Creating Community to Heal Collective Trauma

Their hug was sincere, the tears and cooing tender. And those in the embrace, Nicole and Janet—not their real names—were of different races, classes, histories. They had also become friends: “sisters from another mother.” Their work on a documentary, Street Reporter, had brought them together. The film interviewed people experiencing homelessness in Washington, D.C. during the Covid epidemic when many encampments were destroyed, leaving most tent residents displaced and in search of hard-to-find hospitable outdoor spaces.

Nicole and Janet’s friendship and partnership challenge traditional notions of community: a homogenous group of people who live in the same neighborhood, share the same values and social norms, and have similar life experiences. But what if our understanding of community expanded to include, well, everyone? Wouldn’t it be easier, then, to extend compassion and care to our neighbor, whether they lived down the hall or on a patch of grass across the street? And what if the collective trauma we are experiencing in the form of dehumanization and violence brought us together?

The term “collective trauma” has many interpretations. One focus is on the intergenerational aspects of trauma: the genocide of Native Americans; the history of African American slavery; the Holocaust. Here, collective trauma refers to the present moment where global, national, and local violence have been overwhelming, socially alienating, and have left many feeling powerless to exact agency to change it. This is no surprise: overwhelm, social alienation, and powerlessness are intrinsic traits of trauma.

At the time of this writing, stories of collective trauma in the media have highlighted global violence; namely, the war between Ukraine and Russia and the war against women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran. And in the U.S., the number of mass shootings and deaths due to gun violence continues to grow exponentially. The Gun Violence Archive, an organization that tracks mass shootings, has identified 274 mass shootings since January 2023. On the local level, in Washington, D.C., where I live, Axios D.C. has reported that violent crimes involving guns shot up 40% from 1,573 in 2017 to 2,203 in 2022. Although the statistics are daunting, the epidemic of gun violence in the U.S. has spurred on the creation of national and local organizations to shore up hope and take action towards healing collective trauma.

One such national organization is Survivors Empowered, based in Denver and founded by Sandy and Lonnie Phillips after their daughter and eleven others were killed in the Aurora Colorado Theater Mass Shooting in 2012. Survivors Empowered provides support groups for survivors of gun violence and an Oral History Film project where survivors share their experiences; spaces where the voices and narratives of survivors are expressed and honored is a fundamental way that healing happens in community.

On a local level, the organization Peace for D.C., is working to decrease the number of homicides in Washington, D.C. by 5%, according to their website. To this end, Peace for D.C. provides trauma healing and mental health care to victims, survivors of violence, and peace workers who outreach to under resourced and underserved communities in the District. These clinical supports serve as preventive measures against gun violence by addressing the overwhelm, social alienation, and powerlessness—those traits again—that many experience in communities vulnerable to violence. Strategies for healing include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)—a form of therapy that uses, among other techniques, the reframing of negative thoughts to create positive behaviors and feelings—as well as yoga and meditation.

In conjunction with national and local, city-wide organizations, smaller scale neighborhood-based groups have also been tending to ongoing community needs: mutual aid collectives serve neighbors facing adversity, including those who continue to experience homelessness; neighborhood councils oversee everything from liquor licenses to bike paths and traffic stops; and associations promote the civic, economic, and cultural welfare of neighborhoods.

Anyone who has participated in a community is familiar with the challenges: competing interests, limited resources, and that one ornery member, come to mind. And yet. These obstacles seem puny compared to the possibility of beginning to heal our collective trauma, together.

Celina Chelala, LICSW, LCSW-C is a clinical social worker practicing mental health therapy in Washington, D.C.