Warm greetings to you. My name is Cleis Abeni (Upāsikā tree turtle).
Affirmations are positive expressions that consciously uplift people.
Affirmations are VERBS.
They are actions that we do and/or say to uplift ourselves and others.
On this web-page, I share 25 affirmations that have grounded my work over the last 30-plus years. Every engagement within a community; every curriculum and lesson plan that I have designed; no matter the connection, I always infuse my relationships with these affirmations.
These 25 affirmations have been a mainstay in my work at schools, community centers, recreation centers, hospitals, and incarceration facilities.
While I work with a range of populations, I have specialized in offering educational services to trauma-impacted, low-income predominately Black, Brown, Indigenous, and immigrant youth, adults, and families in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.
My work with multiply marginalized communities-of-color within the greater Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area continues to yield powerful evidence for the efficacy of these affirmations. When deployed systematically, these affirmations become a wellspring for peace and wellness. They help people choose nonviolence, build supportive relations, and feel empowered.
These 25 affirmations may be familiar to you. When we are at our most supportive, we often engage them. Yet, we do not often approach the engagement of these affirmations as a purposeful system to advance salutogenic healthcare and education.
A salutogenic approach understands community members to be the best assets in the elevation of their own well-being. Rather than only focusing on the factors that determine ill health or adverse behavior (or pathogenesis), salutogenesis elevates the elements that create good health and beneficial behavior.
These 25 affirmations are not like the sometimes cursory or superficial mantras written on Internet memes or greeting cards.. Instead, they are deep, systematic strategies for self-care and community-care.
These strategies are acts of presilience and resilience, two concepts that I first defined in a talk that I gave in the summer of 1988 at Francis L. Cardozo High School.
Presilience as the everyday work of caretaking and peacemaking that helps us create wellness for ourselves and others. Presilience builds caring and peaceful communities and prevents ill health and violence. Presilience is important because we shouldn't always have to be resilient, forever bouncing back from adversity. We should lead affirmative lives that forestall hurt, chaos, and trauma.
Concomitantly, resilience is the intervention that we undertake in moments of trauma, stress, disadvantage, mistakes, and crisis to gain renewed presilience (or restored caretaking and peacemaking).
These affirmations owe much to the research of Dr. Claude Steele and my one-on-one discussions with Dr. Amos N. Wilson. I discuss these scholars' work and other influences below after I present the 25 affirmations.
Often we classify these affirmations shallowly as "manners" of elite, wealthy people. In turn, "elites" do not always deploy these strategies outside of their closed communities.
What if these affirmations were valued and practiced regardless of our cultural and economic differences as fundamental, everyday experiences of humanistic and humanitarian engagement?
If such a world were possible (and I believe it is), then we would all learn to depend on each other to feel good and be great.
These affirmations benefit us in key ways:
These strategies also help us build and model the following essential experiences:
My formulations of these 25 affirmations are informed by scientific investigations concerning Self-Affirmation, Stereotype Threat, Positive Psychology, and Black Psychology.
In the late 1980s, Dr. Claude Steele, an African American psychologist, began theorizing ways to combat stereotype threat. Stereotype threat refers to a condition in which people begin to unwittingly believe damaging characterizations about themselves. Their dis-affirming beliefs then lead to adverse behavior.
To combat stereotype threat, Dr. Steele devised experiments in which his research team offered affirmations to groups of people who were enduring these threats. Before a math test, his team told a group of women who were routinely told that they were not good at Math, that they would do just as well on the test as men. This affirmative encouragement helped the women perform just as well on the math test on average as the men.
"The Psychology of Self-Affirmation" is an early article that documents Dr. Steele's groundbreaking research on affirmation and stereotype threat.
Click here for an excerpt from a documentary video produced by Facing History that overviews Dr. Steele's research.
