‘Like a ticking time bomb or like a callous?’ Reflections on trauma, resiliency, and human rights work during the pandemic
By Maria Isabel Di Franco Quinonez, Eliza Hollingsworth, Lily Lucero, Sofia Jordan & Lili Spira
At the outset of the social uprising in Chile nine months ago, human rights lawyer Danny Rayman returned to his apartment in the Netherlands feeling helpless and anguished after attending a protest at the Chilean embassy. Far from his home in Santiago, he was bearing witness through social media to severe police brutality against protesters demanding “una vida digna” (a dignified living) — the first massive uprising of its kind in Chile since resistance to the Pinochet regime.
Rayman jumped into action, creating a digital archive for the user-generated content that was flooding Facebook and Twitter. His goal was for this to become a tool for future efforts at “reparación y justicia” (reparations and justice). With a group of researchers from Datos Protegidos — a data privacy non-profit in Chile — he received, investigated, classified and archived hundreds of videos of the police brutality taking place on a daily basis. They named their initiative Testigo en Linea, or Online Witness.
Every day, they stayed up into the late hours of the night to closely monitor the incoming content, watching a never-ending stream of graphic images and videos filled with the violence in their streets. They spent six months doing little else.
When the pandemic hit, the Testigo en Linea team faced the perfect storm: the convergence of the curfew implemented during the social uprising immediately followed by strict quarantining amidst COVID-19. Rayman and his team were accustomed to long hours of solitary work behind screens, but nobody could have foreseen this lengthy endeavor with no end in sight.
Some 5,000 miles away in Berkeley, California, our team of student investigators from the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center Investigations Lab (HRC Lab) grappled with the heightened difficulties of conducting open source human rights investigations while facing shelter-in-place measures that forced us to work remotely. Similar to the team in Chile, the U.S. team worked with content related to police violence close to home and subsequently with the stresses of the U.S. election.
As we’ve learned about open source investigation techniques to find and verify videos and photos for human rights work, we’ve spent hours thinking about the trauma faced by our partners, the secondary trauma that could be caused by viewing graphic imagery, and the ways we can work to keep ourselves safe. We know that trauma can have resounding effects on both those who experience violence firsthand and the researchers, activists, and social media users who bear witness to it.
After months of collaboration between Testigo en Linea and our HRC Lab team we asked researchers on both teams for their insights into the effects of viewing disturbing visual content in social isolation. The strange confluence of our physical disconnection from each other and our online connection to the human rights abuses we’re investigating makes this time uniquely difficult.
What follows is a Q&A among members of our teams in the U.S. and Chile with shared and differing perspectives on how to foster mental health and wellbeing while working for human rights in these times.
How have you and your team navigated the trauma associated with this work and how has that process impacted you?
“I felt a lot of pressure because I was making decisions on my own and leading the team without any partner/mentor to talk things over with.” — Danny
“Being proactive with conversations is key to helping people and making sure the goal, the purpose of the work is not falling by the wayside. We try to work together on Zoom even if we don’t talk on Zoom. Just working side by side makes a difference because you know you have a small community backing you up at least.”
“Many people who work in this field on a volunteer basis don’t have this [resiliency training]. We need to have groups where people can talk about what they are seeing, maybe receive some emotional support, get some therapy even when we are affected in our everyday life, which is something that does happen. Looking back it would have been great to have some kind of training or support, which we definitely did not.”
“Supporting the team also has to do with having good technical training. If we’re better at verification work we can get things done in a more efficient way, which is also a way of taking care of ourselves and a good resiliency strategy.” — Danny
What are some of the changes you have experienced while working during the quarantine?
“The confinement has been really different because during the social crisis [in Chile] our confinement was basically a curfew. We weren’t allowed to go out. Now we don’t want to go out. It’s different because I don’t want people to go out whereas during the social crisis it was the other way around I was confined, but we were all happy about people being out during the day and expressing themselves and applying pressure.” — Ignacio
“I live with young kids so if I have a meeting on a sensitive topic I go outside on the patio or into a different room to discuss those kinds of things. I guess if I really need some private time I wait until like really late at night to work. So maybe like around 12 am.” —John
“Pre-Covid, often I would just be here at my office which was really fun because there would be students coming in and out all the time and people working or studying in the office. I’d go downstairs for meetings or people would come up here for meetings—a lot of in-person interaction and connection and chaos and long hours and busyness. Even so, it wasn’t as exhausting as it is today, doing all of my work on the computer.”
What troubles you most about the work that you do?
