Presenters at the Nov. 15 conference on resilient families.                                                Submitted photo

On Nov. 15, “Resilient Families: Learning to Move Through Life’s Challenges” was held at Northwestern University’s Segal Visitor Center.  Metropolitan Family Services of Evanston/Skokie Valley in collaboration with Evanston Cradle to Career, The Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, and Illinois ACES Response Collaborative sponsored the event as part of their ongoing commitment to instill trauma-informed approaches in education, health care, social work, and criminal justice in our communities.

“‘Resilient Families,’ Part 1: The ACE of Racial Bias and The New Jim Crow,” (in the Dec. 27 issue of the RoundTable) featured Dr. Terry Mason’s keynote presentation that focused on the trauma and adversity experienced in African American communities across the United States and in Cook County in particular.  

The two speakers who followed Dr. Mason’s presentation were Evonda Thomas-Smith, M.S.N., Director of the City of Evanston’s Health and Human Services Department; and Vikki Rompala, L.C.S.W., Director of Quality and Outcomes at Metropolitan Family Services.

Ms. Thomas-Smith and Ms. Rompala discussed building resilience in individuals and families who have experienced significant trauma and who may also be experiencing ongoing trauma. Drawing from their experience in their respective fields of public health and social work, they emphasized that a trauma-informed approach begins with a deep respect for each individual or family’s experiences, environment, and culture, and builds resilience by recognizing, supporting, and utilizing existing strengths and putting in place protective factors.

Building on Existing Strengths
Ms. Thomas-Smith pointed out the pitfalls of the traditional approach of the professionals’ coming in to “fix a problem. …As practitioners and providers we tend to look at families in need as deficits. We fail to realize they are resilient and have strengths and talents that will sustain them beyond our interventions, and will continue to sustain them after we move out and move away from the community.”

Focusing on the strengths of individuals and families who are dealing with trauma shows reverence for their inherent dignity and capability, said Ms. Thomas-Smith.

“We define resiliency as a capacity to bounce back from adversity. Working with families of color in particular, we know that there are strengths that we fail to tap into and we know that they were resilient and functioning on their own before we came along with our cape and our intervention and our processes and our policies and our activities.

“The stress and struggle is very different for African Americans, and having these same life interventions that are cookie cutter solutions doesn’t serve at all well.”

Awareness of the factors that increase resiliency helps service providers work more effectively, Ms. Thomas-Smith said, “About 60% of [the City’s Health and Human Services] staff also work in the field.  So I help my staff identify the protective factors that increase and raise the resiliency. … When our staff approaches individuals, children, families, and systems we pay attention to those protective factors and we build upon that.”

One of the key strengths to build upon is the importance of a stable, caring adult relationship, Ms. Thomas-Smith said, adding, “A common finding in the children that we work with is that if there is at least one stable or committed relationship – or supportive parent, or supportive caregiver, or supportive adult – there’s an opportunity that we can build from, that helps us build those resiliencies.”

Re-Thinking the Benchmark
Ms. Thomas-Smith challenged the established paradigm that sets common local standards. She said, “We are all very much aware of Cradle to Career looking [at the achievement gap] with great intention to take traditional approaches away from literacy and use an equitable lens to address the achievement gap.

“[But] we look at the achievement gap and we set the goal of African American or children of color to the white dominant group – we raise the bar to the social dominant white group.

“Why is that the bar? Why do we set goals based on the social dominant group? Why can’t the children of color surpass the social dominant group? Why is the benchmark the other?

“That’s what we do. We look at the disparity, we look at the difference, and we look at the social dominant group and set that as the benchmark that usually is the white socially dominant group – and so now we’re marginalizing yet again and we’re racializing yet again.”

Collaborative Intention, Asking Questions, and Listening to the Stories
Seeking first to collaborate with and understand an individual, family, or a community sets a tone of caring and respect, Ms. Thomas-Smith said.

 “We are very focused [at the City of Evanston Department of Health and Human Services] on making sure we’re working with communities and families with a very collaborative intention. We don’t go into a community and say we have the answers. … As a matter of fact, we sit back and take a long period of time and ask many, many questions.

