Authors note: This piece is co-authored by @Lara Kain and @Christine Cissy White. Though we had never worked together or met, we were asked to co-present on creating trauma-informed changes in communities by the Attachment Trauma Network for the first national (now annual) Creating Trauma-Sensitive Schools Summit in Washington, DC. This article is an expanded essay version of that presentation).
Be the Spark
Oprah Winfrey helped mainstream discussion about childhood adversity and trauma-informed care approaches last month in a 60 Minutes segment on treating childhood trauma. She said no other story has had a bigger impact on her than this one. It’s changed how she operates her school, workplace, philanthropy and “the way I see people in the world.”
Many of us are exhilarated by her impactful leadership and introducing millions to these two words: trauma-informed. However, to address what’s known as “The Pair of ACEs,” which are adverse childhood experiences and adverse community experiences, we believe far more is needed than trauma-informed care.
We need trauma-informed change.
Without addressing both historical traumas, and generational trauma, ACEs awareness about an individual’s history with developmental trauma, will not be enough. Too many children and communities are rooted in and shaded by the multiple branches of adversity.
A trauma-informed framework encompasses all parts of a community and all community members. It’s work done by, for, and with all of us and tends to work best when led by community residents.
Children and families may encounter many different sectors of our community daily including health care, housing, law enforcement, public services, etc. The potential positive impact towards building resilient children and families is amplified when all these sectors align and work together to create a trauma-informed community.
The efforts of these sectors are more effective when the needs of children and families are placed in a much wider context.
For so long, talk of adverse childhood experience (ACEs) and developmental trauma were considered primarily a mental health issue, but we now know ACEs are about both public health and public policy, as well our personal issues.
ACEs need to be addressed by all of us, in and outside of clinical settings, community-wide.
Solutions can’t be imposed by others who often don’t know or live within communities or as community members. We need to work in partnership with one another.
- Teachers can’t do it alone at school.
- Parents can’t do it alone at home.
- Students can’t do it alone no matter how empowered or impressive they are.
At Vital Village, in MA, creating healthy communities means “viewing well-being, particularly social and emotional well-being, as the foundation of a lot of other things. The focus can’t be only on poverty prevention but on creating capacity for individuals, organizations and the community,” said Boynton-Jarrett.
“We have to set a more ambitious goal beyond simply providing a more intensive level of services to folks who have been involved in the Dept. of Children and Families,” she said because so many adversities are interconnected. Adversity can exist without parental abuse because many systems are traumatizing families.
Rather than working in isolation, we need to work together and make sure that means with and for all of us.
All means ALL. All excludes no one and includes everyone.
When individual sectors, such as schools, take a whole school/whole child approach the change is long-lasting. Trauma-informed resilient schools are creating compassionate, safe, responsive environments for students AND adults, students and teachers in the building as well as working with families and others outside school walls. This may be a paradigm shift for the entire school community and touches upon all aspects of the system including teaching pedagogy, discipline policy and practice, leadership practice, school mental health, staff wellness, and so on.
Therefore, this is most effective when the school community approaches this from a holistic systems perspective.
While there are no easy instructions for creating trauma-informed schools, communities or initiatives, none of us is starting from scratch and we can learn from each other. Together, we can form, join, support and celebrate trauma-informed community initiatives. Indeed, they exist everywhere ... in rural and urban communities, being led by parents and by large non-profits, and where people throughout communities join together for collective impact.
What is a trauma-informed community?
According to SAMHSA “Building resilient and trauma-informed communities is essential to improving public health and well-being.” Why? Because communities can be places where traumatic events occur, and they can also help keep us safe, help restore our sense of wellness.
Communities can be a source of trauma or buffer us against the negative effects of adversity.
Communities can collectively experience trauma much like individuals do, and they can be a resource for healing. The effects of stress, we know, can be cumulative. What if the impact of the community could provide constant, chronic and cumulative healing as well?
What does a trauma-informed community look like?
Although every community has had a different path to becoming trauma-informed in their brief Building Resilient and Trauma-Informed Communities SAMHSA identifies some universals across initiatives we can all reference:
- Initial leadership can come from residents, government, the faith community, the business community, or other service sectors.
- Cross-agency and cross-sector collaboration is the norm.
- Community initiatives build on strengths while addressing challenges.
- Addressing trauma in the workforce is an essential element.
- Communities seamlessly combine education about trauma and
- resilience with prevention, treatment, supports and social justice.
- Funding for the effort varies among communities.
- Communities take different approaches to addressing trauma and building resilience, depending on local resources, cultures, and circumstances.
- Although they differ in approach, communities benefit from networking
A trauma-informed community is one that nurtures all community members.
What is required when creating a trauma-informed community?
One four-part pathway for growing any trauma-informed communities, written about by Jane Stevens, and published on the open platform social networking site, ACEs Connection is as follows:
- Educate....everybody and every organization about ACEs science, and how people are integrating trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on ACEs science.
- Engage....people and organizations to form or join local ACEs initiative to become involved. A little bit or a lot...any involvement is good.
- Activate....organizations to commit to integrating trauma-informed and resilience-building practices. This results in systems change.
- Celebrate....any accomplishment and success and hold events to highlight progress.
The development of this non-linear approach to growing resilient communities is extracted from research, observation, and participation with over 100 local, regional, and national communities-of-practice in person and online.
Another framework, developed by Laura Porter, who is co-director of the ACE Interface, with Dr. Robert Anda (co-principal of the ACE study), and colleagues is Self-Healing Communities.
