Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. Elaine Zook Barge

Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR)

Elaine Zook Barge is the director of STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience), an evidence-based training program for those whose work brings them in contact with populations dealing with historic or current trauma. During the 80’s and 90’s she worked in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala with Mennonite Central Committee. In her work with communities in conflict zones, she observed firsthand war, poverty and resilience and would have welcomed a resource like STAR. She currently facilitates STAR trainings at EMU, throughout the US and in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Elaine holds a Master of Arts in Conflict Transformation (2003) and a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition/Community Development (1984) from Eastern Mennonite University. STAR is a program of the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University.

Yago: Elaine, welcome to this blog! Slavery is a clear example of a cycle of violence. In this blog we are attempting to deconstruct the world of slavery, to name it so that we can embrace it through the power of forgiveness. Only then can we create a new reality. Only transformed people transform people. The slave holder is literally a traumatized person that lacks empathy and compassion. This blog pays special attention to the subconscious dimension of the energy of enslavement that supports all kind of slavery.
Candace Pert
In this sense we acknowledge with Candace Pert that the body is the subconscious mind. Trauma resides in our bodies. So the understanding of how our bodies functions becomes fundamental.
Anthropocentrism is another liminal area of research within this blog. We have separated ourselves from the web of life to which we belong. We treat creation as an object, without compassion, without care, in a manipulative way. We hold creation under slavery. We point out that we, as human species, are traumatized without acknowledging it. 

Elaine, you have been for 14 years in different countries of Latin America in quite demanding situations. Could you share with us your own life experience related to trauma? What has brought you to dedicate your life to help people to become aware of trauma?

Elaine: During most of the 1980’s and 1990’s, I worked with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, three countries in the midst of war.  In this context, I experienced first-hand the pain from displacement, poverty, conflict and enslavement.  Enslavement included the young man forcibly taken off our bus and recruited into the military; the Methodist pastor in the Ixil Triangle working long hours every day on the coffee plantation for less than a $1/day: and my widow friend coming to the office just to talk because she had been sitting behind a happy, young couple on the bus and wondering whether her husband, disappeared 20 years earlier, might possibly still be alive.    

After listening to the stories of many, many widows, displaced families and impoverished campesinos, I returned to the US in 1998 convinced there must be more that we, MCC and our Guatemalan partners could do for those experiencing current and historical trauma. One of my dreams was to write a book “Where there is no psychologist” which would be similar to the book Donde No Hay Doctor ("Where there is no Doctor") that we had found to be a helpful resource when far from medical services.    

Church World Service
The book was not written because another resource was created in 2001 – STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience), a joint project of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) and Church World Service (CWS). This was the resource I had been searching for in Central America.  It was a gift to work closely with Carolyn Yoder, founding STAR director, almost from the beginning, developing the training in Spanish as part of my practicum at CJP.  Since 2005, I have devoted my time to sharing STAR around the world with community leaders and organizations that are searching for tools for themselves and others and want to be trauma-informed.

Yago: You are currently the director of STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience). Could you share with us the origin of this program and how it is related to the 9/11 terrorist attack to the States? How has the United States been affected as a Nation?

Elaine: STAR was born from the ashes of 9/11.  Following the attacks, Eastern Mennonite University received funding from Church World Service to design a training program to support religious and community leaders in the United States as they responded to the trauma needs of their congregations and communities. The week-long seminars provided information and tools to help them address trauma (individual and collective), break cycles of violence and build resilience. A more thorough history of the STAR beginnings can be found in the eBook written by Carolyn Yoder and me entitled STAR: The Unfolding Story, 2001-2011. 

The past 11 years, STAR has positively impacted many far beyond the aftermath of September 11th as it offered hundreds of trainings to thousands of participants from more than 60 countries. We estimate that tens of thousands have been impacted by STAR as the participants share what they learn and experience. In Haiti, for example, one person five degrees removed from the original STAR training said, “STAR changed my life.” 

