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Literacies of Love: Trauma, Healing, and Pedagogical Shifts in an English Classroom

By Sharim Hannegan Martinez
Literacies of Love magazine cover

Excerpt of award-winning dissertation by Sharim Hannegan-Martinez, Ph.D., ’20, synthesizing existing research in the fields of public health, social epidemiology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, ethnic studies, and education to achieve a more robust understanding of trauma, its effects, and the under-theorized but agreed upon intervention to child trauma: loving relationships.

Excerpt from Introduction

It is my own journey through grief and trauma and healing that brought me to this dissertation, to teaching, to love. As a mixed-raced, working-class Latina who grew up on the highly militarized San Diego-Tijuana frontera, I experienced the corrosive impacts of structural and interpersonal oppression daily—in the amount of frijoles we had to eat, the varied and multiple assaults I survived, the migra we feared, the divorce of my parents, the loss of my friends to both death and the carceral state, the violence we both survived and participated in, and the schools we attended. This type of oppression is sometimes painfully ordinary, chipping away at us at the dinner table while we sit surrounded by our family and drunk tios. These moments, both mundane and monumental, are part of how I understand trauma, of why I chose—ran towards teaching.

As a teenager, the conditions that led to these layered and varied assaults seemed normal, and yet, I suffered from the shame and isolation that is endemic to trauma. As a result, I developed a slew of coping mechanisms to navigate the toxic stressors that continued to permeate my day-to-day. Since I was intent on being as far removed from perceived notions of victimhood as possible, instead I became defensive, loud, aggressive, hyper-vigilant, avoidant. My family and teachers could not see past my trauma responses, my survival shape (Haines, 2019), particularly the ones that pushed back on patriarchal notions of how women should be and act, and so to them, I became “mala,” bad (Hannegan-Martinez, 2018).

These defense mechanisms did little to defend me or my community from the monster that lay at bay and in our beds, so by the time I took ethnic studies courses and decided I wanted to be a teacher at the age of 18, the assaults had multiplied. That same year, I began working as a teacher apprentice at a high school in East Oakland under the mentorship of Jeff Duncan-Andrade and Patrick Camangian; there, I came head-to-head with the saliency of trauma as I saw the same coping mechanisms I had used to survive mirrored on the faces of the young people I taught. Every assault I had experienced felt similarly etched and inked on the bodies and desks and paper of our classroom. It was then that I dove head and heart first into the research on trauma. The introductory understanding around the inner and outer workings of trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) became paramount to my survival as a Woman of Color and foundational to my pedagogy as a teacher in an urban school. Below, I explain the pervasiveness of trauma, the need for love, and my research goals.

Trauma: A National Crisis

In 2016, when I began this project, the research showed that more than half of all U.S. children had experienced some kind of trauma in the form of abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances—and 35 percent of children had experienced more than one type of traumatic event (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016). These statistics correspond with the DSM-IV-TR (2000) definition of trauma:

An extreme traumatic stressor involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or another threat to one’s physical integrity; witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or threat to the physical integrity of another person or learning about unexpected violent death, serious harm, or threaten of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate.

Anzaldúa (1987) refers to these acute events as a susto, a trauma, where our relationship to the world is “irrevocably changed.” While alarmingly high, this data neglects to account for the ways in which social toxins such as racism, sexism, poverty, other forms of oppression, and subsequent microaggressions constitute forms of trauma (Coates, 2015; Haines, 2019; Leary, 2005; Williams & Mohammed, 2009), nor does it address the ways in which trauma can also be historical and intergenerational (Duran, 2006; Leary, 2005). While those statistics for trauma are high, it is likely that if we were to expand definitions of trauma to include factors of race, gender, class, sexuality, geography, and so forth, the trauma young people in general, and young People of Color specifically, experience is likely more pervasive than those statistics indicated. Most terrifying, however, is that while these statistics indicated there was already an urgency to study trauma, and situated it as one of the most significant socioemotional inequities facing Children of Color, these numbers are dated before a global pandemic and national uprisings, which have overnight uprooted the lives of children across the country.

As I am writing this, we are in the middle of a global pandemic. For months, those of us who are privileged enough to have a home have been quarantined inside of it. Over 20 million people have lost their jobs. Schools across the country have closed. As of today, more than 100,000 people in this country alone have passed away—most of whom have been Black and Brown people. The Navajo nation is the most impacted by the virus, and continues to be erased from the data. Everything has been on pause. Except death. Except poverty. Except White supremacy. We are still witnessing the sanctioned murder of Black people. The border continues to cage migrant, refugee children. Asian people have been on the receiving end of vitriol and violence. People go to grocery stores wearing their Ku Klux Klan (KKK) masks and cough in the faces of people whom they have long wished death upon. In prisons, COVID runs rampant and nobody bats an eye, or forms a tear. And as people continue to die, as people continue to lose the people that they love—others are fighting to go to restaurants and bars, to not have to wear the masks that could save their life or the life of another.

