Michael O’Bryan helps people to find sanctuary in art

Sanctuary is a place of refuge or safety. In urban neighborhoods all throughout America, sanctuary is a luxury almost beyond attainment. But Michael O’Bryan is working to bring that sense of sanctuary to the North Philadelphia community of Strawberry Mansion.

The Sanctuary Model originated in Philadelphia in the early 1980s. It promotes safety and recovery from adversity through the active creation of a trauma-informed community. Crucial to this program is the understanding that trauma is a pervasive element of life for city residents, and trauma cycles become vicious cycles that perpetuate violence within trauma-impacted communities.

O’Bryan works as a Sanctuary Coordinator for the Trauma Informed Care Initiative, a program of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Eastern Pennsylvania District in partnership with the Sanctuary Institute, the leading trauma care and capacity-building training institute in the country.

He was brought on board because of his experience with the Sanctuary Model. He worked at the Salvation Army Red Shield Family Residence for seven years, the first shelter in Pennsylvania that adopted the Sanctuary Model. As the Youth Service Coordinator he instituted and oversaw the development of the organization’s Youth Services Department, including after-school services, trauma-informed arts enrichment programming, and psycho-education. Prior to that role he served as an after-school program coordinator and mentor of after-school care.

O’Bryan actually started out as an artist. He still is, and he harnesses the healing power of the arts to address social issues runs through arts-related programming for a variety of different nonprofit organizations.

He currently serves as a vocal instructor for the New Freedom Theatre, which he has done for the past seven years, and is also the program manager of Youth Arts Education at the Village of Arts and Humanities, an organization dedicated to community revitalization through the arts.

As a teenager he attended the Performing Arts Greater Hartford Academy of Arts in Hartford, Connecticut, “before I ever knew what social practice arts meant and what it stood for,” he says. “A lot of my teachers had a lens that lent itself to talk about social justice and social equity.”

He was part of a theatre troupe of teenaged actors called Looking in Theatre that performed pieces that focused on social issues, hitting on any and all issues that were important to teens: bullying, interracial dating, dating violence, eating disorders, parental neglect, suicide, and coping with alcoholic parents, to name a few.

“We would go out and perform for anyone who would watch, and would do talk backs in character throughout show and then as ourselves at the end of it. We knew people were responding and engaging and dialoguing about it.”

But high school is high school, and O’Bryan knew he had to figure out what the work meant to him as an adult.

He attended the University of Arts in Philadelphia where he says he had a great time performing and gigging but nothing was really community-centered. At the end of his senior year he was down in Miami Dade County working as an arts and youth development consultant with enFAMiLIA Inc. in Homestead, Florida, working with Latino migrant farmer families and students teaching summer camp for middle and high school students.

“It was very social justice-centered without bearing that into the kids,” he says. “They were just having fun, but the program lent itself to that lens of social equity and helping them find that voice that was on the inside that might have been silenced, particularly on issues of immigration and migrant status and blended families. That was a huge thing for me for exploitation and lies about immigration and labor branding, that all those immigrants are ‘sucking up taxes,’ blah blah. That was my first community immersive social equity in the arts engagement.”

This experience, coming right out of school, had a profound impact on him. There was no turning back from there. After that, he worked at the Family Residence for seven years while still teaching arts, performing as a musician, and doing some consultant work.

“I was able to marry my love of arts and social justice,” he says. “My mentor would always say, ‘You were always a social worker; you just didn’t know what that formally meant.”

His work as a social worker dovetailed beautifully with his work within the arts because “the arts are so healing on so many levels.”

Even before his current role with the Trauma Informed Care Initiative, O’Bryan has worked extensively around the intersections of art for youth, health and wellness, and community development.

He was also the Community Activities Coordinator of Valley Youth House’sAchieving Independence Center, a communal space serving, educating, and empowering youth in dependent care; and a music instructor withEducationWorks, a nonprofit that provides support for economically disadvantaged communities in Philadelphia.

O’Bryan was also the Project Facilitator of Philadelphia Ceasefire in 2013, a project done with Philadelphia Youth Network’s high school interns in the 22nd police district of Philadelphia, where he conceptualized and implemented an arts-based public health summer project centered on violence.

More recently, in 2014, O’Bryan was the lead artist of Journey2Home, a program of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program in which he facilitated social emotional learning and psycho-education workshop series with re-entry youth and youth experiencing homelessness working as summer interns.

Addressing trauma was a large part of this work, in which he taught music and also ran workshops looking at the youth’s relationships with other people, their ability to try new things and to dream, their ability to maintain a job, and more generally their ability to lead healthy lives coming from trauma-informed backgrounds.

“How do you make sense of the traumatic things that have happened to you and how that affected your ability to maintain trusting relationships?” asks O’Bryan.

As a Sanctuary Coordinator for the Trauma Informed Care Initiative, these are the kinds of questions O’Bryan asks every day.

He says the U.S. Attorney’s Office decided to pursue community-level work utilizing the Sanctuary Model because they thought that addressing trauma at the neighborhood level might be the seed of something new in the criminal and juvenile justice systems and how people interact with them.

The project is funded through Project Safe Neighborhoods. It is a prevention program to reduce gun and gang violence by supporting local programs in high-risk communities. “The whole goal is to lessen the experience of trauma and reduce violence,” O’Bryan explains. “We’re the only ones that took a public health and prevention approach. The Trauma Informed Care Initiative is a project around creating a trauma-informed neighborhood for community renewal and growth.”

The City of Philadelphia is ripe for this kind of trauma-informed work, O’Bryan says. “It is the poorest metro area in the country. The wages here are terrible. The youth death rate is high. It is pretty much one of the bottom cities in the country. Philadelphia is just a ripe area to deal with the roots of where that comes from.”

The Trauma Initiative looks at trauma on the micro level, person to person, but also on a larger macro level that looks at whole systems. “People, neighborhoods, even systems are trauma organized,” he says. “People in certain neighborhoods have no access to income that doesn’t put their lives at risk. These neighborhoods are filled with bright, beautiful, vibrant people who want nothing more than to thrive in life, but access to a network that will help them thrive is just not there.”

Trauma-organized systems display the same characteristics of a trauma-impacted person. There’s a lot of secrecy, power is not distributed, and there is a lack of communication or total silence. That happens at the individual community level and at system levels, O’Bryan explains.

“Where do you find the relief in any of that, when trauma addresses trauma? We’re addressing the roots of that, starting with the neighborhood and community. Neighbors and members have this knowledge that can hold the people who are supposed to service them accountable and create new levels of accountability for how service is delivered.”

Part of the Initiative is to look at how to teach people about the effect that trauma and relentless stress has on a person and on a neighborhood, and what a person needs to know about all of the opportunities for healing, for building coping skills, and for finding resources.

“When the teamwork is there but the resources aren’t, how do you effectively champion for what you need? How do you organize for that?” asks O’Bryan. “A large part is capacity building. We’re looking at breaking down siloes and addressing at the community level what is impeding collaborative teamwork and healing work and resource aggregation-based work. We’re also looking at the system that should be supporting these neighborhoods. What is preventing that from taking place and taking root?”

He continues to use his arts background to address these complicated social issues. “Art is a great medium and mode of communication and inquiry,” he says. “Art can work in any kind of educational space. People have access to equity through art that diminish barriers from traditional learning.”

This profile was originally published by Urban Innovation Exchange in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge Foundation. For more stories of people changing cities, visit UIXCities.com and follow @UIXCities.