On August 30th, Violence and Trauma in the Lives of Children, a two volume textbook edited by Joy D. Osofsky and Betsy McAlister Groves, became available to the public. I was honored to co-author a chapter of the book with Prevention Institute Board Member Howard Pinderhughes, Ph.D., who teaches sociology at UC San Francisco. Our chapter is entitled “From Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adverse Community Experiences: Addressing and Preventing Community Trauma.”
The predominant approach to dealing with trauma in the US today is through the expansion of mental health services and the adoption of “trauma-informed” care, both of which focus largely on the screening and treatment of individuals. But in communities with high rates of violence, trauma is not just a problem for the individuals who directly witness or experience violence. Service providers, first responders and residents in high-violence communities also experience trauma, including vicarious trauma. Further, in communities that have been disenfranchised or marginalized, people also experience trauma stemming from that structural violence. The result is both high levels of trauma across the population and a breakdown of the community’s social networks, social relationships, and positive social norms—all of which could otherwise help protect the community from violence and trauma.
Treating individuals who have experienced trauma is vitally important, and it is only part of a comprehensive solution. Prevention Institute’s contribution to the field has been to explain the need to understand trauma at the population level—and that means expanding from, and adding to, trauma-informed care of individuals. It means going beyond addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences to also addressing community trauma, which we have termed Adverse Community Experiences. It means considering how to change the broader external factors that contribute to trauma, such as community violence, lack of educational and economic opportunity, and deteriorating physical environments. This approach also supports efforts to address Adverse Childhood Experiences, as we explain in this brief, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
We first began understanding community trauma from conversations with our UNITY Network (violence prevention practitioners and public health leaders from about two dozen cities across the country). It was clear that communities were experiencing trauma at levels that made it hard to come together and find solutions. When our partners began asking what we could do about this, we were grateful to have support from Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit Northern California to begin answering that question in Prevention Institute’s Adverse Community Experiences and Resilience Framework.
From our work with communities, it has become clear community trauma is not just the aggregate of individuals in a geographic area who have experienced emotional trauma from violence and other sources, nor is it just tied to a single event. Community trauma is the common experience of chronic adversity from systemic factors like discrimination, racism, sexism, poverty, and oppression. Since we put out the initial framework, we have learned more from communities who are operationalizing it, and with further support from Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit, we have been able to provide practice based answers to questions that have emerged, summarized in this FAQ, and share stories of communities putting this framework into action.
Our chapter in Violence and Trauma in the Lives of Children discusses these issues at length. We describe how the symptoms of community trauma manifest themselves in the sociocultural, built/physical, and economic/educational environments. We also write about strategies to address and prevent community trauma by strengthening community resilience, and provide examples of community initiatives that are employing this approach.
Addressing and working to prevent community trauma is difficult but important and cutting-edge work. Since most systems and funding are neither set up to address trauma at the community level nor to prevent it in the first place, this work supports communities, and those working on behalf of communities, to think outside the box. Those working within communities must meet the communities where they are— drawing on solutions that emerge from and make sense for each community’s needs, strengths and challenges, and keeping a broad variety of community members intricately involved in the work.
The emerging set of strategies outlined in this chapter hold great promise for promoting community healing and developing safer, healthier, and more resilient communities. The time to take on Adverse Community Experiences by fostering healing and resilience is now.
Rachel Davis is a managing director at Prevention Institute. She will become the executive director of the organization on November 1, 2018.