We have long been aware of the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on our long-term health and well-being. Because toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and how the body responds to stress, their occurrence in childhood has a direct correlation to increases in substance abuse, mental illnesses, and poor health outcomes.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently published a new study that puts a staggering dollar figure on that impact. Researchers found that ACEs cost our nation $14.1 trillion annually because of related adult health conditions, including direct medical spending and lost productivity.

However, the study is limited, in that it doesn’t identify the disparities in the number of ACEs impacting children and families of color, and the exponentially higher costs for this segment of our population. In fact, a recent Child Trends report indicates that 61% of Black children in the U.S. have experienced at least one ACE, as compared with 40% of white children and 23% of Asian children.

Researchers have long identified ACEs based on the Felitti scale, which identifies 10 items under two categories:

What’s missing is the impact of generational and historical trauma, especially racism.

Impact of Generational Trauma and Systemic Racism

Racism has a direct and measurable impact on children’s health. More families of color live in poverty than white families, which can lead to food insecurity, lack of safe housing, and reduced access to health care and education. All of these increase chronic stress in children and can have long-term health consequences, with African Americans at a higher risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS. This disproportionality also is evident in incarceration rates, child welfare system involvement, and educational outcomes for African American youth, and disparities are often linked to systemic biases.

Research backs this up. A study from Princeton University sociologist Devah Pager showed that young Black men with similar education and no criminal record were much less likely to be offered a job than similar white men. It went on to show that white men with criminal records had an equal or better chance of being hired than Black men with no record. We see the same biases in housing discrimination, child separation rates in child welfare, and more.

There has been some progress in expanding the ACEs scale to reflect the toxic stress that bias and racism impart on children. For example, the team at RYSE Youth Center in Oakland expanded the original ACEs pyramid from the CDC, adding layers of collective and multigenerational thinking, layers of historical, cultural, and social context, to highlight the deeper roots of trauma and explore why these traumatic experiences occur in the first place. The CDC has since adopted the more complete picture offered by this pyramid.

For those of us who work in health and human services, it is critical that we expand our understanding of trauma and adversity beyond the 10 ACEs questions, and work to integrate both trauma-informed and antiracist efforts across the systems we support.

Embracing a Trauma-Informed Approach

One example can be found in Zero to Three’s Safe Babies Court Team™ (SBCT) approach, which focuses on minimizing trauma and its impact on early development by improving how the courts, child welfare agencies, and related child-serving organizations come together to partner with families to support their young children. This approach recognizes that some families experience great stress while raising their children due to environmental conditions—community violence, systemic racism, trauma, or health issues—that make it difficult to provide safety and stability. The Safe Babies Court Team approach does not promote a “one-size-fits-all” solution to the challenges faced by families within the child welfare system or by the system itself. By addressing the needs of each family, through housing, work opportunities, job training, transportation, substance use counseling, and more, Safe Babies Courts are showing that their children are reaching permanency three times faster than infants and toddlers in the general foster care population. Almost two-thirds of babies and toddlers are reunified or find permanent homes with members of their families.

This approach calls for practitioners to ensure all equity efforts include knowledge and practices that embed brain science concepts, including understanding the areas of our nervous system that are activated when we discuss, experience, or perpetrate racism, and how that activation creates barriers for connection.

A core concept of the trauma-informed approach is, “healing happens in relationships.” The development of safe, stable, and nurturing relationships can help build greater resilience in individuals. In its July 2021 policy statement, the Academy of Pediatrics emphasized the need to shift from toxic stress to building relational health. As Dr. Andrew Garner with the American Academy of Pediatrics notes: “The concept of drawing on positive relationships as a shield against the toxic stress caused by adverse experiences has never been more relevant. Over the past few years, we’ve experienced a socially isolating pandemic and reckoned with centuries of structural racism. We must take steps to help kids form close, healthy, and nurturing bonds, whether it is within family, school, or community.”

Policymakers have a role to play as well, by promoting concrete, economic supports and family strengthening policies, such as expanded family medical leave, child tax credits, access to safe and affordable housing, access to early childhood education and mental health services, and more. Research from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago has demonstrated that connecting families to a well-resourced, community-driven prevention system can meaningfully address the root causes of adverse experiences, including racism, child abuse and neglect and trauma. 

