University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Helina Haile

In May 2015, Chicago became the first municipality in the United States to pass reparations for racially-motivated police torture. The reparations ordinance provided redress for the survivors of police torture under Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge between 1972-1991. The grassroots organizing efforts seeking justice and reparations were spearheaded by torture survivors and their families, community members, academics, and artists. Organizers envisioned reparations as not only monetary but also as holistic means of trauma healing. The ordinance included a formal apology, changes to 8th and 10th grade curricula, a public memorial, counseling services, free tuition at Chicago City colleges, job placement support programs, priority access to re-entry programs, and a reparations fund for eligible survivors.

The Chicago Torture Justice Center (CTJC) was birthed from the ordinance to provide trauma counseling services for survivors of police torture and brutality. Located in the south-side Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, it is the first trauma healing center in the United States that works with domestic survivors of torture. The Center is utilizing a holistic approach to trauma healing in order to transform the racist criminal justice system. Building on the lineage of transformative justice approaches, the model is called “politicized healing.” It centers the individual and the collective within multigenerational communities and structures. It encompasses three critical components of action: healing, dismantling and creating.

This model, based in grassroots work, provides a critical framework that can better inform the creation of policies that improve health and support processes of individual and communal healing, transformation and liberation. Grassroots organizers are using such models to build black political power at the individual, communal and systemic level. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black, brown and indigenous communities is a result of socially-determined health inequities. Caring for ourselves and our communities is therefore an act of resistance and one of the strongest political statements we can make.

Holistic health includes the flourishing not only of mind, body, and spirit, but also of our relationships. The process of healing allows us to restore ourselves while also connecting to others. Since trauma affects the body, trauma healing helps us re-connect to our bodies. Survivors at CTJC are provided access to traditional methods of healing such as direct clinical services and group therapy. They are also provided with non-traditional methods of healing like acupuncture, craniosacral therapy and boxing.

Communal health is affected by larger structures and organizations that determine access to life-giving resources. The journey of individual and communal healing helps to change the ways in which we engage in systems change. It helps us reclaim our power to change structures and conditions that work against our well-being. CTJC utilizes an intersectional analysis as they dismantle violent structures complicit in police brutality. Their dismantling activities include teach-ins, first aid response training, organizing meetings, book clubs and film screenings. CTJC asserts that “our healing work is political, and our political work is healing.” This motto is embodied in actions internally and externally as the organization seeks to create a liberatory culture.

Systems of harm aim to silence and isolate communities. The communal effort to break this isolation and create new systems is healing in itself. Through creation, new ways of being are brought to life. The creative work of CTJC is rooted in resisting narratives that uphold oppressive binaries, and in the acceptance of complexity as necessary to bring about change. Harm is transformed by focusing on the root causes of unjust policies, actions, behaviors, and states of being. This is done without relying on oppressive structures run by the carceral State. Community accountability is centered while repairing harms and working toward a vision of police abolition. CTJC utilizes memory training, restorative justice tools, mutual aid, celebrations and international solidarity building to create space for new practices rooted in care and compassion.

Politicized healing provides the foundation to think broadly about communal healing and justice. It re-imagines public policies as spaces for healing individuals and communities. Policies rooted in politicized healing have the potential to provide a better foundation for repair, transformation and healing. As we envision the future, we must acknowledge the work of grassroots organizers who are already striving to transform systems of oppression and harm. They are creating the possibility of a new world, in theory and in action. There is much to be hopeful about in this work of transformation. Academics and policymakers can learn from and should amplify the theories, practices, and expertise of those engaged in politicized healing as new opportunities for peacemaking that help to build black political power.

Helina Haile is a 2020 graduate from the Keough School Master of Global Affairs program with a concentration in International Peace Studies. She’s passionate about social justice activism at the intersection of trauma healing, prison abolition, and human rights both domestically and internationally.