Reckoning with Trauma 16 Years After

It was November of 2015 and I was in Atlanta, Georgia for a discussion with a group of South Asian lawyers and advocates about my book on post 9/11 America. As I read aloud passages about the 2012 massacre at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin that claimed the lives of six people, I could feel my voice shaking. I soon became aware that several people were openly crying in the room.

When the event ended, Aparna Bhattacharyya, a dear friend and a seasoned advocate for immigrant survivors of family and sexual violence, came up to me. “The Oak Creek passages are really difficult to hear,” she said. “Have you thought about doing a moment of silence so that we can all reflect and breathe together?” I looked at her, not understanding fully. “It’s a collective trauma for us as South Asians,” she explained. “We need to heal together.”

The next day, when she dropped me off at the airport, Aparna was even more direct. “I’m worried about you. You’ve been doing this since 9/11. What are you doing to manage your own trauma?” I laughed off her concern (“we’re all managing somehow, right?”), all the while knowing that she had hit a nerve inside me. I had heard these questions before. But I couldn’t imagine spending time focusing on my own emotional state of mind while people were directly dealing with the impact of Islamophobia and racism. A few weeks later, a package arrived in the mail from Aparna with books on healing.

After the initial flurry of the book tour ended, I reflected on Aparna’s observations by taking a long look backwards. I had to admit that I probably hadn’t dealt adequately with the impact of September 11th on my own life. In the days that followed 9/11, I had sprung into action, and I’m not sure that I ever stopped. Over the following decade and a half, I have borne witness to a litany of crises targeting our communities. I am not the only one.

Many of us who work with Muslim, Arab, South Asian and Sikh communities have had front-row seats to events that drew national attention after 9/11, such as the Ground Zero mosque backlash, Rep. Peter King’s hearings on Muslim radicalization in Congress, and the 2012 massacre in Oak Creek, just to name a few. We hold inside the stories of students facing bullying, of people being fired from their jobs because of their names or faiths, of fathers and brothers separated from family members during national security sweeps like special registration, of immigrant neighborhoods changing overnight as surveillance and deportations became daily occurrences, and of comforting loved ones who have lost family members and friends to hate violence. We have also had deeply personal experiences with people whom we organize with, represent, and assist, and many have become our lifelong friends.

At the same time, the organizations that we created or worked in after 9/11 were mired in perpetual rapid response. We were always on guard because not a week passed, it seemed, without a person attacked on the street, profiled by law enforcement or thrown off a flight. Our communities’ lives and futures were at stake. As a result, we were never able to fully slow down enough to focus. We didn’t have the time and resources to proactively shape organizational culture, put the basics in place like updating databases and donor lists, build long-term relationships with partner groups, or simply move beyond being post-9/11 communities. These seemed like luxuries that we had to push off for another day, when the crises would dissipate and there weren’t storm clouds always looming ahead.

But, sixteen years later, Muslim, Arab, South Asian and Sikh organizations and advocates continue to face similar challenges, especially given the current political climate. Today, our communities are caught in the crossfire of deportations, the Muslim and refugee bans, and a barrage of hate violence. As we mark the 16th anniversary of 9/11 and as we fortify ourselves for what is ahead, we must acknowledge the toll that the culture of crisis interventions, the cycles of rapid response, and the work of witnessing and sharing trauma are all having on our organizations, activists, and advocates.

On the Front Lines of Rapid Response

We know very little about how racial justice activists, including those who work on post 9/11 issues, absorb and address trauma. A 2015 report by human rights activists found a dearth of research and documentation on trauma and resilience in the humanitarian field. What about activists and organizers in racial and immigrant justice movements? What is the impact of witnessing and managing racial violence and bigotry on our psyches and bodies?

Sasha W, an organizer with the National Queer Alliance of Asian and Pacific Islanders, has been reflecting on the impact of long-term trauma. Sasha told me:

When I get a call from a trans South Asian friend struggling to heal a relationship with their family, I think of my own journey, learning to have patience with the ways that my immigrant family has needed to grapple with my queerness compounding the racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia that we already faced. There have been many times in this work, especially in the past year, that I’ve wondered how long I can sustain myself in our movements, when the trauma that I hold hits so close to home. As organizers who are so often holding space for loved ones, community members, family members — how do we find space to release that trauma? How do we find space for our own healing?

