Local Arts

Can you ‘choreograph’ care? This artist says yes, and Charlotte is trying it

Artist Jody Wood wants to help social workers who face secondary trauma, sometimes called compassion fatigue.

“Secondary trauma is this idea that if you’re caring for someone who is suffering, just through that act of caring, you’re absorbing some of their suffering also,” Wood said. “You have to find a way to metabolize that.”

Artist Jody Wood at the McColl Center in November. Vanessa Infanzon

Wood, who’s based in Brooklyn, developed “Choreographing Care” during her residency at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation last year. It’s a workshop series for staff who work with people who are homeless at the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and the Urban Ministry Center. Wood’s intention was to “carve out time and space to process secondary trauma.”

In 2013, Wood created “Beauty in Transition” for an exhibition called “Not Exactly” in Denver. She transformed a truck into a mobile salon providing a free hair wash, cut, color and style to people who were homeless in several cities across the country. The project gained national attention.

“Choreographing Care,” developed by Jody Wood in a McColl Center residency, has social workers use vocalization, music, body work and/or theater exercises to promote self-care techniques. Video still by Basic Cable

Each Choreographing Care workshop uses vocalization, music, body work and/or theater to promote self-care. Heather Bartlett, the therapeutic art coordinator at the Urban Ministry Center, participated in the initial workshops. In one session, a vocal-wellness coach led the social workers through warm-up exercises to release tension. Often, voices get set in a tone of high-pitched urgency. Bartlett learned how the tone of her voice is connected to her self-care and how she may be perceived by others. “If I’m not practicing self-care, my clients can sense it,” Bartlett said. “I’m not as present in my own body, and therefore less present for the client. That can manifest itself in many forms: distance and quick, less empathetic responses, and even frustration in times of crisis.”

Wood applied experimental theater exercises such as imaging theater and forum theater from Brazilian director and activist Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. In one exercise, Wood asked a small group to use a real example of an unresolved tension to create a silent “still sculpture” with their bodies. The sculpture represented the feelings associated with the tension. During the processing portion of the exercise, the whole group made observations about what they saw. They could then add words, or make new “sculptures” for ideal and transitional images.

“It’s really effective in getting people to physically embody a situation that is hard to talk about in words,” Wood said. “It’s not about how to make every situation ideal and perfect and happy.

“It’s really about what the transitional image is that’s going from what happened to what you’d like to happen.

“That’s always a dynamic moment because it shows what actions people need to take to make a small change in their situation.”

Urban Ministry Center and Men’s Shelter of Charlotte caregivers take part in Jody Wood’s “Choreographing Care” workshop at the McColl Center. Video still by Basic Cable

The Men’s Shelter’s executive director, Liz Clasen-Kelly, and her staff were part of these first workshops. “I think there was a certain nervousness to participate because it pushes people to participate outside their comfort zone,” Clasen-Kelly said.

“For those who participated, they would describe it as fun and weird. They had an appreciation for the impact it had on their life. It’s effective – in a fun and weird way.”

Clasen-Kelly said she understands the need for her staff to be compassionate every day, and realizes that expecting her staff to practice self-care on their own, only outside of the workplace, is putting too much responsibility on them. She said she wants to give her staff the tools and opportunities to feel validated, express emotions and acknowledge the work they do.

This fall, the Men’s Shelter offered two Choreographing Care workshops on-site for the staff. They plan to continue these workshops this year.

April Hood has been an employment specialist at the Men’s Shelter for almost two years. Although Hood had been practicing guided meditation and breathing exercises at home, Choreographing Care gave her the permission she needed to do these things in her office, she said.

“We are always on the go. There’s always someone to help. Sometimes we don’t stop and think, ‘I need help right now. I can’t help this person unless I help myself.’

“Because we are so selfless, we forget about self-care.”

Hood and another staff member at the shelter are coordinating the workshops. In November, Meg Johnson, a music therapist from Queens University of Charlotte, used drumming and songwriting to connect self-expression to self-care. In December, the staff learned how to practice yoga while sitting in their chairs.

The foundation Wood built helps staff examine emotions and develop personal awareness and intentions.

“This is every day, 365 days a year,” Liz Clasen-Kelly said. “This is hard work. We have to be able to work through these emotions if we’re going to keep coming back day after day.”

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte. Sign up here for the free e-newsletter “Inside Charlotte Arts.”