Teaching About Historical Trauma in a Localized Context
Michele M. Schlehofer, Professor of Psychology, Salisbury University
Historical trauma is a community-level trauma caused by intergenerational cultural oppression and violence (Sotero, 2006). Addressing historical trauma can improve health and wellbeing at the community and population level (Sotero, 2006). One way to address historical trauma in Black communities is to engage non-Black people –and particularly White people, who often hold greater ability to change systems of power (Ford et al., 2021)—in understanding systemic and institutional racism. Deep canvassing, which consists of personalized, vulnerable conversations about racism in a nonjudgmental manner, can prompt perspective-taking and help White people develop anti-racist identities (Brennan & Jackson, 2022; Denizet-Lewis, 2016).
With funding from a SPSSI Action Teaching Grant, I taught 20 students (75% White) enrolled in my Fall 2023 Community Psychology undergraduate course about historical trauma and deep canvassing as a conscious raising approach for White communities. In addition to learning academic content, the goals of the course were to foster an understanding of systemic and institutional racism and develop students as allies.
I rooted our learning in our local context. Salisbury University is located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, which has a contentious history of inter-racial aggression and anti-Black racism. The area is the birthplace of Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass and has a rich history. Wicomico County itself—where Salisbury University is located—is home to a community of free Black families that existed prior to 1865 yet is also the site of three known racial lynchings (occurring from 1898 to 1931).
Alongside their textbook, students read Ifill’s (2018) On the Courthouse Lawn, which provides an in-depth analysis of how power structures in Maryland Eastern Shore’s local government, local media, and in the everyday white supremacy of local White residents operated to both encourage acts of racial terror, and White residents’ complicity and Black residents’ silence about racial injustice.
Students also completed a variety of activities and assignments to deepen their understanding of history and how it impacts race relations today. Students visited two Black cultural centers in Wicomico County: The San Domingo School, a Rosenwald school for Black youth established during reconstruction; and The Charles H. Chipman Cultural Center, a former AME Church built in 1837 by free Black men which holds local artifacts, including jars holding soil collected from local lynching sites. A representative from the Wicomico Truth and Reconciliation Initiative (WTRI) also visited class throughout the semester to talk about local reconciliation efforts.
Students completed weekly papers to encourage critical self-reflection. To reinforce their learning and encourage a deeper dive into the course topics, students worked collaboratively to contribute to a set of Wikipedia articles on topics such as historical racism, deep canvassing, and White racial identity development. Students shared the information they learned with peers in the class, worked collaboratively in small groups to create and test via their networks a set of four anti-racist deep canvassing guides, and created a set of associated infographics, which were provided to the WTRI and volunteers of the San Domingo School and stored in the University System of Maryland’s MOST (Maryland Open Source Textbook) Commons. Preliminary feedback found that students developed a deeper understanding of systemic and institutional racism, felt more empowered as allies, and saw the products they created as having high utility to create social change.
Brennan, W., & Jackson, M. A. (2022). A qualitative examination of dialogical elements in anti-racist deep canvassing conversations. The Counseling Psychologist, 50, 177-211. https://doi.org/10.1177/00110000211055408
Denizet-Lewis B. (2016, April 7). How do you change voters’ minds? Have a conversation. The New York Times Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/10/magazine/how-do-you-change-voters-minds-have-a-conversation.html
Ford, B. Q., Green, D. J., & Gross, J. J. (2022). White fragility: An emotion regulation perspective. American Psychologist, 77(4), 510–524. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000968
Ifill, S. (2018). On the courthouse lawn: Confronting the legacy of lynching in the twenty-first century (Revised edition). Penguin Randomhouse.
Sotero M. (2006) A conceptual model of historical trauma: Implications for public health practice and research. Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice, 1, 93–108.