What is root shock?

People who have been displaced experience "root shock," the traumatic stress reaction to the loss of some or all of one's emotional ecosystem. Root shock can follow natural disaster, development-induced displacement, war, and changes that play out slowly, such as those that accompany gentrification. The idea of "root shock" has helped people conceptualize both the prevention of displacement and recovery from it. 

Root shock is a condition mirrored at different levels of life. At the individual level, root shock is the emotional trauma a person experiences when his or her environment is devastated, such as in events of natural disaster or military conflict. It increases the risk for stress-related diseases like depression and heart attack and diminishes social, emotional, and financial resources. At the community level, root shock is defined by the loss of interpersonal ties and the "capital" -- social, cultural, political and emotional -- that is vested in the collective connections.  

The concept of "root shock" was adapted from gardening by Dr. Mindy Fullilove. She learned about root shock from people who had been displaced by urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s and her research was published in the book Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It, available from New Village Press.

Urban Renewal and Serial Displacement

Urban renewal projects in mid-20th century America could leave behind conditions similar to those left by natural disaster. Urban renewal projects entailed razing vast swaths of long-established communities. Homes were  destroyed, social bonds disintegrated, and familiar places were cleared away, while residents were dispersed to other parts of the city.

Dr. Mindy Fullilove's Root Shock focuses on the presence of root shock in African-American neighborhoods that experienced urban renewal. Based on case studies of three historically black communities--Newark, NJ; Roanoke, VA; and Pittsburgh's Hill District--Dr. Fullilove also draws on residents' personal memories, useful theories of person and place, and historical accounts. Root Shock is an account of the invaluable things that Black America, and America generally, lost to urban renewal, and a guidebook for anyone interested in their recovery.

While visiting Roanoke, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and other cities, Mindy Fullilove learned about stories of displacement caused by disinvestment, gentrification, HOPE VI, mass incarceration and natural disaster. She worked with physicist/ecologist Rodrick Wallace to conceptualize the effects of multiple displacements on the city. They gave this process the name "serial displacement." 

The New York Academy of Medicine established a "Working Group on Serial Displacement and Health." Headed by leading scholars in this area, including Fullilove and Wallace, the Working Group organized a conference as its first activity. This conference, on Housing, Health and Serial Displacement, was held on April 8th, 2009. Click here for conference summary.

Many community groups are fighting one or another form of displacement. All of these efforts are important for creating the stability that people need to have healthy lives and create economic prosperity. A recent example of this was documented in the award-winning documentary "Battle for Brooklyn" by Rumur, an independent Brooklyn-based film studio.