Trauma Stewardship

Last week I attended the Trauma Stewardship Institute up in Portland. TSI was founded by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, who has been working with trauma survivors for decades, and has long been exploring the secondary and tertiary effects of trauma. Specifically, this training focused on folks who do direct service, and there were many teachers, social workers, and nurses in the audience. I placed her book on hold, and I look forward to digging more into it. Given the Twitter chatter this week about academic overwork, and the upcoming LIS Mental Health Week (February 19-23), this seems timely.

The central question of the Institute was how do we cultivate our capacity to refrain from harm and to contribute wisely? Van Dernoot Lipsky uses "overwhelm" for what I might think of as burnout, the feeling of irritability, isolation, and fatigue when you are run down. She suggests that this can be the result of being surrounded by trauma, whether it is a self-preservation mechanism in light of trauma or simply the recognition that the problems you work within seem insurmountable.

The specific practices and research-based recommendations aren't surprising: spend time outside; express gratitude; exercise; cultivate life outside your work/activism. But two questions really stood out to me:

  • What is in our collective control?
  • What is in my individual control?

These questions resonated with a book I read recently, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, where Jane McAlevey describes how organized labor in the United States has largely stepped away from on-the-ground organizing of workers, and toward high-level compromises with employers. She argues that this has undermined the main means of building power. Anyway, van Dernoot Lipsky's two questions above seem crucial to organizing. Rather than seeing problems as insurmountable, you have to consider what you can actually change, both on your own and in community. If you can't change something right now, don't spin your wheels on it -- move your gaze to what is currently in your control.

Another piece from this training that really struck me was the idea of considering your margins. Like, do you have room in the margins? Time management has, uh, never been a strength for me. I usually overpack my calendar, or have an overly optimistic view on how long various tasks will take me. The idea of leaving room in the margins, whether for unexpected tasks *or* for crisis and the cascading feelings that spring from it, is pretty powerful. Van Dernoot Lipsky described sharing news duty with friends -- in order to opt out of the everlasting torrent of disaster, they took turns being responsible for checking the news for a day or two each week. If something absolutely crucial happened, they would share it with the others. But hey, what a form of community care, eh?