Our more intimate viewing and understanding of police brutality and inequality may be more widespread today, but our knowledge of this occurring is not new. And our opportunities to make change and educate ourselves are not novel either. Just as love is always a choice, so is change. Every day, we are presented with widespread opportunities to make new decisions. When we choose fear over love and profit over people, we perpetuate trauma and violence. There is no such thing as wellness when there is racism.
Behind the Barrier: Racial Trauma
As COVID-19 began to spread internationally, uprooting life as we knew it, many have termed it the great equalizer as it necessitated social distancing measures for everyone.
However, data gathered from 40 states points to a different narrative.
“While we have an incomplete picture of the toll of COVID-19, the existing data reveals deep inequities by race, most dramatically for Black Americans:
- 1 in 1,850 Black Americans has died (or 54.6 deaths per 100,000)
- 1 in 4,000 Latino Americans has died (or 24.9 deaths per 100,000)
- 1 in 4,200 Asian Americans has died (or 24.3 deaths per 100,000)
- 1 in 4,400 White Americans has died (or 22.7 deaths per 100,000)”
And Black and Brown Americans are not only combatting the grief of the rapid and massive loss of their communities but the continued reality of racism and white supremacy. In her book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary details the passed down intergenerational trauma and current lived trauma of the descendants of enslaved people in the United States. The idea of equality within this country is lost when we start to dissect the effects of racism. Today our country is in rising dissent and disruption of the norm led by the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter,” in response to the relentless centuries of white supremacy in this nation. Revolution and uprisings do not happen because they are exciting options; they often lead to massive loss and violent pushback in many communities, especially for those with the least access to money, protection, and power. Revolution and uprisings happen when they are the only option for those who have been minoritized, infantilized, and brutalized for centuries.
Racial trauma emerges from these continued injustices. It is our duty to work to understand the root of this trauma and this pain, especially in these moments where the pain is tangible in our streets. We can not squander this opportunity with superficial sympathy and pity. We must reimagine the possibilities of compassion and empathy. We cannot love without true consideration of the experience of others. We can not love without listening and looking at the trauma of this world. Racial trauma is a reality, it is our collective reality, and for many of us it is a reality afflicted brutally on others. We must examine where we extend our efforts, where we extend our compassion, and who is considered deserving of healing.
Racial Trauma during COVID-19
The global pandemic of COVID-19 has shown us the reality of public health within our country and our world. Poverty, access to health care, class, physical environment, and stress all affect COVID-19 and its symptoms of an individual. But this pandemic is not the only global issue we can identify through its impacts on social factors. Anti-blackness and white supremacy are global phenomena that, though they affect us all, have the most detrimental effect on those most rejected by our society. Both have the most detrimental effects on Black people.
Within the United States, police brutality is a public health issue with numbers and statistics as stark as those passed from COVID-19. Police use force against Black people 7 times more often than against white people. Black men are 3.5 times more likely to be killed in police, meaning 1 in 1,000 black men will die at the hands of the police. Beyond the brutal irony of murder at the hands of those supposedly there to protect, the stress and trauma of Black death plays its own role in staggering health effects. The reality of being Black in the United States may be harder to put into numbers but can be seen in mental and physiological realities. Seeing widely broadcast death and judgement is upsetting and “can lead to depression, substance abuse and, in some cases, psychosis.” (Pbs)
Part of the rhetoric surrounding this moment and movement is, “why this one”? Why did this particular lynching lead to such massive unrest? It’s important to break this question down. The question itself reveals the issue it interrogates. This is a lynching: a public display of Black murder. This is one of many, one of many generations of public Black murders. Why this lynching? It is not a lynching that stands on its own. When we have to ask “why this one,” we know there is a problem far beyond a few “bad apples” and far beyond what three hours of anti-bias training can solve.
The pandemic of COVID-19 contributed to this. There is another, horrific irony in a man being choked to death and police responding with pepper spray during a massive pandemic of a respiratory illness. We’re in a moment of cooperation and still met with massive oppression; this pandemic is all about mutual responsibility. Mutual respect and responsibility moves us to wear a mask when we go outside, to shelter in place, to help those more at risk to the virus. And yet, in the middle of one of the largest public health crises in human history, we are still lynching Black people in the streets.
The virus has brought people to the breaking point. The oppression has brought people to the breaking point. This is ridiculous and disgusting. People’s lives are on the line just to protest. People are willing to risk their lives for this cause. Why is that not enough for us to understand the severity of the situation? If this moment of connection and interdependency that is unlike any other in our living memory is not enough to end this oppression, what will it take? If consideration and empathy and standing together is not enough, what else can we do? How many lives must be lost before we are willing to choose something different?