“We can only heal in partnership with a collaborative spirit. We do that with deep transparency to make sure that when our families engage with us that they are not only safe, that we can help them move to the next level of optimal wellness based on their definition.”

Listening to the stories is another meaningful form of respect and validation, Ms. Thomas-Smith said. “With families that have lost their spiritual support and connection or have had an interruption of something that was stable for them, we have to be comfortable with not knowing the answers . . . sometimes we don’t take the time to hear the story. We don’t actively listen – we’re thinking about what we want to respond. Now they’ve told their story to 10 people and never have been heard. They need to be heard. I try to approach it with no judgment by saying, ‘Tell me more about that,’” she said.

Naming the Hurt Brings Trauma-Informed Healing
Ms. Rompala spoke of the importance of naming the trauma – on every level of human experience – to  begin the healing. She said, “What compels me is the story of how historical legacies of trauma are affecting communities across the country. The ones we see in the newspaper about guns, violence, and Black youth – the internalized legacy of historical trauma that has not been recognized nor even apologized in this country in a way that I think people who are Jewish have experienced in the Holocaust in the past. And I think that says something about our ability to own and name those traumas.

“I applaud how we are able to name these hard truths that our systems are creating and recreating in ways that are embedded in policies and practices. … We need to have the audacity to move forward and name the problems in order to create better systems that don’t cause harm,” she added.

Naming hard truths helps to validate those who have suffered trauma as well as bring attention to the need to facilitate greater awareness and healing, said Ms. Rompala. “The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has been about being able to name that this is an occurrence that happens across the country. There are people at risk and in risk all the time,” she said.

Similarly, on the individual level, it is also critical to name a trauma that has been experienced. Ms. Rompala said, “[Our clients] need to be able to say they’re hurt. There’s healing in being able to name those hurts in real ways. Naming the hurt created [helps to bring about] trauma-informed healing.

“Metropolitan [Family Services] has done that in early childhood education,” said Ms. Rompala. “There’s a developmental continuum of being able to support early childhood education services with a trauma-informed program. This program has a process for parents to be able to break down that issue of naming that hurt that happened to them, and wanting to do right by those children by making a different trajectory or path for themselves.”

Creating Feelings of Safety
Ms. Rompala referred to the work of Ann Masten, Ph. D., Professor of Child Development at the University of Minnesota and head of Project Competence  there, researching risk and resilience. She has researched the trauma of children living through and in the wake of natural disasters all over the world.  After a devastating natural disaster, getting back to normal routines as soon as possible creates a feeling of safety: attending school, driving to work, going to the grocery store, working in the garden.

This holds true whether people have endured trauma from a natural disaster or from any other form of adversity. “Rituals and routines are about creating safety,” said Ms. Rompala. “There are ways we can do this in our communities and in our agencies. This is a place where it’s okay to be who you are. Those rituals say ‘In the morning this is our routine, and in the afternoon this is our routine.’ For people in general, rituals and routines are affirming,” she said. “They make us feel like things around us won’t change unpredictably.”

Restorative Justice: Peace Circles
Another effective tool for building resilient individuals and communities is the use of peace circles in restorative justice, involving both victim and accused in negotiating a way to repair the harm done. “There are some restorative justice practices that have been really taking hold,” said Ms. Rompala. “The one that I think is the most powerful is this idea of peace circles. Since this is a person you are facing, it’s not about somebody you don’t know that you’re picking a fight with – it’s somebody who’s sitting across from you. This helps you be able to understand [that other person’s] vulnerability.

“Some of our after-school programs have been the most beautiful experiences for me to witness: sixth-to-eighth-grade boys being incredibly vulnerable and sharing their thoughts without other people making fun of them,” said Ms. Rompala. “And also, to hear teachers say, ‘The talking stick is your safe place and nobody can take that away from you.’

“We can build peace circles in our own homes, and we can build them in other settings. We can create our own peace circles as a way of building resiliency in our communities,” she added.
There Is Always Hope
Ms. Thomas-Smith said, “Even though we’re talking about trauma, I always know that there’s hope in the worst of complex traumatic events. I believe that. So that is my reach. It’s very layered and complex, but I still have that lens and that reach of hope. A teen mom who has had that trauma, who is carrying a baby – let’s help her reach for that hope.”