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.
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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Sticks and Stones may break your bones and words can hurt or heal.
There is a difference between thinking before we speak and being thoughtful about the words we speak. Words themselves make a difference for they form images and response based on experiences and associations. Our mental models, implicit biases, and trauma experiences show up to respond to the interpretive call.
The power of words to create response has been demonstrated throughout time. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of language empowered a movement. His words transcended his death and time to inform ways in which a broader population can do good and move towards equity. Who can forget the power of dreaming about a time when people are judged based on the content of the character rather than the color of their skin. The use of language by others has incited individuals and groups of people to commit acts of violence and participant in creating or perpetuating harm.
We know of the power of words to invoke responses on a physical level. Stop. Danger. Enemy. What is sometimes less clear is whether the language creates a condition and under what circumstance. A few years back I was doing some work around the impact of self talk. I was asked to repeat a phrase until I actually began to believe it and accept it as my own reality. I had the opportunity to show the power of words during a presentation on the Body/ Mind/ Belief connection when I was confronted by a heckler in the audience. He was a large strong man, loud and disruptive to the group. He didn’t want to be at that presentation and was not happy. I told him that I would release him from the presentation with full credit for his attendance if he would be willing to help me with a little demonstration. He agreed feeling certain there was nothing of value for him that could be gained by his participation. I asked him to hold his arm straight out to his side and to resist me as I attempted to push his arm down with my hand. As I suspected he was fairly strong, and I could barely make his arm move. Then, I ask him to repeat the words “ I am weak and worthless” three time out loud. He laughed. I said he didn’t have to believe the words, just say them. Afterwards, I asked him to once again raise his arm and resist my attempts to lower it. With two fingers on his arm, I was able to collapse his arm to his side. The look of shock on his face said it all. I had him repeat the words, “ I am strong and powerful” three times out load and attempted again. You can guess the results.
What we say to ourselves to others, does matter. It makes a difference, and whether we are putting words that mend or word that tear into the world can impact our collective outcomes.
Think about Dr. King and how his use of language empowered a movement. How can we learn from the way he articulated messages to invoke action and stimulate positive change? While his loss was devastating, it could also be seen as a catalyst for the movement. Government and the CDC’s ban on language does a disservice to our work in many ways. If you can’t even name something, how do you intend to work on improving it?
Our work has been directly impacted by word choices by federal funders and partners. From the now famous 7 words that the CDC is encouraged to avoid in their funding requests to, perhaps the lesser known, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) shift from “multi-system youth” to “offender”. These words matter. It matters that science based and evidence based are terms that have been diluted by that guidance. It sends a message that evidence and science are not as important in policy, funding and program implementation. It is scary. The OJJDP word shift conveys a message about how our system thinks about young people who are involved in their system. It reverses what we believe to be the right direction of more emphasis on rehabilitation and support rather than punishment.
CM has been promoting an intentional use of language since our formation. We believe that in cross system collaboration the use and definition of terms is a necessary first step when coming together. We also believe that in an attempt to be culturally responsive, it is imperative to be aware of and curious about the language of others.
There is another way in which CM incorporates a focus on language in our work. We work with a wide variety of individuals who all need to reach a shared understanding of conditions, challenges, and current thinking in order to move collectively toward change. Language can be too academic or distant from the experiences of youth, caregivers, community members, providers and administrators. In fact, there is no individual who is well versed in the accepted language of other stakeholders. CM ensures that in every facilitated dialogue, planning process, training or really anything else we do, that words, terms, labels and acronyms are surfaced and defined by the group with an eye towards external messaging.
Lots of opportunity to create change in language and a lot of ways to use language to create change! Change sometimes begins with a recognition that words mean so many things to so many people. What words will you use to heal, engage and make change?
Resources on Language:
- Tolerance.org’s Classroom Resource for Analyzing Bias in Word Choice
- Simply Home’s blog on the Top 10 Ways to Embrace Person-Centered Language
- University of New Hampshire Bias-Free Language Guide (pdf)
- Relias blog on What is Trauma Sensitive Language?
- Berkeley Media Studies Group’s Framing 101
- Makani Themba’s Essay, Disrupting the Discourse: Framing at the Intersection of Racism and Opportunity (pdf)