Racism and the Englewood Community
Racism is killing the people we love. This issue is personal, as it should be for every human being. For the past few months, we have been releasing Behind the Barrier blog posts to educate the general public on the experiences of resources access in Englewood. Why? Because when you say “racism,” no one will listen. We have to constantly prove that our community is deserving of and in need of resources. We have to give statistics, and then because our statistics are so devastating that it feels unbelievable, we have to break down our statistics and share more data and academic research. 95% of the people we serve are Black. 100% are low-income. And here are some of the statistics and barriers we have shared so far, all of which stem from racism:
- 15% of our community lives without regular access to clean drinking water.
- 85% of our children have heard gunshots.
- 62% don’t have reliable access to internet
- 59% are food insecure
- 73% are unemployed
- 41% don’t have health insurance
- 59% have been incarcerated
We serve those in greatest need in Englewood, so our data shows a stark lived experience. You might think, surely this isn’t Englewood as a whole; of course those who are coming to a nonprofit social service agency are those who have barriers. And this is true. But the resources and statistics in Englewood are still disproportionate to the city as a whole. Between Englewood and downtown there is a 30 year gap in life expectancy, the largest discrepancy between any two neighborhoods in the United States. Here are some more statistics of the Englewood community as a whole, which you can also find on our website:
- The median household income in Englewood is $25,625 — half the citywide median income of $47,831.
- Up to 700,000 jobs are located within a 30-minute train or bus ride from the Loop and North Side, while just 50,000 jobs are located within a 30-minute commute on public transit from the South Side of Chicago.
- West Englewood has the 2nd highest food insecurity rate.
- Englewood has the second highest rates of gun violence in Chicago.
- 81% of male residents report that racial or ethnic profiling by police is extremely or very common.
This is racism in action. In our work, we have witnessed police brutality, wrongful terminations, underfunded school and health care systems, inadequate mental health care, and unlivable housing. Englewood is a neighborhood where real people live, people who deserve celebrating and who deserve opportunity for the simple reason that they are human.
Stop labelling “bad neighborhoods” or “problem schools” and start naming the real truth: racism. Racism is killing our community. Dehumanizing language, policies, and decisions continue to blame Black people for a life no one would choose, one that was designed in order to uphold violent systems and unfair privileges.
Racism is deadly, it is traumatizing, and it is happening in our city.
The Impacts of Racial Trauma
What we know of the subject tells us trauma changes our brain chemistry, our minds, and our bodies. Chronic exposure to traumatic events over an extended period of time creates complex trauma. With complex trauma, the emotional and behavioral symptoms are heightened; people with C-PTSD often have difficulty in relationships, distorted views of themselves and others, challenges with self-regulation, lower self-worth, and heightened aggression, in addition to the commonly known symptoms of PTSD (re-experiencing of the trauma, dissociative behavior, unhealthy levels of stress hormones in the body, etc). Racism, and the constant fear and grief caused by racial violence, lives in the body as chronic, intergenerational trauma.
Everyone’s coping abilities and capacity differ according to numerous factors, including support systems, genetics, environment, and pre-existing mental health conditions. In other words, there is a difference between experiencing a trauma and being traumatized. This is why two people can experience the same stressful event or tragedy very differently, with very different long-term effects. The difference between two people’s experiences has nothing to do with their individual characters or morals.
- Brain / Nervous System: “Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones” (Van Der Kolk 2014). It creates a hyperactive sympathetic nervous system (an ongoing “fight/flight/freeze” response in the limbic system of the brain). As a result, the part of the brain associated with executive functioning (the prefrontal cortex) can become impaired, and patients with PTSD often have signs of prefrontal cortex dysfunction (Neurobiology of Stress 2015). “Trauma has been shown to have significant, long-term effects on brain development and IQ, especially experienced before age two, even holding constant gender, race, and socioeconomic variables” (Heartland Alliance 2017).
- Body: A person experiencing PTSD relives the trauma over and over. This can look like flashbacks and nightmares, but it can also happen on an entirely physiological level, seen in the levels of stress hormones in the body. What happens in the brain — the heightened state of fight/flight/freeze — has a domino effect on the body, signalling to release more stress hormones because the body is in danger, to redirect resources away from rest and recharge activities (e.g. sleep, digestion, memory processing, etc) and focus resources on survival activities (e.g. hyper-vigilance). When this heightened state occurs repeatedly or continuously, there can be long-term damages on the body: “Trauma is associated with higher risk of arthritis and diabetes for men, and digestive disorders and cancer for women…and is associated with shorter lifespans.” (Heartland Alliance 2017). The trauma state is the embodiment of “burning the candle on both ends,” constantly bracing oneself for danger.
