Collective Trauma and Creativity: Pregnant with Possibility

In Bujumbura, Burundi, a young man protests Burundian
President Nkurunziza's run for a third presidential term.
Copyright Reuters/Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana
Once again, a small African country has erupted in violence. This time in Burundi, mainly young men are in the streets, protesting the president's run for a third, five-year term, despite the two-term constitutional limit. The government has banned the protests, calling the protesters "terrorists." So far, 12 people have been killed, according to protesters, although the government claims only six people have died. Last week's constitutional court decision, ruling the president's third term as constitutional, was met with cynicism, as it is widely believed that the Constitutional Court is under the thumb of the president. Four of the seven court judges, including the Vice President of that court, have fled the country. 

In Minneapolis, about 1,500 people marched in support of
the people of Baltimore. Copyright Fibonacci Blue. 
At the same time in Baltimore, Maryland, another American community erupted in response to the death of yet another young black man at the hands of the police. Peaceful protests as well as property destruction, arson, and looting ensued. These incidents prompted a public debate about the role of violence in civil disobedience, overlaid with racial overtones.

Thousands of miles away from both, I watched, listened, and grieved, wishing that there was something I could do. And then I remembered a recent conversation I had with Dr. Eberhard Riedel, a psychoanalyst and photographer. Combining his unique sets of skills, Dr. Eberhard founded Cameras without Borders: Photography for Healing and Peace to address issues of "collective trauma" in communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other countries. He is particularly concerned with the "intergenerational transmission of collective trauma," which if unchecked, "fuels ever-more destructive cycles of violence."

According to Dr. Riedel, "A traumatized psyche is unable to reflect or imagine and thus experiences itself as isolated from the rest of humanity." Dr. Riedel's work is intimately connected with his own history. He was born in Germany in 1939: "I grew up with an awareness of the terror of Nazi death camps and the chaos of war."    

Through photography, Dr. Riedel's works with communities to reawaken their curiosity (which he distinguishes from hope). Photography for Healing and Peace uses participatory photography methods as part of a holistic approach to healing. As Dr. Riedel explains, in one of his workshops, "a woman who survived sexual violence exclaimed, 'The picture in the camera is like a pregnancy,' and thereby transcended the limitations of her shattered mind. Then imaginatively thinking about what might be gestating in the camera, she rekindled the struggle of giving birth to her future."

A workshop participant of Photography for Healing and Peace shares, "The picture in the camera is like a pregnancy." 
Copyright Eberhard Riedel.

Meanwhile, another public dialogue is underway among some of the largest foundations committed to addressing the world’s most intractable problems: Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and Skoll Foundation.  The topic?  The power of the arts and storytelling.  

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker recently expounded on the role of the arts to him personally -- and to the Ford Foundation -- in an essay called, On the Art of Change (adapted from his April 17, 2015 speech at the Skoll World Forum). He begins: "For as long as I can remember, the arts have imbued energy and meaning into my life. . .  In many ways, because of the arts, my economic situation never limited my expectations of myself. The arts broadened my horizons -- my very sense of the possible."

He continues, "I am a fervent believer in the transformational, uplifting power of artistic expression. In fact, I am a product of it."  But, "Our culture has bought into the idea that if something cannot be measured, then it somehow does not matter." Rejecting that paradigm, Walker announced that, for the next year, the Ford Foundation "is exploring how the arts and creativity intersect with, interact with and and inspire all of our work for social change."

Walker concludes:   
Ford Foundation President Darren Walker speaking
at the Global Civil Society Leaders breakfast in September
2014. Copyright Open Government Partnership.
"Twenty some months into my presidency at the Ford Foundation, I hear friends and colleagues asking, "Where does the foundation stand on arts and culture today?    
My answer is that, for us, they remain right where they belong -- at the heart of everything we think about, invest in and and stand for.  
Simply put, less art leads to more inequality. More inequality leads to less justice. And this is not something with which any of us should be comfortable."
For the Rockefeller Foundation, "storytelling is a compelling tool for inspiring action and change, for influencing thought leaders and decisionmakers." Rockefeller recognizes the importance of digital technology and storytelling for impact, supporting the beta version of Hatch, a suite of storytelling tools and a community to help "leverage storytelling to drive social impact and improve the lives of the poor and vulnerable around the world." 

And for the Skoll Foundation, storytelling is called out as one of its key approaches, "We believe in the power of storytelling both to make vivid the world's most pressing world's problems and to articulate specific solutions with potential for large-scale impact." Its most recent Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship hosted at least two sessions on the arts: Storytelling: The Engine of History and How to Use Storytelling to Change Culture, as well as supporting and screening films.

"Art" as a shadow on a concrete floor.
Copyright Deborah Espinosa.
As an artist and advocate for social justice, I am ecstatic, thrilled, over the moon about these foundations' attention to and support for the arts -- and artists -- as a means to spark and illuminate social change.  

Lest we forget, however, we are all artists: the young men in the streets of Baltimore and Bujumbura. And so are the women who participate in workshops by Photography for Healing and PeacePhotovoice and Lensational, and InsightShare, among others, international NGOs that put cameras in the hands of the poorest, the most marginalized, and the most traumatized to enable them tell their own stories.

So while storytelling is no doubt an incredible tool for donors and NGOs to relate stories of impact, it also offers a path to regaining curiosity and to healing.

Mr. Walker, I hope that as part of the Ford Foundation's exploration of the arts to realize its mission, you will consider participatory arts programs so that communities in Burundi and Baltimore, for example, can begin to heal from collective trauma and, like you, have their own sense of the possible.