The United States as well as most of the world, was impacted by the events of 9/11. There was great loss of life, shock, sadness, anger and a tremendous amount of fear in this country. Unfortunately, as a nation, we chose to respond with revenge and violence which caused more victims and trauma. And the cycles of violence continue…

Fortunately, the initial design of the STAR program included full scholarships for at least two international leaders living in countries affected by conflict and violence in each seminar. Stories of participants from Northern Ireland, Colombia, Burundi, etc. gave perspective to the 9/11 event – it was one of many trauma-producing events in our world.  And they had much to teach us.

Let me add here one other significant design component of STAR -- the seminars would go beyond the medical model of trauma and integrate theory and processes from the fields of psychology/neurobiology, restorative justice, conflict transformation and spirituality. The integrated bio-psycho-social-spiritual framework that was created to address trauma at individual, community and societal levels has been useful for many professions.

Yago: Now let us move to define a few concepts that will help us to frame our interview. What is trauma? What do we mean by trauma awareness?

Elaine: Trauma comes from the Greek word ‘trauma’ which means wound.  Traumatic events can cause deep wounds when something abnormally shocking, painful or harmful occurs and leaves us feeling threatened and overwhelmed (physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually). Trauma wounds are universal in our world of disaster, disease, conflict, and violence. 

Violence caused by human beings (bullying, neglect, abuse, war) and structures (poverty, racism, apartheid, sexism) is often more difficult to address whether it is a one-time event or an on-going, continuous event. It continues to amaze and alarm me to see how similar participants’ symbols of trauma are whether in the US, Haiti, Mexico, Myanmar or South Sudan and the majority of them are human-caused.

We added “dignity violations" as a key contributor to trauma wounds after reading the book Dignity by Donna Hicks.  Dignity violations are those things which disregard or attack the inherent worth of individuals or group.  Our body and brain react in a similar way to dignity violations as to physical threats. Persons, who may think they have not experienced trauma can often more readily identify this type of wounding event.

Individuals and groups are often unaware of what the unhealed wounds are doing to their bodies, minds, spirits and relationships. That is why “awareness” and being ‘trauma-informed” is so important. It gives language for what we have experienced and tools for working with it – no matter how long ago it happened. This in turn can make us more resilient. And resilience, the ability to bend but not break, I think is also universal and can be built at all levels – individual, communal and societal.

Yago: How would you describe the trauma experience?

Elaine: The responses to traumatic events are different for everyone and it is extremely important to remember that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event or situation experiences trauma. Understanding this makes us gentler with ourselves and less judgmental of others. 

Experiences of trauma, either from single events or from multiple events, can result in responses involving intense fear, helplessness, or horror. The only “universal” reaction following a traumatic event is the physiological changes that happen because of the fight, flight and freeze response. Trauma impacts individuals and groups longer-term in ways that can be observed physically, emotionally, spiritually, and in the way we think (cognitively) and behave.  A list of common trauma reactions can be found on the STAR web page. (Link

I didn’t know about this list when I went through one of the most traumatic experiences in my life in El Salvador on April 15, 1985.  My husband and I were on a bus returning to our home to San Jose Guayabal with two friends visiting for the first time.  About half way there, soldiers stopped and surrounded the bus. They seemed nervous and afraid that they would be hit by the gunfire of 8-10 helicopters overhead. For about an hour, we were on the floor of the bus with all the others praying that we would not become more innocent civilian casualties in this war. The people on the bus were amazingly calm with mothers holding their children close, during this time of utter chaos. I remember being afraid and doing something which seemed really crazy afterwards – I put the cantaloupe on my lap between the side of the bus and my head for protection. Now, I know I wasn’t crazy – my rational brain simply wasn’t in charge at that point. 

