In the blinding heat of the courtyard outside the cement-block facility, Haley had helped the men paint an inspirational mural and the words “Just For Today: Try.” For about a month, she’d been leading art workshops with the men, for whom the sessions were “a real break from this 24-hour burden of being an addict and needing to recover,” she says.
Then one of her local colleagues mentioned her impending departure. “You’re going to leave soon,” he told her. “We’ve had other people come through before.”
His words knocked Haley off balance. “I had been speaking with people about the most challenging and intimate things, but I was always going to be an outsider,” she says. Had her time and effort made an impact, or was she just another volunteer passing through? Halfway through her Watson year, she felt like giving up.
Haley had approached her Watson year from a deeply personal place. After experiencing an assault and finding solace through painting, she wanted to examine the relationship between trauma and artistic practice, and to take a global look at what, in the U.S., is commonly known as “art therapy.”
The fellowship took her to Bolivia, Japan, Thailand, Australia, Zanzibar, and the U.K. In Bolivia, she worked with an NGO teaching circus skills to kids growing up in devastating poverty and art therapists helping families who had suffered domestic violence. In England, she investigated the nation’s push to incorporate the arts into treatment at hospitals and psychiatric clinics. In Japan, she learned from artists working in the wake of the 2011 tsunami.
What she saw across the world was that for people who have experienced trauma, making art could have different impacts. “It can be private and personal, but it can also be a source of community and power,” she says.
But in Zanzibar, Haley began to wonder about the assumptions underlying what she was doing, and about the ethics of art therapy. Was it sustainable for local communities to have outsiders deliver such programs? Was professional training required for this work? To whom did the art that was the product of these sessions belong?
For the second half of her Watson year, Haley shied away from working directly with people who had experienced trauma. Instead, she spent more time observing the way local communities and caregivers approached therapy, and questioning her own ideas. “It’s certainly humbling,” she says, reflecting on that time.
Today, while these questions still simmer within her, Haley works for The Posse Foundation, where part of her work involves counseling college students on how to apply for Watson Fellowships. She is honest when she talks to them about her own Watson year, which raised more questions than it delivered answers, including about who she is. She tells the students: “It’s OK to not know.”