Cultivating Collective Healing

Cultivating Collective Healing:

Understanding Recovery, through Trauma,

Culture and Intercultural Community Resilience

Bruce St. Thomas, Ed.D  & Marie Sheffield, MA 


Roots of Collective Trauma

In the midst of generations of prophecies echoing through the narratives of First Nations, a common refrain warns that there will come a grievous time that will be marked, by increasing winds, and by the health of our children as endangered. Paradoxically, this is also a time of possibility. 

We are here now. 

Recent studies (Deng, K et. Al, 2021; Harvey, 2019; Shaw & Miyawaki, 2024) highlight the accelerating pace of winds across continents, signaling a planetary shift. The global average wind speed has surged in less than a decade, a significant uptick that underscores the urgency of our situation. Yet, amidst this whirlwind, critical aspects remain overlooked. Studies suggest that winds under 40 mph, crucial indicators of change, are often excluded from assessments, leaving us blind to the profound impact on climate disruption and its cascading effects on human and ecological well-being.

Climate models and projections often ignore wind, despite its potential to signal and accelerate climate disruptions. Wind is a wild card we ignore at our peril, given its capacity to increase wildfire risks, aggravate drought and endanger [humanity]. (Schauffler, 2021)

The ever-growing winds and the vulnerability of the world’s child populations are apparent, often surpassed and are at high risk. Today’s children are the ‘canary in the coal mine’. At the end of 2022, UNICEF reports that more than 43.3 million children were displaced. UNICEF’s 2023 report highlighted the genocide of the Ukrainian people, noting a staggering 7.1 million displaced children. By January 2024, the United Nations reported a further 3 million Ukrainian children displaced by recent conflicts, along with 170,000 children displaced in Haiti. As of March 2024, according to UNICEF, 1.7 million individuals remain displaced from Gaza, half of them children, with approximately 17,000 children left orphaned.

Turning to the fundamental needs and sorrows of children, UNICEF underscored that nearly one billion children face multidimensional poverty, lacking even the most basic necessities like nutrition and clean water. They and others also revealed a grim statistic: an additional 100 million children have fallen into multidimensional poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Falk, 2022). In February 2022, UNICEF and others reported that 5.2 million children had lost a parent or caregiver due to COVID-19 (Christensen, 2022).

Taken together, a staggering 1,159,467,000 children out of 2,397,435,502 children (almost half of the global child population in 2023) are navigating decentralized and adverse childhood experiences (ACE). These figures do not capture the full extent of the crisis, with undocumented children and their families facing untold hardships. Moreover, losses continue to mount beyond March 2024. This trend suggests a concerning rise in generations raised amidst decentralization, with direct correlations to abuse, neglect, and disease, impacting not just humanity but the very ecologies that sustain life.

In war, it is children who suffer first and suffer most. The cost of this violence to children and their communities will be borne out for generations to come. (as cited on,

Without the support to integrate or find support to heal such wounds, children carry the trauma into all relations and into the generations. Alice Miller, an acclaimed, Polish born Swiss psychologist and author, explores these effects on children, stating:

Evil exists. But it is not something that some people are born with. It is produced by society, every day, every hour, unceasingly, all over the world. It starts with the treatment meted out to newborn babies and carries on in the parenting methods practiced on small children. Such children may BECOME criminal at a later stage, if they have no helping witness to turn to. In their childhood years, serial killers and dictators all have one thing in common: they had no such witnesses to turn to for help. Every dictator torments his people in the same way he was tormented as a child. The humiliations inflicted on these dictators in adult life had nothing like the same influence on their actions as the emotional experiences they went through in their early years. (Miller, 2015)

If unsupported, children feel a sense of hopelessness and are fearful to let others know how they actually feel. Depression and accompanying feelings of guilt and worthlessness can dominate their moods. Humiliation and shame are suppressed through forced power and acceleration, infecting collective conditioning of sociocultural beliefs. Jane Ellen Stevens, an American journalist and researcher focuses on Adverse Childhood Experiences, writes to the power of such suppression,

