Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities across the United States have endured significant loss, adapted to new challenges, and navigated painful iterations of injustice, affecting both personal and collective vitality. Access to care, connection, and resources during these times of crisis has been compromised for many and yet the need for healing in community continues to grow. Recognizing these needs, the SEAD Project teamed up with the Minnesota Humanities Center this year to offer “The Art of Healing and Resilience Through Permaculture” workshops in the twin cities. This four-week interactive learning series explores the humanities—cultural food ways, heritage, histories, art, and storytelling—to help communities heal and transform.  

Founded in 2011, The SEAD Project (Southeast Asian Diaspora) is a community organization based in Minneapolis, Minnesota “on a mission to be an accessible creative hub that provides streamlined workshops and tools to engage and share knowledge in Khmer, Hmong, Lao and Viet diaspora communities.” In the neighboring “twin” city of St. Paul, the Minnesota Humanities Center has been collaborating with individuals, organizations, and communities “to bring transformational programming to the lives of Minnesotans” since 1971. 

“The Art of Healing and Resilience” workshop was co-created by the SEAD Project, Hindolo Pokawa of Midwest Farmers of Color, and Southeast Asian community healers and is rooted in permaculture, “a philosophy that integrates land, resources, people, culture, and the environment through mutually beneficial synergies—imitating systems in nature.” Beginning in May 2022, workshop participants explored a variety of cross-cultural frameworks for healing through personal storytelling, planting, reflection, and community meal sharing.  

Photo Credit: Joy Nguyen; Minnesota Humanities Center; "The Art of Healing and Resilience Through Permaculture"
Photo Credit: Joy Nguyen; Minnesota Humanities Center; “The Art of Healing and Resilience Through Permaculture”

So, what is “resilience and how is “healing” an art form?”

“Resilience is an ability to take care of yourself and others,” says Jess Eckerstorfer, Co-Director of Programs & Communications at the SEAD Project and facilitator of the Art of Healing workshop. “People often talk about thriving and success, and that’s a capitalist idea. Resilience and success means being content in your own life, with oneself, and your own choices.” In this sense, cultivating resilience is a commitment that involves interconnection, creativity, and healing practices. “The process [of healing] can be beautiful, like practicing an art form. Finding what makes you happy, fulfilled, and whole is beautiful.”  

Creating a spacious container for both grief and trauma as well as joy and happiness was central to the workshop’s curriculum. During one group exercise, participants were asked to reflect on the various joys and hardships they experienced over the last two years. Dating back to March 13, 2020 when the U.S. first declared a National State of Emergency due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and implemented its “shelter in place” restrictions, participants wrote, cut, and pasted personal memories to a giant wall map (timeline) of major national events such as the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department, the 2020 elections, the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol, the COVID-19 vaccination roll out, the introduction of new COVID variants, and multiple mass shootings. Each individual’s memories of joy were then strung together by pieces of yarn across the map, symbolizing connection, healing, and resilience and bridging gaps between personal and collective experiences. 

Photo Credit: Joy Nguyen; Minnesota Humanities Center; "The Art of Healing and Resilience Through Permaculture"
Photo Credit: Joy Nguyen; Minnesota Humanities Center; “The Art of Healing and Resilience Through Permaculture”

“Healing, like anything, takes practice. Returning to the idea of capitalism, we are told again and again to keep going, keep producing, keep ‘contributing to society,’ whatever that means,” Eckerstorfer explains. “In reality though, we all need to stop and take serious breaks to heal, and that takes practice. It takes practice for us to say no to people, to say we need help, and that we need a break.”  

Taking breaks to recharge and reconnect was integral to the learning series as each session included a community meal time. “Having a meal together is crucial to each of our workshops,” says Eckerstorfer. “Not only does it allow for comradery and reflection, but allows us to experience new things. New foods, new people, new conversations – all of this is meant to heal us.” All meals for the program were made by local Southeast Asian and Central American restaurants. “These are our community members, bringing their cultural heritage to the artform of cooking, which then feeds and supports others. By purchasing from these restaurants, we are adding to the social ecosystem, ensuring their sustainability.” 

Photo Credit: Joy Nguyen; Minnesota Humanities Center; "The Art of Healing and Resilience Through Permaculture"
Photo Credit: Joy Nguyen; Minnesota Humanities Center; “The Art of Healing and Resilience Through Permaculture”

As Eckerstorfer describes, “Food is care. It is a love language and an entryway into other cultures.” Building upon this philosophy, she elaborates on how permaculture and Southeast Asian practices support healing and resilience on personal, interpersonal, and collective levels: 

Access to food is a human right. Immigrant communities in the United States, regardless of the decade, are often met with hardship, racism, and unfair opportunities within the societal structure. Cultural practices, like agriculture, allow for these communities to bring their heritage to the forefront of their self-care. Through agricultural practices, they’re able to create their own income, provide food for their families and neighbors, and grow plants native to their home countries. This level of growing may seem basic, but it is these types of practices that allow communities to thrive, while also preserving cultural traditions.”  

Drawing from this framework, participants planted fresh herbs in a community garden plot and started marigold seeds, a flower that is significant in Asian cultures, to take home and tend. They also created pollinator “seed bombs” to transmute harm and difficult emotions related to distressing experiences. 

Through these practices, the workshop explored principles of transformative justice (TJ), a framework for dealing with harm that involves responding to individual and community care needs instead of responding with more harm, punishment, or violence. As described in the workshop curriculum, the goals of TJ include:

  1. Safety, healing, and agency for survivors of harm
  2. Accountability and transformation for people who cause harm
  3. Community action, healing, and accountability
  4. Transformation of the social conditions that perpetuate violence, systems of oppression, exploitation, and dominance  

Before planting, workshop participants reflected on their personal experiences, body sensations, and emotional reactions to witnessing (or enduring) unjust and harmful events in their pasts. They were then asked to describe what they wished to have received or witnessed instead of injustice in those moments. Finally, individuals wrote out three care wishes for the people (or institutions) who caused the harm and shared aloud with the group.  

“Storytelling is a gateway for empathy. By listening to others’ stories and learning of their experiences, we can learn perspectives and histories outside of our own,” explains Eckerstorfer, who facilitated the exercise and conversation-sharing circle. “This type of learning builds community, where we can understand that the system doesn’t support all of us but we can be allies and advocate for one another. [It] allows us to put our traumas into perspective with others, and recognize struggles across identity barriers.”  

In many ways, the past two years have shed light on the fragility of our systems and laid bare the long-standing social inequities that are deeply-rooted and deeply-felt across America. Processing cumulative loss and compounding trauma at such large-scales is hard on human bodies, minds, spirits, families, and communities. Healing from harmful events requires time, attention, care, and connection. “The Art of Healing and Resilience Through Permaculture” workshop series supported these needs by creating space, held by an all-inclusive container, for this crucial healing work. By listening, witnessing, and recognizing ourselves in each other, community members are able to respond to crises and navigate change in less harmful and more sustainable, resilient ways.  

“Being able to move through traumatic experiences is different and difficult for everyone,” says Eckerstorfer. “But if you’re able to come back to what makes you happy, without harming others, then you have made it.”

Read the full-length interview with Jess Eckerstorfer and Follow the SEAD Project on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Check out the Minnesota Humanities Center on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Written by: Jazzy DiMeglio