Smile Politely

Dora Watkins wants to bring collective healing through art and activism

A headshot of a Black woman with straight, shoulder-length black hair. She is wearing a taupe blouse. There are three white pillars in the background.
School of Social Work website

This Saturday, February 4th, is the inaugural event for The Healing Project, a new community organization with a mission to “cultivate R.A.R.E. (radical, authentic, rigorous, and environmentally safe) spaces for collective healing through the art of storytelling and other modes of visual and performance art — specifically centering the voices of Black women and other women of color with trauma histories.” Community members are invited to come to The Literary at 4 p.m. to learn more about the project and connect with others. Founder Dora Watkins is a PhD student in the School of Social Work, and was recently named an Interseminars Initiative Fellow with the Humanities Research Institute. I met with Watkins to learn more about her work, and what The Healing Project is all about.

Smile Politely: First of all, congrats on becoming an Interseminars Fellow. Can you tell me about that?

Dora Watkins: It’s funny, because I wrote about The Healing Project for Interseminars, and I ended up getting that fellowship. What it does is it challenges us to think outside the rigidity of science. I’m really into how art is a form of knowledge: knowledge creation, knowledge building. I’ll work with a cohort of students and faculty members to challenge mainstream research methods, and figure out ways to reimagine education in the 21st century. So utilizing different methods, like art, as a form of knowledge production, and how that can be infused with science. I’m super super excited about that! That will start this summer, and the funding will also help me push a little more of the work I’m trying to do with social justice, healing, and art. It created an avenue for me to be a scholar, to be an artist, and to be an activist. I’m able to blend these worlds together to reimagine a future for the people I engage with in my research.

SP: That ties in so nicely with your work!

Watkins: It does! It was the perfect opportunity. [The opportunity] was sent to me by a colleague, and then it was sent to me again, and again, and again. I read all about the initiative: Improvise and Intervene, and I thought about my background. I come from a very complex trauma history. I was like, this is right up my alley. 

SP: As much as you want to share, tell me a little about yourself and your background.

Watkins: I’m a mom of three, I’m a wife, but I have a very eclectic background. I’m an army veteran. I served on active duty. I got a medical retirement, so I’m a total permanent disabled veteran. I was born a ward of the court. In layman’s terms, I was a crack baby. My mother was addicted to crack. All of my siblings were immediately placed into foster care at birth, including myself. I’m one of my mother’s only children who didn’t have developmental or cognitive delays. I was born and raised in Detroit, in and out of the foster care system. I was adopted twice. There’s a lot of trauma within my family: sexual trauma, abuse, neglect, all of those things. Some of those things even followed me through my journey in the military. So those are the things that drive me.

I did my undergrad and my master’s at Wayne State, and I worked in the field for a little bit as an outpatient therapist. Prior to that I did a lot of community work around sexual assault. I worked with an organization with the Michigan Women’s Foundation called the African American 490 Challenge. There was a backlog of rape kits in a police warehouse that had not been tested. There were a lot of survivors that had not seen justice. We utilized the art of storytelling for community activism, raising awareness about the backlog but also raising funds to be able to test the rape kits. I was also one of the people that worked with the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers in Detroit. I told my story of sexual victimization and shared about overcoming those things. That’s how I got into storytelling and artist activism. The power of telling a story not just as activism, but for healing. There are things that happen in the brain when we hear stories. There’s healing that happens when a person hears a story, there’s a collective healing that happens. I’m super intrigued by that.

My research [at the School of Social Work] is centered around Black women’s mental health. In doing that, I like to interrogate discourses of resilience around Black women. Resilience is an adaptive theory, being able to adapt, bounce back, adjust to your environment. For women of color there’s a whole other genre of literature that suggests strength is harmful. The strong Black women, the superhero complex…all of these tropes were birthed out of slavery. When you embody that resilience and internalize it, there’s something that happens, and I want to know what that something is. Does it mask vulnerability? Is there ever a point where there’s too much resilience or too much positive adaptation to adverse circumstances that ends up becoming a barrier to mental health help seeking? 

SP: As you’ve begun to delve into this, are you making connections to some of the experiences you’ve had?

Watkins: All of my own experiences.

SP: I imagine it can be very introspective work.

Watkins: It is. There’s this question of objectivity as a researcher, but are we ever truly objective? Are we ever able to be truly unbiased?

SP: We are all informed by our experiences.

Watkins: Right? This has been a process of self-discovery for me, and I tread it with a fine line. I approach [the research] with caution because there’s this question of “am I too close?” But there’s this other question of epistemic violence. What counts as knowledge, who can be a knower, what is legitimate knowledge? There’s a place in science for those lived experiences, and that’s what I’m trying to amplify through The Healing Project, through my work, and hopefully even through my work with Interseminars. 

SP: I’m sure for a lot of people that go into fields such as this, part of the inspiration for doing it is your lived experience, then you have this drive to want to make things different, or examine why this is happening.

Watkins: Most people that go into social work feel like it’s a calling. It has to take a deep level of empathy to be able to do this type of work. It’s definitely coming to grips with your own identity to be able to approach the research authentically. It’s difficult. Sometimes I have to step away from it, but I also feel like if not me, then who? If not now, then when? That’s where I find myself.

SP: Can you tell me more about The Healing Project?

Watkins: The Healing Project is about seven years in the making. It’s something that was birthed out of that community organizing, storytelling, and the need that I see in the community of women of color. It’s our way of fusing science and art. The goal is to be able to tour communities, and to record oral histories and narratives. We center women of color, but it’s for anybody. We wanted to create a safe space to hyper focus on a population of people that are not always reflected in the literature.

We want to host these pop-up events where we go into public spaces, and transform them to a safe environment for communities to engage with personal narratives and lived experience of the community members, to start conversations, and shape different ideas around the discourse of resilience. Then we want to utilize that to fuel social justice and bring awareness, and bring about the collective healing process. The other leg of The Healing Project is to do focus group and interviews and utilize these real stories and narratives to inform research methodology, interventions, and clinical practice.

SP: What can people expect at your upcoming event?

Watkins: Our event at The Literary this weekend is going to be that initial event where we’re inviting members of the community to come out and share the space with us. There are going to be licensed mental health professionals there in case there is anything that might be triggering. I’m going to be performing a live monologue, there are some members of the community that have submitted poems, there’s going to be some spoken word, and we’re going to have an open mic so if there’s anyone interested in sharing, we’ll create that space. We’re also going to have a custom drink menu, cupcakes, and an ability to network. It’s a way for us to connect, introduce our organization to the community, and figure out where our next stop is going to be. I’m hoping to create a space, and a buzz, and that people in the community will be open to hearing these stories. 

SP: What are the next steps after this first event? Is there follow up with the people who come out and share?

Watkins: The other side of [The Healing Project] is providing resources. People who participate will be invited to be a part of a focus group, do a needs assessment, do individual interpersonal interviews. We’ve started a short list of resources on our website, more at the national level, but we want to be a hub for resources in the C-U area. 

We’re still in a lot of our strategic planning stages, working with an interdisciplinary team of people. The dreams are big…they’re really big…but I’m grateful for a team of people that believe in the vision and have the expertise and passion to be able to see it to fruition. We’re hoping it’s something that will stick, and that we can replicate in other places. 

SP: Are there ways for people to get involved with the work that you’re doing?

Watkins: On our website, there is a link to get involved. We have an application for volunteers. We’re looking for artists, photographers, media, people that like to write blogs, people situated in the community, researchers…there’s a space in The Healing Project for just about anyone. We welcome ideas. We want to be collaborative with the organization as well as the community.

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