Finding spaces for healing requires acknowledging trauma. Recently, I have been learning about the concept of trauma stewardship from Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, whose work is focused on assisting front-line responders in various sectors and movements. Before connecting with Laura, I had never thought that I was dealing with trauma. It seemed self-indulgent and privileged to call anything that I felt trauma when there were people dealing with the direct impact of hate violence, deportations, and bullying on a daily basis. Even talking openly about the toll of the work (much less, write about it) often feels like I am taking up valuable time and space.

But Laura’s experiences with front-line responders in a variety of sectors can be instructive for those of us who work in post-9/11 America. When we regularly witness, document, share, and address the impact of racial violence, Islamophobia, profiling, discrimination, and state-sponsored bigotry, we are absorbing trauma that is historic, generational, collective, and personal. This type of trauma is not merely about compassion fatigue or burnout. And it is neither vicarious nor secondary. When we work directly with Muslim and Sikh communities facing hate violence, surveillance, or profiling, we are acutely aware that these incidents aren’t happening to someone else with remote histories and experiences. It’s deeply personal.

That is why for many of us, trauma can have significant physical, spiritual, and emotional consequences at an individual level. It can also affect how we do our work, the organizations we build, and the liberation of our own communities.

The concept of trauma stewardship starts with recognizing and acknowledging the toll of the environment in which many movement leaders find themselves. “To be able to sustain for the long haul, it is essential to understand the harm that can come to us, individually and collectively, as a result of being exposed to suffering over time,” Laura told me. “We cannot dismantle oppression out there while recreating oppression in here — whether that ‘in here’ is in our bodies, our families, our communities or our organizations.”

Resilience in a Time of Resistance

In this particular moment, when the world is on fire, is there really time and space to pause and talk about trauma, to create spaces for healing? Every week, the news reopens wounds inside us that have barely begun to mend. The names of hate crime victims, like Nabra and Srinivas, flow off our tongues while leaving holes in our hearts. We respond to and send calls to action about bans, walls, and raids. We worry about being targeted and monitored ourselves. We receive and read hate mail. We build safety plans and identify meeting points for our families and colleagues. We go from meeting to conference call to tweets to rallies.

I can’t do this anymore. I am broken. I am numb to the news today. I am checking out for awhile. I can’t show up to any more rallies. I am exhausted. I just lost my patience again with a colleague. All my resources are depleted. I’m having a hard time staying positive around our staff. I’m surviving, barely.

Since the election, these are the types of reactions that many of us are having privately. And because non-profit and movement culture isn’t always conducive to sharing these feelings publicly, we create facades of resilience and strength.

Darakshan Raja, the interim executive director of the Washington Peace Center and Co-Chair of the DC Justice for Muslims Coalition, has witnessed the toll of the current political climate in various movement spaces. She told me:

I have seen many activists including myself go through phases of trauma from numbness, fear, survivor’s guilt, anxiety, fatigue and stress. When you are positioned as someone who is expected to have the answers for how to respond, many of us cope by pushing our own emotions away to clear our minds in order to respond. I think many people in our movement spaces are expected to show resilience, clarity, direction, and serve as anchors. In having these expectations, we aren’t given the spaces to be a hot mess and find the support to process the trauma that we walk into the work with and the trauma incurred from movement spaces, the political climate, historical trauma, and have adequate space to rest, ground ourselves and heal.

As Darakshan points out, the expectations placed on movement leaders and organizers can be impossible to meet. We are expected to have a second skin, are expected to flawlessly know how to do this work despite a lack of training, coaching, mentorship or resources, are expected to be “on call” 24/7, and are expected to exude resilience and strength. At the same time, we are not one-dimensional people. We are simultaneously dealing with a range of life events such as managing broken relationships, tending to ailing parents, raising children, and dealing with illnesses.

