This is a guest blog post written by Keith Miller, Director of Youth Programs at Deep Center

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood…. I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.” 

– Audre Lorde

On January 1, 2019, our community learned that a young artist affiliated with Deep programming, Tyrese, had been murdered. Following that, we also learned of other deaths, losses, departures, and traumas that shook us to our core, reminding us that there is a very real and different world outside of the safe and brave space that we’ve co-created with our young people in Block by Block and across all Deep programming. This series of events reminded us that we’ve all experienced and continue to experience a variety of different forms of trauma, past and present, publicly and privately, and often with no healthy way to process it. 

With this reality in mind, Deep Program Manager DiCo searched for examples of how we could address the topic of grief, loss, and trauma, but in a way that was sensitive to the diverse needs of our young people. In our work, we’ve learned there is a spectrum of responses to trauma for youth and adults: on the one hand, there are those who find it necessary to have a safe space to discuss, unpack, and process what has happened and how it makes them feel; on the other hand, there are those who shun discussion and simply want to move forward with unrelated tasks and activities until they are ready to do otherwise. To straddle both needs and realities—while always leaving room for the gray space in between—DiCo ultimately stumbled upon Scholastic’s grief maps activity for grades 6-12, which required youth to execute the following steps: 

  • Caption: create a profile of a person who is experiencing grief. Include details about this person and the relationship they had with the person whose loss they’re grieving. 
  • Grief challenges: draw three to five locations on the map that represent different emotional and behavioral changes this person might experience through grief.
  • Trigger points: draw three to five locations that represent items, experiences, or moments that might trigger this grieving person.
  • Grief support: draw three to five locations that represent experiences that help the grieving person learn to deal with feelings and help them heal.

We liked the core elements of the activity, but we quickly noticed that this tool primarily focused on a specific form of grief—grief as a result of death—and didn’t take into account the larger experience of trauma on an individual and their social ecosystem. We knew from many of the responses of our young people that trauma, grief, and loss could cover the gamut of interpersonal and intrapersonal experiences: grappling with depression, mourning a breakup between friends or romantic partners, parents going through a divorce, witnessing death or violence, or even being on the receiving end of harm or the threat of harm. Thus, we needed to create a tool that not only empowered youth visually to represent their triggers, challenges, and supports, but that also imbued youth with a sense of agency. Writing down situations and feelings allows youth to gain a critical distance from what is harming them while still enabling them to name those harms and their connections to larger systems.

“The mapping process helps them orchestrate healthy coping systems, support systems, and game plans to prevent future harm, while inviting them to imagine addressing the systems that harmed them in the first place. “

The activity that evolved from this process Deep Center proudly refers to as the Healing Action Map, a tool that builds on the core steps of Scholastic’s grief map activity but fully addresses the diverse need spectrum of our participants, as well as the systemic root-causes of harm. Using this tool, an individual can start their own healing journey extending far beyond healthy coping to actionable steps on the path toward personal and systems change. As we unveiled previous iterations of Healing Action Maps with our youth and adult artists and a variety of other audiences, we quickly learned the value and impact of this tool. To date we have used Healing Acton Maps to navigate grief, trauma, loss as a result of the death or absence of a loved one, everyday disappointment and setbacks, social injustice and intersectional oppressions, depression, fears, witnessing violence, break-ups, and insecurity.

Healing Action Map

Our Healing Action Maps require individuals to go through the following steps: 

  • Heart/Soul work: Spend 10-15 minutes writing about an incident that had a significant impact on you. It can be a situation where you felt harmed or wanted to be protected but weren’t, or a moment when something was said that negatively affected you in some way.
  • Highlight key institutions/systems in your writing first: Identify ones that might be responsible for any trauma or significant experiences you wrote about. (For example: school discipline policies, church, justice system, homophobia, racism, sexism, and other -isms, etc.)
  • Create a caption: Using your personal story as a reference, summarize the trauma rooted in your story in one to two sentences. Draw a box around those sentences. 
  • Visualize trigger points: Draw three to five locations on the map that represent items, experiences, or moments that trigger negative emotions due to trauma. 
  • Identify systems: Draw a dotted line to each trigger identifying the system(s) responsible for the trauma or negative emotions responsible. Write the name of the system and either highlight it using the color or draw a box around it.
  • Visualize healing supports: Draw a solid line from each of the trigger points and link them to representations of things that support you in the healing process.  
  • Develop action points: In a different color, draw a line to each of the systems identified and write one or two everyday action steps meant to address the system responsible. 
    • Guiding questions include: What can I do from my position right now that addresses this issue? What can I do to get access to the resources I need? What relationships can I activate for guidance, support, or insight? How can I find my power and speak up about things that harm me, in a way that allows me to remain safe and brave?

One lesson we’ve learned is that healing isn’t a finite destination—it is instead a dynamic journey full of twists, turns, and surprises. Although society tells us that we should set our sights on being healed, where the -ed represents a fantastical end where we will never again have to deal with what ails us, we know that may not always be the case. Sometimes it’s just downright unrealistic to believe we will “get over” the death of someone we love; the ending of a meaningful relationship; or feelings of regret, guilt, sadness, and fear from hard life experiences. We can, however, embrace the process. And if we commit to ensuring we have the necessary supports in place, we might remain in this process and teach others how to do the same. 

Since its inception, Deep Center’s Block by Block program has helped high school-aged artists discover their voices and, in the process, find the strength, courage, fearlessness, and confidence to emerge as talented community change agents. In doing so, they not only create unforgettable stories and art but also uplift the voices of those around them who have been historically, socially, and institutionally erased, silenced, and ignored. The question that guides this process is this: How is the community I’m living in affecting the person I’m becoming? 

The answer to this question continues to change as we live, grow, and learn. But as we endeavor to form an answer that is authentic we must feel more comfortable and confident speaking to and about trauma and its root-causes. Only then will we learn what it means truly to be committed to radical, transformative healing. A process where every word is an attempt to demand, lovingly, that societal, social, institutional, and historical powers be held accountable for the harm they cause. And from the proverbial mountain top, we can sing, cry, dance, shout, and laugh together. 

Our healing-engagement engagement and systems-change work in Block by Block is made possible through the support of the National Endowment of the Arts, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Forward Promise.