Healing through Storytelling
Brave Idea: Associate Professor Ramona Beltrán works alongside institutions and Indigenous communities to spotlight solutions that are present in creative and culture-driven modalities. Her scholarship around historical trauma and healing is shaping global health futures by highlighting the role of storytelling in articulating creative responses to our most pressing issues.
Watch: The Source of the Wound
Community-Based Archive Focuses on Indigenous Knowledge to Reduce Health Impacts of Historical Trauma
GSSW Prof. Ramona Beltrán Explores Historical Trauma and Healing in Award-Winning Animated Short Film
Amanda Moore McBride:
Welcome to episode nine of The Brave Ideas For Social Change, podcast series. Produced by the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work. Which just celebrated its 90th anniversary this academic year. The series draws on GSSW faculty expertise for fast moving discussions on emerging research, practice and policy innovations to spur social change. Today's guest is Associate Professor Ramona Beltrán, whose scholarship around historical trauma and healing is shaping global health futures by transforming what we know about how story, body and land embody memory. She works alongside institutions in Indigenous communities to spotlight solutions that are present in creative and cultural-driven modalities. Her conceptual frameworks and research findings have been published and cited nationally and internationally, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Institutes of Mental Health, the National Libraries of Medicine, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Ramona, thank you for sharing more about your work related to healing through storytelling.
Thanks, Amanda. If it's okay with you, I'd like to introduce myself in the way that I was taught, [quote] May the creator bless you all. My name is Ramona Beltrán. My family is Yaqui and Mexica descendants originally from Northern Mexico on my mother's side, Anglo European descent originally from Northern Ireland on my father's side. I'm a mixed race Indigenous Chicana, and I was taught to acknowledge all of my ancestors. Introducing myself in this way is a practice of respect that I've been taught. I'm announcing myself and my ancestral lineage as a way of honoring my ancestors and also beginning our story in the here and now.
Amanda Moore McBride:
Storytelling. Such a powerful medium for forging relationships and understanding our world. Thank you for beginning with your story. I'd love to hear more about what storytelling means to you as an Indigenous woman, and as a social work scholar and artist.
So, I think the best way to respond to this is to begin with the story. I want to share a little bit about something that my Tata told me. And tata is abuelo, or grandfather. I'm really so blessed. I was able to spend many years learning from him, and I have so many beautiful memories of sitting with him at his breakfast table. He had this little nook inside of his kitchen. And he would sit there after he retired and drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. And people would rotate through the house — people from the neighborhood, family — and just sit with him and talk. And he was really quiet and he did a lot of listening, but the best kind of most cherished times I have with him are when he would share his stories. He told me a story that really stuck with me about when he was working in construction.
So my family, once they came to the United States from Mexico, started in Arizona, working on railroads and mines. And then eventually ended up in California in agricultural work. And they settled in the Bay Area. Eventually my Tata went into construction work, and over many years worked his way up into becoming a foreman of a cement crew. And I may have some of these titles wrong because I don't know exactly all of the roles within construction, but I'll do my best, and he told me about how this one time he was working in the city on a really big project. And he was a foreman of the cement-pouring crew. And the foreman of the full project came over to him in the middle of working and said to him, "Hey Leon," his name was Leon, "So I need six head of cattle over here on this other part of the project." And my Tata was quiet, looked at him and nodded, as if an affirmation and the guy walked away. Later on that day, the foreman of the project came back to him and said, "Hey Leon, where's the crew?"
And my Tata said to him, 'You asked for cattle, I work with men.' And that was that. And I love that story. What happened ultimately at the end is that my Tata was also pretty good friends, because he had worked for a really long time, with the kind of head of this construction company. And so they had a good relationship. So I think my Tata eventually ended up kind of telling him, because it became this conflict, right? So, he was reported to the boss. And then he said, told the story. "Here's what happened. Oh, he asked for cattle, I work with men." And eventually that foreman got fired from the project. And I just love that story, because it there's so much in it.
It tells me so much about who my Tata was. What the context was of the time, what allyship potentially looks like. And I shared that story with you, because I feel like it really taught me so much about who we are as a family, as a community. So, for many Indigenous peoples, storytelling is traditionally seen as a way we learn about living in relationship to ourselves, to the planet, to each other. So, when I think of narrative and story work, I think really not only of the written or spoken word, but all forms of expression and communication. We write story with the way we live our lives. My Tata was writing a story by his actions. Story writing in that way is expansive. It is theory. It is method. It is intervention. And it is art.