This model requires financial capital up front, but offers benefits and results, for generations. “Communities using the model have documented reductions in the rates of seven major social problems and Adverse Childhood Experience scores among young adults,” Porter writes. In effect, non-profits and government agencies work with citizens and residents, using shared concepts and language in order to implement systems change within existing structures. The education and training aren’t only from professionals to citizens but requires cultural curiosity and humility so that systems change internally as well and new norms are practiced by all whereby, according to an executive summary of the Self-Healing Models “residents and professionals co-create practice-improvement cycles.”
Examples of trauma-informed communities?
Trauma-informed communities and initiatives have sprung up in counties, cities, suburbs, and small towns and are spreading. Each one is unique, organic, and suited to the needs of that community. Here, we highlight some inspiring examples.
Walla Walla, WA is home to what might be the most well-known trauma-informed initiative. Jane Stevens wrote about Lincoln High School principal, Jim Sporleder, in 2012, and what happened when he implemented a trauma-informed approach. That article, published on ACEs Too High, went viral and inspired the Paper Tigers documentary still used to educate schools, families, students, and communities about ACEs and how adverse childhood experiences impact us all. The movie shows what a trauma-informed change looks like and how the approach can be beneficial for students and schools. While community-wide efforts led by Teri Barila and others were not the focus of the film, the Community Resilience Initiative has been ongoing and instrumental in transforming the Walla Walla community. More about Walla, Walla can be found here.
Peace4Tarpon Trauma Informed Community Initiative is a grassroots effort – the first of its kind in the nation. Peace4Tarpon looks through a “trauma-informed lens” to seek the root causes of our most challenging issues rather than addressing symptoms. Together. It had the ambitious goal of becoming the first trauma-informed city. The former vice-mayor of Tarpon Springs, Robin Saenger, who is still active with Peace4Tarpon said, “We want to empower people to do something, without having them think that they have to solve all the violence in the world.” More about Tarpon Springs can be found here and here.
A leader in integrating ACE’s science throughout the community, starting with historical trauma. The Menominee Nation and Menominee County have been dedicated to becoming trauma-informed. As a result of years of cross-sector community-building work, suspension rates at school have gone down while graduation rates have gone up. In 2015, the Menominee Nation was awarded the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health Prize for their achievements. More about the Menominee Nation can be found here and in the video below.
Jocelyn Goldblatt, a Keene, New Hampshire resident, parent and graduate student asked, “Why aren’t parents a sector?” She wanted to reach others, who like her, had adverse childhood experiences and predictable parenting complications as a result. She didn’t understand why those who are parenting with ACEs are routinely excluded from discussions or policy-making about generational trauma, family services and supports and mostly invisible to one another? Together, she and Emily Read Daniels, a resident, former school counselor and the Here This Now founder, came together to consider how to support trauma-informed system-wide change community-wide. They hosted a community conversation for “all of us,” and launched the Monadnock Thrives community at the same time. Though only a few months old their launch meeting attended by 400 residents who learned about the impact of childhood adversity and discussed ways to support and strengthen local community connections and resources. More about Monadnock Thrives can be found here and here.
A unique initiative integrating education, health, and community to support the whole child. A cross-sector effort to address childhood trauma, access to primary care and family engagement in the southern suburbs of Cook County, Illinois.The Partnership for Resilience grew out of a chance conversation between an experienced teacher union leader and a seasoned pediatrician – who happened to be siblings. At the center of the initiative are three areas of focus: primary care, psychological and emotional health and parent support and education. More on the Partnership for Resilience as well as some excellent videos showcasing their efforts can be found here.
Father Paul Abernathy is the director of FOCUS Pittsburgh, an Orthodox Christian non-profit focused on Trauma Informed Community Development. FOCUS exists in the Hill District of Pittsburgh to provides basic human needs and emergency relief to families in Greater Pittsburgh as well as dental, behavioral and primary health services to those who are under- or uninsured making sure all of this work is done with a focus on solutions and hope, that “relieve strain,” first while also creating opportunities. More about FOCUS Pittsburgh can be found here and here.
Many of us resist this work believing we are “just” parents, teachers, social workers or trauma survivors and not “expert” enough. But we are expert enough to create more hope, health, and community resilience. All of us matter. All children deserve the resources, safety, and nurturing at home, in school, and in the community. Parents, teachers, and schools have made great strides and have led the charge and appreciate the spotlight people like Oprah help to shine.
Many of us consider trauma-informed communities a response to the call for social justice system-wide. Creating trauma-informed schools, communities and change might seem daunting, difficult or downright overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be. There are countless other examples who can inspire, guide and inform us. The possibilities are unlimited.
Anyone of us can be the spark to ignite more trauma-informed change in our communities.
Note: This is Lara herself (pictured below), talking about creating trauma-informed community change at the Creating Trauma Schools summit. Special thanks to @Melissa Sadin and @Julie Beem for bringing Lara and me together on this but more for continually sparking trauma-sensitive support and change for students, educators, families, and communities.
Resources for Creating Trauma- Informed Communities
- ACEsConnection, Growing Resilient Communities 2.0 & Statewide Initiatives
- ACE Interface, Building Self Healing Communities
- Building Resilient Communities, The Pair of ACEs
- Community Resilience Cookbook
- Mobilizing Action for Resilient Communities (MARC)
- Rural Health Information Hub: Menominee Nation
- Self-Healing Communities, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
- Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
- Vital Village, Community Capacity Building
- YouTube: Understanding ACEs & Building Self-Healing Communities, Dr. Robert Anda