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Memory and the Importance of Witnessing

Kim Hines, Seattle chapter leader Kim Hines, Seattle chapter leader

Growing up in an abusive household has adverse impacts on youth and their development. While there are developmental impacts that can be the result of physical abuse, there are also suppressed negative emotions that can result in self-blame. Youth who experience abuse or trauma are not easy to pick out of a crowd. Instead of seeking help or talking about it, there is internalization that manifests in silence. One could solely fault the perpetrator and remove the youth from the home, but this alone does not end the silence. To end the silence, someone needs to take the next step: to be “witnessed.” At The Mockingbird Society, youth with foster care or homeless experiences are given the opportunity to be “witnessed.”

In the article, “An Event without a Witness: Truth, Testimony, and Survival,” Dori Laub discusses the impact of trauma and the concept of witnessing. She identifies three distinct levels. First is being a witness to yourself within your experience. We must allow people to recognize that the way they were treated was unjust and far from the norm. Entering foster care can be scary, intimidating, and make youth feel isolated. When I first entered foster care at 14, I felt all these things. When I came to Mockingbird, I instantly felt less stigmatized because I wasn’t alone. Connecting with youth who have experienced similar trauma allowed me to witness and articulate experiences and feelings that, up until then, remained unsaid. Mockingbird brings foster youth together. They create a sense of family for youth who may not have that.

“Mockingbird understands not only what we come from, but that we aren’t defined by our past.”

The second level of witnessing is witnessing others. Often, the emotional reactions surrounding the narratives of abused children can bring about a variation of re-victimization. They aren’t looking for pity, anger, or disgust, and the reactions often received by the public can add to the internalization that may already exist. For this reason, foster youth and alumni may be hesitant to talk about their past. However, Mockingbird listens. We all talk and identify commonalities of our narratives, and work to ensure that no youth experience it again. Mockingbird understands not only what we come from, but that we aren’t defined by our past. In this way, they enter the second level of witnessing: witnessing the testimony of others. Mockingbird allows youth to be liberated from their past and to use it as a positive force for change in the future.

Here we arrive at the final stage, witnessing the witnessing. While Mockingbird allows foster youth to safely come together and tell their stories, the final stage happens only if the individual allows. They attend Youth Advocacy Day, the Youth Leadership Summit, or any Mockingbird event, they have an opportunity to ‘witness the witnessing.’ In attending these events, youth can both testify on their own journey and watch others testify on their experiences. This is an extraordinary thing to be a part of — the darkness of the past fading as negative experiences can now change the foster care system for the better. It completely changes the perspective of the past. The Mockingbird Society creates change not only in the foster care system, but in the lives of foster youth as well.

Mockingbird allows youth to be amongst other youth who have experienced similar trauma and have common experiences. In allowing this they eliminate the isolation youth may feel in both their experiences and their status as a foster or homeless youth. It gives them an outlet to be heard and to use their experiences as a force for foster care and homeless reform. Witnessing, on all levels, allows youth to not only heal and learn from their past, but to support others through this process and to make change in larger systems as well.