The People is our section for all opinions concerning Black Chicago. In this opinion piece, Northwestern University assistant professor Claudio Rivera lists the steps necessary to heal generational traumas.

The celebration and acknowledgment of Indigenous People’s Day, along with the removal of Christopher Columbus and Confederate statues in some cities, is the bare minimum required for Black and Indigenous children and communities to begin healing from the generational trauma of the United States. 

Demands of healing must be particularly bold and intentional given patterns of police abuse nationally and uprisings that continue to occur in response. It is unconscionable for nonviolent young people leading the charge to rid a violent reminder of land theft to be inexplicably assaulted by police. Until we address and correct the lingering traumas that define the United States, collective healing will not occur. The legacy of trauma will continue to affect Black and Indigenous and communities, and do little to change the material conditions of our society. 

In a country that prides itself on being a leader, the United States is the world leader in new traumas (COVID-19 mortality rates) and exacerbating old ones (land theft, enslavement, genocide) that impact the health and well-being of Black and Indigenous communities.  COVID-19 is a new trauma due to governmental neglect to address the virus, which has led to worsened health outcomes in communities already dealing with longstanding divestment from the U.S. government. Though disproportionate death and exposure rates of COVID-19 are noted, the psychological toll of this virus is still being understood. The traumatic impact of COVID-19 will have a ripple effect for generations to come. COVID-19 will be added to the legacy of lasting collective traumas the United States is known for. 

Healing from the old and new trauma requires more than symbolic gestures and statements of support. These steps must go beyond celebrating Indigenous People’s Day and statue removals.

White residents and civic leaders need to acknowledge and follow the lead of many Black and Indigenous communities who have long been organizing and acting toward liberation. Some of the basic things settlers and people in power can do is to honor treatises and respect protected “public” lands of native tribes in the current day. Recognize that colonization, such as continued taking of the land, is not a thing of the past; it is an active ongoing process that can be reversed through returning and restoring the land.

For healing children, schools can change learning and education by centering, elevating, and validating the cultures, knowledge, and experiences of Black and Indigenous communities through models of culturally sustaining teaching methods. 

This approach is the appropriate resistance to President Trump’s 1776 patriotic education commission that further seeks to ingrain the violent trauma of colonization, erasure of Black and Indigenous histories, and attempts to soften the harsh reality of the United States’ violent existence. 

Schools should teach about the historical reasons and contemporary purposes of policing, which includes understanding the concepts of prison and police abolition. Plenty of current events highlight examples that students can engage: Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky; George Floyd in Minneapolis; Laquan McDonald in Chicago; Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and… the list tragically goes on. Some teachers already take the liberty to teach about these issues; we can formalize this by embedding abolitionist frameworks in education, given a multitude of resources exist for teaching this to people of all ages

Some school districts have started making strides by formalizing teaching about police brutality in their cities. Chicago Public Schools has added to their curriculum a segment that teaches the history of police torture orchestrated by police commander Jon Burge; however, this district still enacts violence on students by recently deciding to continue policing children in schools. 

As such, any efforts toward progress must be comprehensive or we risk traumatizing kids by policing them while also teaching them about the damaging history of police, as is currently being done in Chicago schools. The optimal approach for teaching children healing comes from communities that engage children in resistance and liberation learning in intergenerational ways. Chicago Freedom Square and Water is Life School are community-led examples of liberation and resistance in action that involves educating Black and Indigenous children toward imaging a better world free of trauma, a world of sustained joy.    

Black and Indigenous children can be provided with opportunities to heal by ceasing the ravaging and displacement of their communities. This includes submitting to the demands of movements like the Standing Rock Water Protectors of #NODAPL, reparations for Black people, and supporting prison and police abolition movements.

Best believe this will all be unsettling, uncomfortable, and unwanted by the powers that be; it may even be considered radical. But it will still pale in comparison to the original and ongoing atrocities of land theft, enslavement, and genocide that are at the foundation of American society. Nothing will ever be more extreme than stealing a land, stealing a people and violently and actively working to eliminate those people.

Headshot of Claudio Rivera
, PhD, a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project, is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences (child and adolescent psychiatry) at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.