Been trying to decolonize lately? Me too.

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

My colleagues and I are just about to complete the last week co-facilitating an 8-week series with POC4NVC on Nonviolent Communication (NVC) for Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC). In a debriefing session this week I asked the question: What’s the difference between holding a “trauma-informed lens” and a “BIPOC-lens” as we engage in relationships and receive and share information?

I asked because I’m sorting out what it means for me to decolonize myself so that I can show up more fully in all my personal relationships, and my community is helping me unlearn, learn, relearn, and reimagine how to do that. I want to show up practicing what I preach as I work in the realm of healing, transformation, and racial equity with individuals, groups, and executives in families, organizations, and prison. I have been thinking about the question above for many years while exploring my identity, traumas, and existence.

I have been a part of the NVC community for over a decade and heard NVC criticized as a framework that in practice focuses on individual needs and healing (It’s about me) stretching to relational needs (It’s about you and I), yet it leaves out collective needs and healing (It’s about we) in a way that does not comprehensively tend to BIPOC and other oppressed and marginalized communities. One of my core growth edges has been to figure out when I engage in relationships and share or receive information as a facilitator or teacher, how can I be agile and tend to individual healing without dropping collective healing? Because, dropping collective healing effectively means dropping BIPOC. Black, Indigenous and People of Color predominantly come from collectivist cultures and experience needs critically unmet through the dominant individualist culture.

The following is some of what’s come up for me during this exploration…

The other week I watched the premier of the new documentary Wisdom of Trauma, a powerful film in which trauma specialist Dr. Gabor Maté puts forth a vision of a trauma-informed society to support the reality that, “Trauma is the invisible force that shapes our lives, the way we love, and the way we make sense of the world. It is the root of our deepest wounds.” Maté engaged in a series of talks with several people who focus on the healing of trauma. In one, psychotherapist and author Resmaa Menakem shared with Maté:

“I always say that the white body deems and has deemed itself the supreme standard by which all bodies of humanity shall be measured, structurally and philosophically. And if you don’t understand that point everything else will confuse you about how race functions. Not how we wish it would function but how it literally functions.”

He is discussing the supremacy of whiteness as the dominant culture and standard to which others are measured up against in our current society, on a global scale, and specifically in the United States. Isabel Wilkerson, in the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, describes this phenomenon further describing the culture we live in here in the United States and elsewhere, as a caste system focused on skin-tone and the social construct of race as the primary tool of division: “Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”

Since I’m committed to better understanding the nuances of Menakem’s and Wilkerson’s research and work regarding the society I live in and must navigate for my and our survival, and I’m committed to a life of centering BIPOC and collective healing toward equity, I am deeply curious about the “how”. I have come to understand that there are many levels where the standards of who we “should be” as humans are mandated. These dominant culture expectations and “rules” come through interpersonally, intrapersonally, organizationally, institutionally, and systemically. So, at the same time that this can be overwhelming (and sometimes deadly), I invite you to consider that these are the many places where we can also interrupt oppression and marginalization. We can slow down and re-attune to one another and create relationships and a society that is humane and equitable.

For starters, when someone shows up with behaviors that are harmful to themselves or others, part of being in relationship with folks and receiving and sharing through a trauma-informed lens involves instead of asking “What’s wrong with you?” to ask “What happened to you?” This question redirects focus away from judgment, shame, and specific behaviors toward curiosity, compassion and understanding of the whole person. Shawn Ginwright, Ph.D., an author and professor addresses in his work “…the unique ways in which race, identity and social marginalization influence the development of youth of color”. He goes a step further than “trauma-informed” and integrates what he names as a healing-centered approach. He writes, “A healing-centered approach views trauma not simply as an individual isolated experience, but rather highlights the ways in which trauma and healing are experienced collectively.”(Source). In his work with young BIPOC, Ginwright tends to BIPOC experiences by critically incorporating a focus on the collective.

To come from a BIPOC lens means considering collective trauma and healing. This inherently involves acknowledging and tending to intergenerational impacts.

In his talk with Maté, Menakem provides some scaffolding to understand what intergenerational trauma can look like when it shows up in us today. He shares that “the march of time de-contextualizes trauma. And what happens is that if you never remember what happened, you internalize what happened, the thing that happened, as being a defect in you.” He further discusses how intergenerational trauma can compound over time, over generations, and manifest quite nebulously:

“By the time it gets to me, I sense it as meaning making or urges or sensation. And at that point, I set in myself that something is wrong, defective or fraudulent in me because I don’t see anybody expressing the same thing that I’m expressing individually, that actually happened communally.”

Trauma will happen collectively such as through poverty, racism, and war and then will be later expressed by individuals in distinct ways, often as shame (something’s wrong with me).