Despite the terrible cost of ACEs, both in economic dollars and lifelong negative impacts, the latest research has demonstrated the potential for safe, stable, and nurturing relationships to act as a protective buffer against the harm of toxic stress on children. When we expand our view of ACEs to include the impact of generational racism, and lift up community efforts focused on building relationships and an understanding that our diversity as a nation is our strength, we have a better roadmap to addressing disparities and incorporating trauma-informed approaches that can help provide all children with a foundation for building resilience that leads to safer, healthier outcomes throughout their life.

It is Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to share the impact of brain science on our everyday lives, and an opportunity to explore how brain science concepts impact our trauma-informed and equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI)-focused work. We know we cannot be trauma-informed without being antiracist. But our efforts at this intersection remain siloed. Within human services organizations, this work is often defined and carried out by separate trauma-informed and antiracist committees and can be hampered by limited understanding of how to integrate the two at the individual and organizational levels.

At the intersection of EDI and brain science we wrestle with trauma-informed concepts, such as power differentials, psychological safety, difficult conversations, implicit bias, vulnerability, and healing. With a stronger understanding of brain science, we strengthen our capacities for mindfulness and cultural humility, develop our own racial identity, boost our self-regulation skills and compassion for self and others, and advance a healing journey that includes our whole body.

Translating Knowledge into Action

One opportunity for deep impact is rooting all EDI work in a foundation of basic brain science concepts. The brain impacts our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors during every second of our day. Our brains are designed to keep us safe, constantly monitoring our surroundings and putting up “fight or flight” barriers when we experience things that are new or different. Yet, we are also social beings, craving connection and belonging. The brain’s primary function of keeping us safe can sometimes conflict with our human need to connect. This conflict impacts our EDI efforts, our ability to bridge differences, and our efforts to heal from trauma, especially the trauma of white supremacy. With a deeper understanding of basic brain science concepts, we become more aware of opportunities and strategies to quiet our brain’s safety function so we can connect, integrate our trauma-informed and equity initiatives, and advance our personal and organizational EDI efforts.

Resmaa Menakem, therapist, trauma specialist, and author of My Grandmother’s Hands and The Quaking of America, teaches that healing from centuries of racial trauma for all bodies requires an embodied approach, one that recognizes the interconnectedness of mind, body, and spirit. Today, white supremacy is our operating system—it’s the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the foods we eat. It’s embedded in our institutions and social contracts. Most of all, though, white supremacy lives in our bodies, which is why Menakem uses the term, “white-body supremacy.”

Menakem teaches that white body supremacy, “and all the claims, accusations, excuses, and dodges that surround it — are a trauma response … and we need to heal from it by starting with our bodies.” Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism notes, “White Supremacy is not rational, and we don’t heal it with our intellect alone.”

So, what does this mean for our EDI and trauma-informed efforts? Here are two strategies that incorporate these concepts and get us thinking about making changes in our daily practices.

Regulate, Regulate, Regulate
Regulation is the basic strategy for calming the defensive and reactive parts of our brain so that we can access the more receptive, open, learning parts. Focused breathing, taking a short walk, listening to music, using a standing desk are all ways to keep our mind clear and focused. There are dozens of regulation strategies to use in the work setting, both for large groups and individuals.

Dr. Bruce Perry’s sequence of engagement – regulate, relate, reason – is a simple practice for effective communication that starts with regulation. The steps work in this order:

  1. Regulate: First, ensure we are calm and centered before we start talking. You and your colleagues can use regulation strategies that work for you.
  2. Relate: Next, connect human to human. Ask a colleague, “What are you looking forward to?” “What are you worried about?” “What are you thinking about today?”
  3. Reason: Finally, move to the content of the conversation – to do lists, a pending project, or complex equity dynamics in a work relationship.

When we do this at every meeting, supervision session, and human interaction, especially the hard ones we avoid, we have greater success in our communications. We move closer to achieving the EDI and trauma-informed outcomes we strive for—candid conversations, individual and organizational accountability, and inclusive environments.

Somatic and Embodied Practices

Somatic means related to the body. Embodied signifies feeling at home and safe in our body, an increased ability to be in our body in the present moment and to feel all its sensations. Somatic embodied practices build our awareness of our brain’s safety functions and help us to quiet those strong impulses, which strengthens our ability to connect and belong.

