Radical Healing with Prentis Hemphill
Angela Glover Blackwell in conversation with Prentis Hemphill
Even today, when many of us are in pain because of systemic inequities, we tend to hold ourselves personally accountable for the trauma we bear. And we think of healing as individual work. The season 4 debut of Radical Imagination upends these myths and frees us of the emotional burdens we shouldn't have to carry alone. Host Angela Glover Blackwell speaks with Prentis Hemphill, a writer, therapist, and the founder of the Embodiment Institute, about the revolutionary idea of collective trauma and how it can help us heal our selves, our relationships, our communities, and our society.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 0:06
Welcome to season four of the Radical Imagination podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell
Speaker 2: 0:17
For domestic violence survivors, fleeing abuse at home could mean facing a life threatening virus.
Speaker 3: 0:23
A lot of Americans, their ideas of security and safety are wrapped up in firearm ownership. We actually had 12 mass shootings last weekend.
Speaker 4: 0:31
This is about a lot more than abortion. What are the next things that are gonna be attacked?
Angela Glover Blackwell: 0:37
We are in the thick of year three of this pandemic and in our country and our world right now, there is too much divisiveness, too much violence. We are all carrying so much, not just for ourselves, but for each other. And we barely have time to process one tragedy before the next one unfolds. In today's episode, we learn about healing. How can we create this space for ourselves to begin healing from the trauma we've all been holding onto? How do we work together to address our own pain and the pain we are experiencing collectively? How do we heal from trauma and how do we stop that trauma from being transferred generationally? We're now joined by Prentis Hemphill , founder of the Embodiment Institute. They're a therapist, a group conflict facilitator, a teacher, a writer. Their work is focused on healing through a holistic approach that centers justice and liberation of the mind , body, and community. Prentis, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Prentis Hemphill: 1:40
Thank you so much for inviting me. I feel really excited about this conversation
Angela Glover Blackwell: 1:45
As I think about the work that you do , the questions that immediately come to my mind are why healing and why now?
Prentis Hemphill: 1:53
In some ways it's always healing. Healing is always now, but I think especially in this moment, it's becoming so pertinent. I think for a couple reasons. We are currently living in a society or in a moment of all of these distractions. Things that are pulling us away from ourselves and our experience, but also a kind of politic that is reinforcing and activating our fear responses. It's ever present. I think it's narrowing the kinds of conversations and the kinds of collaboration we can have, but I'd also say that we are more and more understanding the way that trauma not only lives inside of an individual body or inside of one moment in time, but that it carries; it transmits across bodies and it transmits across time. And so we are becoming more and more aware of the presence of kind of historical and generational trauma in this moment. So I think healing now because of the convergence of all of these conditions that are making it harder and harder for us to be present; harder for us to do the things that I think are necessary for us to really face the crises and the possibilities of this time.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 3:11
Often when people think about healing, they think of it as something that is individual work. You have really explored how trauma is distributed throughout society and across groups. Can you talk some about collective trauma and what people can do not only to heal themselves, but to heal collectively?
Prentis Hemphill: 3:30
Absolutely. Oppression itself. We think about it structurally. We think about the, the structures and the systems that tend to oppress certain groups of people in certain moments in time. And it is also the way that a society concentrates trauma inside of certain communities or certain bodies, and that that concentration moves across time. It gets transmitted in our family structures. If there's a trauma in me, that's unprocessed. It's not just that it's gonna live in me, it's that I'm gonna act it out on the people around me. And it, I think also in that way is really political. Who do we in a society imagine should receive the kind of brunt end of the pain in the society? These are really critical questions and understanding the kind of power structure and dynamics and history of wherever we're situated. So in kind of Black movement over time, we see folks that are being killed perhaps at the hands of police that happens to that family, absolutely in an acute and real way. And it also opens the wounds -- historical or more present time that we have as a community, and collective traumas have to be addressed collectively. And I think your question of how do we do that at this moment in time, we, as a society, lack the kinds of rituals. I think that maybe our ancestors once had that allow us to process collective emotion. But I think one way to look at it is wherever we come together, how are we restoring ourselves? How are we doing the kinds of practices that bring us into a sense of safety, a sense of belonging. And I think it , this time is also calling on us to create, and remember also the rituals across the many thousands of years that human beings have existed, that allow us to move through grief. For example, collectively those kinds of rituals are really necessary and important. And I, I think it's both a time of creating and remembering,
Angela Glover Blackwell: 5:35
You said so many things. Yeah. Wow. Oppression is society concentrating trauma. That's a big thought.
