Scholar Goes to New Orleans to Heal Wounds Caused by Storm
Ervin Staub, professor emeritus of psychology, has been hired by the Southern Institute for Education and Research, an anti-racism group in New Orleans, to assist them in developing a training program to help people heal from the psychological aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina, to understand ethnic conflict and to promote reconciliation across racial and class lines. "Everyone who lives in New Orleans," he says, "has been deeply affected by Katrina and the flooding. However, many poor people, especially poor black people, have been especially affected.
"There would be severe psychological consequences from the storm's terrible devastation, their inability to leave the city, their sense of abandonment and desperation in a chaotic environment, and their loss of homes, with many still unable to return. Such trauma, at least partly caused by other human beings, creates a lasting sense of vulnerability, mistrust of others, seeing the world and other people as dangerous and the feeling that one needs to defend oneself. It can also create anger.
"In addition, past experiences with racism would intensify the effects of Katrina and events surrounding it. Many parts of the city, especially the Lower 9th Ward, have been very poor and difficult, chaotic and dangerous environments to live in. New Orleans, in general, has been a violent city. Some white politicians and civic leaders expressed gratitude after the storm that now the city will become different, implying that it will be a primarily white city. But black people, including poor black people, are returning. And both whites and blacks carry the aftereffects of all that has been happening."
The Southern Institute for Education and Research is concerned with helping people heal from the effects of the storm, and also for white Americans and black Americans in New Orleans and the region to be able to create a shared, constructive future. They plan to train people to work with groups in the community, community leaders , and the media.
Staub will help train community leaders to give workshops in healing tensions and promoting reconciliaton. Part of his focus will be that if people can identify the causes of conflict, they will be less likely to perpetuate it and more likely to take constructive action to deal with it. He notes that perpetrators of various forms of harm are aided by people who look the other way. "It's bystanders who allow bad things to unfold," Staub ssays. Harmful behavior between groups, which can evolve into violence, is more likely if people don't speak out against it.
It is important, Staub says, to bring empathy to the discussion. Staub will work with workshop leaders on how to relate an individual's experience with racism to what Staub regards as the evolution of of hostility (and violence) between groups. That evolution starts with the devaluation of one group by another for any of a number of political, social, or need-based reasons. As people engage in harmful actions, across group lines, attitudes, social norms and even institutions start to change. The trained leaders will then establish workshops for people living in the wards of New Orleans, as well as for business, community and political leaders. Students will be targeted by the trainings as well.
Staub says conversation, dialogue and in general significant contact are crucial to reconciliation. The Southern Institute for Education and Research also plans to use the approach Staub helps them develop to promote education and attitude change through the media. Staub said he has had success with the media in Rwanda, where he has focused on healing, reconciliation and the prevention of new violence in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide.
"Reconciliation means a change in attitude by the parties involved, which is then accompanied by changes in institutions" Staub says. "You've got to talk to people on both sides so that they understand all of this." In addition to his ongoing work in Rwanda, Staub founded the Psychology of Peace and Prevention of Violence program in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass Amherst. He is the author of The Psychology of Good and Evil: Why Children, Adults and Groups Help and Harm Others and The Roots of Evil: The Origin of Genocide and Other Group Violence.
September 11, 2006