I also remember feeling extremely guilty the next day as we attended the mass and burial of the 4 civilians who had died at the farm house before our bus arrived. The guilt came from knowing my government had supplied the weapons and training for the pilot(s) who killed this family. Every April 15th, when I pay my taxes knowing that more than half of every dollar goes for weapons and war, I experience a form of PITS, Perpetrator-Induced Traumatic Stress, as Rachael McNair calls it or participatory-induced trauma as we say in STAR.  PITS is the result of active participation in causing harm or trauma to others. Perhaps another form of modern-day enslavement??

Peter A. Levine
Yago: Peter Levine says that “animals are our teachers, exemplifying nature in balance.” In the same line, Richard Rohr in his last book Immortal Diamond says that "the difference between humans and animals is that animals fully say yes to their being." These are very humbling statements to our sense of superiority in Creation (Anthropocentrism).  Could you help us to understand the fight, flight, freeze response? How does the animal world deal with traumatic events? What can we learn from them?

Elaine: When faced with threat or danger, one’s body quickly gets ready for action and the most typical responses are fight, flight or freeze. No matter how you respond to threat, an enormous amount of energy is produced in your body which may be released in the fight or flight response.  The freeze response, on the other hand, traps the fight/flight energy in the body in the nervous system and muscles. If not released, Peter Levine, a psychologist and biophysicist who has worked in the field of stress and trauma for over 40 years,  says it stays trapped and wreaks havoc on our bodies in the form of stress or trauma reactions (Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger). 

Levine has studied wild animals for years and discovered that they do not exhibit long-term trauma responses or PTSD like humans because their instinctual responses after freezing include: trembling, shaking, deep breathing and panting.  Shaking, trembling, crying, sweating, etc. are also normal responses for humans as well. It is the body’s way of releasing and using up the energy that has been accumulated during the freeze response. Unfortunately, too many people in too many cultures are not unaware of this natural physiological process and they shut it down by trying to stop the crying and shaking or by medicating.  Levine says if we have to DO something, just put a hand on the back of the person and encourage them to do what their body needs to do. I’m convinced our world would be different if we could give ourselves and others permission to cry. And if we can’t cry, then we need to find something that is culturally acceptable to do that will release the trapped energy from our bodies. Otherwise it seems our body/mind/spirit may also remain enslaved to the trapped trauma energy?

Yago: How does the brain work during a traumatic event?   What do we mean by flashbacks?

Elaine: The human brain is designed to orchestrate the "fight, flight and freeze" responses in order to protect us, keep us safe and alive. A part of the brain known as the amygdala located in the emotional brain (limbic system) registers fear and sends a message to another part of the brain – the instinctual brain (brain stem) - that floods our body with stress hormones and chemicals for action. This happens automatically and very quickly and the thinking brain (cerebral cortex) is basically bypassed.

Even though the thinking brain is bypassed, memories of the event are stored in your emotional brain and also in cells throughout your body (Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion).  So, when sights, smells or sounds, anything that “triggers” the trauma memory or reminds you of the original event your emotional and instinctual brain react as if the danger still exists. Suddenly the instinctual and emotional brain takes over, a lot of energy is released and it feels like you are back in the traumatic event again.  This is called a flashback. Flashbacks are common responses to terrible and (what should be) abnormal situations. For years, the sound of helicopters overhead would remind me of the bus incident and flood my body and brain with fear and tightness in my stomach. Now, when I hear a helicopter, I remember, but my body does not respond as before.

Yago: STAR also promotes natural/energetic techniques like massage, EFT, acupressure, the Finger holds, Capacitar program. What can we learn from all these techniques? What is the contribution of indigenous traditions in solving traumatic events stuck in our bodies?

Elaine: STAR promotes a wide range of body-mind-energy tools so participants can choose what works best for them or the populations with whom they are working. The challenge is to practice and incorporate them in your “toolkit” so they can be used to release the trauma energy and reconnect the 3-part brain when needed. Many indigenous groups and traditional cultures have rituals built into the social fabric for mourning and grieving which helps “unfreeze” trauma energy. Other cultures release trauma energy naturally through drumming, dancing, singing, praying, etc. For others, we need to reclaim rituals that have been abandoned or create new ones.

