Empowerment & Trauma

The sub-discipline of Communication studies that I focus on – Communication for social change (CSC) – takes as one of its foundational elements that empowerment of marginalized groups is a key component of social change. By empowering marginalized groups, the logic goes, they can be the instigators of authentic, relevant, and sustainable change.

A problem that arises, though, is that ‘empowerment’ is very hard to define. In CSC it often refers to political empowerment or political voice, meaning having a voice in the public sphere, being able to speak about policies, and in particular having influence on local, community, or political decision-making.

But personal empowerment – including self-confidence and self-efficacy – is important too. Further, personal empowerment is particularly important when we’re talking about victims of trauma, who might not be ready (for a variety of reasons) to discuss their views of politics in the public sphere.

One aspect of personal empowerment that is particularly valuable for victims of trauma is the ability to tell their own story. For many survivors of trauma, the ability to tell one’s story, even to a friend, can feel impossible, or re-traumatizing. In this case, we can see why victims being able to tell their stories would be empowering on a personal level, and valuable for individual healing and happiness, regardless of whether that empowerment ever led to more politically oriented social change. Indeed, I would argue that for those who have suffered trauma, this sort of reckoning with one’s own story is a necessary precursor to more meaningful political engagement, and one that is too frequently overlooked in models of empowerment within CSC.

Trauma, another word that has multiple definitions, is often viewed as a niche issue, a rare experience caused by a single horrific event or episode in one’s life. But trauma is not actually so rare, which is why there has been so much recent attention paid to trauma-informed care. The U.S. Department of Health describes trauma as potentially resulting from a ‘set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.’ Some chronic trauma is a result of the stress of living in poverty, experiencing institutional oppression or inequality, or experiencing subtle ‘every day’ racism. Approximately 90% of U.S. clients in public behavioral health care settings (who are more likely to be poor) suffer from trauma; approximately one in seven children in the United States experiences some form of abuse or neglect (with much higher numbers in low SES households); approximately one in four women in the United States has experienced intimate partner violence (IPV). Other marginalized groups in the U.S., including ethnic minorities, incarcerated individuals, LGBTQ+ communities, and immigrant communities, also experience trauma and PTSD at higher rates. In other words, trauma is a significant and daily hurdle for many populations.

In a recent paper in Applied Communication Research,I discuss an evaluation I conducted of a housing facility for homeless survivors of intimate partner violence – most of whom suffer from trauma. One of the conclusions of this paper, based on many discussions with survivors, is that ‘empowerment’ following abuse is almost impossible until trauma is (at least partially) healed and survivors stop living in constant fear. This might seem obvious, but many CSC interventions generally, and many U.S. IPV policies specifically, seem to operate as if this is not the case.

For example, many CSC projects are designed under the assumption that giving people political voice – an opportunity to take part in decisions that affect their daily lives – will be empowering for marginalized communities no matter what. In other words, there is insufficient acknowledgement that such projects may fail if individuals are traumatized to a degree that they aren’t ready to jump into politics and advocacy and protests. Indeed, many such projects have failed because targeted populations were unwilling or unable to engage politically, and trauma may be a partial explanation for some of these failures.

Within IPV interventions specifically, U.S. housing policy often promotes a ‘housing first’ philosophy for homeless populations. This is the idea that one cannot be empowered, cannot thrive, until they have a home of their own. Subsidized housing is therefore a common intervention for the homeless, including homeless IPV survivors.

The facility I evaluated here, however, was a transitional housing facility, meaning survivors lived at the facility for a short period of time (typically six months to two years). The address of the facility is confidential, there are strict limits on visitors, and clients enter through a locked gate with a monitored security camera. They have access to a variety of resources on-site including a case manager and a therapist. Note that this is very different from being placed, on one’s own, in a subsidized housing program. In contrast to subsidized housing programs and an emphasis on independence, the transitional housing program emphasizes emotional healing from trauma and finding the strength to survive on one’s own after abuse. It is, in many ways, a journey of self-discovery.

