Abstract: Is Organizing a Pathway for Well-Being and Posttraumatic Growth for Black Youth in New York City? Exploring Recovery from Historical Trauma and Systemic Violence (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Is Organizing a Pathway for Well-Being and Posttraumatic Growth for Black Youth in New York City? Exploring Recovery from Historical Trauma and Systemic Violence

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Anna Ortega-Williams, PhD, Assistant Professor, Hunter College School of Social Work, New York, NY
BACKGROUND: Pervasive systemic violence, such as substandard housing, discriminatory policing in neighborhoods and schools, and community divestment disproportionately exposes Black youth to potential trauma (Alexander, 2012; Obasojie &Newman, 2016; Shedd, 2015). The dominant professional response is to support Black youth through addressing the individual harm of social disparities, often focusing on intrapsychic coping mechanisms and resiliency (Case, 2017). However, in response to the collective harm of systemic violence Black youth have also formed social movements to hold institutions accountable (Blacklivesmatter, 2020; Ginwright, 2015). In this phenomenological study, using a critical qualitative research lens, the following was examined: 1) the meaning of engaging in organizing among Black youth taking a stand for racial and economic justice in NYC, 2) the role, if any, that organizing played in facilitating healing, posttraumatic growth, and well-being in the context of historical trauma, and 3) the features of organizing for racial and economic justice that made a difference.

METHODS: Using criterion and convenience sampling, twenty Black youth identifying as organizers were interviewed between 45-90 minutes, using a semi-structured interview protocol. Additionally, three participant observations of rallies and an organizing meeting led by Black youth were conducted. Participants raged from 18-31 years of age, 24 years old on average. The sample was ethnically diverse and reflected a range of gender expressions and sexual orientations. Ten identified as African American, seven as Caribbean, two as AfroLatinx, and one as West African. Ten identified as cisgender females, two as gender non-conforming, and eight as cisgender males. Time spent organizing ranged from 6 months to five years, with nine organizing at non-profits, seven in political collectives, and two independently with friends and family.

RESULTS: Four main findings emerged: 1) Redefining destiny and generating a healed Black future was the meaning of organizing, 2) Recovery from historical trauma and contemporary systemic violence was a collective process and product, 3) Collective self-care and action is posttraumatic growth, 4) Collective self-awareness and care has risks.


Findings suggest, in the context of historical trauma and contemporary systemic violence, Black youth are using social action to heal and transform their destinies. In this study among other factors, connecting to an ancestral legacy of resistance to oppression strengthened hope and persistence in organizing for social justice; it was a part of healing from mass group-level pain. Posttraumatic growth, described in the literature as the product of individual deliberative rumination, was experienced in this study as a collective process and product of social action. Further examination of the function and relationship between social action, historical trauma and posttraumatic growth will advance understanding of the themes that emerged