Supported by New York Council for the Humanities

Choreographing Care addresses the overburdening of social workers while exploring the intangibles related to care and empathy.

Secondary trauma has only begun to be legitimized in the past decade and recent studies have shown that workers who are exposed to victims of trauma tend to absorb their pain and display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.* Although care and empathy are natural aspects of basic human bonds, today in the U.S, care is becoming highly institutionalized. As our social bonds disintegrate, nonprofit care institutions such as homeless shelters, mental care centers, and victim services take on our social refuse. Due to many factors such as increased bureaucracy of care institutions and decreased salaries, constraints on social workers are becoming tighter, and secondary trauma is simply attributed to the 'cost of caring.'

* Klaric ?, Kvesic Á, Mandi? V, Petrov B & Franciškovi? T. Secondary Traumatisation and Systemic Traumatic Stress: Medicina Academica Mostariensia, 2013; Vol. 1, No. 1, pp 29-36

Choreographing Care takes the form of a 2-channel video installation and an open workshop for social workers and care workers. Rather than typical responses to burnout involving self-help books and lectures, this project turns to the body to collaboratively form a solution. The first workshop took place in Kingston, NY on January 23, 2016, led by Theater Director Maggie Lally, and explored restorative exercises used in theater to transition from character to actor. Workshop participants somatically explored the relationship between themselves and their clients, addressing the porousness of empathy and ways in which 'leaked' trauma can be processed.

When actors play a role, they become sensitive to people in the situation their character is in; in this sense, acting is one of the few professions that encourages an embodied empathy with another person's experience. Furthermore, some schools of thought led by practitioners such as Lee Strasberg, view emotional engagement as the ultimate goal of good acting. Nonetheless, actors still need to find ways to disengage with their character so as to not lose their own identity. Using character actors as a model for preparing for and disengaging with potentially traumatic roles, Choreographing Care pulls warm-up and cool-down techniques from theater resources and applies them to functions of social work. Through the application of these preparatory and release rituals, the project aims to create a space to metabolize secondary trauma that can be passed from clients to social workers through the act of care.

The importance of preparation and disengagement from roles of care work reveals the interdependent nature of trauma and time. Freud suggests trauma stems from a lack of preparedness to take in a stimulus that comes too quickly. Anxiety develops from the urge to retroactively master the stimulus, which takes the form of repetitive compulsive acts. This project aims to identify the space between stimulus and reaction, symptom and catharsis, aiming to rejuvenate the under-recognized field of social work.