- Emotions and Behavior: Trauma “overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences” (ILS 2019). PTSD can corrupt feelings of safety in one’s own body and “disrupt relationships and an underlying trust in one’s social environment and world” (Heartland Alliance 2017). Importantly, trauma impacts not only the individual who experienced the stressor, but also those around them, because of these real effects on behavior and relationship patterns. In many ways, cycles of violence can also be seen as cycles of unhealed trauma. As the common saying goes, “hurt people hurt people,” and healed people heal people. Our own biology and states greatly impacts how we show up with others.
Attempts to Cope with Racial Trauma
There is no option to opt-out of racism and the healing from its wound. The need to heal from racism exists across identities, but for people of color, healing itself is heavily policed. The non-linear nature of healing is debated, debased, and devalued when it comes to Black people.
It is important to emphasize that the trauma response is a natural effect to unnatural causes. Although the attitudes, behaviors, and coping mechanisms of individuals experiencing trauma are often seen as unhealthy or shameful, when they are in fact adaptations to a real lived experience. Everyone wants to be safe and healthy. No one asks for trauma, and certainly not chronic trauma. Trauma is not an excuse for any harmful or violent behavior, but if we do not learn to understand its manifestations within ourselves and others it will dictate our world.
Below is a list of Black people who have been murdered WHILE PERFORMING BASIC SELF-CARE ACTIVITIES. This is by no means even a nearly exhaustive list of lives that should not have been lost. They do not have to be lost in vain, but that is now up to us. When people are asked to cope with racism, they are often encouraged to do so in respectable ways. These types of coping are employed across communities to release energy and to process trauma, but they are punished when performed by Black bodies:
- Physical Exercise: Ahmaud Arbery was going for a jog when two men shot and killed him while yelling racial slurs in 2020. Trayvon Martin was a 12-year old boy walking around his neighborhood in a hoodie when a civilian shot and killed him as a fake neighborhood watch. Similar to many other claims of holding a weapon, this time a knife, while on a walk, Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times and killed by a police officer in Chicago in 2014.
- Rest: Breonna Taylor was sleeping in her home when officers with a no-knock warrant for a different home and with the suspect already in custody. They shot her eight times in her own home. She was murdered by police in 2020. After a woman walked into the wrong home, she shot and killed Botham Jean in 2019.
- Going for a drive: Philando Castile was murdered after being pulled over by the police in 2015. His 3 year-old daughter comforted her handcuffed, crying mother in the back seat of the car. Running from a routine traffic stop, the 18 year old Kenney Ahmad Watkins was shot and killed by an officer in 2016.
- Standing up for yourself and your community: After taking a Facebook Live of a protest where officers could be heard joking about a shooting, Sean Reed was shot and killed in 2020.
When we are without basic needs, the safety and opportunity needed to heal from is nearly impossible to achieve. Some of these ways to cope with trauma may be unconventional or considered illegal but none of them are punishable by death. Poverty and socio-economic class affect our resources to cope. Rehabilitation centers, counseling, space and time in nature, and other ways to process trauma are restricted to those with the means to afford it. When you’re shut out from care, these are the ways people have attempted to cope with trauma:
- Finding ways to feed your family: George Floyd was murdered by a police officer as he kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. In 2020, this police officer had multiple encounters and had worked with George previously. After a suspicion of selling loose cigarettes, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer and left for hours with his blood in the street in 2014. Redel Kentel Jones was suspected of robbery, though she had no weapon on her to identify her as the suspect of the crime in 2015. Like the cries from George Floyd of, “I can’t breathe,” Eric Garner was held in a chokehold by a police officer, making the same exclamation until he died in 2015.
- Having an emotional outburst: Amidst a manic episode, Steven Demarco Taylor was tasered multiple times and shot and killed by police in 2020. The family of Osaze Osagie would hurt himself after years of mental illness and called the police to check on him and his health in 2019. In turn, the police tasered, shot, and killed him on the spot.
This does not even begin to cover all the people who have died because of poverty-related causes, addiction, untreated mental health issues, all of which either stem from or are exacerbated by racism. If you are a non-Black person and skimmed this list or did not read it because it made you uncomfortable, go back and read it. If you are not Black and scrolled past it because these were names you’ve seen before, read it again. Read it again and wonder why this is something you feel you can bypass. Read it again and wonder how it took until George Floyd for there to be a mass movement for Black Lives Matter. Read it again.
