Awakin Calls » Laura van Dernoot Lipsky

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky: Author, nonprofit leader, healer
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Apr 6, 2019: Sustaining Ourselves Through Trauma and Overwhelm


Read: Call Transcript (Also: Nuggets From Laura van Dernoot Lipsky's Call)


Laura van Dernoot Lipsky is the founder and director of the Trauma Stewardship Institute. Widely recognized as a pioneer in the field of trauma exposure, she is author of Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others and of The Age of Overwhelm.  She has worked locally, nationally, and internationally for more than three decades.

Laura found her calling at age 18, when she regularly spent nights volunteering in a homeless shelter. She went on to work with survivors of child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, acute trauma of all kinds, and natural disasters. Simultaneously, she has long been active in community organizing and movements for social and environmental justice and has taught on issues surrounding systematic oppression and liberation theory.

A decade into her career, Laura experienced what can best be described as a near-psychotic break—which, she came to realize, resulted not necessarily from her own direct trauma, but from years of witnessing and being intimately involved in trauma while lacking insight into how to sustain herself amidst such conditions. As a part of her attempt to come back from the brink, she began a journey of inquiry into the lasting effects on both individuals and communities of exposure to the suffering, hardship, crisis, or trauma endured by humans, other living beings, or the planet itself.

“One of the most harmful things that can happen when we’re trying to work for social justice, environmental justice, social change or day in and day out trying to show up for others (whether it’s for your job, or whether you’re caring for someone at home) is that we get isolated,” Laura writes in a recent blog post.  “Even if there are many people at your home, even if you’re a community activist surrounded by other activists, you can still become isolated. You can be isolated in a crowd. And that isolation can also create a lot of harm.”

So she developed strategies for dealing with this pain and isolation, and began helping people through a trauma stewardship program she developed.  Her approach emphasizes the importance of addressing burnout from an understanding of the larger context of systemic oppression and inequality in which we function, and in “having a shared ethic of aspiring to do no harm; and that means working to dismantle systems of oppression throughout one’s community and in society.”

Laura continues her work with people in a diversity of careers and backgrounds, in a variety of trauma situations.  When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, she was there working with folks who led the reconstruction efforts, including those who work in zoos. As her departure approached, residents there asked her if she could leave with them some guidance in writing. Realizing a great lack of resources for anyone caught in the aftermath of a crisis, she published her wisdom in the book, Trauma Stewardship, in 2007.  A few years later, she revised the book to be relevant for the countless caregivers in homes and communities as well as for those doing frontline work in environmental and conservation movements around the world. Selling more than 140,000 copies, it has become a guidebook reaching audiences that Laura herself had not imagined.

She has worked worldwide with health care providers, school teachers, community organizers, and a multitude of organizations from the smallest non-profit to the largest of state and federal agencies such as the U.S. military, and in universities, major corporations, and more.  She has also assisted communities dealing with the aftermath of mass school shootings, and has even educated Hollywood about the possible consequences of replicating trauma in film.

In 2011, continuing to evolve her book’s concepts, Laura founded the Trauma Stewardship Institute, the focus of which is on “raising awareness of and responding to the cumulative toll on those who are exposed to the suffering, hardship, crisis, or trauma of humans, living beings, or the planet itself.”  As part of the Institute’s offerings, she educates through keynote speeches, experiential workshops, and by direct consultation.  In 2015, she delivered a TEDx Talk, “Beyond the Cliff,” from inside the Washington Corrections Center for Women, which currently has over 108,000 views.

Over time, and building on her work on trauma, Laura began to recognize that the sense of overwhelm familiar in the fields in which she was working was spreading—permeating society and visible in folks young and old, from all walks of life. She published The Age of Overwhelm (2018) about coping and surviving in a world faced with overwhelming challenges such as mass extinction from climate change.  The weight of the responsibility that many feel for the destruction of the environment and thousands of species can be devastating and debilitating to individuals and communities alike.  In her book, she addresses this phenomenon while offering strategies not only for navigating these turbulent waters, but also for how we may move forward with the integrity and perspective necessary to change the world for the better.

Laura founded and served as director of a Spanish-language preschool guided by a curriculum in social and environmental justice. She is on the advisory board of ZGiRLS, an organization that supports young girls in sports. She is a founding member of the International Transformational Resilience Network, which supports the development of capacity to address climate change. Laura also served as an associate producer of the award-winning film A Lot Like You, and was given a Yo! Mama award in recognition of her work as a community-activist mother.

Join us in conversation with an expert practitioner who holds much-needed perspective in this “age of overwhelm”!

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