In my NVC coaching and trainings I work with clients’ fundamental assumptions about themselves, their identities in the world, or their “core beliefs”. We sift through their automatic thoughts – which often reveal their beliefs – in order to find what is serving and not serving them, what are irrelevant survival habits and what new skills and tools can support them to thrive. I then support my clients to discover areas, thought patterns, and behavior habits to interrupt shame, tend to healing, and reimagine ways they want to be in the world and in relationships with others and themselves while staying aligned with their own core values. I am struck by what Menakem shares about the individual expression of communal trauma and I’m reminded of a core tenet of what I teach about core beliefs. I learned from Matthew McKay PHD et al in a cognitive behavioral workbook called Thoughts and Feelings that “Core beliefs and the associated rules are so fundamental to personality that few people are aware of them.” (p.197) These ways that trauma expresses can be so distinct that we mistake it as integral to who we are, as our core beliefs, and as our very personality. Menakem describes how trauma can happen across time, be forgotten, disconnected from the present day, and come out as self-hate or shame, or urges of behavior and body sensations so alienated from its origin that it’s almost impossible to recognize. I think about how so many of us are walking around mistakenly believing that the trauma we hold from our own personal experiences, the systems of oppression we live in, and that which occurred intergenerationally, is simply our own inherent personality.

This tragic likelihood screams out how necessary it is to pause and deeply consider what has happened and what’s happening to us collectively.

So what does this look like for me? Ethnically, or in terms of heritage, I am Goan and Anglo-Indian and was born and raised in the United States. I am light-skinned and as a South Asian person who holds two bachelor’s and a master’s degree raised in a middle-class family with parents who also hold master’s degrees, I have benefitted from dominant culture systems that value these parts of my identity (to name a few). At the same time, as a brown person I experience racism, oppression and marginalization, in addition to the impacts of being the daughter of immigrants from India and Ethiopia who parented me in the context of their own significant trauma.

I have not been clear how to be in spaces and relationships with the complexity of my BIPOC identity, the clash between the collectivist cultures of my family life and the individualist culture that dominates my life as someone born in the States and who participates in that culture. It’s been awkward and painful, to say the least. Even more so as I facilitate and teach, as I want to model some sense of integration around the concepts and tools I am sharing.

Recently I was in an Equity in the Center workshop led by Whitney Parnell on Allyship for Black, Indigenous and People of Color and finally received a framework to help me to navigate all this complexity. I hope it helps the Black, Indigenous, People of Color reading this, who find themselves at the intersection of layers of marginalization and privilege (the ways one benefits from dominant culture systems), or the white-identified people who are struggling with understanding how to navigate their own individual trauma alongside their privilege. The core concept that struck me from the two-day workshop was to understand that from the areas where I have been set up to thrive and survive, where society favors me – the places where I have privilege – from there I show up for racial justice and equity and do that work. Because from there it is my responsibility as a human being to do so. Then, from where I am impacted differently – where I am oppressed and marginalized – it’s my choice to show up and do this work. It’s not the responsibility of a marginalized individual or group to take on the work of racial justice and equity. If we are doing this work correctly it might be exhausting and difficult work, but it will never be as exhausting and difficult as what it’s like for marginalized folks to show up in this oppressive world consistently holding and carrying more. From the places that we are privileged we do the work and show up. From the places we are carrying more, we rest, we choose, we heal.

This framework has helped me tremendously to consider how to navigate my complex identity and my commitments. In terms of healing, it has allowed me to be with the part of me that has trauma and explore my family and ancestral roots with less shame about my areas of privilege or confusion about the validity of what my family has endured.

For example, on Father’s Day this year I visited with my Dad and learned previously unspoken pieces of our ancestral and family trauma. I am using the support of the healing-centered and BIPOC lenses that I have described to sit with the information I heard and move toward releasing it from my body toward healing. Because in collectivist cultures an injury to one is an injury to all, naming what happened to us is one of the first steps. Not everyone has the privilege of knowing what has happened to them, or their ancestors. I share this piece of my intergenerational trauma with you here to get a sense of what it can look like. (Skip to the next bold sentence below if you prefer not to read some details of my family’s trauma.)

On Father’s Day I sat across from my Dad, happy to be in his presence. Like for many, time together has become more precious with both my parents over the course of this COVID-19 pandemic looming with the threat and reality of health dangers. We gratefully lounge at an outdoor table eating avocado toast, pancakes, and eggs in the balmy Bay Area weather that does not disappoint. Given the content that followed, I cannot remember what I asked that started our conversation, most likely something about my Dad’s life as a youth. This was the first time I heard about this particular part of my family and father’s trauma.

