Creating a World of Phoenix Zones
by Marsha Rakestraw and Hope Ferdowsian
January 3, 2023
When Dr. Hope Ferdowsian, co-founder and president of Phoenix Zones Initiative, was nine, she resolved to become a doctor.
Her resolve formed soon after she first learned about human rights violations, such as torture. Like many children who grow up around (nonhuman) animals, she also grappled with the unjust treatment of animals in society.
By the time she entered medical school, Hope began to seriously consider the links between individual and institutional violence against people and animals, and what we can do to prevent violence and suffering.
Discovering Phoenix Zones
It was Hope’s work with individuals and communities around the world—from survivors of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to torture survivors seeking political asylum, to animal survivors of laboratories and other exploitative environments—that led her to realize that even individuals who have suffered greatly can thrive if they have been given the opportunity to be safe, to heal, and to enjoy freedom and opportunity.
Hope said, “During the course of my work, I realized I was witnessing how people and animals can thrive after severe trauma—a transformation known in medicine as the ‘Phoenix Effect.’”
Hope calls these literal and figurative sanctuaries, which enable people and animals to heal and thrive, “Phoenix Zones.”
As Hope notes in her book Phoenix Zones: Where Strength Is Born and Resilience Lives, “The myth of the Phoenix offers a powerful example of how we can rewrite our personal and collective narratives. The Phoenix Effect is a metaphor for how we can heal ourselves as well as the world around us. We can reimagine our future. Tragedy and crisis can be reshaped into opportunity and hope.”
Defining the Principles of Phoenix Zones
In Hope’s work across six continents, she found more examples of physical and virtual Phoenix Zones—from a chimpanzee sanctuary for animals previously exploited in research, to a local organization helping women and girls affected by war make their voices heard, to a shelter for unhoused children.
Within all the Phoenix Zones she encountered, Hope identified six shared key principles—timeless ideas that reflect our biological needs:
Phoenix Zones go far beyond meeting basic needs and toward the freedom to make our own choices, test our own limits, and determine our own fates.
All of us seek to be free from being controlled or harmed by others. And, like us, animals don’t want to be subjected to unwanted trespasses over their bodies.
3. Love and Tolerance
Some of the most important contributors to resilience include the healing power within and across species bonds, friendships, and connections. And practices of extreme love—in the form of altruism and forgiveness—can help people and animals heal even after the most severe abuses and atrocities. Empathic, altruistic, and forgiving behaviors are biologically contagious—and they can protect against conflict in society.
Some populations, such as children and animals, are far more vulnerable than others, and some individuals become even more vulnerable because of their circumstances. Justice is built on correcting these inequities, and justice demands that we provide greater protections for the most vulnerable individuals who have borne the burdens of society.
5. Promise and Opportunity
As Phoenix Zones show, we will only realize our potential as a society if we are each given the opportunity to live up to our individual potential—whatever that may be.
Dignity simply refers to worth or value. Phoenix Zones recognize the dignity of each and every one of us.
Creating a World of Phoenix Zones
All of these principles are critical to whether we can rise from our deepest vulnerabilities, regardless of our backgrounds and histories. And these principles are universally revered in ancient philosophy, in religious texts, and throughout democratic societies.
However, we rarely consider how these principles apply to our daily lives, choices, and actions, and how we can use them to create solutions that are bigger than the problems they’re meant to solve.
As Hope mentions in her book, “…we can disable exploitative institutions by holding firm to the principles of Phoenix Zones—by refusing to support industries that violate the freedom and sovereignty of humans and animals or deny them justice and the opportunity to live up to their full potential. Instead, we can support businesses and activities that foster love and dignity.”
Phoenix Zones offer lessons in how respect for the individual value of each human and nonhuman animal is fundamental to protecting us all from exploitation and violence.
That’s why Hope, and her partner, Dr. Nik Kulkarni, co-founded Phoenix Zones Initiative: to take a structural approach to addressing the systems and institutions that contribute to suffering among the most vulnerable, and to create new systems and structures that enable everyone to rise and thrive.
By creating a world of Phoenix Zones, we can heal ourselves, and the world around us.
As Steve Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project wrote about Hope’s book Phoenix Zones, “An acute observer of all animals, human and nonhuman, Hope’s fine prose and deftly drawn portraits allow us to understand how we can not only support these Phoenix Zones but also create a world in which they become obsolete.”
Find out more about Phoenix Zones in Hope’s book.
Dr. Hope Ferdowsian, holding her first book, Phoenix Zones: Where Strength Is Born and Resilience Lives.
Marsha Rakestraw is a senior education, outreach, and communications specialist with Phoenix Zones Initiative.
Dr. Hope Ferdowsian is an internal medicine, preventive medicine, and global public health physician and president of Phoenix Zones Initiative.