Duluth and NYC: Reflections on Kindness and Resilience

An interview with Dr. Viann Nguyen-Feng on social-connectedness during COVID-19.

Posted Sep 02, 2020

 Bobby Rogers, Walker Art Center, used with permission
Source: Bobby Rogers, Walker Art Center, used with permission

The time elapsed since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the ways in which we all share in challenging experiences. Below, Viann Nguyen-Feng, Ph.D., MPH, shares insights into how social-connectedness and resilience can lead to a developing view of collective humanity. 

Nguyen-Feng is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. She serves as core faculty in the counseling/clinical psychology master's program, and directs the Mind-Body Trauma Care Lab, where her research focuses on the intersection of mental and physical health as well as mind-body integration, particularly in the context of trauma care. Her work has been published in journals such as the Journal of Counseling Psychology, Spirituality in Clinical Practice and Psychology of Violence.

Jamie Aten: How would you personally view the similarities and/or differences between the COVID-19 situation in New York City and Minnesota?

Viann Nguyen-Feng: Superficially, NYC and Duluth stand in stark contrast to one another. The population of NYC is 100 times greater than Duluth’s. NYC has about 234 local bus routes, and Duluth has…16. And yet, there are similarities: For instance, perhaps unexpectedly to many, both cities face a 20% poverty rate.

There are definitely differences to be acknowledged, but if there’s anything that this pandemic has taught us, it’s that, at the core, we are more similar than different. We are more than our singular selves or even our singular cities. When we can see the problems of “me-vs.-them” thinking, then we can foster compassion on which to act.

When Dr. Judie Alpert of New York University and I wrote this commentary in May, NYC was the U.S. COVID-19 epicenter. Just weeks later, Minnesota became the racism pandemic’s epicenter after the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis. And now, in August, NYC’s daily COVID cases have stabilized while Minnesota and other states face an upsurge. The point is, NYC was never a “them.” NYC was an “us.” Wuhan was an “us.” Where would we be now had we recognized that?

JA: What are some ways that comparing New York City's COVID-19 situation with Minnesota's can help us live more resiliently?

VNF: I think the idea is not so much a comparison, per se, but rather an acknowledgment of others and an increased connection to others. Judie wrote to me the afternoon that we submitted our commentary, “I am struck by how similar our experiences and the experiences of our students are despite the geographic difference.” Very authentically stated.

Reading real-life stories, from NYC to Minnesota (and wherever else), can help create a greater sense of social connectedness, which I hope can allow us to overcome these present challenges and emerge resiliently. We are not in this alone. Psychological Trauma’s recent COVID-19 special section, guest-edited by Dr. Annett Lotzin of the University of Hamburg, Dr. Rachel Wamser-Nanney of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and myself, comprises stories regarding perspectives on mental health around the globe. That’s open access and worth a read as it brings up a sense of collective humanity—to me, at least.

JA: What are some ways people can cultivate resilience amidst this pandemic?

VNF: Fostering compassion and understanding of others is prerequisite to acting in a way that promotes resiliency within others and, therefore, ourselves.

With that thought in mind, I invite you to picture a COVID-19 map—one with all the red clusters or gradient-colored squares or something else—any map indicating how the virus is transmitting from person to person to person. Let’s change the key, the legend, of the map. Shifting perspectives, come to imagine that all of those indicators of transmission are actually indicators of acts of kindness. Now that we recognize that power, where can we go with it?

Regardless of how you chose to answer my question, I believe that your answer represents one way in which kindness and resiliency can be cultivated for all.

JA: Any advice for how we might use what you have learned to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?

VNF: I would like to make a distinction that I see between resilience and repression. Yes, we want to maintain and share feelings of hope. However, micro- and macro-cultures of pure positivity or pure optimism are less helpful. Having difficult feelings doesn’t mean anything inherently negative about someone; it simply means that those feelings are difficult. They don’t need to be repressed, and resilience does not have to be now.

When supporting loved ones, try to see them and their feelings as they are. There’s no need for rose-colored glasses (although rose-colored masks are just fine), sugarcoating, or distracting. But of course, as similar as we are at the core, we also differ in what we each need at specific moments. So it doesn’t hurt to ask. The focus is on simply allowing others to be seen and letting their needs be heard.

It’s hard to come up with specific pieces of advice in this ever-changing environment. Remember to give yourself grace. That’s my two cents. Find what works for you and yours.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

VNF: Reminding ourselves of the resiliency that can be cultivated alongside mind-body connections seems especially vital during pandemic times. And so, I’d like to share forthcoming work on trauma-sensitive yoga.

First, Psychological Trauma has an upcoming special issue on complementary medicine and integrative approaches to trauma therapy and recovery. Look out for an in-press article authored by myself and colleagues at Justice Resource Institute (Trauma Center, Center for Trauma and Embodiment), Saybrook University, and Emory University.

I also have the honor of writing the foreword to Jenn Turner’s Embodied Healing. The book will be released November 2020 and can be preordered here.

Overall, ongoing trauma-sensitive yoga research has been possible with the generous support of Amy Fogarty of Yara Yoga, who shifted her work to virtual platforms. I invite you to join her community classes here. I’ll be there practicing too!

Lastly, I’m working on a Yoga and Mindfulness special issue in Integrative and Complementary Medicine, with a hopeful submissions call due Summer 2021. Definitely reach out to me if you are interested in submitting a piece. My contact information is on my website.


Alpert, J. L., & Nguyen-Feng, V. N. (2020). COVID in New York City, the epicenter: A New York University perspective and COVID in Duluth, the Bold North: A University of Minnesota perspective. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(5), 524-528.