In the last few weeks alone, we have watched videos and heard stories of Black people being murdered in broad daylight (George Floyd), or in their home (Breonna Taylor). This is six years after Mike Brown was murdered, and 65 years after Emmet Till. The police—despite damning video evidence—have been met largely with impunity. The grief and indignation is palpable, visible in the uprisings that have begun to take root. Across the country, thousands of Black people and allies have taken to the streets—in the middle of a global pandemic—to demand justice, to demand the right to live, to breathe, to walk down the street, to exist. Together, these thousands of people wearing their masks have chanted, cried, danced, spray painted, marched, burned sage, and some have even taken to fire to make their point. These uprisings demand an end to police brutality and yet, they have been largely met with police brutality: with batons, tear gas, tazing, rubber bullets, and cars literally running over protesters. In Los Angeles, we have been placed on curfew and the sound of sirens, fireworks, and gunshots serve as a soundtrack to this dissertation.

This moment is a reckoning. An apocalypse. I hope it is the end of the world as we have known it, and though it is painful, it is also steeped with potential and possibility and hope to build a better world, one that is not predicated on the physical and social death of Black people and other oppressed peoples. However, it is important to note that in the process of that happening, we are individually and collectively experiencing a trauma(s). Understanding the collectivity of trauma does not mean we are all experiencing it as such, or similarly, or that we will all be traumatized after it is “done.” Still, in more ways than we can count or conceptualize, this moment is a trauma. A collective one. A historical one. A racialized one. Collective trauma accounts for when a susto happens to entire communities at the same time, when our world and our relationship to it is irrevocably changed by events like war, colonialism, a natural disaster, or in our current case—a global pandemic, and rampant racism. Saul (2013) understands this as our “shared injuries to a population’s social, cultural, and physical ecologies” (p. 2). These traumas, both individual and collective, do not occur in a social vacuum and are exacerbated by a systemic racialized trauma, which is the “repeated, ongoing violation, exploitation, dismissal of, and/or deprivation of groups of people. State institutions, economic systems, and social norms that systematically deny people access to safety, mobility, resources, food, education, dignity, positive reflections of themselves, and belonging” (Haines, 2019, p. 80). As will be explained in Chapter Two, when unmetabolized, these traumas have both short-term and long-term consequences on mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

Given these understandings of trauma and its effects—coupled with a global pandemic that has been grotesquely mismanaged in this country and the collective uprisings that have no end in sight—it is likely that when the institution of schooling reopens in this country, we will see the above statistics on child trauma catapult exponentially. In classrooms across the country, moreover, teachers will come face-to-face with the impacts of these trauma(s) in new and unprecedented numbers. If schools reopen too soon, as many are asking for, and we force children into classrooms filled with masks and plexiglass, terrified at the sound of sniffling, or we reopen without addressing the racialized trauma of this moment—then we must be ready to grapple with what has been a historical truth for Indigenous, Black, and Brown children: that schools can be, and are, sites of trauma. This requires an urgency to study, understand, and address trauma, to figure out how schools can, in spite of their histories, serve as places to help young people cope and heal from trauma. This is true for all children, but particularly so for those who are most vulnerable: Children of Color. We are at a crossroads, the decisions we make now will live in our bones and bodies and behaviors for generations to come.

Love as an Intervention to Trauma

The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love. (Perry, 2007, p. 30) Embedded in the research of trauma, are two salient but often glossed-over points which are the foundation of this dissertation. One, trauma is never a personal failing, it is something that happens to someone; it is neither a flaw nor weakness (Menakem, 2017). Second, healing from trauma cannot exist outside the container of loving relationships (Perry, 2007; Weller, 2015). In fact, research spanning the fields of public health, medicine, social epidemiology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, ethnic studies, and education are in agreement that one of the major interventions to child trauma is loving relationships (Duncan-Andrade, 2009; Ginwright, 2015; Perry, 2007; Siegel & Solomon, 2003; Van Der Kolk, 2014). Despite this widely agreed-upon intervention, love remains undertheorized, particularly in the field of education.

I have now been on a 10-year journey towards understanding and conceptualizing love. This journey began formally as an early career teacher, when I became consumed with the idea of love and developed a pedagogical framework entitled Compa Love, defined as “the political practice of meeting the tangible (physical), intellectual, and emotional needs of young people in hopes for both self and community actualization” (Hannegan-Martinez, 2019, p. 7). This became the cornerstone of my teaching, the living document I returned to on the days I came home crying and feeling like an utter failure. I taught hundreds, if not thousands of students operationalizing this framework. The success of this pedagogical praxis was evidenced when a cohort of 30 students whom I looped with for four years had a graduation rate of 97 percent at a school where the pushout rate still hovers above 40 percent. I indicted and scoffed at teachers who I believed weren’t loving. I did this until the end of my teaching career, when the compounded grief and frustration of working in schools that are at odds with our dignity and humanity became too much to bear. 

