Organizational Health Episode 14 August 11, 2021

14: Protecting the mental health of human rights workers

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

Decades of police impunity against black citizens in the US were interrupted this year, with the rare conviction of Derek Chauvin, the officer who murdered George Floyd. What changed?  A bystander filmed the crime with her smart phone and made a cover-up impossible.  All over the world, citizens and activists are using their phones the same way, to document violent repression. But what is the impact of capturing and processing such footage on the mental health of the person doing the filming, or the activist who views and uses it to campaign for justice?  The organization “Witness” works with frontline defenders, sometimes in dangerous and emotionally searing conditions, helping to secure video evidence. Witness’ director, Yvette Alberdingk Thijm, talks about the impact of secondary or vicarious trauma on her staff. 

00:00 / 00:00

Listen and subscribe to our podcast from your mobile device on Apple, Breaker, Google, Radio Public, Spotify, and Stitcher

The Interview

The trauma that comes from witnessing human rights abuse

We have to open our eyes. We cannot look away. But we are human beings and it’s very hard to experience that much harm and suffering,” Yvette Alberdingk Thijm, a leader for human rights workers who regularly view video of violent abuse, knows that secondary trauma is real.  It is estimated that rights activists are carrying levels of posttraumatic stress comparable to that of survivors of war and conflict.  

The Coda

A song from Argentina that evokes community and creativity

Economic and social justice campaigner Ignacio Saiz tells us about a song that means a great deal to him – Balderrama, by the great Mercedes Sosa. It celebrates a famous bar in Argentina’s far northern town of Salta, whose musicians and regulars cherish the community that gathers there. 

Transcript

Hey, I’m Akwe Amosu and this is Strength and Solidarity 

Welcome to our podcast about the ideas driving – and disrupting – human rights movements around the world.   

Coming up…  

  • The trauma that comes from witnessing the abuse of others 
  • And in the Coda – A song about a much-loved bar in Argentina that celebrates community and music  

 

To bear witness, is to show solidarity, to affirm the truth of a harm done to another. By doing so, we stand up for justice and accountability. When teenager Darnella Frazier filmed the killing of Geroge Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, she was bearing witness.  And it is not a stretch to say that in using her smart phone to record what happened right through to its devastating conclusion, she ensured there would be justice. The footage she captured powered Chauvin’s prosecution and made sure a murder would not be covered up. This concept is at the heart of an organization called – not coincidentally – Witness, that works with frontline human rights defenders, sometimes in dangerous and emotionally searing conditions, to capture, process and secure footage that can be used to seek justice.  But just as filming a murder took a heavy emotional toll on Darnella Frazier, the people who work for Witness must also cope with constant images of brutal mistreatment and abuse. What does their commitment to solidarity cost them? And if you are their manager, how do you keep them safe?  Questions I wanted to put to the executive director of Witness, Yvette Alberdingk Thijm.  I started by asking her how the organization first began? 

 

YAT: Yeah, thanks Akwe. The original thing that sparked Witness was – there were two things. One was, in the late eighties, the founder, Peter Gabriel went around on the tour in places like Chile, and he was speaking to people who had seen members of their family be disappeared, who had many, many stories of violence and abuse. And he realized that those stories could very easily be buried or forgotten and that a video camera could be just an incredible tool. But then in 1991, the beating of Rodney King happened in Los Angeles. And that was captured on an old-school camcorder, by what you could argue was one of the first sort of eyewitness bystanders, right? And that video sparked the creation of Witness.  Now we’re 30 years later. And, and I would say, thanks to the incredible bravery of a 17 year old black young student who filmed the brutal murder of George Floyd, there was a conviction in this case. Nobody should have to see that video to understand that this person should be convicted of murder, but that’s the society we live in.  

 

AA: We’ve seen people routinely reach for their phone and start filming when something’s happening now. But it means that the web is full of extraordinarily traumatizing video.  

