Saturday, December 11, 2021

More Than Our Trauma: Healing-Centered Social Change

        For all the effort we put into social change, and all the discouragement we feel with how slow that change often is, sometimes I am amazed at how quickly and how much change is actually happening. And I don’t just mean in all the horrible, unjust ways. I’ll take it as a given that humans will continue to think up horrible ways to hurt one another and destroy the planet; that is disappointing and egregious, but it isn’t surprising. What continually brings me unexpected wonder is that so many of us keep figuring out ways to heal and grow. I feel a lot of joy that, when it would be so easy to give up, a significant number of human beings insist that there is another way, cropping up again and again throughout history and across cultures. People keep finding ways to insist on justice and compassion, using whatever tools are available. It is one of the most hopeful and fascinating things I can observe about humanity. 

Hints of Another Way

This is not the only experience most of us have had in life; we are very aware of how abusive and unjust people, institutions, and cultures have been and can be. Particularly in my childhood religious community, I grew up being taught to fear judgment – no, fear is not the right word. We were meant to be terrified. The threats were constant enough to become ordinary, part of the air we breathed. If we dared to question it, we were assured that terror was simply how both god and humans kept things safe and under control. You were safe only as long as you complied to their demands.

        There were hints of another way – echoes in ancient texts; unexpected kindnesses between friends and strangers; the stirring of some ineffable joy and wonder while sitting in the garden; the tugging at the heart to be moved more by compassion than by threat. I learned to listen for the whispers of this other way, for the in-breaking of loving relationships that could be welcomed with joy, instead of horror. That became very important to me, as I learned to navigate the harsh realities of the world. It was the possibility of a better, more kind, more just, more compassionate society that kept me from giving up. 

Paradoxically, my childhood religious community also gave me one of these enduring images. The world is full of mountains and valleys, the prophets taught, and we are called on to level it all, so that there can be equality, justice, and mutuality. One example of this comes from the book of Baruch, probably written while the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon. This forms the book’s perspective as a marginalized people struggling to find justice while living under imperial rule. In 5:7, there's the familiar refrain that "every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” And this is immediately followed by hopeful, exuberant joy in the next verses. The woods and fragrant trees provide shade, and Israel is guided by joy, mercy, and righteousness. 
That joy is what always intrigues me. How is it that humans are able to talk about, feel, and express joy amid all the suffering and injustice? Where does the joy come from? What is it about leveling mountains that can inspire such bliss? 

        Those mountains and valleys are not about geography; they are about hierarchy. These are the systems of domination, exploitation, and oppression that we so regularly talk about and hope to change, from ableism to racism to classism to gender and sexuality antagonism and more. These mountains inevitably create violence and injustice. And I repeat this from time to time, because I believe it is worth the repetition: oppressive systems always seek to convince us that the disparities they create are inevitable, if not natural and even good. Texts like these remind us that those disparities are not inevitable; they are mountains we can make low. In a society that focuses on climbing ladders, crushing anyone who stands in the way, we are invited to form circles, joining everyone together on level ground. What could be more joyful? 
          This also gives those of us who experience privilege and power in one way or another, and especially for those of us who are White, another way to understand our position and responsibility. In this image, the high mountain comes at the expense of the valley: we cannot accumulate wealth, power, or privilege without it being taken from someone else. This is how oppression works. And even if I was not personally involved in the injustices that piled up the mountain, it’s still my responsibility to help level the ground. 
        There’s no way around this. If you try to keep the mountain, maybe by filling in the valley with ground from somewhere else, you have just moved the problem around. You’ve only created another valley in another place. No, the mountain must be brought down. But it’s only upsetting to do this when we don’t want to give up the ground. Leveling the mountain is only terrifying when you think that it means you have something to lose. But if we understand what is actually at work here, that we are creating a world where everyone can thrive, then leveling the ground, even amid the discouragement and difficulties, is an act of joy. 

