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New Toolkit Helps Communities Address Trauma to Shape Their Own Neighborhoods

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

Brenda Mosley was one of the seven regular participants that “came together collaboratively to put our minds, thoughts and experiences together” to develop the trauma-informed community engagement curriculum. (Photo courtesy of NKCDC)

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Seven years ago, 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 began a three-year, trauma-informed program offered by an organization in her neighborhood of Kensington, Philadelphia, the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC).

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

After the program, Mosley joined a team of Kensington community members assembled by NKCDC and another local organization, Impact, to co-design a trauma-informed community engagement curriculum for their larger community, which has suffered through poverty, government neglect, crime and violence. The result is Connected Community: A Trauma Informed Community Engagement Curriculum, a free resource released to the public this March.

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

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

Trauma informed care, according to the Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center, “shifts the focus from ‘what’s wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you?’” It calls on healthcare organizations and other care providers to have a complete picture of a person’s life situation 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 was interested in how to make this very clinical approach work at a neighborhood level, in a non-clinical setting,” says Zoë Van Orsdol, community development co‑director for Impact. At the same time, NKCDC was developing a community engagement program that supported community leaders and projects on a block-by-block basis in Kensington.

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

Mike O’Bryan, the director of learning at The Village of Arts and Humanities and founder of the consultancy firm Humannature, helped guide the intensive 1½-year engagement. “I did early education sessions about trauma theory, human development 101, stress and the stress mechanism, understanding the difference between stress and trauma,” he notes.

O’Bryan advocated for the participating residents to co-design the curriculum, as opposed to simply informing it. “When you’re doing something that’s trauma informed, and you’re not interrogating what it means to actively and habitually share power, you’re probably not being trauma informed,” he says. “From the beginning, I said that whatever shape this takes, co-design has to be a principle and value. We can go in with content expertise, but we don’t have the situational, the lived expertise.”

A community group of about 20 narrowed down to seven regular participants that included Mosley. “We came together collaboratively to put our minds, thoughts and experiences together on what this should look like and be like,” she says.

During trauma-informed workshops, residents participated in the shaping of the curriculum as they learned. It all impacted the final product. The group responded positively to sessions around the concept of SELF (Safety, Emotion, Loss and Future), for example; those topics are highlighted repeatedly in the curriculum.

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

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

Processing trauma as a group while refining the toolkit to help others was a powerful experience for both participants and staff. “There were tears, there was processing, but these are people doing the work,” O’Bryan says of the participants. “It was a fluid space on that end.” He says the process reflected a principle coined by advocate adrienne maree brown: “Moving at the speed of trust.”

The engagement wrapped prior to COVID-19. Impact and NKCDC spent the last year compiling everything into the resulting 125-page curriculum.

The curriculum offers an introduction to philosophies behind trauma-informed care, strategies like checking in, asking questions and small group work, and outlines five different trauma-informed modules that include various workshops. For example, a module titled “Introduction to Stress” introduces concepts of stress and tools for managing stress, then helps participants transition into conversations about trauma.

While the curriculum was informed by the Kensington community, “we really conceived it as being an elastic and responsive thing that could respond to what is important to people,” says Van Orsdol. The team points out that many communities across the U.S. have similar struggles and traumas as Kensington, meaning 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 for them,” Van Orsdol says.

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

It’s also been applied internally at NKCDC and Impact. Trauma-informed “check ins” now take place at all NKCDC events, according to Katsi Miranda-Lozada, the organization’s director of community engagement. “Had it not been for the work we’re doing around equity and trauma-informed [care],” she said, “I don’t think we would have survived the pandemic and still be able to function the way we have and continue to provide the support for the neighborhood in the best way.”

As COVID-19 and the social justice movement has prompted many people to interrogate concepts around community health and safety, the team believes this can serve as an important resource. Given the past year, they also plan to expand the curriculum to focus more on race, class and identity. O’Bryan describes the existing curriculum as “an open-source tool, if you will, that is available to help people get a start and start putting corners on the puzzle — but it is not the full puzzle.”

He emphasized that the co-design process the group established must be maintained as the curriculum grows. “None of us are perfect, and that should never stop us from doing the work,” he says. “On the flip side, the work is not really happening if the most excluded voices are not in the room, and sharing in the design and [creation] of whatever we’re doing.”

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

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

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Tags: philadelphiacommunity-engaged designtrauma-informed care

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