 

YAT: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a secondary trauma to having to watch these instances of violence. And obviously, particularly, we see this all around the world for the communities who are targeted and who are the victims of a lot of this violence. That’s something we spent quite a lot of time on, you know; who decides whether you share these videos online, how do you do it ethically? how do you also think about the safety and security of the images that you’re actually sharing? Then if you think about Darnella Frazier, who was incredibly brave, she, as a person who has been a, a very, very frontline witness to this kind of abuse and violence and injustice, has spoken about how hard it has been for her and how deeply emotionally it has impacted her, um, to be that witness. We’ve seen it with the murder of Eric Garner, that the person who filmed that, a guy called Ramsey Orta who had had his name on the video when it was actually distributed, was very much targeted by the people who didn’t like the fact that he put to light what actually had happened. So a lot of our time and attention is spent on really, um, thinking about how can this new generation of people be safe, but also ethical witnesses.  

 

AA: And I think there’s a conundrum at the middle of it for people who want to stand up for rights. I find myself wanting to avoid looking at the worst of this material, the most acute of this material, but there’s also this other very strong message, which I respect profoundly, which says: don’t look away. This is happening. This is happening to real human beings. And unless you stand up and say it’s unacceptable, it’s going to go on happening, so take the responsibility to keep looking. And I think there’s a contradiction in the middle of that. We want people to keep themselves safe, but at the same time, if they don’t look, then perhaps they’re not doing their duty. 

  

YAT: So I do think that is something we have to do. We have to open our eyes. We cannot look away, but I also know that we are human beings and we’re programmed sort of evolutionarily to at some point tune out because it’s very hard to, to experience that much harm and suffering. And, and obviously we want people to continue to relate and be empathic in a way that really leads to action. So one of the things that I’m actually quite encouraged by is that these videos have sparked movements, right? They have taken people to the streets and in these movements, you find collective action and you find community and you find ways to be together in a struggle. the way one of our partners described this is that visibility is the first stepping stone to rights. 

 

AA: So, so far, we’re really talking more about members of the general public, people who find themselves either in-person or virtually in front of a scene that begs the question of whether one is going to bear witness. But people who work in human rights organizations who see themselves as having a responsibility to go towards the place where abuse is happening in a sense have to take this on as a permanent state. It’s not a momentary decision. And at Witness, above all, you’re working in video that captures the abuse of people.  Your staff and you must be constantly grappling with this question of vicarious trauma. 

 

YAT: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s not just us because we have a very collaborative model. Many of our team are part of affected communities. So it would be quite an artificial sort of distinction to say, you can choose to engage or not to engage because many of the activists in our collective or the activists we work with live a daily experience in which there is a continuity of trauma and impact.  For example, there’s a study that has fairly recently come out that showed that human rights activists are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, from anxiety and physical harms at about 18, 19%, which is the same level that people experience in PTSD when you come out of a conflict or out of a war. 

 

AA: So as, as the leader of an organization where you’re able to verify for yourself whether this is true, what do you actually see? What’s happening to your staff? 

 

YAT: I mean, it’s a cumulative effect. There’s a range between burnout, trauma, um, other impact or effects. It’s very, very deeply personal because all of us come to this work with our own different personal backgrounds or communities that we’re from. Some people have intergenerational trauma they may carry. Um, so we’re definitely seeing that it ranges from levels of just pure exhaustion, particularly after looking at what’s happening with COVID right now, to people actually experiencing very direct impact that is very similar to PTSD or needing to take some time off. And yet you also may see people who have much less symptoms off what they’re seeing and experiencing, who may be spending quite a lot of time. For example, watching videos of conflict or war crimes. The people who are the most resilient tend to be the people who know how to access their resources, how to rely on their community, but also the people who take some responsibility and pay attention to their own burnout and to their own state. And that is incredibly hard when you’re faced withmany demands from the communities you’re in. Uh, you’re part of that community, you know, it’s very hard to think, when are you going to say no? When are you going to rest? And I, and I know that it is very important as Audre Lorde said to think of self-care or collective care as – it’s a political act. It’s, you’re doing it for the movement. Um, it’s not an indulgence. 

