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When a Conference is not Just a Conference


Sometimes conferences feel like work but if you’re lucky once in a while they feel like a family reunion. This was the case with my recent trip to Overland Park Kansas, just outside Kansas City, for the ESSDACKBridging to Resilience conference November 9-11. This is the 3rd or 4th time I have had the opportunity to attend this small but mighty trauma-informed schools conference (I can’t seem to remember exactly how many I have attended due to the time warp created by the pandemic). In their own words, “The Bridging to Resilience conference is about coming together with educators, social workers, health care professionals, religious communities, and other helping professionals to share conversations, ideas, strategies, tools, and connections to help build resilience and heal trauma in our own communities.” A perfect match for PACEsConnections own goal of ‘helping cross-sector initiatives share policies and practices to leverage their community’s ideas, successes and challenges to solve their most intractable problems using PACEs science.’

What makes this conference so special are the people, organizers and attendees, and the organizers absolute commitment to making sure everyone has a seat at the table and a voice in the solutions. The ESSDACKResilience Team are some of the most genuine, wonderful, brilliant people I have ever met. Deeply committed to healing communities and humanizing school environments from the bottom up. They embody the commitment to ‘nothing about us without us’. Not only did we have keynote address from leaders in the field such as Jim Sporleder and Mathew Portell, this is the only trauma-informed schools conference I have been to that prioritizes those with lived experience with a parent panel, parent workshops, and begins every single day with students from the ESSDACK alternative learning center sharing their stories of trauma and resilience.

I guess it’s the sign of a good trauma conference that I cried in every.single.session. on Thursday, and ask anyone- I am NOT a crier. The morning started with 2 students sharing how they came to attend the alternative learning center after not finding success in traditional high school settings. Most of the room was tearing up within the first few minutes. Some of the trauma the students experienced came from experiences with their own family and community, but the most heartbreaking and infuriating was when they shared how schools not only didn’t help them but re-traumatized and inflicted new trauma on top of it. As a room full of mostly educators committed to trauma-informed school settings it is so hard to hear how students were bullied, ignored, and harmed by adults and the system. Told they were over reacting, lying, and attention seeking. Told it was good they were dropping out, they wouldn’t amount to anything. Not that any of us were naive enough to think that this doesn’t happen, many of us got into this work because we experienced this trauma from the education system ourselves. But to hear it from these beautiful young people is hard.

After the students shared their stories, several of the parents stepped up to the stage to participate in a panel discussion. This group of parents are part of a local initiative to support families to rise up out of poverty in a healing community and with support. Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz from the ESSDACK Resilience team was the moderator. Rebecca is not only deeply involved in this community work, she came up through the program herself and is a tireless advocate. She often says things like "Those closest to the pain should be closest to the power." Her lived experience is part of her superpowers. The parents shared powerful stories about their experiences both being helped and harmed by the school system. They provided visceral descriptions of what it felt like to be judged, put down, dismissed, and harmed based on their economic status. They also provided clear and inspiring examples of what it looked like, sounded like, and felt like when school staff treated them with genuine respect and as equal partners. They stressed the importance of not making assumptions, especially about how much they care or want for their children, and to instead build trust and walk alongside them seeking to understand how to best support them. Definitely more tears across the room.

My own presentation on Positive Childhood Experiences (PCE’s) was during the breakout sessions after the student stories and parent panel. That was a tall order to compose myself enough to present coherently for 60 minutes after all the raw emotion. Several of the parents from the panel came to my session and they said that learning about the positive impacts of PCE’s gives them hope for their children and made the often heard statement that ‘ACEs are not our destiny’ more real for them.

The conference ended Friday afternoon with a brilliant concept called The Human Library. The Human Library is described as “People tell stories effectively to engage their audience into listening to and empathizing with them. This empathy is key to bringing positive change by giving us a glimpse into other people’s lives and helping us bond as a society. We know the best way to move beyond labels into relationships is through the power of sharing our stories.” Students, parents, principals, teachers, and others volunteered to share their stories in 10 minute rotating segments. Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to build empathy and foster healing in community. Definitely a few more tears.

Many of us, especially those at school sites, went away from the conference saying ‘wow, I really needed this’. Feeling rejuvenated, supported, seen, and hopeful. Our buckets a little more filled. This work is hard, and we have a long way to go, none of us can do this alone. So sometimes a conference is more than just a conference, it is a supportive community adding fuel to our internal fire allowing us to continue the fight one more day.

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