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When and How to Effectively Extend Compassion to Others: A (Vegan) Social Worker’s Perspective on “Trauma Stewardship”

By Visiting Animal — September 17, 2013

I have a thing for social workers. Perhaps I’m generalizing, but I have found that the ones I have known have been truly compassionate, generous, insightful, and affable people. Rachel Duvall is no exception. In addition to being a social worker and a Nia instructor, she is also a vegan and an animal advocate (not mention to an OHH flock member). Today, Rachel is sharing her thoughts on the book Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura van Dermoot Lipsky and Connie Burk. We first told you about Trauma Stewardship in 2011 when the fabulous Lisa Rimmert enlightened us to as to why animal activists in particular should seriously consider adding this book to their library. Today, Rachel is expanding on that a bit, from the unique perspective of a social worker. I hope that Rachel (and other vegan social workers) will continue to provide insight to us regarding various animal advocacy books and other tools. They are smart people! Have I mentioned that I have a thing for social workers?


When and How to Effectively Extend Compassion to Others: A (Vegan) Social Worker’s Perspective on “Trauma Stewardship”

by Rachel Duvall


We could all stand to extend our circle of compassion. I was recently reminded of this while presenting a nonviolence curriculum to a group of Brooklyn ninth graders when I asked the class to name some examples of oppressed groups. I was pleasantly surprised when a student raised his hand and responded “animals.” If only there were more kids (and adults) who came to this conclusion. Considering that my journey to social work coincided with my journey to veganism, I’ve often thought about the connection between the two worlds. I find it’s a connection many in the human service world fail to make.

Imagine my relief when I read Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009) – which Our Hen House first covered in 2011. Authors Laura van Dermoot Lipsky and Connie Burk defined the concept trauma stewardship as “a daily practice through which individuals, organizations and societies tend to the hardship, pain or trauma experienced by humans, other living beings or our planet itself.” Throughout the book, the conclusion is drawn that trauma is trauma whether experienced by human or animal. Additionally, it’s noted that the way activists respond to exposure to this suffering can look exactly the same.

In the authors’ description of how suffering is perpetuated at the individual, organizational, and societal level, I found many statements that resonated with me. They speak of a concept called service rationing, which is defined as the gap between what activists strive to achieve in their work versus what is actually accomplished given numerous obstacles. While working in a children’s mental health clinic in the Bronx with a caseload of close to 60, I can’t think of a single day I left feeling satisfied. To cope with the frustration, my mantra became “today I will do my best and my best is enough.”

Living in this gap day after day becomes incredibly draining. Though I haven’t worked in the animal rights world, I imagine the feeling among animal advocates is much the same. There are always more animals to save and more work to be done. Focusing on those we cannot save can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair, a common symptom of trauma exposure response.

The authors note that one of the side effects of trauma exposure is that activists may unintentionally perpetuate oppression. They make the point that oppression feeds on isolation. The less society is aware of the tragedies happening in the world, the more people are able to disconnect. From the activist perspective, it can be exhausting to have yet another individual tell you your cause is “too depressing.” I often hear my least favorite response: “I could never do what you do,” which tends to shut down the conversation.

Fearing this response, I sometimes pull back when discussing my work or veganism. Or as the authors describe it, activists fear a debate, which we don’t have the energy for, so we keep silent rather than speak up. This silence leads to more isolation, which leads to greater oppression. Considering those we serve have no voice of their own, either literally or figuratively, this speaking out – no matter how difficult the response – is imperative.

Unfortunately, the effects of trauma exposure can be daunting. The book outlines 16 warning signs, such as dissociation, chronic exhaustion, and diminished creativity. The question posed by the authors is: given the debilitating effects of trauma exposure and burnout that often come with this work, how does one move forward in an effective and sustainable way?

The answer is where trauma stewardship comes in. With this concept, the authors outline ways to create change from the “inside out.” At the heart of the process is self-care. What I appreciate in their description of self-care is the suggestion to look to those you serve for wisdom. Lipsky and Burke write, “If we think of birds, we may think of their urges to sing, to mate, to eat, to fly, to raise their young, to follow the rhythms of the seasons. If we honor this life in them, we can also attempt to honor it in ourselves.” The strength and beauty we see in the beings we try so hard to protect is also naturally within us. We can tap into these qualities with gentle vigilance and awareness.

To cultivate this awareness, Lipsky and Burk created navigational tools, which they deemed the five directions. To me, this is the most inspiring section of the book. The tools serve as a way to come back to “the center” or the heart of what brought you to the work. As activists, we become so wrapped up in the how that we often forget the why behind the work. With a daily practice, whether it is writing, meditating, or simply taking a few deep breaths and focusing on the why before walking through the door, we can find strength.

Throughout the book, there are profiles written by activists, social workers, and environmentalists who share their wisdom and experience. All but one of the profiles (a heartbreaking account of an ecologist working to save the mountain yellow-legged frogs) are written by human service workers. As a social worker, I found the profiles extremely effective in illustrating the stories of trauma exposure. Because the authors have done an excellent job at making connections between all fields of trauma work, I believe animal activists will also relate to these stories.

It’s important to note that the references to people working with animals were limited to those working in shelters or with endangered species. Though these areas are certainly important, I had hopes there would be stories of those in fields like farmed animal rescue. I hope to meet Lipsky someday, as I’m told she is a dynamic speaker. Perhaps when I do, I will plant the seed about expanding her definition of trauma work to include those who work on behalf of farmed animals.

Despite these limitations, from a vegan perspective, I feel Lipsky and Burk have written a book that is revolutionary both in its creation of the trauma stewardship movement and the steps it takes toward connecting every individual who works to end suffering in the world.


Rachel Duvall

Rachel Duvall

Rachel Duvall is a social worker, Nia teacher, actor, and occasional low-flying trapeze artist. She works for the Joe Torre Safe At Home Foundation in a program called Margaret’s Place providing counseling and violence prevention education to high school students in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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