Recently around Trauma Informed Oregon (TIO), there has been some discussion about what it means to be a trauma informed community. Beyond the transformation of our classrooms, hospitals, courtrooms, and other service systems, what can we do? What does it look like to be a truly trauma informed community and how do we get there? Is it even possible? To be clear, I don’t intend to provide concrete answers in this blog post (sorry if I got your hopes up), but I do want to use this as an opportunity to ponder these questions and consider the possibilities in the context of my own work at TIO.
I joined TIO this fall as an MSW intern in my final (!!!) year of graduate school. As student interns, we are given opportunities to explore our interests in the field and put our skills into practice with supervision support and mentorship along the way. I feel like I’ve hit the internship jackpot because I am almost always challenged by the work—pushed to think about the different ways that Trauma Informed Care (TIC) can be applied across systems and within communities. My main role at TIO right now is to support Columbia County’s Trauma Informed Care Task Force. The task force is comprised of community members and representatives of local service sectors that have a commitment to the principles of TIC, and are actively seeking to implement changes at the organizational and community level.
I’m given the opportunity to learn about the various agencies and individuals, their role in Columbia County, and their current efforts to advance trauma informed practices. In the process, I have developed a connection to a community that I had almost no knowledge about prior to this experience. And in many ways, Columbia County has become one of my communities too. Belonging to a community, after all, is not just for those whose addresses fit within a certain geographical boundary. It is where you live, work, learn, or even play. It is the people you connect and identify with throughout your life.
As a youth growing up in rural Wisconsin, I could hardly wait to leave my small town. Community engagement was far from my mind. Perhaps it is with age and experience living in various cities across the U.S. that have shown me just how important it is to have a connection to place and people. It has been humbling for me to be back in a smaller community once again, to see the familiar faces that pop up at every meeting or the friendly invitations to join community events. Every time I interact with task force and county members, I sense their enthusiasm for this work and genuine care for their community. As anyone doing large scale transformation work will tell you, enthusiasm is greatly valued because starting a community-wide initiative is a complex and demanding process.
While relatively close to Portland, Columbia County is considered rural—it’s comprised of seven small cities and thirty unincorporated communities. In some ways, implementing trauma informed practices across an entire rural community can come with even more barriers. Community members face obstacles to affordable housing, transportation, and access to services. Organizations may find themselves financially strapped and struggling to hold onto staff, or restricted in the kinds of programming they can offer to the public. These stressors may prevent individuals and organizations from committing to a TIC initiative believed to consume more time or resources than they feel are available. It may also inhibit the capacity to effectively communicate and collaborate with other community partners.
In a small, but simple effort to increase communication, I created a task force-specific email address, online group, and shared events calendar. I also used an online survey platform to ask members about their strengths, vision for the task force, and obstacles to TIC implementation. Oftentimes, face-to-face meetings are not enough to sustain momentum. All communities can benefit from having a space to share ideas and resources—even if it’s a virtual one. This can maximize our ability to reach across the community, combining expertise and reducing barriers to participation. When we are less connected to one another, the potential for missed opportunities or duplicated efforts rises.
The task force is currently in the process of determining its structure and goals, deciding how members want to receive continued TIC learning, and considering how to best support one another in implementation. I imagine in the coming months that the task force will need to recognize and empower even more TIC champions within the county by encouraging local business and industry leaders, faith communities, government officials, and public safety authorities to get involved. To further expand its membership, they will need to think about who else should be connected to this effort.
Hearing All Voices
As a social worker and public health advocate, I am reminded of the many historically uninvited and under-heard communities that must be included to create meaningful and lasting community transformation—whether it be indigenous peoples, communities of color, youth, elders, people with disabilities, folks living in poverty, or for those who English is not their first language. After all, many of these communities have been actively modeling connectedness, resourcefulness, innovation, and resiliency long before TIC was established.
In my mind, a trauma informed community is one that engages all businesses, agencies, organizations, and community members in efforts to recognize the pervasiveness of trauma and its effects, and prevent re-traumatization as much as possible. Beyond community education or awareness, it requires a cultural shift on a much grander scale. A trauma informed community is actively connected, in communication, and joins in celebration of its successes. A trauma informed community recognizes that the work is never over, that it is an iterative process requiring loops of reflection and action.
I feel fortunate to witness TIO’s partnerships with communities and organizations across the state. We get an opportunity to see the different ways TIC grows depending on where, why, and how it is implemented. At the end of the day I’m still learning, and I’m often left with more questions than answers, but I know that TIC has a real potential for forging stronger and more sustainable communities. Columbia County has exciting opportunities to cultivate a trauma informed culture across the community, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.