Leveling the Ground through Trauma Healing

But let’s put some flesh on this metaphorical skeleton. One important and often overlooked real life example of leveling the ground comes in the form of trauma healing. While anyone can experience trauma, one of the things oppressive systems do best is traumatize the people that it dominates. In a 2019 study of historically oppressed groups in Canada, 91% of Indigenous, 64% of Black, and 57% of Jewish respondents reported experiencing at least one trauma; women were especially vulnerable. ( ) Children are also at special risk, both because they frequently lack protection in our society and because their healthy development can be interrupted. A 2007 study showed that as much as 68% of children still experience at least one traumatic event by the time they are 16 years old. (  ) 

        Obviously, the best scenario is to change society so that we stop oppressing people and traumatizing children. But a big step in that direction is universalizing the resources, skills, and community support for trauma healing. Happily, this has been a growing trend around the world, which is a wonderful sign of hope that we can celebrate. To be clear, I am not suggesting that trauma healing did not happen before these more recent movements. Many compassionate and wise practitioners have approached their work and relationships in these ways before we had the words for it. The vocabulary and concepts, however, can help more and more of us become more intentional about caring in these ways, while also helping us develop accountability, measures, and research methods to keep growing in knowledge and skill. 

With that in mind, let’s go back to 1995, when the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente conducted a study on trauma and child development.  It described “various forms of physical and emotional abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction” as “Adverse Childhood Experiences.” This set off a flurry of other studies, and the research quickly demonstrated that, rather than being unusual, adversity was shockingly and devastatingly common. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “more than two-thirds of the population report experiencing one ACE, and nearly a quarter have experienced three or more.” Moreover, they documented “a powerful, persistent correlation between” the number of adversities a child experienced and the likelihood of that child having difficulties later in life, “including dramatically increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, substance abuse, smoking, poor academic achievement, time out of work, and early death.” ( )

By the early 2000s, child development specialists were exploring toxic stress and its impacts on child development, especially on the brain. Children who experienced more of these stressors, especially without supportive adults in their lives, were most likely to suffer worse impacts. A popular analogy was to think about how repeatedly revving a car’s engine over and over again for weeks on end would impact the car’s performance. In a similar way, repeatedly exposing a child to stress increased the risk of things going wrong. Human brains, like a car’s engine, are not designed for that kind of wear and tear. 

A Helpful Tool 

During this time, the ACEs quiz became the standard to measure how many and how often children were experiencing these potentially traumatic experiences. This, in turn, allowed researchers to track the impacts over time. The quiz has ten questions, documenting physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; poverty; divorce; drug and alcohol abuse; mental illness; and incarceration. And its use has had a powerful and positive impact on disciplines from child development to medical care to education. As Ellen Galinsky wrote, 

“The focus on ‘toxic stress,’ ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), and trauma-informed care have been game-changers … . They have helped us recognize the symptoms of trauma, provide appropriate assistance to children, and understand that prolonged adversity in the absence of nurturing relationships can derail a child’s healthy development.”  ( )

  Again, I want to stress how quickly and thoroughly these changes have been. I was already an adult before the language of ACEs was even created, and it transformed the world. Today, if you’ve been anywhere near the disciplines of child development, social work, education, or community development, you’ve undoubtedly heard that phrase “trauma-informed care” more than once. It represents a change in thinking from “what is wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?” and is guided by five principles: safety (“Ensuring physical and emotional safety”), choice (“Individual has choice and control”), collaboration (“Making decisions with the individual and sharing power”), trustworthiness (“Task clarity, consistency, and Interpersonal Boundaries”), and empowerment (“Prioritizing empowerment and skill building”). ( )

This is wonderful! When I was growing up and trying to understand and heal from trauma, the only resources I had available was a shelf full of books from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. And let me tell you, reading books about demons and end-times hysteria did not create an atmosphere of safety, choice, collaboration, trust, or empowerment. When done well, and when integrated across disciplines, trauma-informed care goes a long way toward creating a context where a traumatized person is less likely to be re-traumatized. This allows us to live our lives more freely and accessibly, while also being able to devote more energy to healing past trauma rather than coping with new trauma. 

