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Sunny Widmann, Director at National Arts Strategies, details how embedding trauma-informed care into workplaces can help executives address inequity and stress in order to create and lead healthier organizations.


One of the key challenges facing arts and culture organizations today is stress — layers upon layers of it. Added to the individual stresses of working and living through a pandemic are the forces stressing and often fracturing our organizations. All over the news, we hear stories of toxic leaders being ousted, as often long-buried racist, misogynistic, and otherwise harmful behavior are now being brought to the surface.

There’s a great sense of fervor and hope in the shifts that we’ve begun to see in the sector as a result of societal changes: the ushering in of new and more diverse leadership, more explicit conversations about racial equity within organizations, buzz about new funding models that are more values-aligned.

These are indeed exciting changes. At some point though, the momentum we are now feeling will start to slow, and we’ll need to reckon with the toll that 2020 has taken.  Moving forward will require us to acknowledge the stress on individual staff members and view individual wellbeing as a fractal for organizational wellbeing. As adrienne marree brown said, “the health of the cell is the health of the species is the health of the planet.” My hope (and research obsession) at this moment is that we keep present in our minds that we as leaders and we as collectives called organizations have experienced a great deal of trauma — and that most of us are ill-equipped to address this.

Even after momentous changes have been implemented in organizations, trauma (if left unattended to) will impede progress and cause organizations to fracture in new and different ways.

This brings me to the Sanctuary Model, a trauma-informed approach from Dr. Sandra Bloom. At NAS, my teammates and I bring groups of arts and culture leaders together to learn from their collective wisdom and from researchers outside our field. We’ve partnered with faculty from psychology departments to teach arts and culture leaders about implicit bias, and we’ve looked to business school faculty to share frameworks on strategy.

In this moment, it’s trauma-informed care that we need to pay attention to in order to see our organizations as living organisms capable of holding trauma — and healing from it. Here are a few key learnings from Dr. Bloom’s Sanctuary Model that may be useful to arts and culture leaders in this moment:

1. Creating new rituals for gathering as a team. In the Sanctuary model, Dr. Bloom suggests starting each team meeting with a ritual check-in. The trauma-informed approach to your check in comes by the specific set of prompts you give and the order in which you give them: Who are you? How are you feeling? What’s one goal you have for today? What are you grateful for? Who in this room can you ask for help today? Starting each meeting with these questions helps people transition into a group space in a way that honors emotions, individuality, future orientation and social responsibility.

2. Building-in structures that support learning, democracy and accountability. Trauma theory teaches us that a typical human response to stress is fear, and fear leads to doubling down on authoritarianism and control. Now is the time to bake in checks and balances in decision-making processes, distribution of power in our organizational structures, and clear feedback loops in our communications. Check out the Work Shouldn’t Suck blog from Fractured Atlas for great resources on shared leadership models and alignment and accountability.

3. Norming self-care. I know, I know. This term has been around everywhere during the pandemic, particularly nagging those of us who are juggling full-time work and full-time childcare. In a team context, making space for even small moments of tending can be powerful. What about scheduling an audio-only walk-and-talk to get employees away from screens and moving their bodies? For those who are particularly constrained at the moment, what might leaders do to encourage just 10% changes in self-care?  The Sanctuary Model teaches us that we interact with each other, make decisions, and set policies that can make or break our change effort, after this period of trauma. If we want our organizations to be well, we must first focus on the wellness of the beings who make up those organizations.

headshot of blog author sunny widman standing in front of green foliage - she has on a multicolored scarf lightly colored skin and long sandy brown hair

Sunny Widmann
Director, National Arts Strategies

Sunny leads the design and development of National Arts Strategies programs. She works with faculty partners, funders, and participants to create learning experiences that help cultural leaders advance their work. Programs currently in Sunny’s portfolio include support services for cultural entrepreneurs, leadership development for CEOs, and online learning initiatives.