Collective Action as Healing: Anna Ortega-Williams, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College

“There’s so much promise in collective action as healing. Communities are social, we’re social creatures. When we’re together, that’s how we heal.” 

In recent years, NYC’s child welfare system has invested heavily in clinical models for addressing trauma and family stress. However, parents and youth are impacted by historical trauma and by the ongoing mental and physical impacts of racism in addition to interpersonal trauma. Community-centered approaches that address the realities of survival in disinvested neighborhoods and the potential power of collective healing and action can also be powerful in safeguarding families. 

Here, Anna Ortega-Williams, a professor at Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, shares her research on trauma healing and posttraumatic growth in the context of youth development programs and youth organizing. 

Youth development models addressing “risk and protective factors” can better center and serve Black youth, she wrote, by also including collective healing and resistance: “Anti-Black racism and historical trauma are essential factors to explore in supporting Black youth survival and success. Youth development programs could nurture Black youths’ ability to transform the hostile contemporary social conditions they encounter and support their healing from historical trauma, as well.” The same is likely true of programs for parents that knit together peer support and organizing. 

Q: What made you interested in how youth programs and advocacy can address healing from trauma, including historical trauma, and support posttraumatic growth? 

A: My lived experience, including my work as a social worker for 20 years. Being Black and growing up in public housing myself, and growing up in NYC in the ’80s and ’90s as well as having family from the South, created a particular outlook for me. All of that informed what it meant to me to be well. That’s where my questions come from around: What would support healing? What would support a community to thrive? 

My goal was to work with youth to transform challenges in their community as well as build and grow. Much of what people were experiencing in their community—lack of housing, needed repairs, access to resources—all of that impacted how people were able to thrive. Maybe you’ve set up a college readiness program, or a program where young people would learn about food justice but on the way to the farm or the program, they can’t get a cab to pick them up, or they would feel policed or harassed on the way. That shapes your outlook on the world. 

I saw the police harassment youth experienced on the way to programs, and how youth development and systemic change were always linked. You can’t talk about one without the other. Clinical practice without social justice just erases the context and makes it ahistorical. 

Q: You wrote: “The domain of collective strength removes the onus of healing and trauma recovery from the individual alone to capabilities existing in the group for ongoing protection and survival.” Can you tell us how you’ve seen this take hold? 

A: Multi-family groups can be an excellent space of coming together for parents, or whoever a youth has  defined as a point person, like an older sibling or a godparent who has become chosen family. In one group, we had two mothers whose husbands were deported. They didn’t know each other but were able to talk to each other and explore all that it meant to have their child’s father deported and to be left behind to navigate quite suddenly. What I saw at the end of that group was that these mothers were able to help each other. What a beautiful, unanticipated outcome. Another example is with Black youth organizing. One young man involved in organizing was homeless. When he found a room, he shared it with three friends. It was tough, but they made that work, and this young man was really emotional when he described it. It wasn’t just a room; they were able to take each other to a different space.

Q: You’ve written, “Trauma recovery, for those targeted for ongoing systemic violence and discrimination based on racial and ethnic identity, requires a framework that simultaneously addresses individual and mass group-level growth and healing.” Can you tell us about that?

A: I interviewed Black youth who organized in NYC, and asked What does organizing mean to them? Every single person spoke about ancestors. They were 18 to 21, and they were talking about what it meant to them to be Black, to have a shared collective identity. In their view, there wasn’t a disconnect between past, present and future. Black Lives Matter was, for them, about building Black future. Honoring what already is true. 

I would also say that the young people I interviewed were really harmed by systemic violence, whether witnessing, even on social media, or directly impacted. They spoke about the pain they felt, where they were when George Zimmerman wasn’t indicted. One organizer cried for two hours when Trump was elected. Decisions at the macro level have a micro impact. So with organizing, some relief came from being together and being able to turn to systems and say, “I’m here,” to demand transformation, social change. 

Collective self-care acknowledges that there is a collective self, a larger identity that we have. If someone is harmed in Baltimore, there’s a part of me that mourns collectively. Care is central, and if we can understand that care is collective, we can achieve a paradigm shift from individualized care to collective care in how Black people organize against systemic violence. 

If care were centered, it also wouldn’t be separate from any of the institutions we have. If institutions had care as part of their value system, they could use that to evaluate policies, asking: If care were centered, what would we do? 

Q: In the pandemic we saw so much mutual aid and collective action. How do you think collective care and collective action in the pandemic might have helped New Yorkers?

A: There’s so much promise in collective action as healing. There’s been a lot of research out about mutual aid that took place, that happened between neighbors able to respond to each other in ways that were faster and easier than formal institutions. People were already shopping for each other, and then food was distributed through formal and informal and formal networks. Communities are social, we’re social creatures. When we’re together, that’s how we heal. 

The pandemic was about extreme isolation for many. Others had to be active, present and relied upon in restaurants, social service industries. People were in the pandemic in ways that were really terrifying. If we learned nothing else, we learned that communities had solutions. We can bear witness, honor those and invest in those, as a form of trauma recovery.