Prentis Hemphill: 5:42
Angela Glover Blackwell: 5:43
It's so prevalent with in groups and feel so concentrated individually. People feel that they carry it alone. Don't they?
Prentis Hemphill: 5:51
Angela Glover Blackwell: 5:52
Each individual walks around feeling this heavy weight that is actually concentrated on the whole group.
Prentis Hemphill: 5:58
Angela Glover Blackwell: 5:59
Whether it's race or income or gender or people with disabilities, whatever it might be.
Prentis Hemphill: 6:04
Angela Glover Blackwell: 6:05
And I really am struck by this notion that we have unprocessed trauma.
Prentis Hemphill: 6:10
What trauma does is that it tells us that we can't experience safety, belonging, and dignity at the same time. Those capacities that we might say are innate to human beings, engaging in the world and with each other trauma breaks those capacities apart. It's saying you can't experience those. You're gonna have to sacrifice one in order to feel dignity, you might not be able to belong. You might have to puff up your sense of self in order to belong with other people, cuz you're afraid to belong just as you are. And so when it's unprocessed, it makes it really hard for us to be together, to have real intimacy. It makes it hard for us to build new things and it makes it so that often the structures that we create are born out of our own traumas. We create solutions from our own traumas; solutions to the problems we face might be shortsighted, maybe born from our own kind of longings or places where we lack the connection we need. So I'm not saying we're all gonna arrive to some healed destination where everything's perfect, but we're actively processing our trauma. We're actively seeking safety, belonging, and dignity. And I think that seeking allows us to generate solutions to the things that we face that are actually folding safety, belonging, and dignity into them, as opposed to kind of narrowing our possibilities , uh , as a society. So that's why it's so important for us to, to unearth what is, but also create spaces where more of us can unearth what is unprocessed in us safely.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 7:48
I hadn't landed that these harms come from concentrated and unprocessed trauma, but I understand the harms with excruciating detail mm-hmm <affirmative>. So I have devoted myself to housing policy and water policy and education policy and health policy because the harms are so front and center and urgent.
Prentis Hemphill: 8:08
Angela Glover Blackwell: 8:09
How do you make the case for focusing on healing is also being urgent.
Prentis Hemphill: 8:13
Mm-hmm <affirmative> I think everything that you named, housing, water, food, all of these things to me are actually part of a perspective around healing. I don't think that they are separate. Water, for example, if we just take thinking about access to water that we need as human beings, that's absolutely critical, and it also has the potential for us to heal or restore our sense of belonging inside of our ecosystem inside of the world that we live in. So I think it's a perspective that you take into the work that we do and all the issues that we focus on.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 8:51
I'm interested in your thoughts on healing and liberation. What does healing have to do with our collective liberation and how does healing get us closer to just world ?
Prentis Hemphill: 9:01
I kind of came to organizing through an abolitionist framework originally and thinking about mass incarceration and the impact that it had on my family and Black families, broadly brown families, broadly, Indigenous families, all families in this country. You know, I could think rationally about, okay, this is not working in these ways But the question of what would we do? How might we build a world without this massive carceral state made me think, how would that change my relationships? How would I structure this organization? How would I talk to my children? It's not only about a prison. It's about the culture that surrounds the prison. It's about the logic that is embedded in each of us. That makes it make sense. What would we create that actually made it so that, that made less and less sense. I got the feeling somewhere along the way that I actually wanted to be led by people who knew how to feel free in their own bodies, in their own lives. That I trusted the vision for what liberation was, in the people who I saw could openly love, could openly lift up other people could have a , a clear vision and direction; could be courageous and say the things that really matter to them. To me that was more compelling sometimes than, you know, someone who might be super strategic. I wanna know that you, that you have a sense of where we're going, that you know, what it feels like, that it actually can radiate from your body into the organization, into the world, beyond us, that it's not a kind of gonna arrives to some place one day, but that there's a part of you that already knows what that place is. And we are building that place as, as we're headed in that direction. So I think in some ways liberation has a lot to do with healing cuz healing is like, what is it gonna feel like? What is it gonna look like? How are we gonna relate to one another?
