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Processing Racism-Related Trauma through Creative Expression

In the last few years, our country has begun confronting racism and racial injustice on a scale that we haven’t seen since the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s. Understanding the history, scope, and implications of systemic racism is a complicated undertaking for all of us. Expressing our feelings about it can be even more complicated.  Finding healthy but perhaps less traditional ways to express them can be key. One of the best ways to do this is through creative expression, and the good news is that you don’t have to be an art therapist to help your mentee use expressive arts to process their feelings!

Expressive arts include writing, visual arts like drawing and painting, music, drama, and dancing. Years of research have shown that taking part in these activities can lower stress and anxiety levels, boost self-esteem and self-efficacy, build social-emotional skills, and improve overall well being. Creative expression can be particularly powerful because it gives children the chance to explore different outlets than what they may have access to in school. Giving your mentee a chance to shine in an area they’re strong in, and inviting them to teach you or tell you about their process can help foster leadership skills.

Even young children are perceptive and aware of racial injustices. Addressing these issues honestly in an age-appropriate way is crucial. Providing opportunities for your mentee to process their feelings with their caring, trusted mentor allows them to explore emotions safely and builds a foundation for your mentee to grow into an empathetic, community-minded adult. Here are just a few ideas of things you can do with your mentee right now. These activities could be one-offs, but are most effective if revisited or continued over more than one visit, as your mentee will continually process their understanding and feelings about racial equity.

Visual Expression

Have your mentee use the whiteboard to draw their feelings. It doesn’t have to be perfect (drawing with a mouse is hard), they could just use colors to show you how they feel. You can do the same. As you’re doing so, ask “Would you like to tell me why you chose that color?” or “Who are the people you drew? What do you think they’re feeling?” This provides an opportunity to discuss their feelings if they are comfortable doing so. If they’re not, you can share “I chose to draw this storm cloud with a rainbow, because though I feel angry and sad about how unfair things are, I feel hopeful about all the helpers working to make our world better for all of us.”

Written Expression

Try having your mentee write a story in the chat or shared story feature on the platform. You can also have them dictate it to you while you type. Have them tell a story about a person they admire who works or worked towards racial equity. Explore what ideas and values are important to them. One thing that gives children anxiety is their lack of control of a situation, so focus on what they can do. Collaborate on a story of what they can do to make the world a more just and fair place for everyone. Remind them that little things they do at home and school can make a big difference to the people in their lives.

Create a Super Hero

Ask your mentee to draw a character that they’d like to see or learn more about. It can be a normal person who fights for equality or it could be what they would do if they had superpowers. What would the superpowers be, and why? How would this superhero help people? Why would they want to see a character like this? Discuss these things together, and perhaps even collaborate on a character backstory. You can save these stories, screenshot your character, and send them to your Mentor Director to make sure your mentee gets a copy when you’re done.

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