trauma recovery.
AVRE and Justicia y Paz both train psychological wellness and resiliency promoters to provide atención psicosocial year-round. They begin by identifying community leaders and members who want to work for the care of the whole community and community organizations, and engage them in long-term leadership development.
Training topics can include how to approach a survivor, conducting therapeutic interviews, techniques for expressing pain and hurt using art, conscious breathing, and massages designed to bring about harmony and relaxation. All three groups support participants to claim the collective memory of their communities, and to recognize even the positive changes of living through trauma, echoing the emerging field of Post-Traumatic Growth research. AVRE distributes simple, colorful curricula that participants can cut-out into numbered facilitator prompts, ready to use for leading workshops.
Many workshops and facilitated rituals culminate in an act of creation and memory. These include houses of memory, including photos and objects of community members who have been disappeared or assassinated, or building a “tree of life,” in which stones painted with the names of victims are places around living trees.
In Medellín AVRE invited a social justice theatre troupe, Arlequín y los Juglares, to help a partner organization develop a play representing their political and emotional struggle, and provided a workshop on bodywork with the families of disappeared trade union leaders in Barrancabermeja. “Through those methods the people talk about resources and how each of us resists, rape survivors for instance have a ton of resources they draw on including knowledge of human rights,” Constanza from AVRE explains.
NOT ABOUT EXPERTS – RESOURCEFULNESS AS RESILIENCE
Although rooted in and led by professionals with psychiatric and psychological training, all four groups insist that the psychosocial approach is not about expert knowledge – to bring tools and boost resources doesn’t require any specialized training. “We’re systemic in our approach, but we incorporate whatever works,” Constanza says. AVRE’s respect for displaced people is evident in their vocabulary, having discarded the word “client” for the more peer-based relationship of “consultant.” Illustrating the integrative nature of the work, Justicia y Paz has a reporter on staff, “because it’s important to support people to tell their stories, and to know they’re being heard,” according to Hada Luz. AVRE has also had communication specialists, anthropologists, social workers and attorneys as team members. Lawyers and other legal professionals help complete their “integrative accompaniment,” and supporting communities to file official denouncements and seek justice for atrocities is a key strategy. Several noted that just as expressing pain and suffering is important, seeking justice and giving voice to outrage through official channels can be equally therapeutic. They pay careful attention, too, to the possibility of retraumatization inherent to that process.
Many groups also make use of bodywork including identifying how emotional harm shows in physical symptoms, and use techniques from Gestalt therapy and sociodrama. Most organizations also integrate a wellness understanding in their internal work, as trauma exposure is unavoidable. Hada Luz explains: “As a staff collective we take advantage of mystical elements, by that I mean the power of each of us to express what we’re feeling. We use candle-lighting rituals, we sing, all of this generates more trust in the face of what can be a cold and anguished environment. We make sure to call attention to the feeling we carry in our bodies, to how our families are doing, etc.”
Likewise, AVRE pays part of the co-pay for its workers to get personal therapy and other healing services, including group coaching, and have one week off every six months for mental and emotional health. And they also make play a requirement. “Everyone, down to the office security guard, we all go on extreme sports trips together,” says Constanza.
Despite the commitment to internal sustainability, resources have been in shorter supply in the last three years; some groups interviewed have lost 40% of their funding. Many other funds now are being allocated only for state functionaries, as COPSICO’s Hada Luz describes: “More and more of our work is now being taken over by state agencies, who are coopting our language and talking about ‘integrative accompaniment’ and using ‘healing rituals’. It’s difficult, obviously, because the armed forces are a principal perpetrator of rights violations, and most crimes go unsolved.”
COPSICO’s founders are looking for new ways to sustain their work. They’re offering consultation to human rights attorneys on working with survivors, and consult with large agencies to develop healthy work environments. “It’s not just about self-care, it’s about creating an environment of care. We try to bring in non-verbal elements, like floral essences, harmonizing massages, body work in general that offers an allusion to our wholeness as human beings.”
As another way of subsidizing their human rights work, COPSICO’s two staff, both psychologists, are taking on therapy clients and also offer psychological consultation services to companies and nonprofits, in addition to their search for resources as an organization. They also collaborate with attorneys and others accompanying rural movements to jointly look for grants. For future resources, they’re thinking about how to avoid relying on international funders and state agencies. “A collective of human rights attorneys we know has purchased a parking lot as a way of generating income.”
- Rituals for Reflection by Cátedra Libre Ignacio Martín Baró
- Article about the collaboration between the ACVC & AVRE
- COPSICO (Colectivo Psicosocial Colombiano)
- Taller de Vida
TOWARDS WELLNESS ORGANIZING – MY QUESTIONS
Reflecting on this has brought up a number of questions for me, about my own work with organizations.
- What wellness practices are in our comfort zone? What about, on the edge of that zone? Which seem hopelessly irrelevant, “woo-woo” or “out there”?
- What are the planned or unplanned rituals that sustain us in good times?
- Are there others we can adapt from our cultural traditions to meet needs we’ve identified or support more goodness to emerge?
- How do we make time to bring our wellness practices into conscious awareness as an organization? As movements?
- What themes surface regularly for us around stress?
- How can we boost organizational resourcefulness as a way to stave off “crisis” around access to resources?
What do these questions provoke in you? Feel free to share your responses in the comments below.
Andrew Willis Garcés has accompanied Colombian social movements for several years. He is based in Austin, Texas and facilitates groups, helps develop campaign strategy and also works as a mental health counselor. A trainer with Training for Change/Talleristas por la Justicia, he writes at www.porvida.org. He has also written for Bitch Magazine, Left Turn, UpsideDownWorld.org and NarcoNews.com, among others.
Thanks to Andréa Schmidt, Carmen Andrea Rivera, Griffin HY and the people interviewed in this article for editing help and critical feedback.