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Walla Walla Valley PACEs Connection (WA)

Moving beyond “Paper Tigers” to a science of hope: Q & A with CRI's Rick Griffin


Rick Griffin knows a lot about hope – how to understand it, instill it, develop it.

Griffin is the director of training and curriculum development for the non-profit Community Resilience Initiative (CRI) in Walla Walla, Washington. Walla Walla’s Lincoln High was the subject of a 2015 film, “Paper Tigers,” by the late Jamie Redford, about how the school principal, Jim Sporleder, adopted an ACEs-informed approach that positively transformed the school as well as the surrounding community.

Griffin grew up in Casper, Wyoming, where his dad worked for the U.S. Department of Labor and his mother worked for the main employer in town, Marathon Oil. His dad was the son of a sugar beet farmer and immigrant from the Dominican Republic, and his mom was African American. Given his mixed heritage, Griffin felt the cultural impact of being on the outside, which steered him toward a bachelor’s in psychology at Black Hills State University in South Dakota and then a master’s in education at the University of Phoenix.

For 24 years, he was executive director of a 400-acre alternative school for teens with troubled pasts in eastern Washington state, near Walla Walla. Griffin connected with Sporleder in 2010 and began to implement some of the training that the principal had successfully started at his high school.

Since 2016, Griffin has been with CRI, where he’s helped organize the annual Moving Beyond Paper Tigers conferences. The next one, Trauma-Informed Care: Moving to Resilience, explores the neurological link between resilience and adversity. It will be held virtually June 23-24.

We asked Griffin about this year’s conference and why everyone in the PACEs Connection network could benefit from attending.

How is this conference different from the previous ones?

The first conferences were all called “Beyond Paper Tigers.” Most people saw us as an organization working just with schools. This year we’re expanding the nature of trauma from the original ACE Study, which focused on anyone in the household under the age of 18. This year we’re exploring the neurology of trauma and resilience in adults as well.

Current neuroscience shows that your brain is constantly changing. We will have community psychologists talking about the neuroplasticity of the aging brain, and how high doses of cortisone and adrenaline affect your brain, no matter what your age. So you can develop resilience at any age.

We’ve also shortened all presentations to 20 minutes. That’s why we call it speed conferencing. It’s a response to what we call virtual fatigue. The first day’s speakers will address adversity and the second day resilience.

Robin Glaeser, operations and community impact coordinator for CRI, reports they expect 600 participants from all over the world. She invites everyone, from parents, to educators, health workers, and anyone concerned about trauma and resilience, to attend.

What are some of the expanded traumas that will be covered?

On the first day of the conference, we will cover five forms of adversity: childhood, community, culture, circuitry, and catastrophic.

Robert Anda, who co-authored the original ACE Study with Vincent Felitti, will talk about childhood adversity. [That landmark CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, of more than 17,000 adults, linked 10 types of childhood trauma to the adult onset of chronic diseases, mental illness, violence, being a victim of violence, difficulty in holding a job, and financial issues, among other consequences.

The study found that ACEs are remarkably common — most people have at least one. People who have four or more different types of ACEs — about 12 percent of the general population, but more in communities in people of color and/or white people where policies keep them impoverished — have a 1,200 percent higher risk of attempting suicide and a 700 percent higher risk of becoming an alcoholic, compared with people who have no ACEs. Many other types of ACEs— including racism, bullying, a father being abused, and community violence — have been added to subsequent ACE surveys. For more, see PACEs Science 101.

The epidemiology of childhood adversity is one of five parts of PACEs (positive and adverse childhood experiences) science. The other parts include how toxic stress from ACEs affects children’s brains, the short- and long-term health effects of toxic stress, how toxic stress is passed on from generation to generation, and research on resilience, which includes how individuals, organizations, systems and communities can integrate PACEs science to solve our most intractable problems.]

I will talk about how cultural exposures affect whether people respond to something as a threatening or a safe situation. There’s a metabolic energy surge that can occur when you are around people who are different – whether because of race, age, gender, sexual orientation, native language, and more. That’s when the toxic chemicals build up and lead to trauma.

Another adversity can be circuitry, which describes how people process information in different ways. Just because you think differently — whether you’re on the spectrum or are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, for example — doesn’t mean you actually have a disorder. We want to respect the neurodiversity of everyone. Teri Barila, the cofounder of CRI, will speak about circuitry expressions.

How does a catastrophic event like COVID-19 affect us and how can we develop resilience?

We all have some form of trauma as a result of COVID. It can take a while to develop resilience and it’s not a one-size strategy for everybody. One thing that works for one person could induce trauma in someone else. Sometimes all it takes is a word to develop instant resilience.

The speakers on the second day of the conference will address several ways to develop resilience, including through family, through the body, through giving back, through apprenticeship (learning a skill), and through collaboration.

What’s your dream scenario for the changes you’d like to see in five years?

An understanding of how the brain works so we don’t harm each other because of our lack of understanding that our brain is just trying to keep us safe. Even those with implicit bias have developed this as a shortcut for their brain to react because of the environment in which they’ve experienced events.

What I would like to see in the future is the science of hope.

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What a fantastic "speed conference" concept, line up and speakers!  Very well timed and as a parent, I look forward to learning more about the expanded adversity categories and increasing my resilience tool kit.

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