CAPACITAR is an organization which provides these tools worldwide. They believe the use of simple ancient healing skills can empower us to live with peace and wellbeing no matter what is happening around us.  In addition to offering help with creating rituals for healing, they offer body/mind resources in many languages for transforming trauma.  Two of my favorite tools are the Fingerholds and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) which can be used by anyone. More information about these tools and others can be found in the CAPACITAR Emergency Response Toolkit. (See Link

Yago: This blog is about energies of enslavement. The STAR program gives a special attention to the Cycles of violence. How does violence perpetuate itself?

Elaine: Violence definitely perpetuates itself. Richard Rohr, Director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico says that “pain that is not transformed is transferred”. In STAR we also say: “hurt people hurt people”. If we don't use the energy accumulated during the freeze response for something productive, we often use it against ourselves or others. When we turn trauma energy against ourselves we call it "acting-in" behavior which includes addictions, eating disorders, depression, withdrawal, anxiety, self-blame etc. When the trauma energy is turned against others, it is called "acting-out” behavior which includes criminal activity, repetitive conflicts, abuse, aggression, blaming, etc.  Over time these acting-in and acting-out behaviors lead to cycles of violence which exist at at all levels – family, organization, community, and nation – and can be identified in any country or continent.  And, if we are honest, we recognize that we have been both victim and victimizer as they say in Spanish at some time in our lives.

Cycles of violence can be repeated many times, but they can also be broken at any time.  The challenge is becoming aware of these cycles and the connection to unhealed trauma. Sometimes individuals and groups become “enslaved to their wounds” and it becomes a part of their identity and stuck narrative and they just keep spinning on the cycles. Others think they can just ignore the wound and the pain and hope it will go away, but it won’t. The good news is the drive to "unfreeze" and heal the wound(s) stays with us no matter how long ago events happened and we can heal many years later.

Yago: How can we move out of this vicious cycle?  Could you briefly explain the importance of rituals (mourning/grieving) storytelling (accepting the loss), memorials and acknowledging the other’s story?

Elaine: Fortunately there are many tools, processes and strategies for helping individuals and groups break out of the cycles of violence.  Some of these can be found in Part III of the STAR model - Breaking Cycles of Violence; Building Resilience also known informally as the “snail model”.   Mourning and grieving, accepting the loss, memorializing and reflecting on the “other’s story are all tools for acknowledging and remembering what happened. Rituals create a space to express thoughts and feelings and “unfreeze” the body; storytelling aids the process of meaning-making, naming fears and accepting that life has changed; memorials provide a container to "hold" the pain and help us remember; and reflecting on the story of the "other” helps us understand root causes and re-humanize the individual or group. It may even lead us to “reconnecting’ with them. Restorative justice and conflict transformation processes can be very helpful tools to guide us on this part of the healing journey.

One of the really exciting things about working with STAR is that these aren’t just abstract theories – they are things that work.  Significant change happens even during week-long training and continues as they return home.  We are working on collecting more of the longer-term changes in Mexico and Haiti, but here are a couple examples of change during the training:
  • In Mexico during the “symbols of trauma” activity, an indigenous woman shared for the first time ever her experience of being raped years ago.  The next day she shared with the group: “My husband noted that I slept last night without nightmares. I usually wake up at least 3 times every night screaming.” Telling her story – change. 
  • At EMU after sharing my symbol of trauma - war and the bus incident in El Salvador - I checked in with the National Guard participant. He immediately began to tell me a story from Iraq when he had to deny passage to a father trying to get his son to medical care.  Through tears, he said, “I can never go back and tell that father I’m sorry, but I can tell you I’m sorry for what you and your friends experienced at the hands of the military”. With tears, I accepted his apology. The next morning he told the group about our conversation and how he had gone home that night and held his 2-year old son for the first time without flashbacks.  Saying I’m sorry – even to someone else - change.
  • On at least two occasions, one in the US and one in Mexico, following the restorative justice session, participants called family members whom they had not spoken to for years. One participant’s father hung up on her, but she just called him again and said I love you and would like to talk to you. Eventually they met, listened to each other’s stories and reconciled. Taking the risk to reconnect - change.