 

AA: So it might seem to a staff member or an activist that it’s selfish or self-indulgent to take care of themselves when there’s so much other suffering to be addressed or to be, to be reported or recorded. 

 

YAT: Yeah. It’s always very complicated, right? The human rights, and particularly the INGO – the international NGO – space, you know, can suffer from a little bit of a “white savior” syndrome. The human rights space tends to have hero narratives in it, expressions like the “tireless advocate.” At the moment I’m in Brooklyn in America – and I will always understand that my situation right here and now is very different from one of our partners or activists who’s in the middle of the conflict in Yemen or an indigenous partner that we work with who’s based in Brazil. That said, from a Witness perspective, we may be, if we’re not on the front lines, better equipped to support than someone who is in the middle of a conflict or is facing direct attacks on their community. So there’s different roles in that.  I’m quite bothered by the way these narratives play out. Even if you think about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it’s a very aspirational state – perfect health, perfect dignity, absolute security; obviously it’s what inspires us, but to be in the movement and to think that in your lifetime that is going to happen, you can only be disappointed, rightand feel like you’re actually failing. But if you think about it as playing a part in a larger struggle, uh, I think it’s more sustainable for people. And one of the things that, as a leader in a human rights team, you have to do, is help foster those narratives. 

 

AA: And that’s actually what I wanted to go to next. You know, you’re leading a group of people who are inspired and impassioned about doing this work. You’re seeing that inevitably as human beings, they’re going to experience secondary trauma. I wonder what your obligation is, as a leader of such an organization? And what your experience has been of trying to lead a group of people who are dealing with this? 

 

YAT: Yeah, no, thanks. Akwe.  So I think it’s been hard, to be really honest. I think that as a leader, what you have to try to do is to remind everyone that the systems are causing the harm and that it’s not on you individually. Like the reason you become traumatized or exhausted or harmed is because you are human. And that is because, um, your body has given you actual very good survival mechanisms to make sure that you stop when you need to stop. We’ve put so many different mechanisms and narratives in place over the last years. And we thought we were actually quite well on our way to becoming more of a trauma-informed, caring organization. And in a recent survey, we found out that people still feel quite a lot of burn-out.  People feel that there’s a culture of overwork and people feel exhausted. The way we like to think about it is systemically. What is the world we’re in? Where do we sit in this larger system? Then we think about it organizationally, which is, how do you design jobs? Do people work in project teams or not?  

Um, going back to the exhaustion, we’re currently doing work planning. You can’t plan for a coup in Burma, but you can try to remind everyone when we’re doing our plans for the coming year, what is sustainable, how to build in time to respond to things. We have all kinds of leaves. And, you know, do you train your supervisors to ask the right questions to, to be aware? So we try, we really try to do our best. I do think it’s not easy.  

I also think that when you look at it, the way we are, or the movement is funded from a philanthropy perspective, there has to be more of a “do no harm” principle there. 

Like if you’re a funder, you cannot support us, for example, to help movements film safely in protests if you’re not also funding the ability for the people who are doing those trainings or the people who are doing the work to have good health insurance, or to be able to talk to a counselor when it gets too hard or to have a supervisor training so they understand better how to project-manage. Like there’s no funder that will have as, as a metric, the level of solidarity that you have been displaying as a, as a group or as a movement, right? So, so I think that there’s a lot there that that really needs to be taken into account and needs to change. 

 

AA: So maybe you could say something about what it’s been like for you as a leader in this organization to hold and support your staff who are dealing with trauma, secondary or otherwise. I guess I am asking that question because I, myself, have been in a leadership position where I have felt unable to solve problems for people that are making them legitimately angry, bitter towards management, and have experienced my own sense of failure and distress at that. So I’m just wondering how you personally experience carrying this challenge. 