It turns out that somatic, embodied practices are critically important in our EDI work. Resmaa Menakem’s Somatic Abolitionism teaches us that, “Race has its unique charge, texture, weight, and speed. The ability to hold and work with these energies isn’t inborn. It needs to be acquired through effort and practice.” Somatic abolitionism is living, embodied antiracist practice and cultural building—a way of being in the world.
Menakem suggests healing from white body supremacy starts with the practice of five anchors:

  1. Settle the body
  2. Notice the sensations without reacting
  3. Accept the discomfort and sit with it
  4. Remain present and experience the uncertainty
  5. Safely discharge any energy that remains

Menakem teaches that we can strengthen our muscles for practicing these five anchors through repetition of cultural somatic practices including grounding, orientation, movement, touch and pause.

Using somatic and embodied practices are not an overnight fix. Healing from white supremacy, for all bodies, is a lifelong journey. But understanding that healing starts by focusing on our bodies puts us on a new path to exploring our EDI work and integrating it with our trauma-informed efforts.

The needs of human services staff and complexities of our work require us to embrace new ways of being at work. Embedding brain science concepts into our daily interactions could have many benefits. The good news is there are countless ways, as individuals and organizations, to prioritize brain-friendly and healing practices. When we do this, we will help settle our bodies and brains, bridge differences, increase connection, improve equity and accountability, and truly integrate our trauma-informed and equity-focused efforts to reach the outcomes we are so hungry to achieve. The biggest challenge may be taking the first step to get started.

Next Steps in Applying Brain Science to Your EDI Efforts

To learn more about the brain and how it advances our equity efforts, join our upcoming learning series – Hardwired for Fear and Connection: The Intersection of Brain Science and Equity – which starts March 19. In this three-part series we will focus on the intersection of brain science and EDI and its application for our daily work. We will build shared understanding of foundational brain friendly and EDI concepts and consider how our daily EDI efforts are interrupted by our key brain functions often outside of our consciousness. Additionally, we will share concrete strategies for increasing self-awareness, quieting our lower brains, having difficult conversations, understanding power differentials, and increasing felt safety in our work setting, and advancing somatic-embodied approaches.

Other ways that Social Current can help with our EDI and trauma-informed journeys:

As we welcome the new year, and the 22nd month of the pandemic, a critical question likely keeps many leaders awake at night: How do we continue to adapt to the ever-changing landscape and strive to thrive in the face of unrelenting challenges? One answer stands out to me: Partner with staff to build workforce resilience.

Our workforce, the most precious organizational resource, has suffered greatly from COVID-19’s impact, which has only added to existing pressures and difficulties that often affect human services professionals. Despite increased efforts to support staff since March 2020, evidence reveals staff morale and satisfaction have suffered. The O.C. Tanner Institute Global Culture Report indicates a decline in their annual core measurements of workplace culture, including a 14% decrease in sense of purpose and a 15% decrease in sense of appreciation. Health care and human service workers have also experienced a sharp increase in burnout, and workforce shortages are impacting delivery of services.

The good news is we are learning how to respond to these alarming trends. Living and working during a global pandemic has taught us to move from pre-pandemic, top-down employee recognition and self-care initiatives to partnerships with staff that promote brain-based interventions, psychological safety, positive workforce culture, and increased connections.

How to Build Workforce Resilience

Advance Understanding of a Brain Aware Perspective and How to Stay Regulated

To be well at work, we need to know about basic brain functioning. Our brain mediates our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Dr. Bruce Perry, principal of the Neurosequential Network and senior fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, notes, “A brain aware perspective helps me when I’m trying to understand people,” (in What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing). With this knowledge, we can prevent and mitigate the impact of toxic stress on our brains and bodies. We can embrace regulation—the basic strategy for calming our lower brain—and integrate it into everyday work. Dr. Perry’s sequence of engagement: regulate, relate, reason (3 R’s) is grounded in brain science and applicable in every human interaction. It readies us for effective interpersonal communication. Achieving the workforce outcomes we strive for, like increased trust, stronger relationships, candid conversations, and more accountability, all depend on practicing brain-based interventions such as the 3 R’s.

