“I started hearing concerns like, ‘I lost my husband, they disappeared him, how do I manage this pain and sadness?’ I learned that there were other approaches that weren’t therapy but psychosocial processes that respected people’s cultures, like when you work on resilience and you construct a common history, you also construct links in the process that give you a support network. You start to see collectively, we have all suffered. Together we all want to change, we all want to leave behind sadness and to live – not to forget, because that will never happen, we will always remember those who we’ve lost – but we’ll move ahead and carry our story on our back, and we know that we’re not alone.”
She’s lived Colombia’s political violence. She’s a clinical psychologist. A support-builder for other women affected by it. But most of all, Stella Duque, director of Taller de Vida, thinks of herself as someone who makes change possible – “a transformer,” she says.
Taller de Vida – Workshop of Life – is an organization that carries out psychosocial development with victims of Colombia’s armed conflict through art and creativity—“so that children, women, families and communities have the resources and capacities that allow them to confront the impact of socio-political violence,” says Stella. “That’s Taller de Vida.”
“Aren’t you scared?” Stella had asked her father one day as a teen. The violence of right-wing paramilitary groups was sweeping across northern Colombia, making victims of people like her father – a teacher and unionist – who were pushing for change. Young people around her were being murdered or disappeared. “No,” her father answered, “because I have children who have the capacity to keep fighting if I go.”
Not long after this conversation, in 1988, Stella’s father was assassinated by the paramilitary. He wouldn’t have wanted her to just stand there with her “arms crossed,” says Stella. So she returned to Bogotá where she had been living, and, while studying psychology at university, Stella started working with women who were forcibly displaced by violence.
“I want to talk not just about pain, but about how do we not stay with that pain?” Stella thought at the time. “How do we recuperate emotionally, how do we not turn into an anonymous mass, how do we become active citizens and make demands and transform violence?” Stella, along with her sister and a small group of other women, created Taller de Vida as an answer to these questions.
Stella started seeing the transformative power of painting, theatre and dance to drive psychosocial processes – they became vehicles for victims of the conflict to confront the harsh experiences they carried with them, and make a path towards a different future.
In mixing art and creativity with psychology, Taller de Vida developed processes that became a potent method for “reinventing life,” Stella says.
Today, over twenty years later, Taller de Vida works with women who have been displaced by violence; with children, their families and schools to prevent recruitment of youth by armed groups; with youth who were part of the guerrilla or paramilitary; and, with girls who have experienced sexual violence within the armed conflict.
Stella can now easily spot survivors of sexual violence. They often speak barely above a whisper and hold their bodies as if they’re about to fall apart. Stella builds an environment of trust so that one day they’ll feel ready to talk about, and start overcoming, their experience.
The when and how of transformation varies for different people.
There was that chico, that young kid Stella’s colleagues kept welcoming back who used to be in the paramilitary and would never say a word. He looked like he couldn’t bear being in his own skin, until the day he broke through his armor and started to cry. It was the day he needed to break down to begin re-building himself.
Stella has also seen that woman who has fled the countryside to Bogotá with her five kids, but can’t get out of bed because the weight of her husband’s murder keeps her down, and has accompanied her until she gets up. “If you get up on your feet, what you do is deny that person who has been violent, the perpetrator, the right to triumph over you,” says Stella. This is when justice happens, she adds—“because you dare to make demands and to rise up. I believe in that.”
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