Our Collective Trauma as a Platform for Healing

by Katie Dorn on April 23, 2021

Our community has experienced the collective trauma of so many monumental, uncontrollable triggers this past year that have left many of us exhausted and depleted. First, COVID-19 and the fear it invoked. Scary stuff. Scientists had not seen anything so contagious and deadly since 1921.

Next, social isolation because of stay-at-home orders that kept us from connecting with loved ones – and sent many of us into a more avoidant mode than normal. This was especially true for students and educators that were thrown into a chaotic churn of ever-changing remote to hybrid school that made teaching and learning hard.

But it was exponentially harder for those students where school provided their only meals or stability, not to mention the inequities created between families who we able to juggle work to pinch hit as at-home teachers and those who had essential-worker roles and could not be at home to support and encourage learning from home. This fueled even further disproportionality as students who were already behind academically or faced social-emotional obstacles struggled and disengaged.

On top of that, there were delayed events like athletics, plays and proms. Postponed celebrations like weddings and graduations - the relationship milestones that anchor us in connection and love. These human touchpoints help break down our guarded emotional walls. For many of us, our walls stayed up in a state of protection and fear, trying to hold onto the tidbits of energy we had to make it through each day.

And then May 25, 2020, happened. The world watched in utter horror as George Floyd begged for his life as ex-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds – in our beloved city of Minneapolis. With complete disbelief, we watched and re-watched the live video of a white police officer murdered a Black man. All of humanity was forced to see the injustice and racism in real time, especially those of us who had the white privilege of never having to witness violent racism close up.

Fear took root in many of us – a fear that our broken justice system would not deliver the needed accountability. A swell of protests erupted into an insurrection, finally uniting our country as the world stood with the black community demanding change. Yet we were still guarded. It was hard to believe that a white police officer would actually be held to the standard of justice that our system was supposed to uphold and deliver. Hope seemed hard to find amidst the heaviness and weight of this harsh reality.

Then last Tuesday, a verdict. Guilty, guilty, guilty. Finally, a collective exhale followed by tears of joy and disbelief that the system finally stood on the side of accountability – not power. Emotions swung from the sadness that remained for George Floyd’s family and friends who will never see him again to relief for the Black community. The system did its job – finally — yet anger poured out for all the times it has not. And finally, maybe we felt a bit of hope and renewal. A small step toward collective healing, with so much further to go.

Spring is here and the world is starting to reopen as vaccines roll out. Students and teachers are back in school. Families are starting to gather for celebrations. Communities are coming together to stand side by side to reform policing and make systemic change. It is starting to feel like we are coming out the other side, yet exhaustion and hesitation remain.

My logical, therapist brain knows that to truly move forward, re-engage, and heal, we need to pay attention to what our tired and worn bodies are telling us and acknowledge the toll of these big, uncontrollable events. Although we cannot change the incredible painful experiences of the past year, we do more harm than good if we try to power through without first addressing the fear and pain that we have held tightly inside for over a year.

But one day at a time, one step at a time, we can individually and collectively process our difficult thoughts and emotions and begin to replace exhaustion, fear, and hurt with peace and hope. Our guarded hearts can start to soften as we re-engage in our “normal-life” that we know is profoundly different. We can be more hopeful as we begin to come together in what unites us – human dignity and love. We can feel, do and be better. We can make individual and systemic change.

Ignoring fear, divisiveness and hate only fuels it and burdens us all.

Acknowledging it is our first step to healing.

I’ve got work to do. We all do.


Katie Dorn is Co-Founder and CEO of EmpowerU, an organization dedicated to helping improve access to vital social-emotional skills and support to build student resilience, persistence, and success. Their proprietary social-emotional and mental health programs are helping thousands of students and educators from Kindergarten to Higher Ed. To find out how to use EmpowerU as a platform this summer to heal collective trauma, click here. 

EmpowerU white paper, “Why Schools Must Prioritize Student Motivation and Mental Health Post-COVID-19.”  This research provides evidence to our proven approach and why it’s working to build resilience.