Last week I led a Self-Care-Through-Singing workshop for the staff and volunteers at Women and Girls Network, who are celebrating their 30th birthday this year. That’s three decades of ‘counselling, advocacy and advice for women and girls who have experienced gendered violence, including sexual and domestic violence’. I looked around at the group of women, young and older, of all different skin tones and fashion styles, all contributing in some way to supporting and empowering other women. I felt happy to be there helping them celebrate. We stretched together, breathed together, laughed together and sang with beautiful heart-lifting voices. As I gave gentle reminders to bring non-judgemental attention to the body, breath and voice, it was a special reminder for me of just how much learning about trauma and self-care has shaped my practice as community empowerment specialist.
I began reading about the impact of trauma and ways to support self-care and healing a few years ago. Black Feminist writers (especially Alice Walker and bell hooks) and Buddhist teachings have particularly helped to develop my understanding in broader political and spiritual contexts. Training from Women and Girls Network helped me feel more confident about applying the theory in practical ways in my singing workshops and other workshops I facilitate. The workshops I offer are not offered as substitute for counselling and other services offered by organisations like Women and Girls Network. I hope to support these services by building positive group connection to promote self-care / community care, creativity and a sense of fun and achievement in a community setting.
Being trained in community development values and methods, I always aim to create a safe and inclusive space, supporting everyone present in any kind of workshop to be able to be there whole-heartedly. Being in a big group workshop (singing or more ‘worky’ workshops) can be a healing and liberating experience. It can also be a really uncomfortable experience for some people. If you’ve experienced trauma, you may feel a heightened sense of danger in a group. For me, building safety has always meant paying particular attention to what helps those who feel in the margin of any group to feel safe. The learning about trauma underlined this and I continue to invest time at the beginning of workshops inviting people to introduce themselves in small groups and share with others in ways which invite step-by-step connection and relaxation with each other. When the margin of a group feels safe to really be itself, it’s fairly certain that growth and development in the whole group and in the group’s work will follow.
In singing for wellbeing and empowerment workshops, I give more time to gentle movement and stretching exercises, coordinated with the breath. I find ways to appeal to sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste in each session, helping singers come back safely to the present moment, again and again. I offer tools which participants can use to help self-calming and grounding after the workshops too. Working with the breath and body in this way can be very powerful – it’s important to go slowly, to help participants maintain self-authority and build skills over time.
Trauma can have a huge impact on our perception of our voices; how can I express myself? How do I judge my voice? Will others listen? Do I feel safe during and after expressing my feelings and needs? Creating a gentle, non-judgemental space for people to share and to sing together can help participants to build a more positive relationship with their voice over time. ‘I never believed I could sing’ is a phrase I hear time and again.
Sometimes I offer breathing exercises and singing during other workshops – a team Away Day or residential for a charity of campaign group. As lots of people who have experienced trauma (including the traumatic impacts of experiencing daily structural oppression including racism, sexism, homophobia and disable-ism) turn to activism and healing work, this can be supportive for people working on social justice issues. I talk a lot about – and try to model – self-care, and build gentleness and spaciousness into each workshop agenda I plan.
I look back at my learning journey about trauma and recognise two things – how my own learning about what is supporting self-care and voice-building for me has been instrumental to my approach as a group facilitator. And how much more there is to learn ahead. I would love to hear your reflections on facilitating in a way that is supportive for trauma and self-care too.
It seems the recent #MeToo conversation has brought the widespread nature of trauma (especially from gender-based violence) more into popular consciousness. If you’d like to find out more about how I weave supportive trauma approaches into my work as a facilitator, community builder and community singing leader, or enquire about a Self-Care-Through-Singing workshop for your organisation, feel free to get in touch.
A big Happy 30th Birthday to Women and Girls Network. Thank you for the important, creative, powerful and heart-led work you do and thank you for sharing your learning onwards to make an even bigger difference. If you want to find out more about their services, or someone you know in London might need to, please see here