There are so many ways to break the cycles of violence and it is exciting to find “kindred spirits” who recognize the connection between trauma wounds and intractible conflict and on-going violence.  I was introduced to one of these kindred spirits in the last STAR training when a participant gave me the book “Cultivating Peace” by James O’Dea. It resonates so much with STAR.  He uses the language of “ending the transmission of wounds” (individual-global) while we use “breaking the cycles of violence (individual-societal). O’Dea says the role of the peacemaker is to interrupt the transmission of woundedness which can be anything from a smile (inner peace) to negotiations (international peacemaking).  I hope to meet him some day.

Yago: This blog is titled “breathing forgiveness”. What is the role of forgiveness in dealing with trauma, in moving from violence to peace?

Photo by Amy Schmid.
Elaine: Forgiveness is definitely one way to “interrupt the transmission of woundedness”.  It can be a complicated and complex process, but it is a choice we can make. To forgive is to gain peace by letting go of the feelings of anger, fear or humiliation about the harm done. Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves so that the harm done does not continue to control our lives and rob us of joy.  Some individuals and nations believe they can just “forgive and forget". But, it doesn’t work because our brain won’t let us forget.  In STAR, we say “forgive and remember” and/or “remember and change”. 

David Work’s journey through trauma includes choosing to forgive.  Two of his four daughters were gunned down in front of him at a church in Colorado.  Also shot, he woke up in an intensive care hospital room and “saw” the STAR cycles of violence he had learned at a Coming to the Table workshop. Immediately, he knew that he wanted to choose a different path. (Link to read more about his story). He is the first person I know to use the STAR model as a preventative tool. 

NOTE:  Coming to the Table (CTTT) uses the STAR approach to address one of the historical harms in the United States – the wounds of enslavement. 

Yago: Another very important element towards deconstructing slavery is the issue related to our deepest identity. All the mystics in history and currently the new Physics, is telling us that deep within we are all one, that there is not “out there”. In this context I would like to ask you about “Secondary Trauma”. How are we affected by the trauma of our fellow human beings? What can cause a final burn-out? What is compassionate fatigue?

Elaine: Your question reminds me of a quote by Chief Seattle on a t-shirt I wore years ago. “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”  

With the professionalization of many things, it is the persons in the helping and healing professions who connect the most with the trauma wounds in our world. Many of them have big hearts which makes them very good at what they are doing. It also makes them vulnerable to internalizing the pain and suffering of those they intend to help.  Working with those who have been traumatized and hearing many stories of fear, pain and violence can cause secondary trauma or compassion fatigue. 

In a Compassion Fatigue Educator Certification course I took several years ago at the Figley Institute in Tallahassee, Florida, they offered the following distinctions: 

  • Secondary trauma:  When you are helping someone or care about someone in harm’s way.  Primary trauma is when you were in harm's way.
  • Compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people in distress; the negative effects of working with traumatized people.  The helper experiences trauma responses (cynical, withdrawn, hard, fatigue etc.) as a result of hearing disturbing stories from the people they are serving.
  • Burnout is a lack of satisfaction with your job, too much stress, not enough pay.  This can happen with any job. 

In general caregivers tend to focus on other people’s problems and suffering and often fail to take care of their own needs.  Individuals and organizations are often unaware of the high cost of caring.  Institutional policies are equally important as individual self-care practices in preventing compassion fatigue.

Yago: What do we mean by building resilience?

