[Editor’s note: Roughly one year ago, CT Online wrote an article about the initiatives the counseling department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL) was engaging in as protests and turmoil rocked the city of Ferguson after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot by a white Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson.
This fall, we’ve asked some of those counselors to reflect on what they have experienced and learned since serving as witnesses to history and trying to help others find their voices as “storytellers.”
Brian Hutchison is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and associate professor at UMSL; Holly Wagner is an LPC and assistant professors at UMSL; and Christina Thaier is a provisional licensed professional counselor (PLPC) working on a doctorate in counselor education and supervision at UMSL. They are all American Counseling Association members.]
As a St. Louisan, I [Christina] have started to mark time — or perhaps how I recognize myself or my city — as before, during and after Ferguson. Post-Ferguson, one of the things I’ve come to understand is the power of the storyteller. I’d heard many times in history classrooms (which were not my favorite) that history is determined by the one who is telling the story. I believed it then, I’m sure, but I’ve come to understand it differently post-Ferguson, in a know-it-in-your-bones sort of way.
And so, as the three of us do our best to honor this opportunity to serve as storytellers about our experience of Ferguson, we do so recognizing the weight of such a privilege, knowing there are voices more worthy than ours to do so, and hoping to honor the young man (Michael Brown), our fellow St. Louisans and the city the story truly belongs to.
From Holly Wagner: A time to respond, a place to be heard and a space where crisis and growth convened
Timing can mean a lot in life. When someone is asked why a certain decision was made or a sequence of events occurred, the response is often about timing. For example, we often hear folks say, “It’s time for a change” or “It’s about time” or “It just wasn’t the right time.”
As I reflect on the events that led up to the crisis in Ferguson in August 2014, as well as the community responses following Michael Brown’s death, the concept of timing and time seem significant. For the people of Ferguson and the surrounding North City of Saint Louis, it was “past time for a change.” The time had come for their voices to be heard. In our own small, unique way, the faculty and students at UMSL showed up to listen.
August 2014 was my first semester as a faculty member in the UMSL Department of Counseling and Family Therapy. I had literally just arrived on the UMSL scene when it was time to respond. It was time to act, to do something helpful, and there was no time to be hesitant about it. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the energy and intention that surrounded me as my new colleagues and students leapt into action, driven by a desire to be helpful, yet unobtrusive. We talked about how to show up in ways that would truly benefit the people who were hurting. The idea of the sand tray naturally emerged as a potential medium for expressions to come forth during the crisis.
Through previous experiences with sand tray work with both children and adults, I felt innately that it could be the conduit needed for peoples’ voices to be heard. We were intentional in framing our work as an expressive technique to facilitate storytelling rather than sand tray therapy. We approached the events simply with sand and figurines, as well as open ears and hearts. What transpired made it evident that this simple approach was truly all that was needed at that time.
I have often heard that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” also contains aspects of the word “opportunity.” At the time of the Ferguson crisis, it seemed difficult to hold those two words or truths together. It was hard to imagine something good coming from the pain and struggle that was so palpable at the time. As counselors, however, we understand that healing is a process that takes time and space during which meaning can be made. Over time, if we are given the space to create insight and meaning, we can adapt and grow in response to the trauma or crisis we experienced. Thus, this was our intention as we showed up to the various events surrounding the Ferguson crisis. We witnessed the immediate effects of freely expressed emotions, meaning making and insight, and relief and validation related to a story being told.
While it is more difficult to ascertain any long-term effects that our engagement may have had on our community members, it has truly been amazing to hear the accounts of the impact this participation has had on our own students’ growth, awareness and counselor development. For many students involved, working with a sand tray or responding to a community crisis had been solely discussed theoretically up until that time. Responding to our community’s needs allowed students an opportunity to experientially engage in ways that they found meaningful to their development as persons and [as] counselors, while igniting a passion for social justice work. It was a time we will never forget.
From Christina Thaier: Showing up
On a sleepy, snowy afternoon when I was 18 years old, I was complaining to a friend’s mom about how I didn’t want to get dressed up for a family member’s wedding that evening. She looked at me gravely, in that “I’m about to say something really important” sort of way, and offered some unrequested advice. As if it were an absolute truth, she declared, “You honor the people you care about by showing up” — she was talking about weddings, funerals, birthday parties, dinner parties and probably even church — “and you should take the time to look nice. It tells them that their celebration matters to you.”
In other words, go put on a dress and a smile, and act like you know better than to think you are the center of the universe.
Though I’m stubborn, and it took me longer than it should have to understand the wisdom of her words, they eventually became part of who I am and what I do. In August of 2014, when our city was in a state of crisis, when we had no idea what was going to happen next, what was the right thing to do or how to go about it, her words offered a familiar solace — you show up, where you are invited, if someone matters to you.
