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Leaning into Conversations about Race and Trauma

As far back as I can remember the concept of race has played a significant role in my life.  My mother has told me that one night while I was reading an American Girl Doll book about “Addy,” an African-American girl who was a slave on a plantation in the South in the nineteenth century, I came into her room crying because I didn’t understand why people would treat someone so horribly just on the basis of their skin color – I was 8 years old.  Throughout the rest of my childhood and adolescence, I was constantly in settings that gave me the opportunity to learn and grow from others who were different than myself.  I even went on to study Political Science and African & African-American Studies in college, focusing on race relations in politics, social movements and community development both in the United States and abroad. 


However, over the 20 years since that night in my mom’s room, I have come to a few important realizations.  First, I am white; it is not something I can change and that is ok.  Second, a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about race and systemic oppression, regardless of how they identify themselves.  Third, racism still continues to be one of the most pressing social problems of our time.  Lastly, being open to having conversations about race and privilege is critical, in particular in positions of leadership.


While these statements may appear shocking, uncomfortable or provocative, they are exactly the things required to move our society forward.  As an Advanced Year Masters in Social Work (M.S.W.) student at Temple University, we are constantly challenged to “lean into the discomfort” – you, as a practitioner at the micro or macro level, must be aware of your own biases and history so as to provide ethical and quality care to your client.  This same concept has come up throughout the course of my internship which has focused on trauma-informed care training programs, organizational capacity building and how to engage community members in this movement towards a trauma-informed society.  How do we as a trainers and practitioners engage community members in the work around trauma?  But more so, how do we eliminate the notion that our clients and communities have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), but somehow as professionals we have been immune to those occurrences in our past?  I recently attended a community-based summit in a city which is predominately African-American and has some of the highest rates of poverty and crime in the country, all while keeping the above-mentioned questions in mind.


Throughout the two-day event, keynote speakers focused on the various components of trauma-informed systems: the ACEs study, the brain science behind trauma, various therapy modalities and systems in place to support victims of trauma, and organizational awareness and changes necessary in order to become truly trauma informed.  This included a presentation by Dr. Sandra Bloom, founder, trainer and researcher of the Sanctuary Model regarding “The Impact of Trauma on our Organizations and On Us.”  Following this dynamic presentation, a panel was organized comprised of leaders from organizations who were in the process of implementing the Sanctuary Model, had used various components of the model in their practice, or whose organization had become certified.  At the conclusion of this panel, the floor was then open to questions.


During the entirety of the conference, I tried to be conscious of the audience in a variety of ways. What were the racial/gender/age breakdowns for the group?  Was everyone a professional?  How many community members were in attendance?  So when the first question raised by an older African-American man was in reference to the lack of diversity on the panel, my ears perked up.  Were there no organization directors of color who were in the process of becoming certified in the Sanctuary Model?  How do we communicate messages about trauma that are informative, preventative, healing and restorative?  What did race have to do with our perception of trauma, its impact and our eventual healing?  Were there organizations using portions of the Sanctuary Model that were accessible and pertinent to their population, like through music or sports?  All of these questions were not only thought provoking, but they seemed to strike a nerve for both audience members and panelists alike.


In her TedTalk Listening to Shame, Dr. Brene Brown says: “You cannot have that conversation without shame, because you cannot talk about race without talking about privilege.  And when people start talking about privilege, they get paralyzed by shame.”  Forums like the one I attended have the potential to be both healing and transformative, encouraging a deeper discussion in an effort to reflect trauma informed care practice around the concept of race.  In that same vein, what I want to accomplish with this blog is to open a conversation about all of the things that make us feel “icky.”  If we are truly going to do this work as social service professionals and community members who want to be trauma informed, we need to begin to “lean into the discomfort.”  Our shame around race and privilege can no longer be a paralyzing force, but one that propels us in the direction of change and action.

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Thank you for bringing your personal and professional reflections and such critical questions to the surface of the group. I also believe the issue of race and trauma needs to be constantly unpacked- at individual, agency, and community wide levels- in order for healing to be possible, and I appreciate the examples you provided on how to question the work we do. 


This is a great discussion topic for the broader ACEs Connection network. Please consider also posting it as a general topic discussion on the main site. 


Many thanks.


Alicia St. Andrews

ACEs Connection Community Manager 

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