Preserving Memory, Healing Trauma

Community Mitzvah Day in New Orleans, June 6, 2010; photo by Caitrin Gladow

Preserving Memory, Healing Trauma: storying as social action
by Leah Varsano and Tamar Toledano

“What’s your Katrina story?” We were asked this question on the second day of our year-long commitment to social justice through AVODAH: the Jewish Service Corps in New Orleans. Ten young transplants to the city, we sat on rickety folding chairs in a circle in the backyard of our house in Uptown. With the instruction that one person talk for five minutes straight and the listeners sit quietly and focus only on what the speaker was saying, we began sharing how we were affected when the levees broke.

Although most of us hadn’t considered even having a Katrina story – none of us were in New Orleans at the time – what emerged from the Story Circle were ten distinct responses to one event. It became clear to us that people who lived in New Orleans before the storm must also have stories that we needed to hear. And while we couldn’t offer personal accounts to relate to those experiences, we could offer something else: our ability to listen – to hear and honor their stories of survival in an effort to facilitate healing.

Indeed, the mental harm caused by events such as Hurricane Katrina can rob an individual of their voice and a means of processing their experience. According to Dr. Richard Pringle, professor of psychology at Goucher College, “Trauma is the inability to story.”

But while experts like Dr. Pringle emphasize the importance of psychological healing, the social action movement seems less equipped, and less willing, to address aspects of recovery that go beyond the physical.

Jews, however, have a unique opportunity to be at the forefront of a movement that makes the process of healing through storying an integral part of social action. Our community, after all, has a long tradition of telling stories.

Every year at the Passover seder, Jewish families and communities are reminded that “in every generation a person is obligated to see themselves as if they left Egypt.” This instruction communicates a core value that Jewish text encourages: preserving memories as markers of our existence – or, simply put, storying.

An Avodah corps member storying with kids; photo courtesy Avodah

Today, the stories of Holocaust survivors have shaped the Jewish world. Through storying, survivors have been able to address profound personal trauma and serve as a vital link connecting the contemporary Jewish world to our recent past. For a generation of Jews that grew up outside the Holocaust, these stories ensure that the tragedies of the past are not forgotten and that we remain steadfast in our commitments to combat intolerance and promote justice. This puts us in the unique position of being able to recognize and respond to other communities grappling with a collective trauma.

And yet, even with storying deeply rooted in our tradition, Jewish social action tends to focus its efforts on physically manifested needs without addressing psychologically manifested needs, like post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health, and loss of collective memory. As a movement, we cannot afford to pick and choose which aspects of injustice to address.

The need to focus on psychological trauma has been recognized by several groups in New Orleans that encourage participants to tell stories in order to fight injustice and heal. Junebug Productions, for example, is an arts organization that addresses the African-American experience through theater, music, dance, and storying. They facilitate Story Circles, a method developed to foster the sharing and shaping of personal stories and to help participants see larger trends that relate to their own experiences, including patterns of racism, classism, and sexism that can be difficult to discern.

“When we tell stories,” says Junebug Productions founder John O’Neal, “we are sharing with each other how we put things together.”

There is also the Neighborhood Story Project (NSP), a nonprofit that works with New Orleans residents to write and collect stories of their neighborhoods; their slogan is “Our Stories Told By Us.” The NSP independently publishes the final work to be sold and distributed throughout the community. In 2005, the NSP published The Combination, a book written by a high school student that tells the story of the Lafitte Housing Project through interviews, photographs, poems, and observations.

Today Lafitte has been entirely demolished and its residents have been scattered across the city and the country, but The Combination survives in the hands of many who called Lafitte home. The NSP may not be rebuilding Lafitte, or even petitioning politicians to uphold the Fair Housing Act, but they are unquestionably responding to societal inequities and fighting for social justice in powerful ways.

So here’s an idea: What if on your next volunteer trip to New Orleans you hit the streets with notebooks and digital recorders instead of nails and hammers? What if your whole mission was to collect people’s stories and to listen to them? What if you raised money to get their stories printed and distributed them throughout that community? What if you learned to moderate Story Circles and hosted them at community centers, on street corners, and in churches?

The Jewish activist community should be leading this movement. We should take the initiative to address psychological trauma directly by incorporating storying into our vision of repairing the world, and honor our own histories while finding innovative ways to pursue social justice.

It has become an integral part of our lives in New Orleans to always consider the stories of whoever we meet. What’s your Katrina story?

Leah Varsano is a member of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps in New Orleans, where she works as a community organizer on issues of neighborhood revitalization.

Tamar Toledano is a member of AVODAH in New Orleans where she works with local youth to create art projects that raise awareness of social justice issues.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Social Action Now issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.