I spoke with the clients of this facility to try to understand how they view empowerment and how they believe IPV survivors can go on to thrive after abuse. I analyzed the interview transcripts together with a small group of current and former clients of the facility. Together, we concluded that none of the program clients could begin to feel empowered until they felt physically safe. Being in a state of physical fear makes it impossible to begin recovering from trauma. It was only when they came to the transitional housing facility, with its locked gates and security cameras, that they could begin to heal.

Here are but two of the many comments made by clients of the facility that capture this sentiment:

“In the past month or so, when I’m out of the gates I don’t feel that safe, but when I’m inside of the gates I feel safe because I know that he can’t get in, and there’s cameras and stuff.”

“Before I got here, I really didn’t feel safe. It was a constant… I mean, I do look over my shoulder today, still, from time to time, just, you know what I mean, just to be safe. Better safe than sorry… But since being here, I’ve … I guess it’s like a shell, like a turtle shell I guess. You know what I mean? I’m okay when I’m in my shell. I’m fine as long as I’ve got my shell.”

The interviews revealed that it is difficult to accomplish any goals – personal, political, or otherwise, when one feels physically unsafe. While transitional housing clients often felt physically unsafe even while within the locked gates of the facility, this feeling would have been multiplied if they were immediately put into permanent housing, where there are no gates, no cameras, and no staff on site. Being in this state of constant fear and paranoia makes it impossible to recover from trauma.

On the other hand, a feeling of safety can be transformative and empowering. Being in a facility with gates and cameras allows clients to breathe for a moment. As one of the clients put it, ‘When you feel safe, when you know nothing is going to happen to you, you become a different person.’

And yet, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has recently ‘fundamentally shift[ed]’ away from transitional housing and toward subsidized housing under the assumption that living independently is the best way to become empowered and thrive. In other words, the current wisdom stands in almost complete opposition to the idea that IPV survivors cannot feel empowered when they feel alone and unsafe – when they are still experiencing everyday trauma.

The transcript analysis also revealed that storytelling – both to others and to oneself – can be a powerful way to heal trauma. The group of women that analyzed the interview data with me concluded that relating one’s story of abuse was a key component of empowerment and that story disclosure through social support groups ought to become a key pillar of the program.

At first I was reluctant to go [to the community meetings]… But once I started coming, it got easier and easier… and then I just let my guard down and then realized that these women was just like I was. You know, different story but same situation. And it just, you know, [I said to myself]… ‘Give life a chance. Stop holding back so much…’ And you know, people would look around and go, ‘I’m not the only one.’ …And it just was, how can you say? A sort of type of a home that I didn’t have. I can’t speak for nobody else, but that I didn’t have at that time. That I guess I was searching for…

For some of the survivors at the facility simply being given a safe space to breathe and think about what happened to them (in other words, to self-reflect) was incredibly healing. As one client put it:

I did a lot journaling while I was there. I did a lot of that. Things that I learned to gain your clarity and gain your balance back. I had the space to do it. I feel like [this program] is a great place for any woman that needs the space to re-direct… Good, bad, everybody has their story.

There is already much research indicating that telling stories to others, or journaling to oneself, has positive health effects (e.g., this piece by Joshua Smyth and Melanie Greenberg). Yet, storytelling as a way to heal trauma is rarely discussed within CSC (though an exception to this is the sub-field of communication for peacebuilding in conflict-affected regions). Again, the typical emphasis of CSC work is political engagement, not personal healing.

This evaluation suggests that we need to focus more on personal empowerment as a precursor to political engagement. Indeed, there was some evidence here that personal empowerment could lead to more political engagement. Some of the clients who had finished the housing program did express an interest in acting in leadership roles, in terms of speaking with other survivors as mentors or offering motivational support. This echoes findings by others who have found that IPV survivors who have healed from trauma have gone on to take on other kinds of leadership roles.

Trauma can inhibit empowerment. But at the same time, those who have experienced trauma may be especially motivated to become empowered. Trauma therefore represents a challenge, but also an opportunity to empower those who deeply deserve to find meaning and hope in their lives, and who may be uniquely motivated to help others by pushing for political change down the line.

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1 Comment

  1. I loved the paper. Brought out some issues I rarely think about. Feeling physically safe is taken for granted by so many people. Many kids live in constant fear of being bullied at school and abused at home and live under constant stress. You can actually frame the people’s fear as PTSD and go from there.

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