 

YAT: Yeah. Akwe. Really, thank you for that question. So I definitely have had those exact moments of failure, right? Because in the end I have a lot of responsibility. For example, one of the things we decided is that with our model and because we work so closely with communities, we made a decision that I’m very responsible for, that we would tread very lightly. We’re not going to have offices anywhere. And we’re seeing that it’s incredibly hard for staff, because you may be by yourself in an entire region and with enormous demands from the community on you, from your partners on you. And then it does tend to go back to “the systems are not supporting me enough.” I do feel quite bad about that at times, but I also think it’s a responsibility I need to carry together with some of my other leadership to figure this out.  But I also believe that, um, usually very good solutions come in from the team and from the partners. During COVID, I mean, the demands on everybody have been very, very tough and I think everybody has been juggling to keep between their own personal space and their activism space and, and, um, I think I have felt isolated, I think many of my colleagues have felt quite isolated, um, even not being able to be together in a space and to feel that the community, um, that we can have when we’re sharing sort of why we’re in this movement and what we’re doing. 

 

AA: How do you yourself experience being held responsible or accused of failing to have responsibility? I ask that because I think for a lot of managers, it’s a very tough combination. On the one hand you’re being asked, you know, to have empathy and show vulnerability. And on the other hand, you’re being asked to be decisive, set the course, don’t get bogged down. I think it’s very difficult to keep these two things in balance. And I was just curious about your own emotional resilience, how you manage that conundrum. 

 

YAT: Yeah. It is a conundrum. It’s a “both, and”.  I think that my job as a leader is to make sure people have the right resources and support, and that there’s a feeling of collective care. I can feel really bad if I feel that we’re failing in that.  At the same time, I also see people needing very clear decision-making, right? Like one of the things we’re really trying to do is make that much more concrete and clear and to be like, listen, tell us what the things are that are not working for you – some things are extremely practical. Like, one of the things we’re looking at right now is, as a relatively medium size, global human rights organization, it’s really hard to figure out the employment structures and the benefits for people. Right? But it turns out that’s actually something that’s an extremely big stressor and a big equity issue for many people in our staff. So we’ve started to work with a South African consultancy to really help us figure that out because it turned out that that was really, really something that was very much weighing very heavily on people.  

 

AA: Have you changed over these years of doing this work?  

 

YAT: I think one change that I have made or have learnedis to rely more on the collective and on my colleagues and really understanding that it’s only through that, that we’re going to come out at the right place. I think when I started, I felt very strongly like, Oh I need to, they’re expecting me to make a decision. I think they still expect me to make faster decisions and clearer decisions, but I’ve also learned that there’s an enormous leadership, for example, in the Witness team, a lot of our strategies are not decided by me. They’re decided by people who are directly in many regions, working on specific issues who come back with very good observations who are learning from our partners. So to me, that’s how I definitely have changed. 

And I think the other piece is maybe to try to be a little bit more patient, right? I feel that in the beginning, I was very much trying to figure out how we fit into this existing landscape of NGOs, of philanthropy. I think I’ve learned much more clearly how much that system is also quite broken, if you look at where the money goes, who it goes to, how little, for example, goes to minority-led organizations.so I think there’s a little more uh, I don’t know, maybe anger in that feeling like, wow, um, is this really the way? And a huge respect for the way movements are organizing and people organize outside of these structure sometimes. I am better at figuring out how to be in community with others in terms of collective care. I’ve been quite inspired by people like Adrienne Maree Brown. You just cannot do it alone. It’s impossible, right? There are many ways people have come before me and who will come after me and we’re just temporarily holding a vessel and I feel quite lucky with the community I’m in. 

AA: Thank you, Yvette 

 

YAT: Thank you. 