I have spent the last several years since leaving the classroom sharing this work and collaborating with teachers across the country as a coach, consultant, researcher, and organizer. My research and experiences across the country affirm that there is an imminent need to address trauma in the classroom, and that loving relationships are a promising but under-theorized and under-utilized method of doing so. As an example, in almost every school that I step foot onto, teachers tell me that they believe they have caring and loving relationships with their students. In every single one of those schools, I have conducted interviews and focus groups with Students of Color who have shared that they do not feel known or seen. They do not feel cared for, do not feel loved. It was in a hallway of one of those schools that I realized I had spent years asking the wrong question in my work: it isn’t a question of whether or not teachers believe that they love students, but rather whether teachers know how to engage in a practice of having healthy loving relationships with young people. As Thich Nhat Hanh offers us, “To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” I also realized that there was no way to learn how and what it means to love without actively engaging young people.

It is these lessons that served as the impetus to return to the students I taught every day for four years, to ask the questions I should have asked long ago. I return to them because research aside, it is because of their presence in my life that “today I believe in the possibility of love; why I endeavor to trace its imperfections, its perversions” (Fanon, 1952, p. 28). In this dissertation, I endeavor to understand how we conceptualize love, how we cultivated and practiced love in the day-to-day, how we grew and nurtured it. Because I am an English teacher, committed to all the rigors this discipline entails, I am also interested in unpacking how the curriculum facilitated love, what role our literacy practices and assignments played in shaping loving relationships. In turn, these commitments inform the research questions for this dissertation:

1) How do we [students and teacher] conceptualize love?

2) How was love embodied and made visible in the context of our English classroom?

3) What role did literacy play in shaping loving relationships to self, to peers, and to community?

To read the full dissertation online, please visit:

Sharim Hannegan-Martinez speaking on stage

Q&A with the author

UCLA: What was it that pushed you to UCLA pursue your Ph.D.?

SHM: I ended up at UCLA because so many of my mentors had gone through UCLA. They kept telling me that it was a school where I would be supported, where I would be challenged, where I would grow. I met Professor Danny Solarzano, and I went to his Research Apprenticeship Course (RAC) and I walked out and I was like, "Yes, I accept I'm coming. This is where I need to be. This is who I need to build a community with.” It was such a powerful and unique space. One which I haven't seen recreated anywhere in the way that you experience it there. And I just knew, right then, that Danny was going to challenge me, to help me grow and to really protect me.

UCLA: Can you tell me a little more the impact Danny Solarzano’s RAC has on your experience?

SHM: For most people, a RAC is a place where their advisees, and sometimes students, whose dissertation they're on will come together and share a paper, share a project, share an idea, and get some feedback to advance their work. Most RACs are typically pretty small and pretty reserved. Danny's RAC is different, it is always open. And when I say open, I mean like open, right? It's his current students, his alumni, his students who are just taking his courses, his student's students, it is high school students, it is my mom if I want to bring her, it is my baby if I need to bring them, it is right in every sense, right, it is community. And anybody can share their work. If my mom wants to come and share, like my mom could come, just be like, "I'm good thinking through this thing." And everybody's going to engage her and love on her and give her really powerful feedback and support her and give her resources to move her work forward. And so, it is a space that feels in your body very different than any other space at UCLA. And probably any other space that I've experienced in schools really.

UCLA: What did that mean to you in the process of getting through? Was it a network of support? Is it love?

SHM: It is absolutely a model of what love in the academy can look like. How to create a space where folks are deeply seen, appreciated, respected, challenged, cared for, with deep levels of integrity. And for me, what that space did is it made me feel less alone when I would feel the most disconnected. It would remind me why the work that I was doing was important and valuable. It sharpens the intellectual acumen in my work. And it helped me to just be fully seen and allowed me to move through the academy feeling like I wasn't alone. I could do it on my terms.

I think there's this professionalization that happens in the academy that's rooted in really white supremacists, classist ideals. You have to look a particular way and you have to talk a particular way. Otherwise, you're not professional. You're not intellectual enough. And what Danny's RAC allowed me was this space to be like. "I don't do any of that." I talk with my hands, I curse, I yell, I'm loud. I show up with all my chains and hoops and that's okay. And it helped me feel like if I go into other spaces and they don't respect that, then that's just not my space. But I have my space where I can show up and still be seen as an intellectual, even when I show up as my full self with all my Latina working class sensibilities.

I was able to build a really critical community of scholars of color who were interested in having very important conversations, but not just conversations, but who were also in community doing the work with families with young people. And I think for me, they're probably the part of UCLA that was the most important for me. But I also was well mentored by Tyrone Howard and other professors there who were deeply pushing and challenging me and supporting me and thinking about this work. And thinking about what... not only what it would mean to talk about love, but what it would mean to then make that tangible to teachers.

Sharim Hannegan-Martinez, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education at University of Kentucky. Her dissertation was recognized by the Ford Foundation’s predoctoral and dissertation year fellowships, and was awarded ‘dissertation of the year’ by American Educational Research Associations’ Division G: Social Contexts in Education.