In the wake of the election, Puni Kalra (a clinical psychologist and founder of the Sikh Healing Collective) and Razia Kosi (a mental health therapist and activist) held a number of sessions for South Asians about managing trauma. They heard from many activists who wanted to know how to do the work they were passionate about, while managing the emotional toll. Puni told me:

While we know that we can only take care of others as well as we take care of ourselves, the first things I often see diminished are our quality of sleep, lack of exercise, healthy diet, and our ability to set boundaries with ourselves and others. It feels selfish to say no to anyone, especially in these moments of crises. We overestimate our energy and just keep giving and giving until we have depleted ourselves in every possible way. Sometimes we subconsciously pride ourselves on being martyrs. But we can only support and heal others when we have the awareness and management of our own emotions and triggers.

Darakshan and Puni point out what we all know to be true: the toll of trauma reaches beyond ourselves and into our organizations, into the work that we do, and even into our personal lives. I know from my own experiences as an executive director that when the organizational culture is fast-paced, chaotic, and crisis-oriented, it is far easier to make frequent errors in judgment. We tend to replicate dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics within our organizations and we are prone to distrusting our partners and allies. Competition for funding and publicity, the lack of resources available for long-term capacity building and our anxiety in keeping organizations afloat, our own judgments of each other, and “celebrity activism” expectations further complicate the way we show up in movement spaces.

The resistance may demand resilience, but how can we respond when trauma wears us down?

A Culture of Community Care

Recently, Melissa Harris-Perry wrote a piece about Squad Care that women of color practice in times of tremendous strife. That is, we depend on one another to ask tough questions, to hold us when we break down, and to share moments of joy. Squad care supplements the notion of self-care, which is the go-to prescription for people who are worn out, including activists and organizers.

But vacations, mental health days, and afternoons at the spa are not enough (not to mention that they are unaffordable or inaccessible for most people). We must supplement self-care with community care in our movements. This understanding has to permeate the non-profits where we work, and the community spaces that we enter. After all, the well-being and success of our movements depend on the well-being of the activists, organizers, and storytellers who animate them.

If our movements, campaigns, and organizations are expected to succeed in post 9/11 America and beyond, we need cultural, systemic and institutional changes that respond to the emotional toll of collective, individual, and historic trauma. At a bare minimum, people working in non-profits must have paid access to health care, including mental health and alternatives to traditional medicine, as well as sabbaticals, fellowships, retreats, and rest periods. We must create circles, such as the healing justice practice spaces recommended by Native, Black and Latinx organizers, inside and outside of the non-profit complex where we can be vulnerable and open enough to share the collective, intergenerational, historic and personal traumas that arise in being part of liberation work. We must find ways to explore the “rupture of 9/11”, as the Asian American Literary Review called it, and to share the ongoing trauma that we face a decade and a half later. We must lean on the wisdom of healers from communities of color such as the newly-formed Oxalis Collective, and welcome their offerings into our spaces.

As movement leaders and activists, we must uplift each other for deciding to sit a crisis out. We must trust each other to say: “I am not on the front lines on this particular day, but I know that my squad has it covered.” We must ask ourselves the tough questions of why we show up, what values drive us, and when it is time to step back or step away.

Funders must alter their funding priorities so that organizations are not caught in an endless loop of rapid response and crisis intervention. In the immediate aftermath of the post 9/11 backlash, funders often provided rapid response grants without investing in long-term capacity and infrastructure. But this short-term approach forced many of our organizations to remain in a cycle of crisis response rather than build the systems and staff our communities need for the long run. Funders must invest in campaigns and capacity building simultaneously. Funders must also make community care resources an integral part of grants provided to organizations engaged in rapid response.

For those of us who have been working in the shadow of 9/11 for years, this moment marks an especially daunting time. But we can draw from our own well of resiliency. That well is full of the stories of our ancestors who survived partition, caste discrimination, riots, and forced migrations in their homelands, and restrictions on becoming citizens and owning land in America. It is full of the stories that we ourselves can share about our communities over the past 16 years. We may be reluctant and weary warriors, but we can course-correct, if we have the vision, resources, institutional support, and time and space to heal. We are, after all, whom we have been waiting for all this time.

Deepa Iyer was the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) for a decade. She is the author of We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future, and a 2017 Open Society Foundations Equality Fellow.