Four Steps for Transforming Historical Harms

Excerpts from a framework by David Anderson Hooker and Amy Potter Czajkowski

The THH Framework

The Transforming Historical Harms (THH) manual articulates a Framework for addressing the historical harms mentioned above as well as the many others present in societies around the world. The framework looks at historical injustices and their present manifestations through the lens of trauma and identifies the mechanisms for the transmission of historical trauma: legacies and aftermaths. These are the beliefs and structures responsible for transmitting trauma responses and traumagenic circumstances between generations. The framework then offers a comprehensive approach to transforming historical harms through Facing History; Making Connections; Healing Wounds; and Taking Action.

Access the entire Framework here: THH Framework .pdf

Facing History

We must know what happened in order to solve problems and heal. Almost all problem-solving and healing processes require an understanding of what happened. Without this knowledge and acknowledgement, it is difficult to understand any of the continuing trauma responses or to see the mechanisms for trauma transmission. When dealing with a historical harm, healing needs to involve more than an individual or individuals recounting events. The history of harm often has to be uncovered, inaccuracies, myths and lies need to be identified and, because it relates to a societal event, people from the different groups involved in the historical harm need to be involved in researching and recounting it. Conflicts don’t often flare up without a historical context, likewise, manifestations of trauma often have historic origins and the history must be identified.

History needs to be learned and told from the perspectives of all involved. History has always been primarily told by the dominant force for a given period of history. While there have always been efforts to relay experiences in history from “the underside” or from “the margins,” these sources are not granted the same authoritative credibility of the dominant forces’ stories. The history that has been told often incorporates the values of the dominant group.

Many Aboriginal Australians were taken from their families as children as a result of racist policies.
Many Aboriginal Australians were taken from their families as children as a result of racist policies.

This dominance framed history most often justifies the prejudices, biases, and false superiority and inferiority (Legacy) that is prevalent in cultures or societies after a particularly traumagenic period. The dominant history, however, often leaves out the extent of the harms committed by the dominant group. It also leaves out the stories of trauma experienced by the perpetrating group that acknowledge another dimention of harm in the offending acts. As such, trauma responses become cultural norms of the perpetrating group and are not even acknowledged as harmful, while trauma responses among targeted groups are seen as part of the nature of those groups rather than responses to traumagenic circumstances.

This limited historic perspective normalizes the institutional arrangements (aftermath) established to perpetuate those beliefs (legacy). Often, current prejudices, beliefs and institutions were established during highly traumagenic eras in the history of that society. To a great extent, these beliefs and institutional arrangements determine the relationships that are possible between and among various groups, and help to predict the distribution of opportunity and the operation of personal and group power. These mostly invisible relational and power determinants – Legacy and Aftermath – continue to exist over time, even when attempts have been made to undo the impact of the history.

Sugar Plantation, West Indies

Learning and understanding what actually happened from the perspective of the dominant group and those on the “margins” is a vital step in dealing with the ramifications of historical events. The truth provides a solid foundation upon which all action can be based, while lacking or erroneous information has a cost. When people don’t learn what really happened in the past, they remain confused about current realities, maintain erroneous beliefs, and make decisions based on incomplete or incorrect information. When history is not told from all perspectives, certain stories are left out and, generations later, groups of people can feel unwelcome or shut out of a society. And when stories of trauma are not told, this silence and omission becomes an ongoing hurt because the traumatic experience of a group of people remains unacknowledged. When two or more groups in a community hold different and conflicting histories, a barrier can exist between them. By bringing groups together to tell their histories, important connections and relationships can develop if done in a way that supports listening and learning. This can also promote healing as important parts of history are finally acknowledged.

Making Connections

In order to come together with the “other side,” it is often first important to connect one’s own story (or a group’s story) with history. Many people are unaware how their lives, opportunities and outlook are impacted by the history of trauma (both trauma responses and examples of overcoming trauma). To change this, it is important to move beyond “that’s the way it was” or “that’s just the way it is” thinking. When sufficient reflection has gone into the impacts of one’s own and one’s group’s history, it is easier to be understood by others, and for different groups to find a common sense of humanity even if their lives and histories are different. Understanding the impact of historical events on different groups of people requires hearing from those people, which is impossible without connecting with the “other.” The steps of acknowledgment and forgiveness, which themselves are significant stages in individual healing, can only happen when people from groups that have been divided by a historical trauma and its ongoing harm can come together. History alone can be presented in a way that continues to hurt and divide and without building trust and relationships between people who represent (or descend from) different sides of the traumatic event/s, it is difficult to learn the whole history.