 

Yvette Alberdingk Thijm is the executive director of Witness, which is headquartered in New York. You can find a transcript of our conversation and some reading suggestions on our website, strengthandsolidarity.org. 

 

For our “Coda”, we ask someone active in the Human Rights field to share something that gives them inspiration or insight into the work they do.  And this time we’re hearing about some music that does both of those things.  Ignacio Saiz, leads the Center for Economic and Social Rights in New York. He wanted to tell us about a song sung by one of Argentina’s most famous voices that connects his political passion with his creative side. 

 

IS: Music has always been important to mepersonally, but also it has been deeply interwoven with politics for me. And part of that inspiration in Latin America was how cultural life, how music was a vehicle for protest, but also for aspiration and for visions of liberation, for alternative visions of liberation. And that brings me to me to Mercedes Sosa.  

 

[music] 

 

IS: And no one epitomizes the voice of liberation, the voice of protest, in the region more than Mercedes Sosa, an Argentinian singer steeped in the kind of folk tradition of Argentina, but a really, not just regional voice, but universal voice who’s inspired protests and liberation struggles, way, way beyond the borders of Argentina.  

 

[music] 

 

IS: One of her most emblematic songs for me is Balderrama…  it’s a song in praise of, a well-known music venue and bar in Salta in Northern Argentina …there’s a lot of imagery of night and day and stars and aspirations,  

[music] 

  

IS: It’s a zamba, zamba not with an S but a zamba with a Z, which is an Argentinian folk form with Afro and indigenous roots to it. and it’s usually guitar and drum, and there’s something a little contradictory to the lyrics themselves. The lyrics you think would be festive, but this is reflective. This is wistful. And the reprise or the chorus is “dónde iremos a parar si se apaga Balderrama?” – where would we be, where would we end up if Balderrama closed? Where would we be if we lost this thing that nourishes us, this thing that sustains us?  And I couldn’t help but read that as almost like an ode to music itself  

 

[music] 

 

IS: I found myself picking up this song, just shortly after the Trump election. I was so – just in, like many of us, just in shock and in dismay that that a country could, could go in this direction. I play the guitar, I sing, but I have not performed for many, many years, but I found myself wanting to perform this song in a, in an open mic at the lower East Side [of Manhattan, New York] – nothing, nothing more glamorous than that! Um, but I felt the need to sing those words and to voice those words at a time when I felt that we were entering a very, very dark period of our global history, not just in this country. The song is a guide star for me. And, the word star, lucero del alba – morning star – comes up in the refrain a lotAnd apart from that, it’s just a great tune. 

 

[music] 

 

IS:  For too long in my life, I’ve kind of separated my human rights work from my creativity in music…I’ve tended to see music-making and playing the guitar and composing, improvising, as just a hobby, something you do on the side to unwind, something to use the other side of your brain. And more recently, I’ve been prompted to think about the connections between them.  There’s something about music’s ability to speak to us in a much deeper way than the written word can. Not so long ago my mother, as she was declining with Alzheimer’s and dementia, she lost the ability to use language and I communicated to her through song because when I sang songs from her childhood in Spain, she started singing along with me. I had lost her, it seemed, my connection to her had vanished! I mean, music is miraculous! So how can we harness that miraculous healing power for the purposes of social change?  Mercedes Sosa knew how to do that. And she did that so powerfully.  

 

[music] 

 

 

AA: Thank you, Ignacio Saiz, for sharing not only Mercedes Sosa with us, but your own moving performance of Balderrama. 

 

And that’s it for episode 14 of Strength and Solidarity… thanks for spending this time with us!  If you liked what you heard, please tell others about us and our rich list of past episodes on diverse aspects of the tools and tactics of human rights work…  We would love your feedback and your suggestions … Send us an email – the address is pod@strengthandsolidarity.org.  Warm appreciation for our producer, Peter Coccoma, I’m Akwe Amosu – until next time.