“Without community there is no liberation”. -Audre Lorde (1984)
Ever since I was young, I experienced life as an empath, I could take others’ perspectives while being self-aware of my surrounding. Over the years my life took its natural course and I decided to pursue psychology with an aim of learning more about myself and others. However, the theoretical nature of the course and a focus on quantitative methods made it difficult to achieve the understandings and realizations I aimed for.
Hence, I chose to create opportunities for myself in the field which can help me create meaningful experiences and lead to positive changes in the lives of others and mine.
Being an AIF Fellow at Turn Your Concern into Action (TYCIA) Foundation, I had the opportunity to meet amazing and resilient colleagues who have worked in arduous circumstances in prisons for multiple years. It has been a privilege to observe the empathy, kindness, compassion shown to inmates and ex-inmates the team works with.
Nothing is a better teacher than lived experiences. I have been fortunate enough to gain these experiences by visiting, observing, facilitating, and monitoring workshops with my teammates in Bhondsi prison in Gurugram, Haryana.
During a span of three months from January to March two pilot projects under rehabilitation and reformation were executed in the prisons. I was primarily involved in the reformation project in which six peer fellows were recruited amongst the inmates. They were trained to conduct weekly sessions around themes such as toxic masculinity, power, sex, privilege, sexual consent, patriarchy, domestic violence, sexual abuse, etc.
My main interactions were with these peer fellows who came from diverse backgrounds and were equipped with several skills to conduct these sessions. They were trained for around 50 hours and conducted sessions for around 74 hours in the barracks during this time.
During the orientation, a question posed by one of the fellows to our team member was “As an outsider, what do you think about us?” There was such vulnerability in this question which led to subsequent interactions in the training sessions. I was familiarized with intense and ambiguous feelings, emotions experienced by the inmates. The facilitator of these workshops, Eleena George, is the founder and curator of “Project Unlearn”. She was able to create a space for the fellows that made them feel at ease to discuss their struggles, lives, and ways of connecting with each other in prison.
Ours is a culture that especially denies the nuances of trauma and given the fast-paced city life; we experience a blatant disconnect with our minds and bodies. This becomes especially true for service providers who are working relentlessly with vulnerable groups.
I would like to talk about experiences of vicarious traumatization and resilience. I have been fascinated with these concepts for a long period of time and I would describe their impact on my AIF Fellowship.
According to researchers, vicarious traumatization has a negative impact on the service provider’s mental and emotional health. It is a result of the prolonged exposure to the beneficiary’s emotions, thoughts, feelings. These effects include compassion fatigue, burnout, feelings of a loss of sense of safety, formation of negative worldviews on the service provider (Howlett & Collins, 2014; Puvimanasinghe et al., 2015).
Vicarious resilience can be described as the strength, growth, joy we derive from working with vulnerable groups. The accounts of vulnerability, perseverance, resilience positively impact us and can serve as an antidote to the negative experiences (Puvimanasinghe et al., 2015).
I can never say I can ever understand what someone goes through while imprisoned. The moment we walk into the facility, there is a change in energy that reverberates throughout your body. We experience the constriction, the force, and the importance of order in a way that we do not experience in any comparable magnitude in our daily life. Over time, we see how people in positions of privilege such as police officials and I move with liberation, protection, and safety.
When I speak to the fellows, I sense the helplessness of not being able to see their families, being unable to understand the repercussions of the pandemic as they are detached from the world, rage at their current situation, and despair at not being able to resolve it. I have only had a glimpse of these conditions and I again reiterate I can nowhere understand what a person goes through while being imprisoned. However, my observations led me to become frustrated, feel inadequate, reconsider my views on justice and fairness in society. Our team became a channel and space for the inmates to discuss their struggles with their role and their life in general.
The peer fellows, despite these challenging circumstances, were resilient to volunteer for the opportunity to teach and learn from others. They focused on enthusiastically being present in the classes and aimed to share their life experiences to empower their students. They used this opportunity to create a routine for themselves and worked towards gaining new skills for themselves. The enthusiasm with which they spoke of the classes and their experiences was infectious. The connection and positive energy between the peer fellows were palpable. They knew each other incredibly well during their time in prison and depended on each other.
On the last day, the fellows and other inmates welcomed us to another part of their world: the music room. We ended up getting mesmerized with the fellows singing songs of our choice and I remember vividly that everyone was just smiling throughout and didn’t want that day to end.
These two sides of the coin made my experiences as a service provider working with the prison population draining and exhausting on one hand yet very meaningful, worthwhile on the other. All I feel is that in all this, one thing is clear: despite all obstacles, humans are resilient and we always do our best with what we have even when we don’t see it.
Howlett, S. L., & Collins, A. (2014). “Vicarious Traumatisation: Risk and Resilience Among Crisis Support Volunteers in a Community Organisation”. South African Journal of Psychology, 44(2), 180–190. https://doi.org/10.1177/0081246314524387.
Lorde, Audre (1984). “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110-114. 2007. https://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Lorde_The_Masters_Tools.pdf.
Puvimanasinghe, T., Denson, L. A., Augoustinos, M., & Somasundaram, D. (2015). “Vicarious Resilience and Vicarious Traumatisation: Experiences of Working with Refugees and Asylum Seekers in South Australia”. Transcultural Psychiatry, 52(6), 743–765. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363461515577289.