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A Beautiful Ghetto Three Years Later: A Conversation About Healing

a black and white image of a young man running down the street with many police officers in riot gear running behind him

The Institute for Integrative Health, as the Nova Institute was then known, and the Gordon Parks Foundation held an exhibition and program series, A Beautiful Ghetto, Three Years Later: A Conversation About Healing, from March 15 through May 24, 2018. The exhibit showcased photographs by Devin Allen, a social justice photographer, a fellow of the Gordon Parks Foundation, and Baltimore native. Allen and the Institute used the exhibition and program series to spark a conversation about healing the individuals and the community of Baltimore. 

About the Exhibition 

With a rising death rate in the years following the Baltimore protests, city residents continued to feel immense pain and frustration at the current state of our city. In bringing his exhibition back to the heart of the city where he grew up, Devin Allen focused on bringing healing back home.

We always spend so much time on the pain. We measure how strong we are by how much pain we can take,” Allen said. “Can we, for once, focus on how we can address our issues, get educated, and start the healing process? I want this show to be a platform to address our pain freely and heal together.

This exhibition, which coincided with the third anniversary of the protests sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, was a part of a broader Institute initiative focused on the use of art and nature as tools for helping people recover from trauma.

Engagement in the arts has been proven to reduce stress, boost self-esteem, and aid the healing process,” said Brian Berman, MD, founder and president of the Institute for Integrative Health. “We welcomed this opportunity to work with Devin on holding a sacred space for people to come together, through creative expression and open dialogue, to explore how we can heal ourselves and our city.”

The conversation of healing took place over 10 weeks, during which time guests were invited to share their thoughts with an interactive display titled, “How Are We Healing?” This question proved to be the central tenet behind every program in the series.   

Workshops 

  • During “Working to Heal Baltimore,” community leaders and artists gathered for a panel discussion about healing and positive change through grassroots efforts.
  • “Healing through Creative Expression” provided an opportunity for community members to find healing through the creative process. Joining Devin Allen were other creative individuals in poetry, painting, and improvisational acting.
  • “Healing through Human Connection” featured two programs, the first being an interactive group discussion designed to build bonds between people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds; the second program focused on a mind-body-soul connection through trap yoga, linking movement and breathing to attain a balance of all three.

About the Artist 

Devin Allen, a Baltimore-native, won national attention when his photograph of the Baltimore protest was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Allen is the inaugural fellow of the Gordon Parks Foundation and was nominated for a 2017 NAACP Image Award as a debut author for his book, A Beautiful Ghetto (Haymarket Books). 

Devin’s photographs have been published in New York Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Aperture. His photography is also featured in permanent collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Jule Collins Smith Museum, and The Studio Museum in Harlem. 

 

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. 

When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) 

“When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” 

Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. “…they gradually found relief from suffering and began to exhibit emergent characteristics: a sense of hope, self-acceptance, and a desire to help others—the immediate precursors to healing.”

 In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” 

  • Helping Others: We find meaning in helping others. “Understanding that suffering gives the strength and experience to help others in similar situations.”
  • Hope: We begin to have hope that we will not always feel this bad. A Crohn’s patient said, “I think gradually I realized that I was going to feel better. I did have days when I actually didn’t vomit, when I did feel better. And I think gradually I came to believe that maybe I could have a normal life again.”
  • Self-Acceptance: We see our inherent value and understand that we are not to blame for our suffering. A participant living with HIV said, “I’m really proud of myself. I think that now I still want to live. I don’t want to die, and I really love myself a lot. I have a lot of comfort in myself.”

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. 

There is debate about whether or not one actually needs to experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. 

“The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”

Characteristics: How predisposed someone may be to wounding/how many tools and resources someone may have to deal with trauma/illness.

Lifestages: Developmental timing plays an important role in the impact of trauma — young children often do not have the same resources as older adults.

Relationships: Relationships can provide solace and support for those suffering, while lack of healthy relationships can prolong suffering.