Despite these positive aspects, we are not finished learning and growing. For example, it quickly became clear that ACEs missed many adverse experiences. As the American Society for the Positive Care of Children pointed out, the ACEs quiz doesn’t include “community violence, racism, other forms of discrimination, natural disasters, [or] housing insecurity,” leaving the picture incomplete and the possible risks unknown. Second, we have grown in understanding of: the range of responses to traumatic experiences; the role of resilience; genetic dispositions; and the importance of protective factors, such as healthy bonding with at least one adult. ( ) Perhaps most importantly, marginalized people have encouraged us to move from a medical model that pathologizes trauma to justice and equity models that focus on healing and wellbeing. 

More Than Our Trauma

Dr. Shawn Ginwright related one instance of this when he was leading a healing circle for young African American men. 

“All of them had experienced some form of trauma ranging from sexual abuse, violence, homelessness, abandonment or all of the above. During one of our sessions, I explained the impact of stress and trauma on brain development and how trauma can influence emotional health. As I was explaining, one of the young men in the group named Marcus abruptly stopped me and said, ‘I am more than what happened to me, I’m not just my trauma’. … The term ‘trauma informed care’ didn’t encompass the totality of his experience and focused only on his harm, injury and trauma. For Marcus, the term ‘trauma informed care’ was akin to saying, you are the worst thing that ever happened to you. For me, I realized the term slipped into the murky water of deficit based, rather than asset driven strategies to support young people who have been harmed.”   ( )

        Just as trauma-informed care shifted the question from “what is wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?”, Ginwright’s healing-centered approach shifts the question from “‘what happened to you’ to ‘what’s right with you’ and views those exposed to trauma as agents in the creation of their own well-being rather than victims of traumatic events.” (ibid) 

Similarly, Healing Together, a nonprofit based in Oakland, California, helpfully compares the medical-industrial model with a transformational model. While the medical model focuses on pathologizing trauma, medicating symptoms, and individualizing both the trauma and its cure, the transformational model focuses on putting the trauma in a community context, addressing root causes, and providing collective processes to heal and transform. Further, the transformational model levels another mountain by making access universal, rather than creating a system where care is often unavailable to the poor. ( )
        Another approach in this vein is called Asset-Informed Care. Earlier, I quoted Ellen Galinsky’s praise for the ACEs and trauma-informed care as “game changers.” But she did not stop there. She also wrote, “given these positive results, it may be a surprise that I propose expanding beyond these problem-focused, trauma-laced concepts to narratives and solutions that are rooted in children’s and families’ assets.” Instead of defining people “by their trauma,” Galinsky emphasizes building “on children’s and families’ assets” and “focusing and expanding on what children and adults are already doing that’s right.” And underneath all of this is the commitment to address root causes. (

        Addressing root causes brings us full circle, back to leveling those mountains of injustice. When we prioritize making trauma healing accessible to everyone, especially to marginalized communities, we are filling in the valleys. When we address the root causes of those traumas, we are almost always engaging with oppressive systems. 

        For most of us, our lives are filled with both mountains and valleys, some mix of dominance and oppression. We are both complicit in supporting and benefiting from injustice while also suffering from injustice. And so each of us must find ways to level the ground in our unique circumstances. But we must do the work; the mountain won’t level itself. Especially with such historically entrenched and traumatizing systems like White Supremacy, so ingrained into most aspects of most societies, the leveling must be both intentional and ongoing. A shovel-full every once in a while is not going to get it done. The joy of what lies ahead is part of what energizes us to keep going. 

        So as a reminder of this daily practice, I have found this wisdom from adrienne maree brown ( ) to be a wonderful help -
“Where we are born into privilege, 
we are charged with dismantling any myth of supremacy. 
Where we were born into struggle, 
we are charged with claiming our dignity, joy, and liberation.” 
          I can’t think of a better or more hopeful expression of the work we are called to do, so “that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground” and all of us have a chance to live our wondrous, improbable lives with dignity, safety, and joy.