Although everyone has the responsibility to heal their pain instead of passing it onto others — no one gets out of the human experience — not everyone has the same access to resources, healthy coping tools, and support systems to do that healing work. And when the trauma is ongoing — such as living in a neighborhood with high levels of violence, experiencing the daily fear of having a black body in a racist world, or surviving ongoing systematic abuse — it’s even harder to think of healing a harm that’s still present. How do you heal a wound when you keep getting cut?
The solution to trauma is a new way of life, one that communicates safety and opportunity in ways our body had not known before. It is important we consider the complexity of these situations and observe our own reactions. Why do we allow those in power to have the final word on whether another person deserves to live or die?
What is I Grow Chicago doing?
We recognize trauma as the result of environmental, intergenerational, and systemic harms that must be healed from the root. Our Healing Justice model advocates that radical transformation requires simultaneously addressing sources of harm and restoring our bodies and neighborhoods from trauma. We recognize that trauma lives in the body, and our societal culture of violence and dehumanization is in the air that we breathe. We know that if we don’t transform our pain, we run the risk of transmitting it to others, across generations and communities. This is where our opportunity lies, to heal and transform individually and collectively. Just as trauma lives in our bodies, so can justice, liberation, and love. Our work centers on healing from the root of trauma and creating new ways of being in and relating to the world.
In addition to our direct services, we continue to hold monthly healing circles and open mics. We have yoga on Zoom every Wednesday and Saturday. These programs are open to any and all. We hold space for one another, making hundreds of calls to the community we serve every week and communicating with one another daily.
Starting July 6, our 7th annual Summer of Hope camp will provide a space of love and healing for our kids in a safe and inspiring environment. Our six weeks together will center around Black voices and Black excellence. As such, each week will be dedicated to sharing with our students different methods of self and community healing, through exciting mediums and activities meant for them to have fun, explore their passions, and express themselves creatively.
We’re hurting and we are at low capacity right now, even as we continue our work. We’re making mistakes along the way. We have conflicts and disagreements in this work. We’re continuing to be human, in the best way that we can. We are trying to stand up for our neighbors and the community we love. We are trying to heal.
What you can do
The telling of history that portrays the civil rights movement as a week-long festival of marches is false and dangerous to building a legacy of justice work. We have been spoon fed lies that human rights were given by the powerful with ease and grace instead of relentlessly hard fought for over years and across communities. Disruption and backlash have always been a part of change. This has been tarnished in our collective memory, as our governments have a monopoly on violence in their ability to determine which instances are justified and which are criminal. We perpetuate this by refusing to educate and interrogate ourselves and by dedicating our efforts to continued ignorance instead of diverse realities. It is always more complicated than it seems. When we ignore that complexity, we lose a part of ourselves and our history.
Anti-racism is not an annual holiday or a one-time event; it should not be an over-the-top reaction when someone is killed. Black lives matter is about celebrating Black LIFE. Black people are the foundation of this country and they live and work in communities across it. Here are some ways we can all commit to celebrating and uplifting black life:
- Continue protesting. As we can see, protests get responses. Disruption of our normal day-to-day is effective for people to see a reality outside theirs. Just because it’s not on the media, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Actively and continuously look for opportunities to be a part of the movement. If you are able to be on the street, be there loudly. If you are not-black, remember that this movement is to center and listen to Black voices, and do so. Listen to the leaders and do what they’re asking.
- Shop locally. Support as many local, Black owned businesses as you can. But even if an establishment is not Black owned, local businesses need support and are often active within their communities. Local businesses are more likely to treat workers fairly and invest in people. Engage and support your community.
- Divest and boycott. Subtracting is just as important as adding when it comes to creating a more just world. What will you not support? Where will you draw the line? Look into the business practices of the products you use, and prioritize your values over convenience. Vote with your money, and take your money away from businesses that perpetuate violence and racism – through low wages, unsafe working conditions, destructive environmental practices, or harmful political affiliations.
- Educate yourself and take anti-racism trainings. In your workplace, put time into cultivating an environment that values and considers the voices of black and indigenous people of color. Allow for change. If you are asking for the opinion or time of a person of color, pay them well. They are providing you a skill and valuable efforts to make your company stronger. Have your entire staff take anti-racism trainings and then take the information from these trainings and apply it!
- Become a monthly donor to grassroots work. Monthly donations are a great way to support grassroots organizations. By committing monthly, organizations can begin to rely on steady funds. Nonprofits are constantly fundraising and looking for opportunities of support to survive. This means there’s energy that can be put into healing and creating community that is being put into sustaining the work. Our organization, I Grow Chicago, for example, could be completely sustained by just 3,000 monthly donors at $30 a month. This would be life-changing for us, as it would for any nonprofit organization. Commit to supporting grassroots organizations as an ongoing commitment, not just one-time.
