Stumbling into Leading An Arts-Based Group

Long, long ago, I was an English teacher. I had about 250 students a year and I loved every single one. Truly. And they are how I stumbled into trauma care and leading arts-based groups. It turns out that former gang members have a lot to say and poetry helps them to say it. A poem is closer to art than an essay, closer to singing than speaking and closer to their true selves than the personas they put on for the public. What started as detention, accidentally turned into a regular poetry group. By the time we got around to Shakespeare, they were speaking his language and intrigued to find that in many ways he also spoke theirs.

I was still a young teacher when poetry connected me to a beautiful girl with wide eyes who had tried several times to take her own life. She opened the door to her soul and invited me in with a poem. After that we exchanged poems regularly and I learned that you never have to say the word "trauma," nor do you have to talk specifically about circumstances, in order journey with someone through the dark and into the light.

These tender souls taught me my role--to be a witness. I did not need to be an expert in their particular brand of trauma. I didn't do any teaching on poetry at all in these groups. Class time was for teaching, and after awhile the participants included kids who were not my students. All I did was hold the space and witness what they wanted to share. It wasn't group therapy in the traditional sense of the word. We weren't trying to solve each other's problems. We just came together to wrestle with the right word, the rhythm, the music of language to give voice to the invisible. We were witnesses to one another, we looked for one another, we saw one another.

You can do this too. Leading an arts-based group is more about hospitality of spirit than anything else. Is everyone welcome here? Is every part of a person welcome here? Are all our true selves and all our false selves welcome here? Can this group be about the process and not about the product? Can we be about journeying together through the darkness and into the light?