Adolf Hitler’s father Alois was an illegitimate child. He was suspected of being the son of a Jewish merchant from Graz because his mother, Maria Schickelgruber, became pregnant when she was in his domestic employ. The suspicion was not easy to disprove because Adolf Hitler’s grandmother received alimony from the merchant for a period of 14 years. Alois must have suffered greatly from this social stigma; the fact that his name was so often changed (Heidler, Hydler, etc.) is a clear indication of the fact. For him, the opprobrium of being both illegitimate and of Jewish descent was a source of unbearable shame. But there was no way he could rid himself of this humiliation. The easiest way for him to vent his pent-up resentment was to take it out on his son Adolf in the form of regular, merciless floggings. … In the entire history of anti-Semitism and persecution of the Jews, no other ruler had ever hit upon the idea that, on pain of death, every citizen in his country must provide proof of non-Jewish descent extending back to the third generation. This was Hitler’s OWN PERSONAL BRAND OF MANIA. And it is traceable to the insecurity of his existence in his own family, the insecurity of a child constantly living under the threat of violence and humiliation. Later millions were to forfeit their lives so that this child—now a childless adult—could avenge himself by unconsciously projecting the grim scenario of his childhood onto the political stage. … Examine Vladimir Putin’s childhood and you will see an eerie parallel to the atrocities playing out in Ukraine today. His life is a stark example of how childhood adversity is the root cause of most social, economic and mental health issues, as well as violence and chronic disease, as the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences demonstrates. (Stevens, 2022)

Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) of such dictators as Stalin, Hitler, and Putin underscore the reality that without support in belonging, the distorted worldviews and neglect of tyrannical leaders will continue to perpetuate collective trauma on the masses through disinformation campaigns, psychological harm and social distortions.  

In a society where pain is common, it becomes normalized. Anxiety may be contagious as everyone begins to live in a state of chronic stress. Individuals may suffer and entire communities struggle to move forward after a traumatic encounter (Sahle, E. 2023).

If the transmission of trauma is not integrated or healed, it permeates individuals, families, cultures and systems. A primary outcome of collective trauma spreads the loss of self and cultural identity and the inability to relate compassionately toward others. Keeping the trauma suppressed and silenced creates a significant incapacity to navigate differences and resolve ongoing conflicts. This reality is exemplified in the tumultuous journey of Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, whose life story is steeped in betrayal and collective trauma of the historical oppression of his own Oromo people (Berhanu,G.,  2021; France-Presse, A. 2020). Ahmed’s upbringing was shaped by war, loss of loved ones, and the clash of inter-religious beliefs within his own family, a microcosm of the broader intercultural conflicts that have plagued Ethiopia for centuries.

 Compelled by his mother to fulfill a prophetic role as the 7th king, and savior, of Ethiopia, Ahmed’s journey from Nobel Peace Prize laureate to a descent into dictatorship is a tragic tale of collective trauma and cultural corruption (Berhanu, G., 2021). Ahmed ascended through the military, as a child soldier; a co-founder of the Ethiopian Information Network Security Administration; and then through false narratives, the political ladder to assume the mantle of Prime Minister. He presented himself as a beacon of hope, promising peace and reconciliation for all Ethiopians, including the historically marginalized Oromo and Tigrayans. However, beneath the facade of peace initiatives lurked a darker agenda.

Despite being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to make peace with Eritrea, Ahmed’s true intentions became apparent when he turned on his own people and then orchestrated a joint offensive with Eritrean forces, and against the Tigray Region in November of 2020. The Norwegian Peace Prize committee, once his champion, now issued a stern admonition.

Abiy’s critics say that what cemented his status as a peacemaker on the world stage was based on a farce, and that the alignment with Eritrea was yet another effort to consolidate his power, paving the way for the two sides to wage war against their mutual enemy, the TPLF [The Tigray People’s Liberation Front]. Soon after the Eritrea-Ethiopia border reopened in 2018, reuniting families after 20 years, it closed again. Three years on, Eritrean troops are operating with impunity in Tigray, and there is little sign of a durable peace. (Mackintosh, E. 2021).

In 2020, under Ahmed’s rule, Ethiopia descended into a maelstrom of violence, with hundreds of thousands of people brutally raped and killed, with widespread human rights violations perpetrated against the besieged people of Tigray. The deliberate blockade of humanitarian aid, including medical supplies and food, compounds the suffering of thousands facing famine. In an atmosphere where dictatorship prevails, conspiracy theories abound, fueled by social media narratives that seek to sow division and discord. 

