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by Marla Fogelman

Although more than three centuries have passed since the ancient Greeks coined the word trauma, meaning "wound," talking openly about trauma in the realm of youth violence—particularly in regard to children's exposure to violence—is relatively recent.

Addressing the effects of the physical and psychological wounds of violence on children and communities is not only a public and societal health responsibility, but also a critical charge that panelists delved into with both pain and passion at the final plenary of the 2015 Summit on Preventing Youth Violence, "From Trauma and Adversity to Healing and Hope."

Led by moderator Catherine Pierce, OJJDP's senior policy advisor, the panel of public health and trauma experts discussed topics ranging from historical trauma to racial justice to resilience, as well as programs and strategies that can help children, youths, and communities heal.

Historical Trauma and Community Responsibility
"We are here to talk about trauma and healing," Pierce said, and began the session by citing the historical trauma work of Erma Vizenor, chairman of the White Earth Nation.

Historical trauma was also the topic addressed by the first speaker, behavioral consultant Samuel Simmons, who runs the Black Men Healing initiative in Minneapolis, Minn. Simmons lauded the efforts of Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Ph.D., who had initially conceptualized the notion of historical trauma, back in the 1980s, as "the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma."[1]

With no-holds-barred candor and an illuminating presentation, "African American Historical Trauma: The Journey," which detailed the repercussions of collective trauma decade by decade, Simmons then went on to discuss "chattel slavery," the Jim Crow South, and the ghetto as the historical and intergenerational context for understanding 21st century youth violence. He recounted the pressures on young men of color to prove their manhood, on having to act as if they are never afraid. As Simmons said, "Now you've got babies out there who are scared to death, and the best way to prove [their] manhood is to have a gun."

Simmons ended his speech by noting that the effects of historical trauma should not only be acknowledged, but also incorporated into trauma-informed care and mental health interventions. The best way to move forward, he said, is through policy change, as well as community leadership and responsibility.

Resilience and Racial Justice
For presenters Stephanie Doyle and Sojourner Rivers of the Defending Childhood Initiative (DCI) arm of the Boston Public Health Commission, one way to foster healing is to promote resilience and connect that strength with racial justice. Doyle described efforts to promote organizational change by bringing together parents, teachers, and leaders at DCI's early childhood center. But, as Rivers related to the crowd through a video, the racial biases of the children themselves pose another challenge. She showed a CNN clip of how even very young black children were biased in favor of white faces when shown a series of pictures and asked to point, for example, to the "good-looking child."

To help children develop resilience, Doyle and Rivers underscored the need to reflect back to them a positive image of themselves, which should involve honoring identity, as well as being aware of implicit racial or ethnic bias.

The 'Normalization of Trauma'
Charlene Allen of the Vera Institute of Justice's Common Justice Healing Works Collaborative in Brooklyn, N.Y., also targeted the toxicity of racial bias, which she called a "trap" for children and young people of color. But the main thrust of her talk was what she described as the normalization of trauma in the community. "It's the reason people don't seek help," Allen said. She then related several stories about how that trauma is externally imposed by society at large, and said there is often an assumption of guilt due to color, as well as diminishment of the threat of violence.

Allen recounted the story of a judge who questioned a psychiatrist during his testimony on a white-on-black hate crime. "'Are you actually telling me a black kid from the Bronx is afraid of a fight?'" he had asked.

What we can do, said Allen, is to "correctly confront the atrocious narrative that all young men of color commit crime." She pointed to how this endorsement of inherent culpability clouds young men's understanding of themselves as victims of violence, which in turn makes them more resistant to counseling and other support. To counter this resistance, Allen offered, "We need to help them normalize the symptoms of trauma," and not the trauma itself. In doing so, she has found group work is more effective than one-on-one therapy, and that "breaking isolation is critical."

From Trauma and Adversity to Healing and Hope
Dr. Theodore Corbin, medical director of the Healing Hurt People (HHP) program for the Philadelphia, Pa., Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, is determined to break the isolation of trauma and violence victims and mend their broken psyches and spirits. The HHP program operates out of the emergency department at Hahnemann University Hospital, Drexel University College of Medicine, and St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, and provides trauma-informed care to young victims of violence and injury, with a goal to reduce reinjury and retaliation.[2]

During his slide presentation, Dr. Corbin described the cyclical symptoms that afflict victims of trauma: hyperarousal (characterized by an elevated heart rate, slightly elevated body temperature, and constant anxiety), depression, re-experiencing the trauma, and further hyperarousal. He also played a powerful audio clip of a man who witnessed his cousin's shooting and couldn't avoid imagining the same fate for himself.

Ameliorating what trauma does to an individual is where HHP comes in. "We have an opportunity to help that person heal," said Dr. Corbin.

HHP is there for people in the emergency room after they have been intentionally injured (in shootings, stabbings, and other assaults). Through various supports and services, including case management, behavioral health aid, and mentoring, the program aims to restore the whole person, not just mend the physical damage.

HHP's powerful outcomes were encapsulated in the stories of the two youths who accompanied Dr. Corbin to the Summit. Intervention Peer Specialists Jermaine McCorey and Jose Ferran had once been on the streets, but their lives were turned around by HHP.

With stirring honesty, McCorey recounted how he had dealt drugs, lost hope, got shot, and wound up at Hahnemann. But it wasn't until he had been shot a second time that he made the decision to change. "I went back to school, studied art, and stopped dealing drugs," he told the crowd. McCorey also completed certified peer specialist training for HHP, which he said, "helped me sharpen my skills and be of some help."

His words brought the crowd to their feet, as did those of Ferran, who ended the session with his own message of strife, healing, and hope. "Now I stand for something," he said. "Now I'm inspired … now I'm in a position to give back."