New toolkit helps communities deal with trauma to shape their own neighborhoods

Developed in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, the program is free for anyone who wants to help their community build trust, develop leadership, and work collaboratively to shape a neighborhood.

Seven years ago, while trying to recover from the death of her daughter, Brenda Mosley was introduced to the concept of trauma-informed care. “I was in a state of grief, darkness and despair,” she says. Then she started a three-year trauma-informed program offered by an organization in her neighborhood of Kensington, Philadelphia, on New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC).

“It was 10 women and we were introduced to all the trauma-informed models of care,” Mosley recalls. “I was in an environment where I could find safety, overcome my emotions, accept my loss and look to the future.”

After the program, Mosley joined a team of Kensington community members put together by NKCDC and another local organization, Impact, to co-design a trauma-informed community engagement program for their wider community, which has suffered from poverty, government neglect, crime and violence. The result is Connected Community: A Trauma-Informed Community Engagement Program, a free resource made public in March.

It is designed to be a flexible resource for communities like Kensington; the “train-the-trainer model” aims both to teach participants about trauma and to gain the skills to lead their own workshops. It is also a resource for community projects, showing participants how to build trust, develop leadership and build healthy communication to work collaboratively to decide the direction of their block or neighborhood.

Mosley, who has incorporated this work into his own life and community activism, believes that “as essential as food and water are to the body, so is this community toolkit.”

Trauma-informed care, according to the Resource Center on Implementing Trauma-Informed Care, “shifts the focus from ‘what’s wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you?’ “. It asks health care organizations and other care providers to have a complete picture of a person’s life situation in order to provide effective services with a healing orientation.

In 2016, Impact’s chief executive, Casey O’Donnell, began developing a community-centered version of trauma-informed care. “Casey wanted to know how to make this very clinical approach work at the neighborhood level, in a non-clinical setting,” says Zoë Van Orsdol, co-director of community development for Impact. At the same time, the NKCDC was developing a community engagement program that supported community leaders and projects block by block in Kensington.

The two organizations received support from Philadelphia LISC’s Sustainable Communities Initiative and additional funding from the Scattergood Foundation, NeighborWorks America, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to collaborate on what would become the Trauma Informed Community Engagement Curriculum.

Mike O’Bryan, director of learning at the Arts and Humanities Village and founder of the consulting firm Humannature, helped guide the intensive year-and-a-half engagement. “I did early education sessions on trauma theory, human development 101, stress and the mechanism of stress, understanding the difference between stress and trauma,” he notes.

O’Bryan advocated for participating residents to co-design the program, instead of just informing it. “When you’re doing something trauma-informed and not questioning what it means to actively and habitually share power, you’re probably not trauma-informed,” he says. “From the beginning, I said that whatever form it takes, co-design must be a principle and a value. We can go there with content expertise, but we don’t have situational, lived expertise.

A community group of about 20 people dwindled to seven regular attendees, including Mosley. “We came together to gather our minds, our thoughts and our experiences on what it should look like and be like,” she says.

During trauma-informed workshops, residents participated in the development of the program as they learned. All of this had an impact on the final product. The group responded positively to sessions around the concept of SELF (Safety, Emotion, Loss and Future), for example; these topics are highlighted several times in the program.

As they learned and participated, participants sought feedback from their wider community in Kensington. “We talked to them individually about what might work for them and how safe they felt,” says Mosley. Trauma-informed strategies shared and tested within the group – such as check-ins that asked people to share their feelings beyond a simple response – were adopted by participants when talking with family and friends .

This practice was also a way to center the participants as leaders of this program within their community. “We wanted to make sure that the people who participate can also be the ones who tell their neighbors about it or even who lead the workshops. [of the toolkit] on their own,” says Van Orsdol.

Dealing with trauma in groups while refining the toolkit to help others was a powerful experience for participants and staff. “There have been tears, there has been treatment, but it’s people doing the work,” O’Bryan says of the attendees. “It was a fluid space for that purpose.” He says the process reflected a principle invented by the lawyer brown mare adrienne: “Move at the speed of trust.”

The engagement ended before COVID-19. Impact and NKCDC spent the last year compiling everything into the resulting 125-page program.

The program offers an introduction to the philosophies behind trauma-informed care, strategies such as recording, questioning and small group work, and outlines five different trauma-informed modules that include various workshops. For example, a module called “Introduction to Stress” introduces stress concepts and stress management tools, then helps participants transition into conversations about trauma.

While the program was informed by the Kensington community, “we really designed it as an elastic, responsive thing that could respond to what’s important to people,” says Van Orsdol. The team points out that many communities across the United States have similar struggles and traumas to Kensington, which means the need for this resource goes beyond their community. “We made it free because we really hope other communities and groups can take this work and figure out what makes sense to them,” says Van Orsdol.

The Kensington team has already made good use of the resource, distributing it to community members and neighborhood groups and sharing it with community organizations outside of Philly. Mosley will use the program to inform his community health nonprofit, By Faith Health and Healing.

It has also been applied internally to the NKCDC and Impact. According to Katsi Miranda-Lozada, the organization’s director of community engagement, trauma-informed “tapes” now take place at all NKCDC events. “If it hadn’t been for the work we do around equity and addressing trauma [care]”, she said, “I don’t think we would have survived the pandemic and still be able to operate as we have and continue to support the neighborhood in the best way possible. ”

As COVID-19 and the social justice movement have caused many to question concepts of community health and safety, the team believes this can be an important resource. Given the past year, they also plan to expand the program to focus more on race, class, and identity. O’Bryan describes the existing program as “an open source tool, if you will, that’s available to help people get started and start putting corners to the puzzle – but it’s not the complete puzzle.”

He stressed that the co-design process the group has established needs to be maintained as the program grows. “None of us are perfect, and that should never stop us from getting the job done,” he says. “On the other hand, the work doesn’t really get done if the most excluded voices aren’t in the room, and the sharing of design and [creation] of everything we do.

Editor’s note: We corrected the name of the consultancy firm founded by O’Bryan.

Emilie Nonko is a social justice and solutions-focused journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and public transit.

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