CINCINNATI, Ohio — A group of women in Ohio are meeting at a woodshop every Wednesday evening, brought together by the trauma they have in common.
The women talk and tell each other their stories as they learn about power tools and work to build what the program’s organizers call “healing benches.”
“These benches are going to be storytellers where we can sit in neighborhoods so people can come and talk,” said Loretta Davis, director of Broken into Beautiful, a women’s empowerment group that is collaborating with the nonprofit organization Wave Pool on the program. “I’m going to sit on every bench. I want you to come and talk to me. Tell me a story. Tell me about something you’re going through so that I can give you some resources. Not only resources, but the idea and the conversation.”
The woodworking instruction is the newest phase of Owning Your Own Voice, a program that aims to empower women who have been through trauma, addiction and other difficult life circumstances to be proud of their stories and to reduce stigma by sharing those stories, said Cal Cullen, executive director of Wave Pool.
Since spring of 2020, women involved in the program have worked alongside Rev. Dr. Aaron Maurice Saari of Washington United Church of Christ to create spiritual autobiographies, Cullen said, a process that allows them to express their feelings, work with others and reflect on what the future of community resiliency could look like.
“Through the process of building these healing benches, they are also sharing their story and going through the autobiography process,” she said. “The hope is that these benches go out into the world, in the neighborhoods where these women live so that they can really foster healing.”
Johnnie Mae Gutter said being involved with Cullen, Davis and their work has helped heal her.
“I’ve been through some trauma, and I didn’t have nobody to help me,” Gutter said. “They support me in making sure that I do what I’m supposed to do and keep going on.”
A ‘safe space’ in every way
Lacey Haslam, the program’s woodshop teaching artist, selected a design for the benches that encourages conversation. Each bench will have two seats designed by the women in the program. And each seat will have a space to keep a field guide to lead people through the process of creating their own spiritual autobiographies.
Haslam said she stresses safety during the classes, making sure that every participant has her hair pulled back and is wearing safety glasses.
“The confidence always starts off a little bit, like, cautious,” she said. “And then by the end of it, it’s off and running, and you see the comfort level really skyrocket.”
But as wonderful as it is to see all the women build their skills and confidence, Cullen said that’s not the most important thing they get out of the classes.
“The friendships that they’re building,” she said, “that’s the, I would say, the biggest part of this.”
Dai Williams is a local artist who is creating a community mural as part of the project to showcase the personalities of the women involved and some of what they have learned about themselves. The mural will be painted on the wooden fence that surrounds Wave Pool’s community garden.
“Honestly, I felt honored being allowed in that space,” Williams said. “It’s a very safe space for these people who are part of the program, and I was just awesome to see everyone being vulnerable and open.”
Hearing the women talk underscored how much they had in common, they said, and how everyone wants to feel safe and seen.
“It was the perfect collaboration,” Williams said, “and beautiful fuel for my artwork.”
‘Here to help, not to judge’
Haslam said the women have inspired her, too.
“Oh my gosh, I mean the energy in this room is incredible,” Haslam said on a recent Wednesday evening just before starting the class. “These women are, I think, inspirations in a lot of different ways. But to listen to them motivate each other has just been one of the big highlights for me, to just listen and experience.”
That motivation was on full display as the class began. Each woman got a board and a pencil to design a seat shape for the benches. Davis drew a butterfly. Another student drew a four-leaf clover. Gutter sketched an angel.
“Because God sends his angels down on earth to save us,” she said. “Maybe they’ll understand my story if they see an angel. If they believe.”
April Radcliff drew a heart and was the first student to learn how to use the shop’s band saw to cut out the shape.
The entire class applauded when she made the final cut.
Gutter said she hopes more people will join the group over time and get the kind of healing and love that she has received.
“If y’all have any problems or you need any guidance, just come and see us,” she said. “We here to help. It doesn’t matter what color, what religion, your type, what you been through or nothing else. We’re here to help, not to judge, but to help and guide you.”
“That’s all I have to say,” Gutter told the news crew there to interview her.
And with that, the entire class applauded for her, too.
More information about Owning Your Own Voice is available online.
This story was originally published by Lucy May at WCPO.