Dr. Martin Seligman is an innovator of the Positive Psychology movement. In his seminal book, Learned Helplessness, he mapped out the ways that people suffering from depression and adverse experiences inculcate a sense of helplessness that creates increased maladjustment. His subsequent books like Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life and Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being demonstrate the ways that positive valuation and expression mitigate helplessness.
Dwayne Allen Thomas, an African American attorney, researcher, and student of Dr. Seligman, furthered this research in Positive Psychology with Black law students and documented his investigation in "Channeling the River: Using Positive Psychology to Prevent Cultural Helplessness, as Applied to African-American Law Students."
Recently, Aaron Bethea's article entitled "Black Psychology: A Forerunner of Positive Psychology" posits that culturally responsive, consciously positive psychological interventions specifically geared to African Americans are forerunners to the Positive Psychology movement.
These 25 affirmations bring together the intensive focus on positive mind-body health developed by a network of Black teachers, artists, and social service providers in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area that mentored me from the 1970s and 80s until their deaths. In particular, I refer to the following professionals:
In their work with disadvantaged Black and Brown youth and adults, this network was dedicated to advancing "whole person" values that integrate good mental, physical, and spiritual health. They continually argued that whole person values (or holistic values) aren't "soft" or shallow. They are systematic, deep, and highly structured.
This network had a very particular understanding of the meaning of the term "spiritual" that was a response to the schools and institutional environments within which they worked where religious proselytizing was forbidden. For them, "spiritual" refers to humanistic and humanitarian understandings drawn from metaphysical naturalism, an approach that posits that we know how to better ourselves from evidence found in nature—including the everyday habits of human beings. For me, "spiritual" also refers to ancient wisdom education.
The teachers, artists, and social service providers in this network believed that every person that we teach or engage represents a different case that occasions affirmation. Therefore, affirmations are tools of case management. For this network, "case management" merges practices from education and social service.
My late friend Brenda Strong Nixon was both an educator and a social worker. She was the executive director of a still active nonprofit organization called Associates for Renewal in Education, Inc. and one of the founders of the Consortium for Youth Services and Consortium for Child Welfare.
Brenda blended these often siloed practices because she believed that the division of education and social service disadvantaged the children, youth, and families. Rather than relegating social service to "mindful hour," a "resource period," a nurse's office visit, or a counseling session, she and I believed and believe that everyone invested in uplifting people ought to be trained to practice affirmative approaches all the time.
This network also believed that these educational engagement strategies must go hand-in-hand with systemic changes made by our governmental and institutional leaders. Systemic changes undo harmful policies and laws, increase investment and resources, and address unjust environmental, infrastructural, and ecological situations. Systemic changes make achieving true, longterm affirmation possible for marginalized people.
Cascio, Christopher N. et al. 2016. “Self-Affirmation Activates Brain Systems Associated with Self-Related Processing and Reward and is Reinforced by Future Orientation.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 11, no. 4 (November): 621-629.
Falk, Emily B. et al. 2015. “Self-Affirmation Alters the Brain’s Response to Health Messages and Subsequent Behavior Change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) 112, no. 7 (February): 1977-1982.
Sherman, David K. 2009. “Psychological Vulnerability and Stress: The Effects of Self-Affirmation on Sympathetic Nervous System Responses to Naturalistic Stressors.” Health Psychology. 28, no. 5 (September): 554-62.
Nicholas Burnett and Margaret Thorsborne, Restorative Practice and Special Needs: A Practical Guide to Working Restoratively with Young People (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2015).
Vernon Kelly and Margaret Thorsborne, The Psychology of Emotion in Restorative Practice: How Affect Script Psychology Explains How and Why Restorative Practice Works (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2014).
Bob Costello et al., The Restorative Practices Handbook for Teachers, Disciplinarians and Administrators (Bethlehem: International Institute for Restorative Practice, 2013).
Cleis Abeni (Upāsikā tree turtle), "Affirmation: Strategies and Sources," https://treeturtle.com/affirmation
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