Root Therapy

A conversation with Dr. Mindy Fullilove on restoring emotional ecosystems

by Lance Gloss

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published March 17, 2017


Mindy Fullilove is a psychiatrist, researcher, and Professor of Urban Policy of Health currently teaching at the New School. Dr. Fullilove has studied the psychological and health impacts of urban renewal and environmental injustice for more than 35 years. Her early work includes a series of groundbreaking studies on the AIDS epidemic in US cities. In her 2005 book Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It, she details a century of forced displacement for communities of color in American cities, and its toll on personal and social well-being.

In her most recent book, Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities (2013), Dr. Fullilove ties together a nine-point strategy for urban restoration. These nine tools—including “unpuzzling,” “unslumming,” and “showing solidarity with all life”—bring the perspectives of clinical psychiatry to bear on the problems of today’s cities. The Indy caught up with Mindy before she spoke at the Brown University School of Public Health as part of the Black History Month lecture series on March 6. Here, she discusses the emotions that come with living in a place, and what happens when communities lose that sense of place. She traverses long distances and millennia, emotion and politics. To treat binaries and social fracture, Fullilove prescribes innovation, the restoration of place, and “the infinite.” The endeavor at hand? Inventing the future.




The College Hill Independent: You define root shock as a “traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of one’s emotional ecosystem.” How do you define the emotional ecosystem, and how does it relate to prevalent notions of community?

Dr. Mindy Fullilove: Community is one of those overworked words that means sort of whatever people want it to mean. But if we take a pretty broad definition, it’s a group of people that have something in common. So anyone can be a community. People who’ve lived together in a certain place are a community—but so are all people who wear brown shoes. One way to get beyond community is by asking, ‘how do people live with each other?’ 

Many theorists thinking about the idea of ‘place’ talk about it as both a group of people and a location, and also the ways in which they live together in that location. As we construct our lives, ‘place’ takes on emotional meaning, and a web of relationships develops. So how we live together is an ecosystem, about which we have emotion. As a psychiatrist, it was important to me, in hearing people’s stories about the loss of their neighborhoods, how emotional that was. 

The places we live are not like that cup on the table, that you pick up and throw away. Places are lived, embodied, daily experiences, and when someone loses their places, they really feel a loss of a part of the self. 

Place isn’t just a part of the self that’s interior. It’s not just physical, it’s more in the nature of the shell of the hermit crab, who can take on new shells but always needs one. My places are essential of myself. I can move to another one, but I’ve got to have one. A place to which I’m bonded. An exoskeleton. 

The Indy: So places are both social and spatial?

MF: And emotional.

The Indy: It seems that it might take a long time to build the deep relationships to place that you are describing. What kind of timescale is involved in accumulating an emotional ecosystem? 

MF: The urbanist I study with in Paris, Michel Cantal-Dupart, says that a city is a place you could visit for a day or a lifetime. The timescale of emotion can be very quick—you could spend an hour in a place and fall in love with the place. Or your whole life, right? People live in a place their whole life and never get tired of the way the sun rises in the morning and sets at night—the way breezes flow through. This is one of those places where time is meaningless. It’s an emotional exchange. The boundaries of time expand to give space for the emotion.

The Indy: Many of your studies cover the history of a place over a century or more, and suggest that these emotional ecosystems have a trans-generational persistence. How do the places of ancestors or predecessors play into an individual’s sense of place in the present? 

MF: Take the Aboriginal Australians, who got to Australia some forty or fifty thousand years ago. They have a very vivid transmission of their stories about place, and ways of understanding the land around them that are quite remarkable. To be a living inheritor of that tradition now, and to be able to read the land in that way, is to have the wisdom of the ages as a part of who you are. Heritage is genetic, but it’s also cultural. This cultural transmission is a huge gift.

And then there are societies that have moved a lot, that are more disconnected from a cultural knowledge of the land. There are other cultures that moved over and over—the Roma peoples, the native peoples of the Americas moved, the Lenape who were right here, they moved in very regular circuits. It seems to me that the attachment there is not to a single place, but to the whole journey, or the place that is journeyed. It is a different way of being connected. The house that can move. 

