How Communities Heal

Wayne - Fountain pen

In most Western cultures, illness or injury is a very individual experience. Doctors fix the body, provide medication, and refer to counselors as needed. Those who are not sick go on with life as usual.

However, many traditional cultures have a different view of illness: a shared view that shifts the responsibility to the community at large.

These two fundamentally different ways of seeing the nature of human beings is manifested in how we help, or do not help, those who are sick or injured. One approach holds an assumption that outside help will be provided to those in need from those who have resources and no need. The other assumption is that there will be collective action in which all engage in finding a community solution.

Can these opposing views of illness shed light on how to resolve issues and heal trauma within communities?

The consequences of the latter approach were dramatically explored on April 9 and 10th at the Well Community Summit in Alexandria, Virginia. This Summit, which was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and organized by Samueli Institute, demonstrated how communities heal as a whole.

The Well Community Summit was the final event in the work done for last two years by three communities in the United States. These were in Indianola, Mississippi; New Orleans and Detroit. With the help of a Council of Elders and local facilitators, these communities worked tirelessly to develop deep dialogues that helped them collectively improve well-being across multiple stakeholders.

The conversations built trust and collective community wellbeing and furthered the capacity for healing.

The power of conversation, storytelling and sharing to strengthen a community’s capacity to heal was best exemplified by the work of a small group of leaders in Indianola, Mississippi. The town of 12,000 in the delta region is striving to overcome a number of health and economic deficits, including household incomes at half the national average, high-school drop-out rates over 30 percent, and a long, sustained and unresolved racial tension that has split the community and stymied collective action.

Mayor Steve Rosenthal

Mayor Steve Rosenthal

With the help of technical assistance from the Well Community Project, Indianola’s Mayor and his staff assembled a new community leadership group—one that represented the economic, racial and spiritual diversity of the community—and hosted a series of three-hour long conversations on hot topics such as racial and economic equality. The goal of these meetings was to generate conversations—often uncomfortable conversations—to foster understanding and build trust.

It was a long road and necessitated true commitment from all involved, but as Mayor Steve Rosenthal explained in his presentation at the Summit it helped the community develop a shared vision that blazed a trail toward a common goal for the first time in its history.

What emerged was a process of deep and authentic dialogue across diverse stakeholders. Shed were the roles of power and need. No longer were there the “underserved” populations looking for resources and “funders” providing services and money. The strength and value of all present were seen and respected as humans rather than roles. Those who spoke were deeply heard and a skill of collective listening emerged among the group.

What emerged from the Well Community Project was a new way to go about helping communities heal. This helping involves first, establishing a deep connection around universal human value. In recognizing that we all share in injury, we can then also see that we all gain resilience through reconciliation. From that shared understanding a coordinated and meaningful action can emerge. This action is not hierarchical with those in power handing down help to those in need. Rather it is a collective resolution to let a unique solution emerge from all participants. Only then can meaningful help happen.

At the Well Community Summit a new way for how to help was illustrated. One based on the ancient wisdom that all persons are connected and valued, not because of their roles, but because they just are.

This is how communities heal.