Some initial rambling reflections on Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR)

Last week Rianna and I participated in a five day training called Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) at the Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute. Given that I had studied trauma at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in a class on Introduction to Strategic Peacebuilding and Nonviolence I expected to learn some useful practices but not a lot of genuinely new content. I was thinking of it as a kind of refresher on a first aid course. Instead, I left each day with a sense of immense gratitude and with a thousand thoughts swirling around in my head. I truly believe that wide-spread awareness about psychological trauma and resilience is crucial in many areas of life, especially for those involved in movements seeking to bring an end to violence in all forms. In order to process my own experience I am planning to write a number of short pieces which will introduce some of my key learnings and how they relate to movement work. While this is mainly meant for my own processing, I hope it will be useful to others as well. Please help me think by commenting and entering into the conversation.

As an introductory post, I thought I should write a little bit about STAR, its origins and what it is. STAR was developed by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University after the national collective trauma of the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. The goal was to develop a program to help first-responders become more aware of the impact of psychological trauma on the people they work with as well as themselves in the form of secondary or vicarious trauma.

But STAR is so much more than just that. It seeks to provide an evidence-based „bio-psycho-social-spiritual framework“ for understanding trauma and resilience. The STAR model integrates the insights of neuroscience on the way the brain functions and how trauma messes up these processes. This research also helped us understand how trauma is held in the body and how it can be released. But STAR also emphasizes the way trauma is a social phenomenon and how groups can hinder or help healing, as well as how religious and spiritual traditions, narratives, and rituals play a role in keeping people stuck in cycles of trauma, or help them break free and strengthen resilience through acknowledgement and reconnection.

Expanding the conventional individualistic and privatized understanding of healing, STAR suggests restorative justice as a way to heal the broken relationship between persons who suffered harms and persons who caused harm, as well as the communities they are embedded in. STAR understands that conflict is a natural part of social existence and necessary to transform unjust structures. Rather than seeking to resolve or manage conflict it suggests the framework of conflict transformation as a way to wage nonviolent conflict to balance power as a necessary step for genuine reconciliation to become possible.

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As a student of peace studies and theology, it was very exciting to have an actual framework that brings together a variety of approaches and practices that are often named together, without thought on how they actually relate to each other. My experience doing jail support for those risking arrest with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival over the summer gave me very fresh impressions of the impact of unhealed trauma in my own body, the bodies of those around me, and the collective bodies of our movements.

The STAR framework begins to provide such a framework in creative and helpful ways, that enables practitioners of diverse fields to understand their own unique contributions as well as their need for others and a coherent strategy. This framework centers trauma awareness and nurturing resilience as the elephant in the room, while also acknowledging the need for systemic transformation. Even though I hope to show that the STAR framework is undertheorized and needs to be further developed, especially in the areas of political analysis and strategies for making systems change, I believe community organizers, activists, and would-be revolutionaries more fluent in these areas can benefit immensely from honest and compassionate dialogue with STAR.

The last two years have been especially rough for people in progressive movements or even just people who care about decency and anyone beyond themselves. This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right-Rally in Charlottesville with its torch marches and chants specifically designed to trigger the historic trauma of the German Nazis and the Holocaust, culminating in the murder of Heather Heyer and many others being physically and psychologically scarred by white supremacists (who some argue were acting out of their own trauma). That weekend created a collective trauma for the city of Charlottesville, the wider nation, as well as individual traumas for all involved, the effects of trauma are ongoing and are being opened up again as the anniversary comes around and white supremacists assemble this time in DC.

It seems fitting to start a series on trauma, resilience, and social movements on this weekend. May it be a mourning of all we have lost in the struggle, and another step in building a new world within the shell of the old where it is easier to be good.

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