The absence of empathy and the festering wounds of unhealed trauma have rendered Ahmed incapable of fulfilling his responsibility to bring about genuine peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia. Instead, his regime is characterized by control, manipulation, and a thirst for vengeance – hallmarks of dictatorial rule driven by unresolved trauma and chaos of his own past.

 The endless chaos composed of multiple combats threatens the sense of unity. The inability to compromise, with a “my way or no way” attitude, creates conspiracies. Several narratives are hyped in social media to saturate as much attention as they can. The nature and depth of these traumas imprint themselves on the unconscious and determine how we experience incidents (Sahle, E. 2023).

Collective trauma underscores the devastation of losing the community and often the culture in which people create their individual and collective identities. The fragmentation and disconnection created by such cyclical losses, throughout generations, further alienate and separate people and their recovery. Moreover, such collective trauma moves quickly beyond individual identification into the multiple and complex consequences resulting from such tragedy.

Cultural Amnesia

Modern cultural heritage has a painful and unintegrated ancient history. Cultural heritage, narrative traditions and value systems are central to understanding identity, yet are often overlooked, abandoned, or lost when one is forcibly removed from the collective network and their land. Equally important is to understand that among the consequences such disruption in social norms and collective meaning frequently results in severe isolation, both internally and externally. Patterns of abuse including increased family violence, child and spouse abuse, attachment disorders, substance use, and public violence permeate through the physical body, relationships, offspring, and communities and repeatedly shift cycles of health toward furthering collective toxicity and polarization.

Ancestors still loom strongly in present genetics, character choices, passions, and interests. The human need to create safety and a sense of belonging and connection forced ancestors to incorporate the social norms of newly inhabited cultures. Forged into generations are the diminished ongoing generational adaptations in cultural identity, the environment, and ultimately the world community. Culture affects all people; it is in a state of constant change and adaptation, a navigation tool. Humans define and present such beliefs in our words, actions, behaviors, thoughts, and decisions. Generations of ancestors, forging forward, often repressing traumatic memories and losing cultural foundations, nonetheless carrying the past within. It becomes silenced through the generations, often showing up in behaviors and activations without the story of its roots behind it, it has been decontextualized. 

Resmaa Menakem (2017), an African American author, psychotherapist and anti-racist, in his book My Grandmother’s Hands, speaks to impacts of collective trauma and the path towards healing.

Trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits. Trauma decontextualized in people looks like culture. (Menakem, 2021)

Such cultural amnesia is also the loss of ancestral ways of orienting to and navigating within the world. It is not only projected on refugees, asylees, and oppressed populations but also all cultures within the world; the persecuted and the persecutor; the underserved and underrepresented. Indigenous cultures and their histories and languages, along with the histories of marginalized people, have been silenced.

In dominant cultures, diverse perspectives are often negatively referenced, and are misunderstood, overriding the in-depth healing traditions of world societies. There is a predominant tendency for dominant ideologies to judge and dismiss rather than engage in a more in-depth dialogue, which could inform deeper collaborations concerning the mutuality of meaning, values, and knowledge that grows from a shared perspective. Such dialogues are the central source of legitimizing in-depth cultural identity as a central theme in promoting individual, family, community, and societal health.

Dr. Yael Danieli, an internationally recognized Jewish American clinical psychologist, victimologist, and traumatologist and founder of the International Center for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, spoke at the University of Southern Maine about her extensive research and significant concern about Genocide Recovery. After gathering genocide and Holocaust survivors throughout the world community, 100% of everyone who gathered complained that no one would listen to them or believe the depth of their trauma.

In additional research, she describes the generations of children born from survivors who inherit not only the DNA changes resulting from the trauma but also suffer from intergenerational wounds to their souls.

 “The psychological trauma that reflects both survivors of physical and cultural genocide and those generations that follow them” (Danieli, 2019). 

While Dr. Danieli well described the survivor syndrome, she also recognizes that without the chance to be heard, understood, and healed, generations of people continue to feel oppressed, and vulnerable, and often experience genocide as the larger conspiracy of “silence” never addressing healing, reparation, or admitting wrongdoing.

