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ACEs Champion Brian Semsem — Transforming Trauma Neural Pathways into Resilience Pathways


Brian Semsem, a pastor based in Fresno, California, who has been working with troubled youth and adults for most of his professional life, says when he first learned about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in 2014 from a colleague in a county foster youth program, “I started seeing numbers over everybody’s head.” 

His own ACE score is 6, with a history of substance abuse and growing up as a mixed-race minority (Hawaiian/White) in the Central Valley, in a low-income and under-served population.

Later, he went on the Internet and “consumed everything I could find,” including the campaign by then-Principal Jim Sporleder at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington, who integrated practices based on ACEs science to help kids in the school. That led to a meeting at the ACEs Connection network in Sacramento, where Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-author of the original CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, happened to be speaking.

“That was the anchoring moment for me,” recalls Semsem. “As I began to understand the science, I began to see each person’s brain instead of their ACEs number.

“Before,” he explains of his work with helping members of his congregation deal with substance abuse, sexual assault, and gang violence, “we didn’t have a common, unifying language.” ACEs science changed that and helped Semsem learned how to help these families develop resilience instead of using drugs to deal with their childhood trauma.

ACEs is a term that comes from a landmark study that showed how widespread childhood adversity is. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study) of more than 17,000 adults, which was first published in 1998, linked 10 types of childhood adversity — such as living with a parent who is mentally ill, has abused alcohol or is emotionally abusive — to the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. Many other types of ACEs— including racism, bullying, a father being abused, and community violence — have been added to subsequent ACE surveys.

The ACE Study found that the higher someone’s ACE score — the more types of childhood adversity a person experienced — the higher their risk of social, economic, health and civic consequences. The study found that most people (64%) have at least one ACE; 12% of the population has an ACE score of 4 or higher. Having an ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer. It increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent. (For more information about how this works, go to ACEs Science 101. To calculate your ACE and resilience scores, go to: Got Your ACE/Resilience Score?)

The epidemiology of childhood adversity—from which ACE surveys are produced—are one of five parts of ACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs affects children’s brains, the short- and long-term health effects of toxic stress, how toxic stress is passed on from generation to generation, and research on resilience, which includes how individuals, organizations, systems and communities can integrate ACEs science to solve our most intractable problems. 

Semsen, now 52, is director of Recreational Resilience Programs for Every Neighborhood Partnership (ENP), a local nonprofit in Fresno,where he coordinates several youth engagement and mentoring program for at-risk youth. But it wasn’t until he was 47 that he realized he “was ill prepared to support the people I was caring for,” and needed to go back to school. So, he got his AA in sociology at Fresno City College in 2017, and a bachelor’s in social work in 2019 at Fresno Pacific University. He’s now enrolled in a master’s programin social work at Fresno State.

The pastor’s work with the community, especially at-risk youth, focuses on developing resilience. A key insight from ACEs science is that “the pathway to resilience is the same pathway to trauma. New experiences, therefore, result in new effects.” So, one can alter the effects of trauma – resulting from an event and leading to an experience (the three E’s: Event, Experience, Effect) – through caring relationships.

For example, people often use drugs as a way to help them survive the trauma they’ve experienced as children. But as Semsem points out, drug use is a short-term adaptive survival skill (the essences of resilience) with long-term negative effects. Armed with that awareness, We can help people understand how to tap into those survival skills to develop new ways of adapting (behaviors such as meditation) and build new neural pathways that lead to more beneficial and healthy outcomes.The key in helping people make this transformational shift to provide them with supportive and caring relationships where they experience being loved, safe,and connected,

For another example, the trauma facilitator points out, consider gangs.

“Gangs are an illegitimate means of achieving legitimate needs,” he explains. “They are not an indicator of your deficit; they are an attempt to survive.” His approach with gang members is to ask, “Can we help you understand that this has some unintended consequences that are not helping you?” And then he trains professionals to transfer the skills of gang members — loyalty and commitment — to a cause that will benefit them and the community.

Semsem warns that trauma trainers must be aware that just introducing ACEs can provoke trauma. “Some trainers start off with it and create trauma,” he says. He offers grounding techniques, including breathing exercises, breaking up into small groups, and a specialty of his – drumming – as ways that can reset the nervous system and manage stress.

Semsem trained in using body percussion and Remo hand drums at the UCLA Center for Healing Arts, which uses five expressive art forms in a trauma-informed environment to engage participants in an expressive way. Semsem is a facilitator of a Beat the Odds (BTO) program through his role at ENP. He trains volunteers to enter the public elementary schools in Fresno to deliver the BTO Program as a supplemental physical education program. The BTO program, which started four years ago, and has expanded to four schools and was funded by Kaiser Permanente.  A UCLA study of integrating the BTO Program into school programs showed reduced levels of attention deficit disorder and anxiety. 

A few years ago, Semsem formed a trauma-informed consulting company, Anago, with his wife, who is completing her AA in child development. Together they have nine children, three of whom were Semsem’s from an earlier relationship, two of whom were adopted, and two foster children, in addition to two biological children with his wife.

In addition to his activities as a pastor, facilitator, parent, and consultant, Semsem is working on his master’s thesis, which is focused on correlating the burn-out rate of professionals, particularly inner-city school teachers, with their ACEs and their positive childhood experiences. His goal is to create an eight-week curriculum that builds self-care. The series will focus on somatic awareness and “intra-personal” communication, using breathing and other techniques. The end result should enable professionals to manage their stress level within their own bodies rather than doing something outside – such as drinking or taking drugs. 

Addressing these pandemic times, Semsem says we are all experiencing a universal trauma.

“No one is not experiencing this event,” he points out, “and good, anchored relationships can help mitigate the stress response. I’m thankful for the work that ACEs Connection has done for creating a learning community…we are all benefiting.”

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