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Heal Fund as
Collective Storytelling

“Trauma” is a word that comes up again and again. Brennan Gould, president and CEO of the Community Foundation, described a “deep, deep trauma” that occurred that weekend in 2017. For Star Peterson and other survivors, the horrific experience of being attacked by a speeding car—the sudden, shrieking, bone-crunching violence of that moment on a Saturday afternoon—can’t be integrated into an everyday understanding of the world.

It stands outside. It refuses comprehension.

Peterson happened to see a pickup truck as her body landed on the pavement, and to this day all such trucks cause her heart to race.

Gould, though, suggested that there exists another kind of trauma, a response not only to the violence but to the history, too. Trauma happened on August 11–12, 2017, she said, but it also happened in 1898, when John Henry James was lynched in Charlottesville. And in 1924, when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross and paraded through the city just before the unveiling of the Robert E. Lee statue. And in 1958, when the governor closed two public schools in the city rather than integrate them. And in 1964, when the city began demolishing the black neighborhood known as Vinegar Hill.

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Mrs. Robert Wicks escorts her daughter and other children into Venable Elementary School on September 8, 1959, the day Charlottesville’s public schools were integrated.

These events have long pricked and poked at the collective memory. They, too, stand outside, refusing a common understanding.

A survivor is traumatized by her own near murder. But can a whole city be traumatized by its history?

“Absolutely,” Shelly Wood, a therapist at The Women’s Initiative and a Heal Fund grant recipient, said. “If you think of the ways that you identify yourself, right? And the connections that you have. If you consider yourself part of the Charlottesville community or part of the black community or part of a community of parents, right? And if something happens to that group that you connect with and you identify with, then certainly you can consider that something has happened to us, as a group.”

In this case, that “us” includes everyone in Charlottesville and the surrounding region. Our history happened not simply in the black community, or to the black community. It happened to the white community, too, and to Charlottesville more generally.

One way of treating this kind of trauma is to make meaning of it. You do that, Shelly Wood said, by telling stories. Professionals call it “narrative therapy,” she said. It helps us cope.

Shelly Wood: Making Sense of Trauma

Shelly Wood: Making Sense of Trauma

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But what if the stories that the community tells about itself are incomplete?

Lorenzo Dickerson, whose documentary on segregation at the Paramount Theater was supported by a Heal Fund grant, collects stories from his elders in an effort to better understand present-day Charlottesville. “I want to know how the experiences that we live today connect with those of the past,” he said.

Community Foundation board member Jay Kessler’s experience of segregation, as a white man, was different. He started school shortly after Massive Resistance and integration. “And I can tell you,” he said, “that it probably took me until my recent 40th high school reunion to really inquire and think about the experience of black kids that came to Greenbriar Elementary. As an elementary school student, you’re kind of numbed up. You just don’t think about that.”

New, more complete stories, Shelly Wood said, may help with that.

“As I’ve learned about trauma in my training as a therapist,” she said, “I’ve come to notice some of the things that I feel going on inside of me when I think about my own history.”

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