Brandon Jones describes himself this way: “I’m a down-to-earth psychotherapist, professor, and family man dedicated to helping those who want to heal.”
Jones grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, which has been averaging a police-involved death every year over the past five years. Gun violence in African American, Somali, Latinx and indigenous gangs “have all found a home here in the Twin Cities.”
“George Floyd was the tip of the iceberg,” says the PACEs advocate, psychotherapist, consultant and author. He also is an adjunct professor at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, where he received his bachelor’s degree as well as two master’s degrees.
Unlike most practicing psychotherapists, Jones says his trauma work is both professional and personal. “They teach you at these fancy schools not to blend those lines, but it’s hard not to as a Black person.
“For me, my trauma was domestic violence as a kid. My stepfather was violent, and my mom and myself were the victims. He always treated me differently than his own two children, who were my younger brothers.”
A few weeks before his 12th birthday – on July 4, which was usually a day of both national and personal celebration – his grandmother told him that his stepfather was not his real dad, which he had not known.
“I broke down and started crying. That man wasn’t treating my family right. Oh…he’s not my father,” he says.
Jones’ grandmother took him to see his biological father in a town north of the Twin Cities, where Jones discovered he had siblings, cousins, and other relatives. His dad didn’t show up until it was time for him to return home and they only spent 10 minutes together. He didn’t see his father again for two years.
Jones later understood this episode to mean, “I’m 12 and realize I can’t depend on men, especially Black men. What does it mean for my development? These are the things that don’t get counted. Yet all those things affected me mentally. I was probably depressed all during my adolescence.”
Beating the odds
Because he was a good football player who “masked his intelligence behind being an athlete,” he went to the University of Minnesota, where at the time his chances of graduating were slim. “Only one in four Black males graduated,” he says.
After being placed on academic probation after his first semester, when he was studying to become a dentist, a counselor advised him to switch his major to sociology. “That opened me up to working with people, race, and class,” he says. He excelled, graduated with a bachelor’s in sociology in 2008, and went back for a master’s in community psychology in 2010.
That’s where, in 2011, Jones learned about the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. He was also deeply affected by an interview he did with Sam Simmons, a founder of the Black Man Healing Conference. (Simmons now is a behavioral consultant and the SAFE Families Manager at The Family Partnership, managing the federally funded Be More Project to stop violence. He is also an Adverse Childhood Experience Interface trainer in Minnesota.) After that interview, Jones switched his thesis topic from a focus on Black leadership to ways to help the Black community by examining its history and culture through a trauma lens. Jones later became co-leader of the healing conference, which is now in its 14th year.
When he first heard about ACEs, Jones says, “It scared me. My life expectancy would drop by 20 years. That was scary. After that, I took better steps for my own health. I started getting medical check-ups, monthly massages, and regular dental care. I had been a workaholic, holding so much stress and tension in my body.”
The landmark CDC/Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, of more than 17,000 adults, linked 10 types of childhood trauma to the adult onset of chronic diseases, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence.
The study found that ACEs are remarkably common — most people have at least one. People who have four or more different types of ACEs — about 12 percent of the general population, but more in communities with people of color who are poor — have a 1,200 percent higher risk of attempting suicide and a 700 percent higher risk of becoming an alcoholic, compared with people who have no ACEs.Many other types of ACEs—including racism, bullying, a father being abused, and community violence -- have been added to subsequent ACE surveys. (PACEs Science 101; What ACEs & PCEs Do You Have?)
The epidemiology of childhood adversity is one of five parts of PACEs (positive and adverse childhood experiences) science. The other parts include 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 PACEs science to solve our most intractable problems.
Keep trauma in the conversation
Jones recalls that the first question on the ACEs questionnaire concerns whether an adult has ever pushed or spoken violently to you as a child.
“I laughed because in the Black community, lots of folks did that to me. It was never done to hurt me. It was a protective factor,” he explains.
“It might not be the same today,” he continues. “We kept that cultural custom, but it’s a self-defeating behavior. In the African American community, we have built a culture responding to trauma and we haven’t evolved that culture from years ago. To help the community and individuals in it, we have to keep trauma in the conversation.”
Jones received a second master’s in psychotherapy in 2013 and was selected as a Bush Foundation Leadership Fellow, one of two dozen leaders selected by this prestigious regional foundation to serve for two years. His charge was to develop social and emotional skills among Black adolescents. Jones worked with schools and government agencies to improve programs and outcomes for inner-city, Black youth.
The fellowship opened doors for Jones. He worked for several nonprofits and also served as a school-based therapist for public high school students in the Twin Cities from 2015 to 2017, and then transitioned to a program management role at Northpoint Health and Wellness Center, a federally qualified private health center.
“Everything had a trauma-informed approach,” he says. “The ACEs score was integrated into most programs, especially with adults. We found our clients often see things that happen to them as normal. We told them that trauma is not normal.”
In addition to teaching a course on co-occurring disorders for Metropolitan State University students getting a license in counseling, Jones has a consulting practice based on his experience in changing systems through a trauma-informed approach.
On his website, he’s developed several low-cost courses as well as an audio book, “Level Elite: Personal Revolution through S.E.L.F. Development,” inspired by “ideas that pop up in my head and that have actually worked in my clinical work.” He also writes an occasional column for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a newspaper distributed to the Black community in the Twin Cities.
“I wake up in the morning to help those who need help the most, by attempting to solve problems and not creating any,” Jones wrote in one of his columns. “This is what I call my single motivating purpose.”