Foster Psychological Safety

Popularized by Amy Edmonson in her book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, psychological safety is the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It leads to authentic conversations that are critical to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives. It promotes problem solving, innovation, connection, and growth. This practice is built into the culture over time and requires leaders to respond to staff challenges by modeling authenticity, accountability, and compassion, and by creating space for sharing and listening. Google’s Project Aristotle, a two-year study on what makes effective teams, found that the thing that most predicted success in their company is psychological safety.

Increase Connection

Recent research from the O.C. Tanner Institute notes that 45% of employees say the number of individuals they regularly interact with at work has decreased significantly over the past year, and one in three employees feel disconnected from their supervisor. They also report an organization is 12 times more likely to thrive when employees feel connected. Practices such as having frequent check-ins, supporting peer mentorship, normalizing discussions around mental health and EDI, and finding shared purpose all build meaningful connections, even in our virtual and hybrid settings.

Prioritize Positive Workplace Culture

Resilience at work is highly dependent on a positive culture that reflects the organization’s stated values and beliefs. A resilient organization has a shared agreement with its employees that we collectively bring to life our stated values by realizing them in our behaviors, customs, and practices. Together we build increased equity and connection for all staff. Together we create realistic and healthy boundaries and expectations. And together we learn to ask for help, hold ourselves and others accountable, achieve excellence, and celebrate successes.

Create a 2022 Action Plan

Social Current is committed to partnering with leaders at any level to advance these practices, most of which are not fast and easy, but all of which are doable and highly merit the investment of time and resources. Our experts on trauma-informed, resilient-oriented approaches and leadership excellence can share the latest findings around understanding and responding to stress, distress, and trauma in the workforce.

Learn more about our approach to workforce resilience with the Feb. 3 webinar, Building Workforce Resilience to Thrive During Challenging Times. And stay tuned for opportunities to dig deeper through our Spring 2022 offerings: Workforce Resilience SPARK Exchange and Workforce Resilience Learning Collaborative. An overview of our SPARK Exchanges and sneak peak at our Social Current Hub online portal will be held during a Feb. 8 webinar.

Renew the commitment to your staff in the new year through concrete strategies for increasing emotional regulation, self-compassion, and interpersonal connection, as well as accountability and effective communication. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore the cornerstone concepts for building a resilient workforce that can adapt and thrive in times of change and challenge.

Together, we can strengthen our most valuable resource in 2022!

Upcoming Learning Opportunities

Great Resignation and Human Services: Combating Workforce Shortages in Public and Nonprofit Agencies
Webinar, Jan. 31, 2022, 2-3 p.m. ET

Join this webinar hosted by Social Current and the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) to hear from public and nonprofit human services leaders about the collective workforce challenges, as well as promising approaches that, through partnerships, build organizational capacity to achieve our shared mission of supporting the well-being of people and communities.

Building Workforce Resilience to Thrive During Challenging Times
Webinar, Feb. 3, 2022, 2-3 p.m. ET

Kick off 2022 by exploring concepts and strategies that are foundational to building a workforce that can stay well and healthy. A positive organizational culture is critical for supporting staff as they partner authentically with community members who often experience complex challenges, systemic inequities, and personal trauma. This webinar will explore how to advance positive workforce goals such as managing conflict, nurturing relationships, embracing equity, and achieving excellence.

About the Change in Mind Institute
Learn the key strategies for infusing brain science into your organization’s culture, programs, and practices through a collaborative experience where participating organizations determine their own paths for creating the transformation best suited to their unique needs. The process of embedding brain science principles will lead to improved outcomes for children and families. In addition, it will further enhance their organizational cultures and leadership ability to work collaboratively with partners to build better service systems and policies.

The Institute is led by Karen Johnson, who brings knowledge of the advancing science around resilience, brain development, adversity, toxic stress, equity, and trauma-informed approaches to the complex challenges we face. This expertise, coupled with her 27 years of experience in child welfare, behavioral health, and community services, enables her to successfully partner with leaders, staff, community members, and participants across numerous settings to promote individual and organizational resilience. Johnson is a licensed clinical social worker certified in Dr. Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead and Daring Way and trained in Dr. Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics.

Learn more and consult with us on creating a transformational plan for your organization.