As school was opening, many of us were asking the same questions: As counselors-in-training, what is our role? What do we do? How can we be helpful? Dr. Brian Hutchison and Dr. Holly Wagner offered us an answer. They asked our chapter of Chi Sigma Iota, of which I was currently serving as president, to consider showing up with them.
They taught us how to build a mobile outreach unit made up of sand trays, story stones, paint and symbolic figurines. They told us there was no manual, no evidence-based protocol, no textbook or peer-reviewed article with the answers we needed. They were willing to let us see that they didn’t really know what healing tents at a protest might look like — but they went anyway.
I remember being afraid as I drove to the first protest with a car full of sand and figurines. Were we crazy? Was it safe? Did I have anything to offer? Would I say the wrong thing? Did I know what I was getting myself in to?
Viktor Frankl said that despair is suffering without meaning. We had hoped to offer others, in our own small way, an opportunity to discover something meaningful for themselves during this crisis. The truth is, we might have been the ones most moved by the experience.
It turned out that the few hours I spent with my colleagues, holding a space for strangers to tell their stories, was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. We laughed and cried and mourned and hoped and, most of all, we witnessed human beings seeing and hearing each other as we truly were during Ferguson. To say it was beautiful is not enough.
From Brian Hutchison: Who am I?
I remember the last time I was called a racist. It was approximately 11 years ago. I believe at the time that this fact was no longer true, but it shook me deeply because I knew that at one time, early in my life and into my late teens, it was. At that time, I had never known a person of color, nor had I read the works of Baldwin or Biko or Douglas or Coates or any of the myriad authors who have shaped my worldview over the past 25 years.
Having been asked to reflect on my personal experience while working with residents and protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, following Michael Brown Jr’s death, my thoughts go back to that moment when I was last called a racist. I had already decided that much of my work would focus on issues of social class, urban poverty and black people, yet that wound — inflicted by the social experience of my youth and not the person who called me a racist — throbs with raw pain still today. And I am a person who is able to set that acute pain aside, who can deflect by focusing on the power of choice and mastery I feel in my life. In essence, I am a person who is male and white and straight and educated living in the United States in the early 21st century.
Who am I to be asked to be helpful to the mostly black community of Ferguson? Who am I to be asked to be helpful to the mostly black community of protestors? Who am I to be asked to help the mostly young, black community of organizers? More than anything else, being asked to reflect on my personal experience of being asked to help in Ferguson makes me think, “Who am I?”
My answer does not feel elegant enough to put to the page, yet I am compelled. I am a person who did not ask to be male, white, straight, able-bodied, and to have an opportunity to be this educated. The choices I have been given were not mine to decide when the seeds of their possibility were first planted. These choices are my privilege, but the choices for most whom I have met in the schools, community centers, tents and streets of the St. Louis community do not look like mine. They are not made with an ingrained sense of mastery and power. They are choices made despite the circumstances of their lived experience.
What I did choose was to say yes. I did choose to ask if I could be helpful versus demanding to help (from my privileged worldview in my privileged way). I did choose to show up as often as I could when asked but never to ask if I could show up. I did choose to do what was asked instead of what I wanted to do. These choices were simple, yet did not come to me easily because of my 44 years of accrued habits lived within my bubble of privilege.
The gifts I received were the knowledge that I can step outside of myself and be led by others, do have the capacity to work through my own history of guilt to be helpful and that there is something to be gained by counselors — all types of people who are counselors — if we simply say yes, be humble and show up when asked.
As you can probably tell, the three of us can be taken back to during Ferguson quite easily. We look back at that time of crisis in our city and shudder at images we can’t unsee — violence and grief and so many raw emotions on every television, computer screen and headline. We see breaking news and front pages that paint a portrait of St. Louis as divided and conquered. All of that was part of the story, yes. But somewhere in the wreckage and loss, the black and white, the debate and the protest, mourners came together and explored what it meant to be a St. Louisan during, and then after, Ferguson.
In the last year, in post-Ferguson St. Louis, what have we learned? We know that history-making happens in the present. We know that art and connection have the potential to be transcendent. We know that words like “race” and “privilege” are easier to say with practice but not nearly as important as words like “value,” “worth” and “dignity.” We know that holding a space for someone else is a gift for both parties. We know that people will surprise us — for the good and the bad. We know that our city needs more change and that we love her despite her imperfections. We know that we want to continue being part of that change. We know we don’t really know what that looks like, and we can’t find the answers in our textbooks or journals or empirical truths. But we think it might start by showing up. And listening.
See Counseling Today’s article from one year ago, “Storytelling and hope in Ferguson” at wp.me/p2BxKN-3L6