Dora Watkins is on a mission to give a voice to those who have been traditionally silenced, especially Black women and other Women of Color. Through her program, she strives to empower these communities and start the collective healing process.
In 2016, Dora Watkins had a vision to create something special, but it wasn’t until 2023 that her dream came to fruition. It was well worth the wait.
In February, Watkins, a PhD student in the School of Social Work, unveiled The Healing Project, which gives voice to people—and specifically to Black women and other Women of Color—with trauma histories to share their stories and experience collective healing.
She expected about 40 people to turn up for the inaugural event. Instead, a few hundred people jammed into The Literary, a Champaign “book-bar,” for the project’s premier, which featured stories told in varying formats, including monologues, poetry, and photos.
“That completely blew my mind,” Watkins says. “It just grabbed the attention of everyone who came in. That response tells me there is a need for this project and that there’s a community consciousness for the collective healing process.”
It all began with an invitation to share her own story through an event hosted by The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, an award-winning curated storytelling organization.
“Back in 2016, I was asked to share my story of experiencing chronic sexual abuse for the first time publicly, on stage at the Charles H. Wright African American History Museum in Detroit,” Watkins says. “We were raising funds to raise awareness and a community consciousness around rape culture and the material condition of folks in Detroit who had been victimized but never saw justice. It was then that I saw the power of storytelling and that storytelling had this dual effect on people. I saw the power and potential of the arts for social justice and for collective healing.”
The event, and her sharing, left a lasting impression on Watkins.
“I began conceptualizing The Healing Project then, and I’ve been intentional about taking time to get clear on the vision and to find those who share and believe in the vision,” she says. “I believe they’re here at UIUC and in the School of Social Work, and being in the violence prevention research with Dr. Rachel Garthe and doing work on gender-based violence in connection with my dissertation work pushed me to move on the vision. I discerned that now was the time to move with it.”
The Team and Funding
Watkins has built a team of about 20 people, including Garthe, graduate and undergraduate students from the School, students and faculty from around campus, and academicians and others from beyond campus who share her vision. Dr. Wendy Hsieh, who earned her PhD from the School last year and is now at National Taiwan University, is one of 10 advisory board members.
“We’re working together to see how we can bring The Healing Project to Taiwan,” Watkins says.
One of Watkins’ goals is to build a team that will extend beyond her stay on campus.
“I want to build something that will outlast me, because this is not about me,” she says. “Dr. Garthe will be guiding future research projects. I hope to remain connected once I leave the U of I, but in terms of leadership, it’s always about helping to build others up, to pass that baton.”
Funding for the project has primarily been provided through a grant received by the School’s Community Learning Lab. The First National Bank in Champaign has also contributed funds and plans to continue to contribute, Watkins says. A fellowship from the Interseminars Initiative at the Humanities Research Institute on campus has also helped The Healing Project get off its feet.
“I’m very grateful to the School of Social Work and also the UIUC community for being so supportive and helping me push out this vision,” she says.
Need for The Healing Project
Watkins has carefully crafted The Healing Project to support several goals:
- To give Women of Color a voice through the artistic expression of their choice
- To promote the healing of both storytellers and listeners
- To close the race-based gap in scientific inquiry, where such voices and lived experiences are largely ignored
- To address the epistemic and psychosocial violence against Black women and other Women of Color
“These stories should be guiding our research questions and pointing to what we should be paying attention to as scholars,” Watkins says. “We plan to build a consciousness around narrative work and around art-based methods as legitimate knowledge for use in research. There’s so much power, so much meaning, so much in terms of informing and guiding research in the behavioral sciences, anthropology, psychology, social work, sociology, and you can even go as far as any of the other hard sciences as well.”
Watkins plans to begin recording narratives once she goes through the approval process with the university’s Institutional Review Board.
“There’s value in preserving these stories and amplifying them because any analysis that we do in research or in social work practice must be grounded in contextualized experiences,” she says. “Otherwise, I find it to be unethical. I want to contextualize people’s experiences for research and also for community consciousness building, for social justice and collective healing.”
Her plan, she says, is to use the recordings to inform research, practice, intervention and prevention programs, and policy efforts.
“We want to turn the stories into productions, into anthologies or books, and allow people in the community who shared their stories to be part of the research project, to produce something that’s lasting and that speaks to their identities and amplifies the voices of those who have been left out, erased, and overlooked in research,” Watkins says.
Power and Healing in Art
While narrative stories are a central part of The Healing Project, they are no more important than other forms of art that are used to tell people’s stories. There is great power in art in all of its forms.
“We use different types of art,” Watkins says. “Photographs, monologues, the spoken word. We’re also trying to build a street theater team, utilizing performance art. Dance and movement in the body is a way to tell a story. Poetry, rap lyrics, song lyrics. The Healing Project utilizes all forms of art. We’ve had people submit paintings. We want to amplify art because there is healing potential in art.”
Watkins says she’s been overwhelmed by how The Healing Project has taken off.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” she says. “It feels surreal. But the thing about vision is you really have to be patient, you have to trust the process. I’ve trusted this process for over seven years now. I’m glad to be in the right place at the right time.”
Her vision doesn’t stop with herself or with the community.
“We want The Healing Project for local communities, but we also want to build an infrastructure that will last and that hopefully will help it become a national and even international program or movement. The vision is huge.”