Bringing Emotionally Sustainable Practices to Hurting Communities

August 22, 2016   //   Julie Johnson

Last week was the two-year anniversary of what is now commonly referred to as the "Ferguson Riots." With the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer, the St. Louis community experienced the sadness, frustration, and rage of race relations in the US. With similar events occurring only a month ago here in Baton Rouge, Mid City Studio asked Julie Johnson - a photographer, artist, special education teacher, and community educator in the Ferguson and St. Louis community - to reflect on what two years of activism and awareness has brought to the people of St. Louis. Johnson's work focuses on bringing emotionally sustainable practices to hurting communities through yoga, art, and equitable networking opportunities.  She is the owner of STL Heart Cards and coordinator of Fit Abilities Yoga and Wellness Program in Ferguson. There are her words.

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I have been working North County St. Louis and Ferguson for the last six years.  My time working in Ferguson has been a time of mixed emotions and most of all acceptance; acceptance of my own white privilege and the gifts and talents I possess to help lift up the lives of the black students and families I have taught and supported in a variety of educational positions in their homes and in the Ferguson School System. After spending time helping clean up downtown Ferguson and painting murals on the store fronts of several businesses after the unrest following the non-indictment of the officer that killed Micheal Brown, I watched and listened to the Black community express their grief and sadness from the effect of systemic racism in almost every area of their lives: education, housing, child care, religion, public safety, the list is endless.  After listening, I wanted to figure out how I could help facilitate a resilient community and networking system that helped bridge the disparity and resource gap between the racial and socioeconomic divides that exist between primarily Black residents of Ferguson and North St. Louis City. I found myself wanting to use my gifts of art and yoga. 

 

Yoga + the Fit Abilities Program 

I have been working in Ferguson for nearly six years in a variety of educational positions, but have been a Teacher of the Visually Impaired for nine years. In Ferguson and North County St. Louis, I have worked in homes and schools. I have noticed how high the instances of poverty, childhood trauma, and overall toxic stress are among the families and students I served.  Seeing how toxic stress was deeply embedded into the daily lives of my students and their families, I wanted to come up with a way to offer the gift of yoga that was culturally and physically acceptable to my students. Yoga provides healing tools that can empower students to seek healthy options to coping with toxic stress.

Yoga would need to be greatly adapted to meet the physical and emotional needs of students exposed to trauma - also known as trauma-informed yoga. The class must be taught in a way that acknowledges the social and emotional impact that childhood trauma has had on the development of my students. The students are never forced to do any yoga, but are instead given choices on how they are going to interact with one another and the yoga teachers in the room. Natasha Baebler, the lead yoga and wellness teacher for the Fit Abilities Program, has made yoga accessible my students by creating specific, trauma-informed classes that address both their visual and social emotional needs. 

You can read more about our yoga program at fitabilities.wordpress.com

 

Art/STL Heart Cards

During the clean-up of downtown Ferguson, my inner photographer emerged as I began taking pictures of the artists helping to rebuild the community. In a way, their work began the long healing process for this community. As I found them , I started photographing murals and images of hope and solidarity for the Black community in St. Louis. I also found images of peace and community unification. I took these my images and created 4"x4" cards called "STL Heart Cards." Initially, they were used to help bridge the divide between white people and anyone that looked and lived differently from them. I began giving them to people to use as a way to form or deepen relationships with anyone who might look or live differently than them. A year and a half later, STL Heart Cards are still working within the community to support other non-profits hoping to bridge the divide between the Black community and the systems in which we live. You can see a few examples of the cards at
stlheartcards.storenvy.com and my own photography work at lifeastonished.wordpress.com.

 

Ferguson Today

From my perspective as white, middle class woman who identifies as a white ally to the Black Lives Matter movement, I think we are seeing some small changes since the death of Micheal Brown. Forward Through Ferguson is an organization that was established to help facilitate racial equity in the St. Louis region following the writing of the Ferguson Commission's report. The report determined actions needed in order to create more racial equity in the St. Louis region. You can read more about the current work of Forward Through Ferguson at http://forwardthroughferguson.org/implementation/.

A student who does yoga with a basketball in the Fit Abilities Trauma-Informed Yoga program drew this picture of us doing yoga for one of his teachers. He is the one pictured with a basketball on the yoga mat. Thought he has not spent much time doing yoga with the group, he enjoys playing basketball with the adults that engage him emotionally. Based on this drawing, emotional engagement is all he needed to feel like he was a part of the group. The take away here is that he feels a sense of belonging without being forced to participate. That is the heart of trauma-informed yoga.

A student who does yoga with a basketball in the Fit Abilities Trauma-Informed Yoga program drew this picture of us doing yoga for one of his teachers. He is the one pictured with a basketball on the yoga mat. Thought he has not spent much time doing yoga with the group, he enjoys playing basketball with the adults that engage him emotionally. Based on this drawing, emotional engagement is all he needed to feel like he was a part of the group. The take away here is that he feels a sense of belonging without being forced to participate. That is the heart of trauma-informed yoga.