My Dad grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. My paternal Grandfather was the Manager of the State Bank of Ethiopia during Haile Selassie’s reign as Emperor. In December 1960, the regime experienced an attempted coup d’état. It was supported by the army and occurred over the course of 4 days during which 300 people in Addis were killed. The coup ended when the majority of the army realized they had been misled and were not fighting for the Emperor as many had believed. My Dad described his experience the night of the coup. As they listened to gunshots firing, my Aunty, Grandfather and Dad crouched on the floor while my Grandmother stayed in bed. A bullet flew through their home puncturing the wall. Because they lived near an army base, heart of the coup, my family escaped to find safety for three days at my Aunty’s friend’s house, hoping to not be found. Many of my Grandfather’s friends were political figures and had been taken hostage, and it was unclear if my Grandfather would also be sought out. By the end of the attempted coup the 15 ministers who had been taken hostage were shot and killed. My Dad shared that for weeks afterwards there was a curfew. The revolutionists who attempted the coup were killed and their dead bodies were hung in the town. My Father witnessed some of that as well. Eventually Dad returned back to boarding school in India. He recounted that at Diwali the year after the coup he woke up in a sweat frightened by all the celebratory firecrackers.

I am grateful my family all survived. I grew up with my Grandparents and Aunty nearby once they immigrated here in the 80’s and 90’s from Addis. On her gravestone my Grandmother had engraved, “Born in India”, on my Grandfather’s “U.S. Citizen”. When I asked my Dad if I could tell this, our family story for something I was writing on collective trauma and how things get passed on through generations he said, “But I want you to make sure you get my feelings correct. That wasn’t my major trauma.” He explained what I had already known, that his major trauma was being sent to boarding school in India at the age of seven and seeing my mother only once a year for three months thereafter.” The impact of that on “us”.

Given the conversation I am always in about collective and intergenerational trauma I wonder things like: What do experiences like this do to one’s psyche and body over time? To a family? To a community? What gets transferred intergenerationally? What health problems a person experiences later in life originated in these moments? What was it like for each person and family and community to live in a city who had just collectively witnessed the murder of over 300 people?

After Dad shared this experience with me, we sat with the sun bright above us, the warm breeze wrapping around us, and I knew I understood him and us as a family more deeply and something in my body released to understand more of the “why” and a little more compassion toward all the “personalities” in my family.

Collective trauma matters, and collective healing matters more.

In another talk with Dr. Gabor Maté for the Wisdom of Trauma film premiere, teacher, author and mystic Thomas Hübl who focuses on healing collective trauma shared, “There’s the individual traumatization but then generations later, we are still living in the atmosphere of the transgenerational transmission of the trauma.”

To answer one of my original questions, “How can I be agile and tend to individual healing without dropping collective healing?” Hübl names something I found to add to Parnell’s and Menakem’s wisdom as another incredibly helpful and possible path. Hübl shared:

“In some moments, we need to be very specific about individual trauma because if we are not specific, we bypass it and we constantly make things collective, which is a bypass. Like we can also make everything spiritual and then not deal with the wound because it’s too hard to deal with the wound because the wound is specific. It was an abuse. It was a neglect. It was something. So to keep this specificity, but to know that that specificity is part of a collective systemic trauma decision that is in our existence for a very long time.”

One place to start individual and collective healing seems to be to explore where our shame resides. Especially for BIPOC, from the places we are oppressed and marginalized begin exploring where we hold shame, where we perceive ourselves wrong, defective, or fraudulent and reject those conclusions. For everyone, from our places of privilege start exploring where there is shame between us relationally, where the dominant culture systems produce conditions that perpetuate our shame and separation, and recognize all of this as something to collectively heal.

Menakem details this when he shared:

“What I say to bodies of culture is: do the same thing and investigate these ideas around imposterness and fraudulence, which are structural. They’re not individual, they’re structural. If a society is predicated on the white body being the standard of humanity, “you’re fraudulent” is built into the structure. So we must examine those pieces and push and use that energy that’s used for our fraudulence, use that energy and metabolize it for our freedom. And we get to, have to, do that body to body.”

bell hooks put it succinctly that “Shame produces trauma. Trauma produces paralysis.” and Menakem furthermore suggests a way out of that when he invited the audience listening to their conversation in:

“The people that are listening to this right now, I want the people that are listening to just notice as we’re talking, just notice how your body is responding to that. Not good, not bad. Just notice, notice the weight, notice the texture, notice the urgings to want to get up to turn it off, to scream, to yell, to collapse, notice those pieces. And now think about that energy that you’re experiencing right now.”

When we find ourselves stuck, confused, uncomfortable… it’s a sign that we need to move through something and perhaps to do it together under the sun and wrapped by a warm breeze sitting and talking with blood relations and getting it out of our bodies, rather than sit with it alone, passing it on.


Sheila Menezes is an Executive Coach, Leadership Trainer, Facilitator, Mediator and certified EQ-i 2.0 / EQ 360 Practitioner. She offers her expertise to help build cultures of empathy by training people in compassionate leadership, emotional intelligence and effective communication oriented toward connection, clarity, and collaboration. She is certified through the Co-Active Training Institute (CTI) and a Collaborative Trainer with BayNVC. She has brought Nonviolent Communication (NVC) into San Quentin State Prison with the Safer Communities Project since 2015, and facilitated classes for VOEG (Victim-Offender Education Group) with the Insight Prison Project since 2016. Her approach fosters hopefulness grounded in a vision of holistic wellbeing, equity, transformative justice, and antiracism.