When the RYSE Center opened its doors in 2008 in Richmond, CA, says Kanwarpal Dhaliwal, community health director and a RYSE co-founder (and ACEsConnection member), staff members didn’t talk about complex trauma per se, but they recognized the many types of chronic trauma that the youth it was serving were experiencing. The youth services organization grew out of a youth movement in response to homicides near Richmond High School in 2000.
When RYSE Center staff members learned about the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, “it felt very validating,” says Dhaliwal. “It really helped to give language to the way we were working with young people."
But they also knew that there was more to a person’s trauma than just her or his experiences. The youth come “into this world in structures and conditions already established,” says Dhaliwal. These structures are often punitive (e.g., zero tolerance policies in schools) and embedded in racial bias; they limit opportunities and come with built-in economic and social inequities.
Last year, RYSE did a listening campaign with its youth, and earlier this year, staff members began talking about the findings and sharing them with activists, researchers, funders, etc. They decided to use the ACEs pyramid to leverage the existing science in communicating their major findings: that in helping young people, especially young people of color, there’s only so much that an organization like RYSE can do. It requires transformation at systems and community levels. The two new layers of the ACE pyramid – social conditions/local context and generational embodiment/historical trauma -- address that.
In addition, they wanted to change the way risk is defined. “Risk-taking is critical for healthy development (of individuals and organizations),” says Dhaliwal, but risk-taking in the context of chronic trauma and inequity, often results in harm and burden. Also, many “health-risk” behaviors -- such as smoking, drinking or overeating -- are ways for young people to cope with their trauma. By using the word “coping”, it doesn’t put a negative or positive value on the behavior.
This new way of looking at the ACEs pyramid is a start to incorporating some important concepts into the ACEs discussion, says Dhaliwal, who wants to know what the ACEsConnection.com community thinks of it.
“What questions do you have?” she asks. “We’d like honest and gentle critiques to help make sure that our practice and praxis as an organization is reflective and responsive to the priorities, needs, and interests of young people, particularly to young people of color.”