Panel members, speaking at University of Maine, from the Native American community of Maine Wabanaki, the African American community, the Jewish American community, and the German American southwest community verify that the genocide and trauma that they and their families face continue today. Whether the perpetrator or the persecuted, this unified, political effort continues to disparage, marginalize and re-traumatize, fragmenting cultures and people throughout the world.

Intercultural Community Resilience

When cross-cultural dialogue is approached through an ethnocentric lens, misunderstandings abound, leading to significant obstacles in understanding and cooperation. Consider the experience of newly arrived refugees turned colonists in North America, and the profound impact on Indigenous communities. Here, misinterpretations were rife, stemming from differing cultural perspectives. For instance, the Iroquois Confederation held a deep-seated cultural norm that prioritized decisions with consideration for the welfare of seven generations to come. Conversely, the colonists, grappling with their own collective trauma and reactive responses, were focused on immediate union-building, neglecting the future implications of their actions. These missed opportunities for genuine engagement across differences have perpetuated the collective trauma and fragmentation still felt today in the United States.

Forced migration within a framework of systemic trauma and oppression often leads to isolation and assimilation, described as the “unmitigated evils” by Goldbard (2006).

 In such circumstances, the hurried convergence of diverse cultures fails to foster safe and mutual understanding. Economic pressures further compound these challenges, leaving little room for authentic connection amidst the struggle for survival. This reality has persisted for centuries, echoing through history. For example, in 1640, “… a Swedish minister created a one-hundred-word phrasebook of words in the Susquehannock [an Iroquoian people who lived in the lower Susquehanna River watershed in what is now Pennsylvania] language that consisted entirely of nouns for food, tools, animals, and trade goods—from Aanjooza, “Linen Shirts” offered by the Swedes, to Skajaana, “valuables skins or furs, as sable etc.” provided by Indians—and verb phrases relating to trade and exchange. (Eustace, 2021, p. 7)

Little was known about intercultural communication at this time. The important thing here is to know that language, lifeways and landscape are the expressions of one’s cultural context and a direct source for collective healing. Direct meanings of language are the first step, but understanding the context through relationships is the most imperative. 

As this Swedish minister pursued trading, he concretely used the word Skaddanijnu, “Will you sell or barter something?” And to include additional items for free within the trade, he said “Kassha schoeoenu,” which meant, “Give me that for nothing.”

As that last phrase hints, however, [North American] Native Nation ideas about exchange differed in essential ways from European assumptions. The phrase supposedly meaning “Give that for nothing” could better have been translated as “Please demonstrate your generosity and benevolent intentions with a gift.” Not only is this a loss in translation, but a major miscommunication resulting in disappointment and fracture. This opportunity could have been absolved if this minister had known the importance of collective culture. Fostering connection and friendship is essential. And indeed, words for friendship account for four of the seventy-six words or phrases. Unlike the motives of personal profit and imperial power driving colonial settlers, Native peoples were interested in establishing relations of reciprocity that would expand their circles of community. (Eustace, 2021, pp. 7–8)

Change within these entrenched systems demands a profound shift in expanding the understanding of what it means to be human. The current global crisis presents an opportunity to embrace, appreciate, and integrate the diverse tapestry of the human experience. By leaning into our differences, we embark on a journey towards recognizing ourselves in others, laying the foundation for collective solutions.

Traditional, high-context cultures and their economies embody principles of prosperity, abundance, and communal well-being, contrasting sharply with the scarcity-driven, individualistic values often prevalent in Western societies. This divergence has led to a rejection of Indigenous knowledge and a disregard for the interconnectedness of humanity and nature. Yet, these lost principles of wholeness and interdependence persist as unconscious sources of violence and discord in our modern world.

Across the globe, we find ourselves at a pivotal moment, grappling with generations of collective trauma that have permeated every facet of society. Individuals, families, and cultures have become disoriented amidst this unintegrated trauma, yet within these same systems lie the seeds of resilience.