The Indy: In your work, you also make many trans-national comparisons. There are those that you’ve just discussed, and you’ve also looked in-depth at social worlds in Rio de Janeiro to understand urban trends in the United States. Do you encounter pushback from folks who see this breaking analytical boundaries—binaries between deep history and modernity, or a between a global North and South?

MF: I don’t like binaries. They never work, right? It’s never black and white, old and young. It’s always gray. I keep out of binaries of any kind.

The Indy: Is there a way to use binaries constructively? To appropriate binaries as a way to resist their oppressiveness?

MF: No. I think the resistance to the binary is to go for the infinite. I think you have to get out of it. I’m very opposed to them. But this is because I’m biracial. My mother is white, and my father is Black, and this was a huge problem for me as a child. There was a time growing up in New Jersey when you could only be Black. And I was like, this doesn’t make any sense to me. I have rejected binaries ever since. 

There was an article in the New York Times [by Moises Velasquez-Manoff] the other day, about people who are biracial. The essay’s thesis is that they look at the world differently. For example, biracial babies are faster at facial recognition. They are more likely to seek the infinite, to transcend binaries. I think transcending binaries is essential to being able to function in the world. Binaries are traps... all that stuff is a dead-end.

The Indy: So binaries a dead end, and we are going to need other tools for placemaking and identity-formation, if we are going to deal with this history of repeated dislocation for communities. Do you recognize certain core principles for an urbanism that fosters belonging, mental health, and potential?

MF: The word that I like is restoration. People who do work in what we call natural ecosystems—getting ponds to function again—that’s the word they use. To bring places back to functioning. I like the idea of restoration, and I think urban restoration is trying to understand how the city works. It’s like a clock. Something gets broken, and we have to ask, how do we get the wheels moving again?

Social psychiatry is very concerned with fracture. There’s a long line of people who have written about this, so it’s something that’s in the fore of our concerns. America is deeply fractured. This has been happening for a long time, but I think all of us—myself included—can get a better gauge on the fracture than ever before. The issue before us is: how do you get the whole nation to do something? People have stopped speaking to each other. Even Facebook is thinking, ‘maybe everybody is too much in their bubble and we’d better start thinking of ways to get them outside of it.’ Okay, so we get to see the threat of fracture, and the harms that can come of people thinking in those binaries. The threat of binary thinking and fracture has no boundaries. So how do we restore connectedness writ large? That’s the pressing question. 

A good idea to begin with, drawing on what I’ve gotten from great urbanists that I’ve worked with, is that we have to think about larger wholes. We can’t just think inside our small places. We have to ask, ‘what is it that we don’t understand?’ Once we understand what we don’t understand, then the question is, ‘how do we draw things together?’

The Indy: For you, does an era of globalization—migration, financial capitalism—represent a new pace of fracture? How does that affect your approach?

MF: Well, what I’ve been thinking a lot about is the question of who voted for Trump, and why did they vote for him? The biggest group are people with a high school education, who have ill health and bad jobs. They have the ill health and bad jobs because of deindustrialization. It seems to me that globalization is a front for factories moving to other countries where they can pay lower wages. What do we do about that? People who had their jobs and now have terrible jobs feel like they got shafted, which they did. 

On the other hand, when people are feeling resentful, and they think that stereotypes and discrimination and hatred are the solution, they buy into appeals to that. As in, ‘Yeah you’re resentful. You know who did it? The bad hombres from Mexico!’ Yeah, sure, it’s the bad hombres from Mexico; let’s build a wall... That kind of thinking draws deep into American history, going back hundreds of years. 

But the problem of people being shafted because of industrialization is very real. We’re still asking, ‘how do we invent the future?’ I happen to live about a mile from Thomas Edison’s factory of inventions. It’s an amazing place, have you been there?

The Indy: No, I haven’t!

MF: When you’re in New Jersey, you’ve got to go. It’s a factory of inventions—an assembly line. On one end, an idea goes in. On the other end, a patent comes out. He said he had assembled everything there, and could do from a lady’s watch to a locomotive in a few days. These would have taken months, but he had brought all the chemistry and photography and materials on site. Everything he could have had at that time. 

This is a model for inventiveness. People have terrible jobs, we have global warming, people are angry at each other. We need to invent! And invention is going to come out of us not being locked into dichotomies.