Disconnection isn’t the most Important Part of this Story; Trauma Is

There’s a version of this blog that is scathing, but this is not it.

I’m not a person who is moved to thrashing easily.

But this year has taught me rather overtly what is at stake when we skip over drawing attention to problematic behavior.

And what is at stake by surrendering narratives, removing labels that say without question that there is a name, a history, and an agenda behind what is happening. Simply put, there is power at stake, caught up in determining who gets to contribute to how we’re thinking and dialoging about community life.

I spoke on a panel yesterday entitled From Trauma to Trust, a panel that I was formerly uninvited from participating on. The panel was a part of a convening sponsored through an initiative of the Aspen Institute termed Weave. Weave is concerned with amplifying the work of individuals to foster community, as well as to learn from their learnings and experiences.

It ambitions to participate in movement building that uses these individuals as a model for what is possible, and what is present within human character.

It champions community building as a part of how we confront alarming realities of fragmentation, isolation, despair and polarization in our culture.

Its stated goal is to contribute to an embrace of pluralistic viewpoints that have in common core values of building community with integrity and vision.

This is relevant to setting the stage of my experience, and what it speaks to as institutional blind spots that pit collective civility and individual safety against one another, usually along lines of inequity and marginalization already present and influential.

That is at the heart of this examination — the nexus of disengaging from individuals who challenge our sense of self, and doing so secretly, as in without having to make this erasure visible.

The lens of responding to alarming rates of isolation and social fragmentation in the middle of the analysis of the problem, rather than the beginning.

The story of how we confuse what the story is by only telling part of it at a time, as our curiosity for what resonates with us is found in contrast to the context we must also understand and engage with.

Said explicitly, by exclaiming “our disconnection is the problem”, rather than asking the obvious precursor, “what factors maintain our disconnection?”

There was a quote of Dorothy Day’s that appeared in Weave’s discussion on civil society in regards to human goodness that made me consider another quote of hers. The one where she warns us about our fascination with heroes and idols, and instructs us, “not to dismiss her so easily.” She’s referring to our tendency to flatten our sense of self within movements, and names that when this happens, our capacity for hearing and engaging with feedback and nuance is reduced.

I can affirm that anecdotally my experience supports this tendency, and the rejection of pertinent feedback ballooned in more and more significant ways.

Most significantly, in the final remarks in the last remaining hour of discussion. Within the three day break down, today’s goal was action steps. Attempts were made to assume trust would be given rather than to build it at a sustainable rate, and to use storytelling as the primary vehicle for constructing group membership and contribution.

And yet what happened is a predictable outcome — the railroading of individuals for the sake of a collective experience. The minimization of questions of safety and choice, sacrificed for the preservation of momentum.

This described tension is not unique to Weave, though it is a dynamic I’ve navigated and attempted to highlight for the last year, starting when I was interviewed for an article about my work and experiences of trauma.

Arriving at a piece that we were all comfortable with took over six months because a practice of informed consent and shared decision making had to be constructed from the ground up. Communicating the need for this practice was the first and most reoccurring discussion topic, finally reaching an output that could be shared publicly, affiliating me as a Weaver as an effect.

It is this foundation that I referred back to when I accepted a request to contribute to a panel on trauma, expecting these skills to be central.

During our first planning phone call, my advocacy led me to ask obvious questions:

What’s your crisis support plan?

What instructions will participants have for how to make disclosures?

How will people be made aware of the presence of media and filming?

What boundaries are there for how information will be used or contextualized?

Who is holding the space and the people in it?

I sought to voice the need for structure in opening up something as personal as trauma in a collective and public space, and I sought to gird my contribution as a panelist in my own informed consent as well.

As it became apparent that this was not a shared value, my anxiety surfaced, and I attempted to appeal again to the skills that were practiced over the course of the last year, articulating the harm that we were vulnerable to perpetuating without sufficient preparation, boundary setting and transparency. Harm that only our own privilege makes abstract or unlikely.

The response? Uninvite me from the panel. Disengage with me for the purpose of disengaging from my feedback. Ignore my relevant expertise. Problematize my discomfort and my boundaries, make me the problem.

For those who aren’t experienced with labeling power dynamics, who may not have the vantage point to see these interactions in terms of power dynamics, there’s a tendency to write them out, or attempt to explain them alternatively.

And yet, what is leveraged within this power differential is a succinct message: my platform, my rules. Participate, or lose the right to participate. Choose between safety and access, because to choose your safety is to lose access, and consequently, amplify the erasure of your perspective as credible.

Announced casually is the sense that the convening will go on without you, and there are costs to any response to coercion that are never acknowledged.

Ultimately, I was reinstated as a panelist, but only by accepting that the convening would not accommodate my needs or feedback.

As I arrived at the conference, organizers attempted to ignore that these interactions had occurred, jumping ahead to greet me with niceties and hope that I didn’t bring up the awkwardness. And then after the panel, to affirm how valuable my responses were to the audience in part because of the positive reaction they garnered.

What was missed, though, was the content of my responses to questions I was asked, that even within my five minutes forecasted the latent vulnerability of forgetting to validate trauma, and of building trust through coercion, and a lack of transparency and informed consent.

I stated explicitly that there was a present sentiment normalizing non-consent, and I knew as I said this, the indictment of my words and their implications.

I stated, too, that there is an important distinction to be made between disengagement and disconnection, meaning perhaps without saying directly that disengagement has a context that needs to be understood and stated. That story almost always points to trauma, coercion and unsafety.

What I was modeling in my contribution was that consent isn’t my afterthought, and my language for power assesses for consent dynamics.

Trust amidst trauma inherently requires consent practices. And experience tells us that disengaging from community is a safer choice or simply not our choice alone when our trauma responses become visible publicly.

What I saw as my role as a panelist was to truthfully narrate power dynamics, and to illustrate their relevance to community building that seeks to address a context of distrust, disconnection, and non-consent.

I hoped that my experience would be an outlier and that my fears would be proven as unsubstantiated projections. This was disappointingly not the case, and not because that was an inevitability. But our community life shows us clearly that disconnection isn’t the problem, it’s the consequence. It’s what happens when our community structures don’t take trauma seriously or invest in accommodating our needs of safety and consent.

It is because I know that healing is real that I can say with confidence that I know at least some of what it requires; community divestment isn’t on that list.

What I’m invested in now is a bit of a different focus, and that is accountability.

How can Weave engage with its failure to be accountable to the experiences of harm that it fostered and didn’t take seriously enough?

How can it integrate feedback that its impulse is to avoid and reject?

How can a posture of victim blaming become a posture of accountability?

How can individuals not be expected to accommodate their community’s divestment from meeting their needs?

How can our values be communicated as behaviors, most notably when harm happens?

What skills and preparation can no longer be left out?

What is Weave going to do with this feedback now that it is being shared publicly?

What reasons do each of us have to invest in Weave’s success, and what can we expect as a response to institutional missteps in their dealings with us?

Writer. Thinker. Facilitator. Advocate. Invested in accountability for power based violence, creative initiatives, and meaningful, nuanced dialoguing.