Sometimes “surrogates” are needed in building connections. A significant aspect of the Restorative Justice philosophy is meeting victims’ needs while giving the offender an opportunity to understand how they have impacted a person or group of people. The Restorative Justice process offers suggestions for addressing harms when the victim or offender (or group of victims or offenders) cannot be part of the process. Surrogates are sometimes introduced for those who were victims or offenders (marginalized groups or oppressing groups) in other situations. They sit in for the person or group that is absent. This provides an opportunity for those who are present to try to understand the other side, which contributes to a healing process. In situations of historical harm where all the members of an oppressive group have died, left, been defeated through violence or disappeared into society, it still may be possible to help people heal by connecting with an “other.” Coming to the Table, which has specifically been addressing the legacy of enslavement in the U.S., brings together descendants of people who were enslaved and descendants of enslavers to look at the historical trauma of enslavement. The Jewish-German Compassionate Listening Project brings Jews and Germans together to humanize each other and address the historical trauma of the Holocaust (Compassionate Listening).

A major purpose of connecting is to build authentic relationships. By listening to each other, people can develop authentic, healthy relationships that can provide a solid basis for planning activities that bridge communities and address issues of concern. This kind of collective action is necessary to address the legacies and aftermaths of historical events. But trying to make amends for the past needs to happen with the input of those who have been most affected, and working at changing structures can ultimately only occur in partnership with those who maintain those structures. For those reasons, making connections across divides is critical in planning for action and creating connected societies.

Healing Wounds

1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

A commitment to healing is essential to facing history, making connections and taking effective action. The impact of historical harms, their aftermaths and their legacies continue to cause pain and create limitations for individuals and groups. If left unhealed, trauma is destructive to both the individual and the community, as it impacts people on emotional, cognitive, behavioral, physical, and spiritual levels. People experiencing on-going trauma reactions may continue to harm themselves or others on all of these levels, and are sometimes unaware of the root causes of their behaviors and reactions. Cooperative efforts among historically divided groups are limited by the unhealed harm, while distrust, suspicion, fear and lack of comfort with one another can present obstacles to potentially constructive projects.

Intentional spaces, processes and rituals need to be created to support a person or group facing trauma. While facing trauma and working towards healing are crucial, it can be challenging to bring up topics related to the historical trauma because they often spark the common trauma responses: flight, fight or freeze. Groups and spaces created to anticipate these responses can work through challenging emotional reactions, which can take the forms of belligerence, shutting down, and checking out. When a group effectively works through these reactions, personal healing and increased connection and learning result.

Support groups are often needed for healing when dealing with historic harms that have had their origins buried for some time. When the larger society has created incentives to ignore the harms, it can be even more difficult to maintain a healing course because without reinforcement, one can doubt oneself and the new truths that have been discovered. There is also little understanding about the emotional responses to these historical harms by people who have not learned about the harms for themselves.

When historical harms become more recognized and accepted within groups and societies, there are opportunities for large-scale healing events. Memorials, symbolic events and stories shared through media about the wounds and needs for healing can provide opportunities for large numbers of people to engage a healing process.

Healing can be integrated into all the other dimensions of the THH approach. Healing can be reinforced within healthy environments for learning about and sharing history, learning the story of the “other” group and taking action to address current harms. However, if those aspects do not address the physiological, spiritual, emotional and cognitive dimensions, specific attention and action will need to be taken to work towards healing.

Taking Action

The final, critical stage in the process of healing historical harms, making things right and establishing justice is taking action to acknowledge harm and change behaviors and structures so the harm does not continue. Through an understanding of the history and impact of historical trauma, we can identify current manifestations of those harms. Inequality in healthcare, political and economic systems, education, housing, social services, infrastructure, and the criminal justice system are some of the major areas that often have a direct relationship to historical trauma. Through facing history, listening to people who have been affected by it and working through related hurts, taking action is the final and most important stage in the process. Without action, harmful patterns, behaviors and structures will remain the same and will continue to negatively affect future generations.

Participation and leadership by stakeholder representatives is a key part of any process that will lead to effective action. Identifying those stakeholders, building trust and identifying barriers to working together are all part of building a team that can take action. With representation from different groups and honest conversation, the group can avoid pitfalls common to people who have grown up in divided societies. When issues do come up to threaten the group’s ability to work together, reflecting on unhealed trauma is helpful, and often points to problems related to ongoing patterns within the community at large, rather than personal conflicts between members of the group. When a small group has been convened, an assessment of current legacies and aftermaths in the community needs to occur in order to determine what kind of action to take, and what its ultimate goals will be.

The skills of organizing are critical to taking action. Individuals in groups or organizations can play leadership roles in organizing meetings, finding space, identifying financial resources and figuring out ways to meet the group’s goals. Having the people and resources needed to organize effectively will determine if the action will be carried through to completion.

Even with effective organizing and strong relationships and individuals, stamina is required for taking action. Addressing historical harms can be a long, ongoing process. It took numerous years for the trauma and harms to manifest as they do today. It will take time to engage the THH approach and follow through with meaningful action that will transform the harms and avoid current harms and transmitting them to future generations.

Transforming historical harms must occur through the practice of all these dimensions. The order in which they are engaged can be different, but none can be omitted. This approach will be the primary focus of the manual. Finally, the framework includes the levels at which healing needs to occur, which range from the individual to the international level.

Access the entire Framework here:

THH Framework .pdf