Resilience is built into the very cells of our bodies. It is as much a part of us as our ability to heal. Like trauma, resilience can ripple outward, changing the lives of people, families, neighborhoods, and communities in positive ways. (Menakem, 2021, p. 55)

Human, natural, and community organisms have this shared identity. Human senses and physical systems, wetlands, and natural ecosystems move instinctively toward equilibrium. Within this matrix lies the inherent ability to interact and strive toward balance and wholeness. Greater than the sum of its individual parts, this can only be done together. 

It is in the belonging to this collective intelligence that persists toward healing action, creating new behavioral and social norms. Throughout the world, humans, who unveil the importance of ancient knowledge from land-based and cultural roots, bring both cultural and healing practices to the forefront of well-being. After years of working with intercultural advisory councils and intercultural communities, the importance of re-rooting and Intercultural Community Resilience leads the way. Parallel by nature, we are being asked to stop drawing a line between “us” and “them.” This repeated pattern throughout human history marks the end of the collective and the beginning of dissolution.

Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound dis- agreement. (Robinson, 2010, p. 28)

When we think of the social transformation initiated by such renowned North American leaders as Sitting Bull, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Maya Angelou, we see evidence of conflict and the spiritual and imaginative scale and opportunity for humane advancement. Although much has changed in the past half a century regarding consciousness, systemic racism is alive and persists. We see, feel, and hear it every day. It is not possible to shift healing throughout humanity with old systems that dominate its inception. Arnold Mindell, PhD, an American author and facilitator of social transformation using conflict and diversity, states,

Resolving violence, [racism] and terrorism requires every level of organization, from the individual to the United Nations, not only to tolerate, but also to understand the rage, hurt and need for transformation. The smaller arenas are as important as the World at large. … The most fundamental forum is your own heart. Both as a facilitator and as a human being, you must learn to hear yourself there. Then you will know how to hear others when they are angry and hurt. The less we listen, the angrier people become, not only because of their enemies, but because of us. (Mindell, 2014, pp. 94–95)

When trouble knocks, the willingness to open the door brings expansion and opportunity amidst the unknown. For the individual who opens the door today, knowing that they are a part of the whole ecology begins the process. When showing up with this knowledge, there is also an understanding of how important it is to be responsible for self-compassion and the well-being of others. 

The individual self cannot be differentiated from the community self; they are one spirit. Relationship-healing means getting to the bottom line, feeling that what we are experiencing belongs to the community. It is the spirit moving us in unknown ways, making us afraid, angry and also peaceful. (Mindell, 2014, p. 166)

The task is to clear internal conflicts and forces of pain while identifying the highest and best attributes for clarity, purpose, and presence. Resolving these deep-seated issues demands a willingness to listen and understand, from the personal to the political. As conflicts and tensions escalate, it is our capacity for empathy and compassion that will guide us towards healing and reconciliation.

A re-cognition of the mutual values of civic life, individual and collective knowing, and presence becomes a shared path through an Intercultural Resilience Exchange process. The preservation of diverse individual and collective cultural values and respect is critical in the process of Intercultural Resilience Exchange. 

Through this exchange, community resilience emerges as mutuality is discovered through differences, “acknowledging the multidirectional ebb and flow of cultural influences’  (Rideout, 2015, p. 58). 

This process results in a re-visioning, a new collective memory, and new narratives of becoming, giving united strength for new choice points and direction forward. Participants glean insight by understanding how Intercultural Resilience Exchange informs the collective healing process as well as provides direct expression and content that leads to collective healing action.

In confronting the chaos of our times, we must recognize that within the cracks lies the potential for renewal and growth. Like the ancient art of Kintsugi, our collective journey towards healing embraces our brokenness as a source of strength and vitality. Meaning emerges from our shared experiences, offering solace amidst uncertainty and fear. Intercultural Resilience Exchange serves as a bridge towards a more interconnected and resilient global community, where diverse perspectives enrich our collective understanding.

To acknowledge that chaos is in our midst is irrefutable. As the winds pick up and exacerbate the climate crisis and the level of decentralized children spreads, these adaptive capacities are essential for survival. As we stand on the precipice of a technological revolution, we are called to redefine what it means to be human (a human revolution). Cooperation and compassion have always been our greatest assets, guiding us towards a future where harmony between humanity and nature is not only possible but essential for our survival.


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