Angela Glover Blackwell: 11:08
Listening to you reminds me of a conversation I had last season with your friend, adrienne marie brown. And that conversation really taught me that in order to be an effective leader for liberation or equity or any of those things, you have to embody the joy that you hope people will feel when they get there. Sometimes you take on so much of the brutality of what you're pushing back against that you lose the vision of the joy and the process of being able to hold onto it . And I think the process of holding onto joy is very much healing. I read that you've said, 'Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously." How did you come to that understanding? And is it a practice? And if so, how do you practice it?
Prentis Hemphill: 11:55
<laugh> very carefully. I had an estranged relationship from my father for a decade in part because of what I experienced in my childhood. I created the distance between us and I needed that. But I, at the end of that 10 years, I kind of got to this point where I got clear about what I wanted from that relationship and what I was going to get elsewhere. So I had to grieve what I longed for in that parent child relationship, because so much of my frustration was that I longed for him to be different. And at the end of that decade, I got to this place of like, oh, I accept that. That may never be true. And I accept that part of me still actually wants some level of relationship with him. So instead of it being either this all or nothing way is how I was looking at it. How would I design my relationship with him in a way that I never lost my sense of self and I never ended up trying to destroy him either. And after that I wrote that quote that you shared around boundaries. Now I'm accepting our relationship as it is So many people have shared how it's helped them leave abusive relationships or it's restructured their relationships with their children. We often don't choose how we want our relationships to be, feel. There's a expected proximity or an expected distance. And we often don't take the time to say, this is actually how I want to feel with you. This is where I will go and where I will not go. And, that to me is boundaries. And it's, it's very hard and it's heartbreaking sometimes. But I think that practicing them, I actually think it has something to do with justice. I think it begins to reshape the kind of scripted relational habits that we have with one another. And I think it has a great potential to open up kind of authenticity and a kind of realness, honestly, to , to know what actually is.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 14:01
I like that you use the phrase design a relationship. Nine times outta ten, I work with what I have and some of the things I have to work with, I haven't particularly liked. Yeah . But once I have a vision of the design, it can be surprising how the thing that I didn't like now can fit in. And I love that.
Prentis Hemphill: 14:21
Angela Glover Blackwell: 14:22
In reading about your work. I saw a lot of words. Sematics, embodiment, radical healing. That's right. Can you talk to us about these words? What they mean.
Prentis Hemphill: 14:32
Have you ever had a kind of insight or you could see where you were doing something and you didn't wanna be doing it anymore? Part of what somatics says is that the reason why that's hard to do, to have an idea, to be able to see something but not be able to change it, is that we think that change happens solely in the mind. The way that we relate to healing or transformation often bypasses the wisdom, the language, the sensations in our actual bodies. I mean, it's kind of at the root of Western philosophy. I think therefore I am the Decar way of thinking about humanity, but what happens is that we often think we're doing something or we intend to do something, but we have no idea how to actually do it. I started setting somatics maybe 10 or more years ago. And it was a revelation for me. Embodiment is living inside of your own body to the point that you can feel your sensations, your impulses, your tightness, your looseness somatics is that field of study and healing. I think through the body in particular allows us to listen deeply into what we've been trained into and then to choose what do I actually wanna practice and what do I wanna be in the world? And how do I start to do more of that? And less of the things that maybe actually don't align with who I wanna be, or don't align with my politics or what I think is the potential for us as a, as a society.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 15:59
And you've talked about how power shows up in our bodies and it's in our relationships.
Prentis Hemphill: 16:04
Angela Glover Blackwell: 16:04
What do you think is the connection between how our power appears in our bodies and how it affects our ability to grow and heal together?