- Make a financial pledge. There is a popular pledge amongst corporations going around for 15% of their profits to go to supporting Black people due to 15% of our United States population being Black. This is a good start. Make it personal. Look at the city you live in and look at what you can afford. 30% of Chicago is black, so in Chicago, 30% of your work should be to benefit Black people. Our work should be proportional and representative of your environment. Why stop there? Give more! Identify the minimum and then identify what you truly have the ability to do. Change is not going to happen when we all continue to do the bare minimum. There are diverse populations across this country, honor that and support them.
- Vote. Every time. Vote consciously and with awareness of the ballot. Educate yourself on your local elections and officials. Decisions are made across the board in every level of government, make sure your voice is heard and that you are understanding the impact of your vote. It’s more than just you. Vote with more than you in mind. Research before voting on what Black and Brown people are saying about what’s in the vote. Google is your friend.
- Interrogate yourself and your loved ones. A discussion of racial justice should not be a debate over whether a Black person should live and have basic needs or not. It needs to be a discussion of why non-black people feel these are conversations they have the right to have. Racial justice is a practice of re-humanization. What is your reaction when someone tells you they disagree or you have harmed them? When do you become defensive? Who are you willing to listen to, and why are you reading this instead of listening to Black people and trusting their words? When did you reach the point where a story of another Black person’s death at the hands of police did not stoke rage, fear, and pain in you? Did it ever? Why, if it is, is that a foreign reaction for you? Are you afraid of change or are you afraid of what you’ll lose? This includes your children; they are not too young to inherent white supremacy.
- Engage with Black creation! There are centuries of beautiful literature and art of the Black experience by Black people. Read books that challenge your viewpoints and push you to learn about diverse experiences, and then read books that are science-fiction and fantasy. Black people are PEOPLE. For everything that you have enjoyed and learned about from a white perspective, there is a high chance Black and Brown people have been discussing and exploring the same concepts for just as long and just as thoroughly. Watch a Black musical, look at African modern art, heal with Black reiki practitioners. There is so much more than whiteness, and it is beautiful.
- Make anti-racism tangible by making sacrifices. Redistribute wealth, power, and decision making so that BIPOC’s lives are not hinging on white people’s spiritual journey. Most importantly, we must consider why are we more willing to sacrifice human life than sacrifice our privileges?
- Listen honestly. Listening does not mean asking your friends of color to explain racism to you. Don’t get caught in your own echo chamber. If your company is not a safe place for BIPOC to work or you are using a specific person to diversify your group and don’t want to hear what they have to say, you are not doing “diversity” work. Diversity is not a fun addition to your understanding of the world, it is intended to be a disruption of the norm. If you stop it from being so, you are not listening, you are not helping. You are contributing to the issue.
- Remember: there are no winners with white supremacy. Remember that when you limit yourself to whiteness, you are losing so much more of this world. We are all losing in this reign of white supremacy. There are no winners. White privilege is not a goal, it is a terrifying reality that pushes white people away from their humanity and towards greed while endangering the lives of all people of color. We, as human beings, are not designed for efficiency, we are designed for communion. Do not assuage your guilt with, “anyone would want what I have, so why shouldn’t I have it?” Look past your guilt and see your fear of being without. Look past your guilt and harness that energy to look around you and wonder, is there anything inherently or naturally better about me and my people? (Yes, if you are white, white people are your people.) Look past your guilt and see your humanity. Dare to see it in yourself and others. Dare to feel the pain of centuries of oppression in the name of profit. Why would anyone want the burden of white supremacy? It is a false reality and one we must all work to abandon.
The reality we live in currently is both unsustainable and unacceptable. We should all be enraged and disgusted with the systems we have created. Our neighbors are without internet, drinking water, healthy food, and high-quality education. People around this country are murdered in cold blood in the streets, and yet it has taken years for there to be a country-wide response like the one we see today. This should make us all feel ashamed. Sit in that feeling and remember that it should never have had to take these many deaths, this much injustice, this much pain for people to be heard. We do not get out of this with a quick fix. We do not get to “go back to normal.” Dedicate yourself to this, but do not stay paralyzed in guilt. Commit to education, action, and practice. We have a choice: to commit to justice or to perish.
We draw upon Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark for wisdom in the times where I feel tired and hopeless, when I think change is impossible: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
There is no other option. In today’s day and age, ignorance is an active choice. Make a different choice. Now.
“No one can afford to not be liberated right now. Black Lives Matter is our collective liberation.” – Laura Phillips, activist, artist, IGC Summer of Hope counselor