During my doctoral education, I was able to travel to Ōhaeawai, New Zealand, and Australia to attend conferences focused on Indigenous health knowledge with communities from all over the world. In one session, I remember a Black Feet elder, Theta Newbreast, coming into her session with her traditional fan. And she began simply by saying our stories are our medicine. And of course, I had heard various versions of this throughout time. But at that moment I remember feeling very moved. And I mentally documented it as a path that I would pursue in my work. I found the work of Joanne Archibald —who's a Stó꞉lō First Nation's elder and scholar —and her conceptualizing of story work. And she says, "By implication, the term story work signals that Indigenous stories are to be taken seriously and that we as storytellers, and story listeners, readers, learners can work together to learn from and with these stories. And because it was something that resonated so deeply, I wanted to follow story and storytelling to understand how they can help us heal. So, really simply, I understand this idea, that story is medicine as the notion that stories can help us heal.
Amanda Moore McBride:
Ramona, I love the conceptualization, and also the claiming of storytelling as tangible medicine. It's so powerful. It shifts the power from providers to people. I'd love for you to walk us through how storytelling is healing.
So as an example, let me break down the story that I shared about my Tata, my Abuelo, my Grandfather. Through that story that he shared with me, I learned several things. One, I learned about what his experience of racism was as a Mexican man. He understood that his boss, a white man, foreman of the project, saw him and his coworkers as livestock, as cattle. I learned from him then, strategy. So, rather than direct conflict, he used refusal and intellectual logic to resist. He knew what the foreman was doing, and he refused to be an instrument in his racism. He informed the foreman that he works with that he works with men, not animals. I learned how he valued his community, his compadres, as worthy of respect and dignity. And he wasn't willing to sacrifice that for the sake of his own position of authority. I also learned about relationships.
Sometimes we can develop relationships with unexpected people, and they can turn into our allies. So, in the end, in that story, there was some justice because that project foreman was fired. And part of that was because of the long term-relationship that he had with the boss of the construction company. And that was even during 40s and 50s. And Tata, he laughed so hard at that story. And honestly, I did too. I love that there's some form of justice. I wish I could really share with you how my Tata laughed. He had this really kind of smokers laugh, that would be silent, that would sort of come out in this whispery way. It was just so much joy for me. And that laughter was always a really good form of medicine when I was with him. But hearing many stories like this over my lifetime with him, I became who I am today.
I know where I come from. I know the legacy of trauma that my family and ancestors experienced, and I also know how they resisted. So, if I reflect on it, I can truly see myself as something bigger than just an individual. I'm part of their legacy of fighting, and I'm not alone. And we see this in our research too. Specifically across all of our research projects, we use various forms of storytelling and story work. Like digital storytelling, poetry, oral histories, photo voice. And through these projects, we've identified several mechanisms that our communities described specifically as healing. One is finding language to name the pain. Two is seeing one's story in another, and likewise being seen, and that reduces isolation, finding community. Three is reclaiming and reauthoring dominant and marginalized narratives. And then four, finding solutions within those stories.
Amanda Moore McBride:
Ramona, this work is so important. Let's dig in on this solutions piece. What might those solutions look like?
That's a really good question. And I can share a couple of examples from a few different projects that illustrate a couple of those mechanisms there. So, in 2012, I was a visiting Indigenous fellow through the Toihuarewa visiting Indigenous Scholar program at the University of Victoria and Wellington in Ōhaeawai, New Zealand. And there I did a digital storytelling project as Indigenous media with Maori community members. So, what we did was we held a digital storytelling workshop, which included a psychoeducation component on historical trauma and healing. And the stories that were put together were so beautiful and intimate. We spent quite a bit of intensive time putting these stories together. That's what digital storytelling workshops entail. But they spoke to both the impacts of colonization, but also the tremendous resistance and creativity in Maori communities. And when we did our follow-up interviews, folks said things like, just learning about other Native communities experiencing colonization was healing.
