Being Female in a Safe and Supportive World

Safety…Early childhood experts say it is critical to successful development through those early ages and stages. Safety is the first trauma-informed principle and some might say that it is the foundation upon which the other principles rest. As we listen to #metoo stories and #timesup messages and consider that safety isn’t a given for girls, it becomes apparent that girls and women do not feel safe. It is estimated that 25%  of girls will experience sexual assault[1] and and 25% experience[2] dating and domestic violence in their homes and in other environments. We can’t help but see that girls and women feel unsafe in their homes, in their communities, in their schools, and in their workplace, and it is not hard to imagine how that impacts their levels of stress and mental health.

What does it say about our collective sense of safety when parents of girls feel the need to prepare their girls to protect themselves by walking with another person (preferably male) at night, carrying protective devices like mace (or a gun), or putting their keys between their fingers? And of course, there is the guidance about safety at parties. Don’t drink anything that you did not pour or see poured. Never put your drink down. Why not? Because you are not safe.

There are also the environments where our lack of safety is not as clearly visible. But we still feel it. In school, girls stop participating in class because, as girls, they have been taught directly or indirectly to be respectful, to not be too attention-seeking and not to fail. The traits they have been taught as young girls can create self-doubt in girls in school and inhibit participation that is crucial to engaged learning. In the workplace, women make daily choices to accommodate, stay neutral, or confront behavior that promote the identity of women as primarily sexual beings and not intellectually equal. The problem is, if she speaks up, she is seen (or viewed as) aggressive or difficult, and if she doesn’t speak up, then how can it be that big a deal? This constant negotiation with the world about female identity and corresponding power, or inequity, for women is exhausting and many times scary. It is unsafe.

And so here we are at another point in time when conversation seems possible. Some would say that we (#metoo) are at risk for being so extreme and black and white, that our progress could be compromised. This is a nuanced and complex conversation that is based upon thousands of years of history. It deserves thoughtful, participatory, and respectful exploration of healthy relationships, how we show up as men and women and our relative power rather than knee-jerk reactions.

The hopeful part of this point in time is that men are having this conversation as well. Several articles have emerged describing the uncertainty that men also feel about what it means to be a man or what it means to be masculine. There seems to be an effort to explore masculinity and femininity in a way that may lead to mutual respect, equity, and the freedom to choose what that means individually, in relationship to one another, and in our society.

Research underscores the role that gender inequality and rigid gender roles play in lack of safety felt by girls and violence experienced by girls. So what does it mean for us who are working to support states, communities, organizations and individuals to provide access to services and supports that lead to healthier people and environments? For one thing, as we are probing questions of cultural and linguistic competence, a focus on gender that includes LGBTQ and cis gender children and youth should be included. Everyone deserves a space to determine who they are and what that means in a society where individuals respect and care for each other. Everyone deserves to feel safe walking to their car, interacting with peers, raising their hands and achieving professional success.

[1] The Center for Family Justice

[2] National Domestic Violence Hotline

Contributed by: Elizabeth Waetzig & Peg O’Neill, executive director of WISE of the Upper Valley in New Hampshire
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Cultural and Linguistic Competence Checklist for Reviewing Trauma Related Documents

There is a vast array of publications related to trauma-informed care and practices. However, most of these documents and publications have not necessarily addressed trauma through a cultural lens. For educators, trainers, and presenters who want to use the literature to inform their own work and to share resources with others, it is important that they ensure that those resources are also culturally informed. This checklist offers guidance on identifying culturally-responsive trauma informed care and practices.

Contributed by: Suganya Sockalingam
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Bad Things Happen, People Recover and Do Amazing Things

The shooting on February 14 at a high school in Parkland, Florida was another one of too many school shootings in the US since 2018 began. The day after this tragedy our Change Matrix team gathered during our regularly scheduled time and were unable to focus on our structured agenda for the day. Instead, we took turns over video conference sharing how we felt. As a group, we were feeling grief, rage, bewilderment, helplessness and grateful for a space among trusted colleagues and friends to support each other. We also felt a need to do something. We all felt the need to do something bold because where we are in this country is not ok. It is not ok that anyone’s life is taken before their time and in this tragic way.

While we shed and shared our tears, we also offered a composite of what could and should be done. And some of what we believe is in contrast with popular and political sentiments. Perhaps one of the most complex aspects of our thinking was for the young man who has confessed to the massacre. It is natural to define his motive as hate and evil. It looks and feels like that. But we must ask ourselves about what in this young man’s life potentially contributed to this act. What we could have done? What should we be doing about it?

All of us touched on the emerging focus on trauma. Trauma is a word that has entered our field over the last decade in all of our child and family serving systems. We know from neuroscience that when adverse childhood experiences or traumatic events impact developing brains, they are altered and individual response can show up as challenging behavior. From news sources, we know a few things about Nikolas Cruz. He was adopted early on, lost his adoptive father and then his adoptive mother with whom he was very close. She was his safe space. Loss of parents at a young age is identified as an adverse childhood experience. We also know from the same sources, that he showed signs of behavior that could have indicated a stress response to trauma. Much of this behavior happened at school and led to his suspension.

So what should we learn from this? In ALL of our services and systems, understanding and incorporating a whole child, trauma informed approach is necessary. We have to learn more and ask (without assuming) what has happened to a child that may be provoking concerning behaviors.

As schools are the place where most children and youth spend a majority of their time, that is a critical place to incorporate social and emotional learning with a trauma informed lens. All children are better equipped to succeed in the classroom when they are mentally healthy. Those with concerning behaviors are better served when teachers, counselors, school nurses and psychologists (for schools lucky enough to have access to them) can take a compassionate, trauma informed approach when challenging behaviors show up. And when students are exhibiting evidence of serious mental health challenges, strong partnerships with the other services like mental health, are invaluable to ensuring students get what they need to increase their own resilience and avoid hurting others. Treating mental health challenges as a scary, violence-producing condition will only isolate those who suffer, increase stigma and fear towards those with mental health challenges and decrease our focus on promotion of positive mental health for everyone. That kind of thinking sends us in the wrong direction.

And lastly, because it cannot go unsaid, this country must change gun policy. It is unacceptable that just anyone has access to assault weapons and ammunition. It is unacceptable that we are held captive by a gun lobby that has hobbled our elective officials to act responsibly for the public good. This country has always experienced tension between individual rights and the good of the collective. We have swung so far to the extreme of protecting individuals to buy, own, carry and use weapons, that our children, youth and adults are needlessly dying. We said it after Columbine, Sandy Hook and all of the other tragedies…if not now, when? We at Change Matrix say No More!

Contributed by: Rachele Espiritu & Elizabeth Waetzig
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