Oppression, colonialism, imperialism, genocide, poverty, and displacement due to extreme weather, resource scarcity, or violence are examples of sociocultural and climatic events that leave their physical and psychological marks on cities and the individuals who endure them. They are not only collective traumas but cumulative traumas in that they have detrimental and additive impacts on one’s mental and physical wellbeing over time. We are interested in the allostatic loads of both the people and places that are exposed to these events -- in other words, what are the physiological consequences of chronic stress, especially at levels that surpass a community’s ability to cope adaptively?
By Tessa Crespo, Aleiya Evison, Gabby Preston, & Alexandra Sanyal , Harvard GSD
IntroductionOppression, colonialism, imperialism, genocide, poverty, and displacement due to extreme weather, resource scarcity, or violence are examples of sociocultural and climatic events that leave their physical and psychological marks on cities and the individuals who endure them. They are not only collective traumas but cumulative traumas in that they have detrimental and additive impacts on one’s mental and physical wellbeing over time. We are interested in the allostatic loads of both the people and places that are exposed to these events -- in other words, what are the physiological consequences of chronic stress, especially at levels that surpass a community’s ability to cope adaptively?
As we collectively respond to the oppression and chaos of the world, it is important to determine how we will cultivate resilience, support, and healing within ourselves and those around us. Previously religion has played a direct role in allowing the human spirit to grapple with such challenges, but as cultural norms transform, the question stands, where do we find sacred space? How do we heal? With church attendance on the decline, and technology on the rise, it has become easier for individuals and communities to struggle alone. The pressures to succeed within the American meritocracy, and certainly on campuses such as our own, arguably push people to the brink of physical and emotional breakdown without a culture of dialogue and support around trauma. For this project, our vision was to look at how healing and the sacred can be embodied through a community event held on campus. We sought to grapple with the ways in which trauma is or is not processed in our society, designing a space for further examination where members of our community could experience safety, release, and connection.
At the beginning of the semester, as a group we identified the themes of healing, sacred space, and trauma as the intersections we wanted to explore through this process. In thinking about healing justice in movement organizing (Aleiya), candlelight vigils as a sacred space within the queer community (Gabby), previous work with clients who were processing trauma due to homelessness (Tessa), and the reimagination of sacred space in in a contemporary context (Alex), we began formulating the concept for our workshop. Our initial desire was to create some kind of space and/or event that would invite students to explore these topics with us, particularly within an academic environment that often perpetuates physical, emotional, and mental depletion.
Our project attempted to address a lack of available space to reflect on trauma in ways that are inclusive, non-directive, non-clinical and accessible. There is so much to process, both personally and from the deluge of geopolitical news (which is often experienced on a personally traumatic level). Often people don’t have space or time to do that work with themselves, or don’t feel comfortable entering the faith-based or clinical spaces which might provide that service. Our Collective Healing Workshop provided a space removed from those contexts and removed from assumptions about how processing should occur or even a definition of what trauma is.
The approach is generalizable in that we feel it’s less important what you fill the space with than that the space is available. However, our project’s scope — in the sense of our methodology and choices we made — were specific to our context and to the people we wanted to reach.
MethodologyWe focused our project around an intention to design a space of solidarity that facilitates collective healing experience. In order to generate a space and series of activities that would be welcoming to a variety of peoples who deal with the healing process differently, we decided to start our research process with a survey of the following questions:
What does sacred space look like to you?
What might that space feel like?
What are your daily rituals?
How do they heal you?
We built a series of boxes within which people could submit their answers anonymously and posted them around Harvard’s campus. We also shared the survey via email and parceled through the answers, keeping an eye out specifically for key terms, repeating responses and contradictory responses. This gave us a strong foundation from which we could begin to orchestrate the event. From this we identified our core concepts: providing comfort, creating community, supporting solitude, engaging with nature, circling physically and spiritually, and activating all senses. From these were design a day long event that allowed for as much conjunction between the concepts:
10:00 AM - 4:00 PM -- space to do whatever you like10:00 AM - 11:00 AM -- coffee + tea // get cozy11:00 AM - 12:00 PM -- facilitated reflections12:00 PM - 1:00 PM -- lunch + storytelling1:00 PM - 1:30 PM -- facilitated stretching + meditation1:30 PM - 2:30 PM -- yoga2:30 PM - 3:30 PM -- contact improv3:30 PM -- goodbye
ResultsThroughout the day we had 15 participants in attendance, and four visiting practitioners who facilitated a tea ritual, a meditation, yoga, and a contact improv workshop. We were also able to create partnerships with someone from the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, and received generous donations from both Life Alive Organics and Whole Heart Provisions. The day led to several group discussions and reflections on mental health, and allowed us to engage with students and the community.
ConclusionFollowing the workshop, we received feedback from several participants and practitioners that we should continue this project by establishing a Healing Collective student group on campus. Participants largely expressed that the day allowed them to feel more at ease, present, and connected. Although the number of participants was a bit smaller than anticipated, we felt that the group was able to engage fully with one another throughout the day, and that we were able to accomplish our vision of creating a sacred, healing space. As a group we are considering the idea of continuing the collective, possibly hosting more workshops once a month throughout the spring semester.
Aleiya Evison is in her first year as a student in the Art, Design, and the Public Domain program at the GSD. Coming to design with a background in Ethnic Studies and Political Science, she is passionate about civic engagement and transformative justice. Her work explores the intersections of healing, community organizing, and creative practice as a tool for imagining new ways of cultivating abundance, joy, and equity. Through Spaces of Solidarity she has had the opportunity to work collaboratively with her wonderful partners, further examining the ways in which healing can emerge through community.
Tessa Crespo Through her graduate research, Tessa aims to explore themes of agency and victimhood as they relate to collective trauma and the adaptability of culture in today’s anthropogenic era of risk and migration. She is interested in alternative epistemologies that interrogate the politics of knowledge production through reimagining the hegemonic constructs of territory and border. Through a grounded theory approach, she intends to investigate storytelling and its powerful implications for empathy and conflict transformation.
Prior to attending the GSD, Tessa worked as an architectural designer at Olson Kundig in Seattle, WA, where she specialized in exhibit design and cultural projects. Alongside the Director of Building Performance, she worked towards integrating Life Cycle Assessments into initial design phases to minimize environmental and health impacts. Tessa cofounded BCSP, a firm that developed feasibility studies and master plans for mixed-tenure and affordable housing developments for the Seattle Office of Housing. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Oregon.
Gabrielle Preston is an undergraduate at Harvard College, pursuing black studies through the Anthropology Department. Interested artistically and academically in the experiences & aesthetics of blackness, of queerness, of resistance and of community-building, and often works at the intersection of performance and activism. Currently concerned with: fugitivity, practical utopias, undercommoning, storytelling, DIY culture, borderlands, radical imaginaries, critical gardening, Zora Neale Hurston.
Alexandra Sanyal is pursuing her Masters in Design Studies in the field of Critical Conservation, at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Her research focuses on the re-imagination of sacred spaces in contemporary society through the lens of conservation and community engagement. Her work revolves around the intersection of spatial and spiritual histories to promote multifaceted design solutions for contemporary socio-political conflicts. Prior to attending the GSD, Alexandra worked at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania as a research assistant. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Bryn Mawr College where she majored in Growth and Structure of Cities.