So, when participants said it makes you think, "Oh, we're not alone," and that can help with healing as well. Being able to share, not just with Maori people, but Indigenous people in general. And another person said that the digital stories themselves were powerful tools for education and information that could be accessible to community. So, she felt empowered to continue making digital stories that would address all kinds of concerns and education in her community. And she said, by showing it, by sharing it, those creations are incredible. And that just spreads. And several people said, especially after the psychoeducation workshop where we talked about historical trauma and healing, they said, "Thank you for giving me words, for giving language to describe something I've always known." And that process was so empowering for them to be able to really dig into here's what it is, and it's real, and we can respond to it. We can address this. We can truly heal.
So, I think that this speaks to the way that finding language, and seeing your story and being seen is a powerful intervention as well. So, there's a few different tools within that. And then another example I have, in 2015, our research team collaborated with five organizations serving Native American and Indigenous Latinx communities. And we worked to design, implement and evaluate a culture-centered HIV prevention program for Indigenous youth called Indigenous Youth Rise Up. So, the Rise Up program lasted four days and included experiential psychoeducation model modules on historical trauma, alcohol and other drug use, interpersonal violence and healthy relationships, and HIV and sexually transmitted infections. And we put this together to really address unique risk experienced in Indigenous communities. And we are really deliberate about wanting to center culture and cultural traditions in the development of that curriculum.
And this is complicated because of course, like, Indigenous communities are incredibly diverse. And we're here in this urban center where there are so many different tribes and Indigenous groups represented. So, we didn't want to make it this general, "everybody's the same" kind of Indigenous approach. But we used what we could from the people that we knew here to really highlight very specific cultural beliefs, cultural traditions, within that process. So, we use different approaches to storytelling, including some adapted improv of the oppressed, journaling, poetry, and that was just a couple. We did all kinds of things. But we also made sure that all of the folks who worked on our project identified as Native, or Indigenous Latinx. And that was really important. And we know that this is important because they said so. But we also think it shows up in the retention rate.
So, if you could believe this, these are teenagers right? Out of 25 youth who enrolled, 23 completed the whole thing. And let me tell you, four full days, two weekends in the summer, 110-question survey pre and post, and a post workshop interview. That's a lot. And 23 stuck with us for the whole entire thing. And that says something, right? So, in the post workshop interviews, they said the process of witnessing story, and being in a community with others that had some aspect of shared identity experience, was really powerful for them. They used words like, "Being around other Native youth was amazing. It was wonderful." And one youth described this sense of freedom and presence by saying, "Oh, I have such a big spiritual connection with this right now. And everything that's going around me doesn't matter. All that matters is how I feel about my culture and representing myself."
So, being seen and then having a sense of pride was really powerful and important. Additionally, we found that this approach to decolonizing curriculum, to really centering culture and story work in there, also improved their knowledge. So, at the start of the program, only 50% of youth knew that you cannot get HIV from mosquito bites, which increased to 95% by the end. But we also saw a 30% increase in youth who reported that they know how to use a condom and how to check to see if it's safe to use. So, developing culture-centered curricula with story, story-based education, and really centering representation as well is also a solution. I hope that's good and concrete in terms of examples.
Amanda Moore McBride:
I love how you are a storyteller. I felt like we were there doing the interviews, or interacting with the youth. Let's shift a little bit to talk about where your focus is right now in your research. You recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the National Libraries of Medicine, for your Our Stories Our Medicine Archive. And I so love that we learned the genesis of the name of that project in your story about the Black Feet elder. It's so creative, it's so collaborative. It's a deeply community engaged project. And it's a legacy. Tell us more about this project and what you're learning.
I love this project so much. I feel like you're right. It really is this genesis of all of these projects kind of coming together at this point, it's really something community asked for. They want a place to preserve their knowledge. They want to be able to pass their knowledge down to the future generations. So, Our Stories Our Medicine Archive, or OSAMA, as we call it, is a collaboration with the DU library and GSSW. And I should mention that we've also been supported by the Latinx center, and Dr. Deb Ortega, as well as through IRISE, which is the university's Interdisciplinary Research Institute for the Study of Inequality. And our goal is really to provide an alternative to historically colonial processes by creating a community-based, community-owned archive that centers traditional Indigenous knowledge in the construction and management of genealogy, intellectual property, cultural artifacts, digital comments. But specifically, we really want to highlight and leverage health knowledge.
