The Matrix: Everyone Wants to Be the Author of Their Own Story

March 22-29, 2019 was been a big week for Change Matrix (CM).  Elizabeth and Suganya started the week in Nashville at NatCon19, the largest US convening of professionals who focus on mental health.  Elizabeth was working with the CONNECTED project as a partner and our role is to coach 5 pilot sites who have received funding to develop innovative initiatives that will decrease depression, anxiety and suicide among adolescents in their community.  Each pilot site has committed to meaningfully engage youth as partners in the change process leading to successful implementation of their initiative. We kicked off the program by bringing pilot teams and youth influencers together for two days. During the time the youth were connecting with one another and learning about their role, the teams met with Elizabeth to learn about and explore change, leadership and how they could effectively partner with youth to lead change.   Lightbulbs went off around inviting allies, partners and those with different experiences up to the balcony to consider context for the process of change.

During this same period, Suganya was involved with a joint venture by Kaiser Permanente and the National Council for Behavioral Health to prepare primary care systems to better address the impacts of trauma by launching “Trauma-Informed Primary Care:  Fostering Resilience and Recovery” a three-year project focused on developing, testing, and disseminating a scalable, field-informed change package. As part of an 11 member national Practice Transformation Team Suganya was involved in developing the change package that will provide resources, tips, and tools to guide primary care organizations in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of a trauma-informed approach.Elizabeth presenting at NatCon2019Suganya presenting at NatCon2019

Suganya and Elizabeth then partnered on a presentation for conference attendees on the intersection of culture and trauma and what adaptive leadership need to know, along with a colleague from the National Council.  After a brief introduction on why trauma must be seen through a cultural lens and culture must consider the experience of trauma, both personally and historically, we suggested that a comprehensive approach must be applied at the individual, organizational and community levels.  There was a strong emphasis on the unique personal experience of trauma as well as the community story that takes place over years to really understand the collective trauma and strengths that provide the context for the personal experience.

Later in the week, Suganya stayed on at the conference and participated in a convening of about 20 funders interested in knowing more about the status of adolescent mental health and the gaps in services and supports. Suganya participated in a panel to provide information to the funders related to adolescent mental health needs.  Suganya’s intent was to engage philanthropic institutions in exploring innovative approaches that otherwise would not advance the field. Her hope was that through these initial conversations philanthropy would engage more in community partnerships with the intent to reduce health disparities for adolescents. That these future potential endeavors would support culturally congruent practices that aid in building resiliency and provide prevention/ intervention and recovery efforts for under and unserved adolescent populations.

Rachele and Elizabeth at CREALater in that week, Rachele and Elizabeth attended the Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Assessment (CREA) conference to promote our work in Expanding the Bench™.  Expanding the Bench is an initiative to support increased numbers and access to evaluators from underrepresented minority groups who practice culturally responsive and equitable evaluation.  The theme of the conference this year was intersectionality in evaluation. In the plenaries and sessions we attended, we explored elements of the history of research and evaluation that did not acknowledge and were not responsive to cultural context, the impact of data that does not consider the strengths and resilience of historically oppressed communities, and the complexity of exploring social and psychological conditions when we must consider the multiple dimensions that collectively make up one’s identity.  Recommendations in light of that complexity focused on engaging people with lived experience and members of the groups that are a part of the evaluation be included in the evaluation design, implementation, analysis and dissemination.

There are threads and connections in all these experiences:

  1. Cultural context is important.  Whether we are talking about youth driven change, community stories of trauma and resilience or social and psychological conditions and change for population groups, you cannot motivate, manage or measure change without curiosity, listening deeply and partnering with those most impacted every step of the way.
  2. We don’t do “to” or “for”, we do “with”.  There is a reasonable conversation to have  around the use of the word serve now. To serve others sounds noble and generous, and for some, it contains elements of power and helplessness.
  3. Everyone wants to be the author of their own stories.  No matter what group we name as part of our identity, every individual is made up of their own unique elements and makes their own meaning out of each of them.  And they are impacted by experiences, especially those that are early and chronic. No one wants to be told that because they are a certain age, live in certain neighborhoods, or are a member of a cultural group, that anyone knows them without knowing them.
  4. The thinking, ideas, processes and practices that address youth driven change, trauma informed organizations and communities and culturally responsive evaluation have some things in common.
    • Know yourself and look for your own biases.  Observe how they show up in change, leadership, conflict, and interactions with others.
    • Come with a curious mind, ready to be surprised.
    • Listen openly and with the intent to understand.
    • Look for strengths and assets in individuals and communities.
    • Seek to understand the relationship between individuals and their cultural and community context both in the present and historically.
    • Engage and partner with those who have lived experience and are most impacted in an on-going way and build a respectful and trusting relationship.
    • Provide space for people to be the author of their own story and remember that they own their story.
Contributed by: Elizabeth Waetzig, Rachele Espiritu, and Suganya Sockalingam
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Elizabeth’s Immigration Story: Immigration fun facts

No matter what side of the immigration and citizen debate one gravitates to, the inability of our nation’s leaders to find consensus has been distressing to watch. During one of our team meetings, we found ourselves sharing our own stories of what the word immigration means to us. We thought we’d share a little more about our team members over the course of time.


