Expressive Arts and Resilience: Hope for Ferguson

Telling one's story is the beginning of reparation and resilience.

Posted Nov 30, 2014

Participant at mobile play therapy unit

While adverse experiences may influence resilience, crisis or trauma may also be opportunities to restore and enhance resilience through strategic interventions that help individuals to develop the skills and relationships necessary to “bounce back.” Earlier this fall a group of counselor educators and students organized pop-up counseling and mobile “play therapy units” in response to the killing of Michael Brown whose shooting quickly became a catalyst that tore open a community around racial inequality. To help ease the tensions in Ferguson, these helping professionals decided to offer residents a way to tell their stories when words are not enough—they brought sand trays with miniature figures and objects. Passersby could stop in and “tell your stories” with the figures and objects by arranging them in the trays and talking with a counselor about their creation. Even those who were dubious found that this simple activity gave them a chance to clarify and share stories about the pain, confusion, frustration, loss and trauma each was experiencing.

Sand tray by young man

In response to chance to express and share narratives, a specific theme emerged, summarized by one of the counselors: “The No. 1 thing I heard was the question of value. Am I valuable as a human being? What does what happened with Michael Brown say about my value as a person and his value as a person? What do I do about that, and how does it impact my life?” (see Counseling Today published by the American Counseling Association, for more information about these counselors’ efforts)

What has happened in Ferguson MO certainly will not be resolved any time soon. Sessions with a sand tray and some toy figures will not end racial tensions or the experience of inequality and marginalization. It will not end misunderstandings, bias, subjectivity or ignorance. However, what these counselors are offering is an intervention that can make a difference over time and with repeated efforts—a strategic effort to support and instill resilience, a requisite to any successful reparation and recovery process. They are offering this possibility through a sensory-based approach that provides a form of self-regulation and self-soothing (creative play); an empathetic relationship with another individual who listens unconditionally; and most importantly, an expressive outlet to encourage narrative. The latter—the opportunity to tell one’s story of an atrocity—is key to all recovery from trauma, including the historical intergenerational trauma that comes with racial inequality and marginalization. Narrative is a powerful healer across cultures, especially when stories can be safely told and witnessed without judgment.

As I have noted in other posts, expressive arts and play therapy strategies are widely employed interventions that support resilience and enhance posttraumatic growth through sensory-based methods and capitalize on right-brain dominant, action-oriented experiences. Trauma-informed expressive arts therapy is one model for this approach that highlights resilience principles in specific applications of art, music, movement, dramatic enactment, play and imagination. In brief, it recognizes that self-expression serves as an important adaptive coping function, capitalizes on helping individuals of all ages move from being simply survivors to "thrivers,” and provides a way to tell one’s story when words do not always capture the truth of experience and worldview. In tFerguson MO and other communities throughout the country where daily multiple societal challenges exist, it is at least one strategy that has the potential to empower people to share their stories and be witnessed and heard. Equally important, it may hold the possibility to actively transform those stories from ones that once seemed discounted, hopeless and insurmountable into ones of self-efficacy and resilience.

Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC, REAT

© 2014 Cathy A. Malchiodi

Photo Credits: Brian Hutchison | American Counseling Association at

For more on trauma-informed practice and expressive arts therapy, visit the Trauma-Informed Practices and Expressive Arts Therapy Institute online.

For information on creative interventions and resilience, Creative Interventions with Traumatized Children (2nd ed.) is now in print; it has chapters on the integration of art, music, dance/movement, drama, play and bibliotherapy with leading edge practices including EMDR, trauma-informed practice and crisis intervention, mindfulness, stress reduction, somatic psychology, and mind-body approaches.