We're hoping that it'll be a space where Indigenous folks can preserve their family and community cultural knowledge, share what they feel comfortable sharing related to health and to health knowledge. And ultimately we would really love for this archive to be a space that also inspires and invites further health information seeking. The project, it has two parts. It's one, a public-facing archive and also a research project of traditional Indigenous health knowledge. This is an ambitious project. Let me start with that. Dr. Miriam Valdovinos here at GSSW is a co-investigator, and neither of us are expert archivists. But we're really lucky to have our partners in the library, Katherine Crow, Denise Salise and Jack Benis. They are expert archivists. They are teaching us so much. We are learning so much. And I very much feel like a beginner in learning what it takes to build an archive.
And for me, one of the things I love about being a professor, people tend to think, "Oh, you you're a professor because you have expertise." For me, I think about being a professor as being a beginner and a learner all the time. I'm so excited that I get to be a student. So, we have 30 oral history interviews ranging in length from two hours to over six hours. We have so much data. We are deep into listening to the stories and finding elements that will work for the public-facing components, as well as simultaneously analyzing the data. So, we're coding, we're organizing, we're making meaning. And I mean, it's just beautiful. It feels like such a blessing to be able to witness these stories, and I'm so grateful that people have trusted us with their stories.
I really love talking about what kind of artifacts people have brought to document. So, on the one hand, we have things that may sort be thought of as traditional in the sense of when we think of artifacts —people that brought in statues, ceremonial fans, a traditional metate, which is a grinding stone from Oaxaca. But we also have had people bring in pictures of low riders, stuffed animals. And one of my favorites was a DVD of the movie Selena. So the DVD was brought in because there's a scene in it where Selena and her father and brother are talking about identity. And this has really become an iconic scene in Mexican American, Chicano and Southwestern communities. And when he talked about it, we all knew what the scene was because it's a conversation about being in between. And for that participant, the movie, and that scene in particular, was one of the first times he saw media that truly made him feel seen.
And there's also many stories of people talking about traditional health knowledge. So, just recently we've been documenting the different kinds of teas people use for different illnesses. All kinds of remedios or cures. A lot of people have talked about Vick's VapoRub as something that they use a lot in their families and communities, and we always get a kick out of that and laugh. And there's other plant medicines described that are used ceremonially. And we're in the process of thinking through how we can safely and ethically share some of these. It's complicated. And it will be complicated when you think about something that may be accessed really widely, and we want to be sure to be respectful of the knowledge. And we're really lucky though, to have a wonderful community advisory board, as well as expert physicians who will be guiding us through that process as well.
Amanda Moore McBride:
Ramona, I just love your work. It's truly groundbreaking. It seems to me, there's few empirical studies that actually not only treat storytelling as medicine, but also are extracting, as you just said, the medicines from the stories to then share with others. I know you're likely already thinking about what's next. Share with us. What's on your mind. What's the next project?
So, you're right. There are few empirical studies on storytelling. To my knowledge, there's only been a few small projects that have attempted to measure the mechanisms of storytelling as they impact it, influence health, knowledge and behaviors. I'm really excited about this part. This is the super nerd in me. Down the road, after we've built out at least the main parts of the archive —which we hope will continuously grow, right? — we hope this is a sustainable space for people and communities. We hope to test how the stories embedded in the website impact folks who visit. So, we've developed a model, and we've nerded out about all the theories and concepts behind it. And we are so excited to test it out. Lots of steps in between now and then. But we are just thrilled that we're going to be able to try this.
Amanda Moore McBride:
Let's span out to the field of social work overall. I'd love to hear how we, as social workers, can harness the power of storytelling in our own lives and work. What are your reflections on that?
I think of story as the most readily available technology that we have. And we've always had it. As I said before, to me, story is theory, method, intervention, and it lives, right? It's readily available, accessible, because it lives in our hearts and bodies. Accessible with fingertips, tongues, ears and eyes — with all of our senses, story can come through. And if we truly listen with intention and care, through stories we will hear the solutions, and those especially that are already embedded in practicing in communities and clients. Our job then as social workers, I believe, is to support those solutions by amplifying them and ensuring that there are resources and capacity for sustainability. Witness, uplift, support, amplify, celebrate. This is what we can do.
Amanda Moore McBride:
Ramona, your work is so inspiring and so meaningful. Thank you so much for sharing some of your story, and your work with us today.
Thank you so much for having me. [quote]
Amanda Moore McBride:
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