Advocacy work can be emotionally challenging, especially for advocates who are directly affected by the topics they work on. They may simultaneously feel the issue’s impact while trying to explain it to others.
As FCNL continues to work on anti-racism, anti-bias, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, we must be mindful of this reality. Building a trauma-informed community that prioritizes the well-being of advocates is essential, even if that means examining and recalibrating business as it is usually done.
What is “Trauma-Informed” Work?
The term “trauma-informed” refers to an approach to limiting re-injury for individuals with a history of trauma. With roots in 1970s medical science, trauma-informed care is now entering spaces beyond medicine, including advocacy.
To learn more, I recently attended a workshop about trauma-informed Quaker spaces facilitated by Friend and theologian Windy Cooler at the Quaker retreat center Pendle Hill. There, I learned about psychiatrist Judith Herman’s method of limiting re-traumatization and considered how this framework could be applied to our advocacy work.
Herman identifies three facets of trauma-informed care: security, companionship, and accessibility.
Creating a Sense of Security
The first step is to ensure that the traumatized person feels secure. This could look like letting advocates know they are not required to share personal impact stories in preparation for a lobby visit.
I spoke with Larissa Gil-Sanhueza, FCNL’s senior manager for young adult programs, about how she works with program participants who are personally impacted by the issue they’re engaging. “In the past, we really emphasized [the need to share] your personal connection to the issue,” she said. “Now we say that you do not have to share anything that’s going to be hard or dangerous for you.”
While storytelling is an essential element of a successful lobby visit, our training now emphasizes that it can take many different forms. The person lobbying has the agency to decide how personal they want to be. This does not mean the space must always be comfortable for everyone, especially those just learning about an issue, but that it is centered in consent and empathy.
After security comes companionship. When discussing the training programs she leads, Gil-Sanhueza noted, “Organizers need spiritual care as they, in a way, provide care for the community they organize.”
Companionship might mean identifying a third party an organizer can debrief with after training. The whole community should have clear access to companionship and care. That includes those organizing the community and those participating in advocacy more broadly.
Creating an accessible community can have many different implications. Accessibility could mean the community is physically accessible. For example, clearly marking exits, ensuring ramps or elevators are in place, providing masks and normalizing mask-wearing, etc. In the context of advocacy, establishing a culture of accessibility that centers on community more than individualism is key to building a climate of trust.
Creating an accessible culture could also mean rejecting respectability politics while in a training about a sensitive issue and choosing to hold space for strong emotions rather than shutting them down. In an organizing space, or even in a Quaker worship context, this looks like accepting the gifts and testimonies that the whole community brings to the table, even if it might be uncomfortable for some or challenge the norms of the space.
A community-centered trauma-informed space actively rejects the white supremacy and individualism that ground our society. This is our obligation to each other. “Workplaces are set up with standards developed under white supremacy,” Gil-Sanhueza said. “It is the responsibility of every organization to recognize that and challenge it all the time.”
Why this Work Matters
We seek a world where every person’s potential can be fulfilled. Reaching that goal meaningfully, sustainably, and justly requires us to be thoughtful and intentional about how it is achieved.
Constant productivity, conformity, and the denial of emotional responses are a symptom of the oppressive systems we exist in and are too often present in communities that profess to work for justice. To challenge these systems, we must center the voices of affected communities, make space for emotional responses, prioritize safety, and hold each other in companionship. Engaging in trauma-informed practices can help us to do that while bringing us closer to the beloved community we seek.