Elaine: In physics, resilience is the ‘ability to bend but not break”. In individuals and societies, it is the capacity to go through difficult situations without being destroyed.  It is like a tree in a heavy wind storm that bends and sways but does not break. Wozo, a type of bamboo, is actually the name of the organization who has used the Village STAR curriculum the past 3 years in Haiti, a multiply-wounded and resilient country. 

As mentioned earlier, I think all humans are resilient, but some more than others. Resilience is not like DNA, something that can’t be changed. There are things individuals and societies can do to increase resilience. For example, the capacity for resilience increases when one has:
  • a caring, supportive community and strong network of friends (social networks)
  • confidence in one’s ability to creatively face new challenges and solve problems (knowledge and skills)
  • spiritual or philosophical outlook that gives meaning and hope even in life’s most difficult times (attitudes and beliefs)
  • ability to recognize signs of stress in one’s body and the ability to calm oneself 

The last point is so significant in both trauma and resilience which is confirmed by the chick research described in David Berceli’s book, The Revolutionary Trauma Release Process (2008). “We can transcend trauma and be stronger afterwards, but only if we engage the body’s natural healing mechanisms.”

Yago: Finally, could you talk briefly about the importance of self-care?

Elaine: Self-care is a significant element in building resilience.  It is especially important for people who work with the wounded and traumatized populations.  Again, paying attention to the body is essential.  If we don’t pay attention to what our body is telling us, it will say NO! I learned this first-hand about 5-6 years ago when I was returning from South Sudan,  removed from the plane in a stretcher at Dulles and taken to the ER. Institutional policies and my self-care plan both needed to be examined and adjusted.

Two important components of self-care for me are having at least one or more body/mind/spirit tools that I use regularly and paying attention to the “balance” in my life.  Massage and walking have become my regular self-care tools, but maintaining a balance between giving and getting, work and play, spending time with others and time alone, active involvement in the community/church and family is an on-going challenge.

Journey Home from War
Yago: STAR program is always exploring new areas and strategies to deal with trauma. What are the new areas of trauma exploration?

Elaine: There seems to be a lot happening these days and more coming later in the year. We are currently in the middle of a new “applied STAR” course at EMU for CJP and Graduate Counselling students. Yago can report on how that is going. We are in conversation with a group of Halabja survivors and university students from northern Iraq about using STAR as a response to the Kurdish genocide.  Two of the specialized STAR trainings are being revised and will be offered in the next 6 months: Healing Historical Harms in April and the Journey Home from War in September. (Link for more information

May and June are FULL of trainings and workshop presentations. In addition to a STAR I and STAR II at EMU, trainings will be held off-site in Lancaster, PA; Phoenix, AZ; Colorado Springs, CO; Washington D.C. - United States Institute of Peace and American University. Most of them will be first-time events with the exception of USIP which will be the second training there. 

In an effort to expand the STAR community network of people who are well trained to integrate and implement STAR into their communities, work and personal lives, we are working on three longer-term projects which include STAR practitioners, certified STAR trainers and technical assistance for organizations. (Link for more details

STAR has made a difference in the lives of many individuals and communities the past 11.5 years. Our vision is to increase that number by equipping organizations who are working with populations impacted by conflict, violence or natural disasters to do trauma sensitive programming.    

Carolyn Yoder
Carolyn Yoder, articulates this vision in an article entitled Trauma-Sensitive that was recently published in the InterAction magazine, Monthly Developments. We want organizations to become “trauma-informed” so that a trauma-sensitive framework can be integrated into any project: economic, health, governance and others. This means more than putting a psychologist on every project team. Awareness of the repercussions of trauma needs to extend across the organization, to headquarters and field staff alike. 

STAR is one of the best resources I know for helping individuals and organizations become more trauma-informed and less "enslaved to current and historic wounds".

Yago: Elaine, thanks a lot for your meaningful sharing and time granted for this interview! 

Elaine: Thanks to you, Yago!