Prentis Hemphill: 16:12
One of my teachers said that embodiment is conviction and that really struck me because to me, what it says is if I can mostly clear out a lot of the cobwebs and patterns and habits that are embedded in me, when I go to do something more of me can be in the doing, you know, Tony Morrison talks about the distraction of white supremacy. Trauma is it's a kind of distraction. Part of you is taking care of something else. It's responding to some old stimuli. So if we start to do that work, we actually recover our power, our internal power, which then can contribute to this larger effort of power building. I think that's absolutely critical that more and more of our communities feel empowered. Like you said, can move with power, build power, share power that we are no longer looking at. Power is like, oh, that's something somebody else has over here. It's something that we intentionally build. So from an embodiment perspective, it's a very visceral thing. I think power and we lose sight of that. And I think that's part of why we think that power is an external thing. Power is absolutely an internal force. It's the way that we use our energy. And that's the way that we can recognize and multiply our energy together to do the things that are necessary for our communities.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 17:25
You're so far along on the journey of integrating what you know, and what you feel and what you're experiencing. It makes me wonder how radical healing work has prepared you to be a parent.
Prentis Hemphill: 17:35
<laugh> I feel that so many of my ancestors and teachers have prepared me too . You know, when I read or talk to my elders, there are similar questions that just exist, I think, in our experiences. But in terms of being a new parent, gosh, <laugh> what a learning all over again. I feel completely prepared in some ways. And so unprepared. I mean, as soon as she was born, the emotional release that came over me, the love, the gratitude, I , I couldn't have imagined what that would be like. And to learn from this person who has, at this point, I hope no trauma, just presence. <laugh> just her emotional states , her joy, her wanting to play with me, her crankiness and the beauty of all of that. So, you know, it has given me the tools to remain tender and remain open, but also being a parent has made me more politically committed than I think I've ever felt before. Not in a urgent, anxious way, but in a kind of wide purpose focus of my time, because I feel very concerned about the world that I want to leave my child. So in this department, I'm a , I'm a mess. I'm like , no one prepares you for really, for what this is .
Angela Glover Blackwell: 19:06
What advice would you give your younger self?
Speaker 6: 19:09
Prentis Hemphill: 19:10
Gosh, I would say that as heartbreaking as the world can be, and as sensitive as you are to it, don't lose your commitment to that sensitivity and never lose your wonder. Things will unfold in ways that you can't imagine as much as you can keep your heart open to it and it will break and it will expand . And that is actually what this whole thing is about. So live on the edge of it, stay in and love.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 19:51
I thank you very much for that.
Prentis Hemphill: 19:53
Thank you so much. It was absolutely a pleasure to talk to you . I'm so grateful.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 20:01
P Hemphill , founder of the embodiment Institute, Collective trauma is a big idea. So big that the concept itself is healing. Most of us understand that the racial discrimination, the disregard and the violence we experience is systemic. That police harassment is systemic mistreatment in schools is systemic under investment in our communities is systemic, but I think many of us hold ourselves personally accountable for the trauma. All of this causes. I know I do. I think I should be tougher. I should shrug off my pain and just focus on the work of advocacy and policy change. The idea, actually the reality of collective trauma relieves us of a weight that none of us should have to struggle with alone. And it points the way toward collective healing, healing, our bodies, our souls and our society.
Radical Imagination was produced for PolicyLink by Futuro Studios. The Futuro team includes Marlon Bishop, Andreas Caballero, Joaquin Cotler, Stephanie Lebow, Juan Diego Ramirez, Liliana Ruiz, Sophia Lowe, Susanna Kemp and Andy Bosnack. The PolicyLink team includes Glenda Johnson, Vanice Dunn, Ferchil Ramos, Fran Smith, Loren Madden, Perfecta Oxholm and Eugene Chan. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Sugira.
I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time. And in the meantime, you can find firstname.lastname@example.org , remember to subscribe and share next time on radical imagination.
Speaker 7: 22:17
The future is I hope being at the front of an African Renaissance. And when I say Renaissance, I simply mean at the front of encouraging Africa to remember the intelligence behind the traditional culture.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 22:34
That's next time on radical imagination.