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Triumph of the Spirit: Thema Bryant-Davis Empowers Survivors to Overcome Trauma
A young girl waits with dry eyes for a social worker when she realizes her mom will never come. Another captures her stepfather’s abuse on her karaoke machine to prove the horror to her doubting mother. Such are the types of stories shared by patients of psychologist Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis. In her capable hands, however, the focus is not trauma but recovery.
As a new member of the faculty at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology, Bryant-Davis brings to Pepperdine her acclaimed expertise in the cultural context of trauma recovery, an area that has seized her attention since her youth.
Bryant-Davis had just completed her freshman year of high school when her family moved across the world from Baltimore, Maryland, to Liberia. Her father, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, was assigned to oversee the churches in West Africa. “As a child of African descent it was very powerful to go to Africa,” she recalls. “So many of the images of Africa in the United States are negative, but there you see the richness of the community.” The experience deeply affected her during the formative years of adolescence. “People say you can be anyone you want to be. To go somewhere where everyone in a position of authority looks like you is really empowering.”
When the country descended into civil war, the family was evacuated. Bryant-Davis witnessed as tragedy struck friends and neighbors, and noticed how few therapists were there to help. She remembered too how few people had utilized therapy during her childhood in Baltimore, where individuals faced community and family violence. “The experience of growing up in an inner-city community and living in pre-war Liberia got me thinking about trauma. If we’re not using therapy, what are people doing to heal?”
From this perspective emerged Bryant Davis’s research in trauma recovery, particularly among ethnic minorities. Her work considers the multiple components of a person’s identity—including race, gender, migration status, disability, sexual orientation, religion, and age—as essential and defining elements in how he or she makes sense of tragedy. Her book, Thriving in the Wake of Trauma: A Multicultural Guide (Praeger 2005), was one of the first studies on trauma to consider all these facets of identities on the road to recovery.
In communities where therapy still carries a stigma, Bryant-Davis explores alternate forms of healing, like social and community support, spirituality, and religion. Some people read holy or inspirational texts; other undergo faith-based counseling at their churches. Still more turn to activism. “When you feel powerless,” Bryant-Davis notes, “to be able to work for policy issues and prevention is important. You can help reduce the risk of it happening to someone else.”
When the trauma is unspeakable, some find comfort in the arts, such as drawing, poetry, singing, and dancing. As a teen Bryant-Davis honed her skills as a dancer and a poet at the Baltimore High School for the Arts. Today she uses her movement and slam poetry to create therapeutic environments in which people feel comfortable. Heavily involved in slam poetry in her former homes on the East Coast, Bryant-Davis has incorporated new poems as well as her published works into community outreach programs in Southern California.
“If you just sit in your office, you’ll only get one kind of client,” she says of her counseling work. “Reaching out to the community brings a whole new group of people to my office.” In addition to her teaching responsibilities at Pepperdine, Bryant-Davis runs a private practice in South Central Los Angeles, where she specializes in trauma survival for individual, group, and family therapy. She leads workshops for schools, churches, juvenile detention centers, and prisons; regular topics include healthy relationships, self esteem, and the expressive arts. A longtime counselor and advocate for rape crisis centers, Bryant-Davis conducts one-on-one training for doctors, nurses, police officers, and judges who interact with sexual assault survivors. She emphasizes the cultural factors that shape how victims present trauma symptoms, and advises the responders on self-care in the face of others’ sorrow.
In contrast to many of her counseling responsibilities, Bryant-Davis sees teaching as an opportunity to act before tragedy strikes. “If I work only in the aftermath of trauma, only after it happens, I will get burnt out. This work can be very upsetting, but interacting with students—people in this profession who have such compassion and heart—gives me hope.” Through her students, professional affiliations, and research projects, Bryant-Davis can focus on policy and prevention.
Recently awarded a secondary analysis grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Bryant-Davis will keep this focus in mind as she undertakes a large research project this year in association with the Fragile Families Project. The multi-city project will examine domestic violence in the African American community, including risk factors, post-trauma symptoms, substance abuse, and protective strategies. With extensive data collection across several locations, the study aims to determine what factors influence occurrence of and recovery from domestic violence.
While many grants of this kind only fund publication in a scholarly journal, Bryant-Davis has been given additional funding for a brochure to be made available to grassroots organizations. The brochure will make recommendations about how to detect domestic violence, remove abused family members from dangerous situations, and facilitate their recovery in new, safe environments. “We can show people who encounter this everyday what to do, what resources are available, and what ways they can specifically serve their community.”
This latest accomplishment follows years of Bryant-Davis’s dedication to her academic and professional development. After earning her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in psychology from Duke University, she completed a post-doctoral year at Harvard, where she counseled and conducted research. During that year the American Psychological Association first received its non-governmental (NGO) status at the United Nations (UN), and sought volunteer representatives to advocate for mental health issues at the UN. Bryant-Davis applied and was accepted as the youngest of six representatives on this committee. She took the position of director of Princeton University's sexual violence prevention and intervention program to permit her regular commute into Manhattan. Her first day of work was September 12, 2001.
During her time in New York, Bryant-Davis met her husband Kwesi Davis, then a graduate student in film at New York University. The couple moved to California three years ago when Kwesi was offered a job at Dreamworks Animation; they now have a young daughter, age 2. Bryant-Davis co-leads the women’s ministry at the First AME Church in South Central Los Angeles. From her new home she also serves as chair of the APA’s Committee on International Relations and Psychology, which oversees UN representatives.
In recognition of her service to women and advocacy, this summer the APA’s Committee on Women in Psychology (CWP) honored Bryant-Davis with the Emerging Leader for Women in Psychology award. She was notably selected for her scholarship addressing sexual violence against women, particularly of ethnic minorities. She expresses gratitude for her colleagues for their hand in the award: “I have been blessed and honored by a number of women psychologists who are pioneers in their field. They have taken me under their wings and mentored me in a number of ways.”
For all her attention to trauma, Bryant-Davis keeps her outlook hopeful and her eye on survival. Past visits to Liberia have reminded her to look beyond the physical. “When we first got there we saw a lot of physical destruction: bombed, abandoned buildings and bullet-ridden homes. Squatters inhabited our old home. But the people had so much hope and joy, so much strength from what they had witnessed and survived.”
It’s a rebirth she observes in her patients as well. In a poem Bryant-Davis captures the resilience of a nine year old patient whom she calls Sky: “The Sky is crying/but I know she won’t cry herself away because she says if she had to be an animal she’d be a werewolf so she could bite.” Bryant-Davis celebrates that soon Sky will be a rainbow.
“Sometimes,” she says, “as adults we look back and have things we wish we’d done or said. But instead we should honor the ways we survived.”
by Megan Huard