Liberating Psychology for Collective Healing
More than 30 years ago, Jesuit social psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró urged psychologists and mental health workers to walk alongside those affected by systemic impoverishment and state violence – and more particularly, those directly affected by the armed conflicts raging in his adopted country of El Salvador and throughout Central America in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s (Martín-Baró, 1996). He challenged his colleagues committed to human rights to liberate psychology as it was being practiced in Northern centers of neoliberal capitalism (e.g., Europe and the United States). His vision was to generate a “psychology of the people” — one grounded in the understandings of buen vivir (wellbeing or living well), nascent among the Salvadoran peasants with whom he worked, informed by their Indigenous roots.
More than 75,000 Salvadorans were slaughtered during 12 years of armed conflict there while the Guatemalan military massacred over 600 communities in its rural highlands, contributing to massive deaths, displacement, and disappearances. These events were among the dozens of armed conflicts in the Americas during the second half of the 20th century. This was a time during which many psychologists and mental health professionals began to turn their attention to the multiple psychosocial effects of these gross violations of human rights, including intergenerational and historic trauma among survivors, both those within countries at war and those who fled and took refuge beyond the countries’ borders.
During the 1980s, Ignacio surveyed the opinions of Salvadoran peasants, centering their voices that challenged the “official story” or disinformation of the government whose repressive efforts were funded by the U.S. In the early morning of November 16, 1989, the elite Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Army entered the Jesuits’ university residence and brutally assassinated Martín-Baró, five other Jesuits including the university president, Ignacio Ellacuria, their housekeeper and her daughter. Some of Ignacio’s colleagues initiated the Ignacio Martín-Baró Fund for Mental Health and Human Rights in the wake of his assassination, one small initiative of solidarity to support communities taking up his nascent liberation psychology to organize in response to the fracturing of community and the “normal abnormality” of armed conflict and state terrorism. These grassroots organizations sought to break the multiple silences and disinformation perpetrated by governments and military, the polarization of armed conflict, and impunity in its wake, as well as the social suffering among individuals, families, and communities affected by this organized violence.
Rather than diminishing, ongoing wars or conflicts persist in around three dozen countries in 2021, most of them in the Middle East, North West Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and a major ongoing drug-war in Mexico. Moreover, both longstanding and recent occupations of Indigenous lands and territories remain a primary, foundational, and ongoing injustice in many parts of the world, especially in Latin America. Indigenous communities are mobilizing around territorial defense in the face of rampant, violent extractivism by transnational corporations that is all too often enthusiastically supported by national governments. In addition to these violations, we are witnessing horrific material effects of humanitarian disasters (e.g., Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, Hurricanes Eta and Iota in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua in 2020), alarming economic disparities, widespread hunger, increasing migration across regions, structural racism, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic on communities across the globe.
The Martín-Baró Initiative for Wellbeing and Human Rights
There is a growing awareness not only of the psychosocial impact of these multiple systems of violence and violation on those directly affected by them, but also of the horrific violence perpetrated against the many human rights activists struggling to redress these harms. Such activists are repeatedly attacked by governments and paramilitaries, and suffer diverse psychosocial harms. Social movements with whom Grassroots International has long-term partnerships regularly report the effects of state repression in, for example, Palestine, Brazil, West Africa, Haiti, and Guatemala. These grassroots activists also share many of the local and Indigenous beliefs and practices that they are mobilizing in their organizing, resources that contribute to individual and community healing among members. Informed by local knowledge generated by grantees of the Martín-Baró Fund, psychologists and mental health workers in the global North have begun to rethink our praxis, as we seek to decolonize knowledge systems that marginalize traditional beliefs critical to a psychology of el pueblo (the people).
These among other experiences contributed to the decision by Grassroots International and the Martín-Baró Fund to consolidate their efforts through the rebirth of the Fund as the Martín-Baró Initiative for Wellbeing and Human Rights. We share a vision of supporting the wellbeing and human rights of community activists and grassroots organizers in countries in which Grassroots International has established longstanding partnerships. We are confident that together we can connect the energy and resources of donors and activists in the United States with a global grantmaking strategy that advances social reparations and supports the collective power of communities to heal some of the multiple effects of violence, injustice, and repression as they struggle for a more equitable world that supports our collective wellbeing. Some, drawing on the work of Ignacio Martín-Baró, refer to this work as liberation psychology; others describe it as healing justice, seeking to yoke the praxis of justice to that of healing. All recognize that well being can never be achieved in the absence of equity and justice for all of life.
This year’s Martín-Baró Initiative grantees include 11 local communities, NGOs, and social movements in Palestine, Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Haiti, Liberia, and among refugees in Brooklyn, NY. These outstanding groups have mobilized traditional beliefs, social movement building, and community organizing towards articulating culturally-grounded projects for accompanying those directly affected by the violations briefly described above towards healing and wellbeing. Grounded in Pacha Mama (Mother Earth), they affirm the integral whole of multiple systems of life – of which we humans are but a small part – including the rights of territories and rivers. They build on the knowledge generated by their ancestors, complemented by others beyond their borders including Ignacio Martín-Baró, towards articulating a healing justice grounded in and affirming of one world. They acknowledge and embrace the rights of all of life, in which humans are a small part of interdependent and interconnected systems of beings, wherein rivers, mountains, and all living creatures are co-existing as one, a pluriverse essentially. We will continue to learn from our grantees’ diverse healing practices to inform our solidarity philanthropy towards ensuring that mental and physical health are integral components of social movements as they work towards healing and wellbeing for all in the struggle to end injustice and oppression.
Brinton Lykes PhD, is a board member of Grassroots International and is Professor of Community-Cultural Psychology and Co-Director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College.