When I was young, I learned and repeated stories in conversations about “where we were from” about a part of my family from Scotland – my maternal grandmother could do the Highland Fling and my middle name was McIntosh for which there was a designated tartan. I also learned that on my father’s side, in the 1700s, seven Zirkle brothers came from Germany and our family were descendants of the “Lewis” line.

Elizabeth's grandfather and father Lewis
My grandfather Lewis with my dad Lewis.

My father and grandfather were named Lewis and I probably would have been if I had been born a boy. These stories were fun facts that I shared with my friends, but they did not feel significantly influential as I explored my identity. I did wonder as a child why after all of these years in the US, we still identified ourselves as “from other countries”. And as a child “from” the US, I was born in North Carolina, moved to Colorado and then 3 different places in California before settling in the Eastern side of Washington State at the age of 8. Because we only stayed a year or so in each place, belonging was something I had to feel out, choose and pursue.

Immigration came into focus for me beyond my own experience when I lived in Eastern Washington. I became aware that there was a large number of people who travelled up from Mexico and worked in the orchards and wheat fields. I knew that their lives were different than mine and I watched my parents, both doctors, give their time and their talent on a regular basis to many who were not economically situated as we were – particularly where immigrant families were not likely to get good care. My mother volunteered weekly in the local health clinics providing excellent pediatric care to migrant children and families. My father would care for individuals and take payment in trade – salmon, fruit – because he knew that insurance was not available to migrant workers and their injuries would cause great economic harm to them and their families. I also became increasingly aware of the narratives that were built and told about the same immigrant families – and they were not very positive. Looking back, I wish I would have recognized that these narratives were spun by others, not them. I wish I had done more to see and know people who endured so much in pursuit of a better life – the life I had handed to me.

So, here we are now in 2019 with a very difficult national division around immigration. When I reflect on my growing up, I have attempted to surface and identify the assumptions I made as I moved through education, health and development and achievement as a white person, born in the US. I acknowledge that the stories I was told about my own heritage stayed in the background for me as I pursued opportunities. I am grateful for the work my parents did to care for others, particularly immigrants in our area. I am deeply troubled by the divide that we are experiencing as some feel that they have a “right” to be in this country while others “want” to be in this country. I am innately aware of the power of belonging and the harm that othering can do and I long for and am committed to a world where we all experience and believe that we belong.

[Picture above: My mother in her Scottish dress.]
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Tennille’s Immigration Story: Young love and sacrifices

No matter what side of the immigration and citizen debate one gravitates to, the inability of our nation’s leaders to find consensus has been distressing to watch. During one of our team meetings, we found ourselves sharing our own stories of what the word immigration means to us. We thought we’d share a little more about our team members over the course of time.


Having been raised closer to the maternal side of my family who were born here in the US, I didn’t have any real experience with immigration affecting my life. That is, until the first time I fell in love. I was 18 years old and completely in love with a man from Trinidad; I had no idea what this meant. This man went to high school in New York City, just like I did. He was a star basketball player and had taken his high school team to the state finals. He was so talented that he could look at anything and draw it. So why wasn’t he in college? I just could not comprehend. As the old adage says “To understand the present, one must learn from the past”, so with that being said let me go back in time.

One day before Nyron Isaac turned 16 his parents sent him to live in the US with his older brothers. He was granted a medical visa for an eye defect. This specific type of visa was only good for a 3-month trip to the US. At the end of the 3 months, his parents informed him that this trip would in fact be a permanent one. Since he was a minor and it is mandatory for children to be in school, Nyron’s older brother was able to enroll him in high school where he would eventually become an All-Star athlete and artist.

With so many talents on and off the court, numerous colleges began to recruit him. Unfortunately, having overstayed his visa he wouldn’t be allowed to continue his illustrious career. Having no social security number or any idea of how to obtain one, Nyron called his parents back in Trinidad. At this point, all he felt was a sense of hopelessness and defeat. How could he better himself and accomplish his dreams when he was considered “illegal”? His parents told him staying in the US would provide better options for him than returning back to Trinidad. They thought life in the “Land of the free and home of the brave” would be easier. Little did they know without the proper paperwork it would be anything but easy. In fact, not only was he unable to get into college, he was unable to legally work, this meant he was unable to get paid a fair wage. After accepting numerous jobs “off the books” for below minimum wage he took to the streets to find income as many people in his situation often do. He began to sell drugs to survive.

Now the year is 2000 and I am pregnant with our first born. Nyron wanted out of the street life he wanted to provide a stable home for our soon to be born son. He accepted yet another under paying job and stopped selling drugs. It was hard, even with me working we just weren’t making enough money. Given our choices he encouraged me to go back to school. He would watch our child so that I could go to college since he couldn’t.

While doing some research we found out that since I was a natural born citizen we could apply for a green card for him through marriage. At this time, we couldn’t afford to both be in school, so I continued my education while he worked and took care of our son.

Fast forward to the present, although we are no longer married, I am extremely proud of him and grateful for his sacrifice. After years of hard work, he now owns his own barbershop in NYC and does freelance graphic arts on the side.

[Picture above: Nyron, Tennille, and their son.]
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