by Dr. Sylvester Bowie,
The presidential elections are over, or so we thought, and the pent-up stress that were carried for months and for some people years, were supposed to be gone. Yes, on the Saturday after the Tuesday almost a week after the presidential election were held, the Associated Press (AP) called the elections for President-Elect Joseph Biden, and we all exhaled with a sigh of relief and we started thinking it was over, but is it? The president has so far refused to concede that he has lost the election, and to the contrary, has continued to make unfounded statements about the elections being rigged and stolen from him. As social workers, we have much work ahead and so, self-care is of utmost importance. As we are starting our march to the holiday season that for some started with the important Indian Festival Diwali and with others will start with Thanksgiving. So, as we head into the month of December, there is Hanukkah (Chanukah), Kwanzaa and Christmas for those who celebrate.
The import of self-care cannot be overemphasized as we move in and out of the holiday season and the accompanying celebrations, made harder this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. I was listening to NPR last week and was transfixed with a story by Yuki Noguchi as she interviewed Professor Rachel Hardeman, a researcher from the University of Minneapolis, who is exploring the impact police violence could be having on pregnant black women and their babies. I was transfixed because, I had not given much thought to the issue of stress affecting babies and pregnancies in light of all the issues of police killings of unarmed black men and women, even though this phenomenon has gone on ever since there has been police in America. I encourage, readers to listen to a related exchange (it is seven minutes long) of information about what is happening to women of color, particularly black women, who are carrying babies and how violence in our society is causing so much stress, that it is resulting in premature births and the untimely death of our babies (https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/12/20/570777510/how-racism-may-cause-black-mothers-to-suffer-the-death-of-their-infants)
Intellectually, I am aware of the fact that stress can result in an alteration of mood and behaviors and that brain functioning can be altered, but I was not allowing my understanding to face the realities for many of my brothers, and especially sisters, who live with these situations in their communities. The critical nature of self-care became more evident because of the work that we must be planning to do after the holidays. I also realize that for some the holidays are no respite, but rather they must soldier on through them because unfortunately the effects of stress and violence does not respect the holidays nor take breaks during these times. I am acknowledging that many social workers work through the holidays.
In the interview, Professor Hademan pointed out that “[a] large body of research shows that that stress across pregnancy can have an impact on low birth weight and preterm birth in particular. Studying the start of life is so important because if we can’t get that right, you know, we’re setting someone up for a lifetime of pain and of struggle and disadvantage.” That is the reality that we must bear witness to. We must also disrupt the process, to ensure that not only are these babies cherished, but that those who will provide care and protection for them are shielded from the scourge of violence on the bodies of people of color and especially those of black men and women. We must become anti-racist workers and make every effort to stop police violence and violence of all kinds regardless of who commits it. The reality is that pregnant women and their babies are being severely affected, and we must initiate an intervention.
The mantra in both academia and in fields of practice is to adopt trauma-informed and trauma-aware practices. What is evident is that our communities are being traumatized by the violence that we are constantly exposed to and bombarded with daily. Our viewing screens: smartphones, tablets, laptops, computers and the few who still watch television, are a constant hub of violence both in action and words. If our community of social workers is to adequately meet the demand of the challenges ahead, we must practice much self-care and after we have had the time to catch our collective breaths after the holidays we must dedicate ourselves to understanding the nature of trauma-informed, trauma-aware and trauma-prepared practices and this includes those in academics preparing students for such practice.
The group “Trauma Informed Oregon” reminds us that the “field should strive to create a definition that includes the following: an awareness of the prevalence of trauma; an understanding of the impact of trauma on physical, emotional, and mental health as well as on behaviors and engagement to services; and an understanding that current service systems can re-traumatize individuals.” (https://traumainformedoregon.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/What-is-Trauma-Informed-Care.pdf)
I cannot get the NPR interview out of my head, and it has forced me to stop understanding some of the statistics just as an intellectual exercise, but rather, to start thinking how I, in my roles and capacities, can be part of the solution to this continuing crisis that is unfolding within and in opposition to our families. Eldridge Cleaver reminds us that “if you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem.” I am taking Cleaver’s words as directed at me. So, while in my role as President of NASW California, I am encouraging social workers to use the upcoming holidays as a time to refocus on self-care. I am also encouraging us to move from intellectualizing the effects of stress on our communities to actively seeking to use our positionalities and privileges to bear witness and be part of the change that we want to see.
I can appreciate that many will rightfully inform me that this has been their life’s work and to you, I with humility accept your rebuke and I will still, like a pest, ask questions. Did you know that soon after the police murder of Mr. Armando Castillo, pregnant black women in the local area had a 60 percent increase in premature births?
Did you know that “Black babies in the United States die at just over two times the rate of white babies in the first year of their life?” according to Arthur James, an OB-GYN at Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University in Columbus.
Did you know that “for every 1,000 live births, 4.8 white infants die in the first year of life. For black babies, that number is 11.7?” This According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
As Dr. James pointed out, “[w]hen we are stressed, our bodies produce stress hormones. When the source of stress goes away, so do the stress hormones. It’s a normal, healthy process. But when someone is stressed out all the time, their bodies have perpetually high levels of stress hormones. He reminds us, “the majority of those black infants that die are born premature, because black mothers have a higher risk of going into early labor.”
Unfortunately, too many of our communities and the families in them are under constant stress because of the ever-present acts of violence.
It is therefore our challenge as social workers to ensure that as we enter this holiday season with a plan to reduce our own stress levels and engage in some high-powered self-care, whatever our indulgences might be, that we should then be ready for the work ahead. We should be ready to: bear witness and demonstrate cultural humility; demonstrate greater awareness of the prevalence of trauma among and around us; practice with a greater understanding of the impact of trauma on physical, emotional, and mental health as well as on behaviors and engagement to services; and endeavor to be mindful that our own service systems, including our universities, can retraumatize the individuals we are seeking to heal.
Enjoy your holiday celebrations and selfcare activities and then let’s get to work.