“For me it feels really different to listen to audio, and yelling and screaming, all of that, in a language that you know and can recognize, especially when it feels like home to you, versus working on other projects where you can’t understand the language at all.” —Wendy
“Seeing normal everyday people turned into monsters in terms of their social media expressions, that was very impressive and to this day it’s sort of mind-boggling. I didn’t know I lived in a country that was able to show that kind of response to anything.” —Ignacio
“I find geographic markers — related to specific places I’ve been to in Chile — and audio content most triggering. Hearing screams and cries as people are put into police vans is particularly difficult. Additionally, I have found I usually do not take on cases specifically related to incarcerated people or about eye trauma after having worked on the [Gustavo] Gatica case.”
“One thing we talk about related to resiliency is agency and knowing you have control. I think that is a big part of this pandemic is it feels really uncertain and you feel out of control. You can’t necessarily protect yourself and you can’t protect your loved ones.”
“There is the fear of participating in this work and having it uncovered, especially since I am having trouble getting my Russian passport renewed, or that it might negatively impact family in Russia.” — Danil
How has this work affected you?
“I had difficulty sleeping, I cried often, I guess I went into some degree of depression. I was extremely shocked. Especially in the beginning it was extremely tiring to be exposed to all these human rights abuses happening in my own country in my own time, not somewhere else and not like a remembrance, but you know, next door, seeing the military march through the streets was awful.” —Ignacio
“I am worried about the second hand trauma catching up to me and I’m not sure if it’s like a ticking time bomb or like a callus.” —Danil
What do you do to take care of yourself?
“I try to be kind to myself and acknowledge that during quarantine I might be less productive and that that is ok. When I was doing verification work before quarantine I was very conscious of how much I liked to ride my bike, so I really valued my commute and tried to go to the library to do the work so that I could have that personal space. I would also have a small candy or chocolate I really liked at night. I remember thinking ‘I wouldn’t do this every day but since we are in the middle of a stressful and scary moment I can give this small gift to myself.’” — Josefina
“The politically correct response would be: yeah well I limited the amount of work I did everyday. I stopped every 45 minutes i had something to eat, something to drink. I made sure I had slept well. I turned to a totally different subject matter for reading before going to sleep. These are all very obvious things that we should have done and we didn’t do and that in hindsight I think are absolutely necessary.” —Ignacio
“Hugging to me is very important. And practicing mindfulness meditation, because it can help you be more aware of yourself and your environment.” — Lili
Why do you do this work?
“I mean you could always tell your manager that you’re not comfortable with your workload, but it just felt like I had a huge motivation to keep going because I felt very devoted to helping this cause. Even indirectly, even not in the streets protesting, I felt this was very important for me to do.” —Wendy
“As someone who has a lot of social anxiety protests can be really hard for me because I get very overwhelmed by crowds, so this is a way that I can help without detracting.” —Lili
Do you have any overall takeaways you would like to share?
“I find that it is very beneficial to look to the past for inspiration regarding the human experience. It helps to place yourself within the bigger picture.” —Sofia
“While being away (I was in the Netherlands) and starting Testigo en Linea, I felt very isolated at first. But with time, I realized that my territory, my community, was the Testigo en Linea team. In the end, being away from home can be hard but as long as there is a team and community that you can count on and feel supported by the work becomes more doable.” —Danny
“I think every team should have psychological support, both individually and as a community. It is crucial to have a support system from the start.”
“The thinner that we’re stretched the more vulnerable we can be—both for our own mental health, but also for the work. To go deeper rather than wider is a good thing… I haven’t done it yet, but in theory!” —Andrea
“You need to take care of yourself. Period. Exclamation exclamation exclamation mark! This kind of work necessitates that you have a lot of attention to detail, so make sure you’re in the right place so you can go full throttle with the precision, but not full throttle with throwing yourself into it cause that doesn’t really help anyone. Don’t give in to your guilt and emotions because it’s not about you.” —Lili
. . .
From Chile to the U.S., being constantly “plugged in” during the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a dramatic increase in the general awareness of social issues, especially in relation to cases of police brutality and abuse of power. When conducting open source investigations, we bear witness to human rights violations from behind our screens while simultaneously hearing and watching it all transpire outside our very own windows.
The conventional understanding of self-care is not sufficient in addressing the ripple effects of the traumas we encounter while doing this work. We must go beyond the conventional notion of self-care that pushes a standardized prescription of self-care practices, depicts resiliency as a face mask for sale on Amazon, and burdens individuals with single-handedly upholding resiliency practices even in the most grim of circumstances.
What we’ve learned from talking with our colleagues in Chile and from our own team during the conditions of the pandemic, social uprising, and quarantine is that we cannot take care of others if we do not take care of ourselves.