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The Journey From Me to We: The Walla Walla Way


“We’re all humans and we’re all going through the same things,” Kelsey Sisavath explains. “It’s important for everyone to know. It can change your perspective on how you see yourself, how you see others, and how you see the world.”  

The “it” Kelsey is talking about is trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).  She has a unique perspective on the topic given her range of experiences throughout her 19 years of life. The story of Kelsey and five other students at Lincoln High School and its community of Walla Walla, WA, are told in the 2015 documentary film, Paper Tigers. It’s the story of how Lincoln transformed their school culture through implementing trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on ACEs science.

Before Paper Tigers was released, Walla Walla was educating anyone willing to listen about ACEs science. Walla Walla has been recognized as a leader in developing and enhancing community resilience by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Health Federation of PhiladelphiaThe New York Times, and the Substances Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. To put it simply, Walla Walla is on to something and people are taking notice.  

I was recently speaking with someone about implementing a training about ACEs science in our own community. We were imagining something comprehensive — something that goes beyond talking about the CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study, which many people seem to be stuck on. But ACEs science, as the Community Resilience Initiative (CRI) has embraced, encompasses the epidemiology of ACEs, the neurobiology of toxic stress (effects on developing brains), the short- and long-term health consequences of toxic stress, how toxic stress affects historical trauma through effects on our genes, and, of course the good news, how resilience research that is showing how people, organizations and communities can heal from and prevent ACEs.

CRI has been the driving force behind the ACEs movement in Walla Walla, along with their support in local, state, tribal and national communities. Since its inception in 2009, CRI has worked to raise awareness about ACEs science to grow resilience throughout the community. CRI has figured out a way to connect the research on ACEs science to develop an action-based, comprehensive approach to respond to ACEs.  

Their approach is twofold. It utilizes ACEs science (sometimes called NEAR science – Neurobiology, Epigenetics, ACEs and Resilience) as a comprehensive approach to understanding the effects of toxic stress on individuals. And they implement this knowledge and comprehensive approach across entire sectors and communities while building the infrastructure for CRI’s community partners to sustain these efforts across the lifespan of community members.

Individual resilience needs to be supported in all domains of life. But if we stop at the individual level, resilience is difficult to maintain if it’s not being supported in our families, organizations across sectors, social circles, and communities. This concept of resilience across communities considers the environmental influences that impact resilience on the individual and organizational level.  

Through their long-term partnership and evaluation efforts with research veterans Dario Longhi and Marsha Brown, CRI promotes the concept of contextual resilience as a means for enhancing community well-being. Longhi and Brown are well versed in the research of participatory action, an approach that emphasizes a community’s collective participation and action as means for accomplishing social change.

Contextual resilience involves a sense of social cohesion and collective efficacy. It includes the concept of reciprocity and taking care of our neighbors when they need us. And knowing they will do the same for us when we need it.

Contextual resilience has positive impact on the well-being of an entire community, including improved mental and physical health, improved coping skills, as well as increases in school performance and employment.

As the backbone for expanding this philosophy, CRI has been successfully developing such a framework for shifting the mindset and culture of their entire community by increasing awareness and access to ACEs science, and creating cultural shifts in organizations, sectors, and across the community. They have developed a host of training materials, videos, books, and even a deck of cards focused on resilience.

And for the third year running, they have their own conference.  

The 2018 Beyond Paper Tigers Trauma-Informed Conference takes place June 26-28 in Pasco, WA. The success of Paper Tigers brought a lot of national attention to Walla Walla and — through telling the story about how much more successful Lincoln High School students were in a trauma-informed, resilience-building environment — shed light on the incredible opportunities that come from integrating a collective approach to preventing ACEs.

With this new insight came a lot of questions about how to go about changing our approach. It also brought questions from CRI as they wondered how to make these efforts sustainable. After students left Lincoln High School, how were community partners supporting resilience-building practices for students? Were community members connecting among themselves to learn from each other and develop a plan for sustaining these practices?

Building on their history of engaging leaders and service systems, along with their efforts to raise awareness in the community about ACEs, CRI has developed a four-part training series and trauma-informed certification program. For the first time, the level 1 certification will be available to Beyond Paper Tigers attendees who wish to participate.

The trauma-informed course is the foundational course in the four-part series, and is a prerequisite for any of the other the advanced courses, which include Trauma-Supportive, Trauma-Practitioner, and Trauma-Coordinator certification.

The six-hour, trauma-informed course will be offered on the first day of the conference, and will be taught in English and Spanish. This beginner course is intended for general audiences with a goal of teaching participants baseline knowledge and skills about ACEs science and practice, and includes the KISS framework, and ROLES modules.

KISS (knowledge, insight, strategies, structures) is the capacity-building framework that CRI uses to teach the culture shift needed to sustain a community-wide movement.

ROLES (recognize, observe, label, elect, solve), addresses how adults can learn to model a regulated emotional state by learning how to recognize, and be responsible for, their own emotional state before expecting anyone to do the same. In other words, if we take care of ourselves, we can be a support to others.

The content in the remaining courses is based upon participants’ role in their organization or community, including direct-care professionals (trauma-supportive), direct care professionals working with highly traumatized individuals (trauma-practitioner), or administrators and community leaders (integrating knowledge and practice of ACEs science into communities and organizations).

If communities want to tackle the long-term physical, social, and emotional impacts of ACEs, we have to work collectively to end the cycle of ACEs, prevent future ones from occurring, and ensure a bright and resilient future for generations to come. CRI believes that each of our voices matter; each of our perspectives matter. Not only does take a village to raise a child, it takes a village to build strong adults, support them across their lifespan, and build resilient communities. CRI is eager to teach others how to build that village, and you can learn more about how to bring the “we” to your community this summer.


**For more information on Beyond Paper Tigers, please visit: **

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