Last month, we introduced you to the expansion of our work to build a better justice system, including two new staff. I had the opportunity to sit down with one of them, Fatimah Loren Muhammad, and learn about her first few weeks, what a “trauma-informed” justice system means, and her vision for this first year.
Sarah Craft: I know you’re still getting your feet wet, but what do you see as the goals of the Trauma Advocacy program in the first year?
Fatimah Loren Muhammad: First of all, I want to start by saying how absolutely excited I am to join the EJUSA team. These past few weeks have been wonderful connecting with the staff and board members and the greater EJUSA community, many of whom have sent emails of encouragement as I begin my work here.
I think it’s important to note that EJUSA has done tons of groundwork for the Trauma Advocacy program. We already have a deep history and an amazing track record from our repeal campaigns, working with and including the voices of crime survivors. We’ve been successful advocating for and actually moving funds saved by repeal to support victims’ services. So I step into this role with that amazing history on which to build.
In this first year, I’m excited about strengthening our national network of crime survivors, to formalize that group and lift their voices as the country continues to talk about criminal justice reform. Our goal is to ensure that the criminal justice reform movement adequately addresses survivors’ needs.
Another part of our plan is to support cities that are looking at ways they can incorporate trauma-informed practices and policies into their broader public safety plan. There are cities that are models for doing this – who have implemented plans to be “trauma-informed” cities – so I’ve begun to talk some of the leaders in those places. And I’m also talking to people who are interested in exploring these methods in their communities and cities, to learn about ways we can support them.
SC: Wow! That sounds like a lot. Before I get into too many specifics, can you help me understand exactly what it means to be “trauma-informed”?
FLM: It’s such a great question. There are tons of books written on trauma, but in a very simplistic way, when we experience a traumatic event – or any adversity – we are impacted. In some cases, we are so significantly impacted that our brain actually changes, our neurobiology shifts, and there are a whole host of symptoms that can impact our behavior in the future.
When a system is “trauma-informed,” it understands behavior in this context. So instead of asking “What’s wrong with you?” or “What’s the matter with you? You’re acting out. You’re being aggressive.” Instead, one would ask, “What happened to you?” This approach gives people the space to share their stories and to understand their own victimization. This then becomes an access point for treatment. And once we understand people have been traumatized, we can provide very effective treatments to help them feel better and more empowered.
So in most current situations, if something is wrong with a justice system-involved person and such a person is perceived as “unfixable,” then the answer has been to punish them and lock them up, or somehow keep them away from the community. But if we could start asking, “What’s happened to you? Let me understand so we can treat you,” then there is access to not only the person’s healing but also to the community healing, and ultimately the community getting accountability and the opportunity to rebuild people’s lives and bring them back into the community. So trauma-informed approaches allow us an access point to get to the goals, ultimately, of safety and healing in communities.
SC: That’s really helpful, just to understand the context of all of this.
So tell me, how have you been approaching these first few weeks?
FLM: I have really spent these first few weeks connecting with people and building relationships. It’s really the foundation of good organizing and advocacy work, right?
So I’ve started by connecting with EJUSA champions in the crime survivor community – folks who have worked with EJUSA for years. I’m also meeting with new partners – nonprofits in different cities that are interested in trauma-informed work or are doing trauma-informed work. I’ve been connecting with national trauma experts to talk about their work and their research and to get a lay of the land of those who are the brains behind these incredible interventions that are out there. I’m also linking up with victims’ advocates, government officials, police officers, criminal justice reform organizations – a really broad range of folks – to just learn and get the lay of the land.
I’ve connected with people – my goodness – in Florida, Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, and there is more to come. It has been really rewarding, because, what we understand is that there is no cookie cutter approach. Even when we talk about trauma-informed systems, they have to be contextualized within the history and culture of a place. So in talking to a diverse range of folks from different places, I get to hear and understand the ways in which they work in their own, local communities, and that has been a very important piece of this relationship-building process.
It’s quite exciting to be building these relationships and having these conversations, because the need is there. This connection between trauma work and criminal justice reform – there is a lot of work and bridge-building to be done there, so it’s really having conversations about that and lifting up the voices of crime survivors in the process.
SC: And what are you hearing from people when you share our goals? I know you said there is no cookie-cutter approach, but are there any trends popping up?
FLM: There is lots of enthusiasm, which is terrific! But I’ve really been getting a range of responses.
Some folks are really interested or intrigued. These tend to be the folks who have some understanding of the need for crime survivors to be central to the criminal justice reform movement. They understand, at least at a broad level, that there are large groups of traumatized people in need of healing that need to be part of the framework for reform.
And to be honest, there are folks who say, “This is really hard what you’re saying. Who knows if we can actually accomplish this?” and these are spaces where I think the culture of the place produces some challenges.
But it’s a good thing to have a diverse range of responses, because it lets me know that I’m hitting different parts of a movement, and in the beginning its really good to understand what the landscape looks like. If I were meeting with people and everyone was saying the exact same thing, then figuring out where the gaps are would be harder to do, so I’m thankful that I’ve gotten a range of responses and that I get to have different kinds of conversations with folks.
The best is when I leave a conversation or a meeting, and it feels like just the meeting itself has added new pieces, planted seeds and ideas that we can continue to explore in the future. So that’s really exciting for this beginning stage of the process.
SC: Is there any one meeting or connection that has stuck out for you that you can share more about?
FLM: Well, I was able to attend Senator Cory Booker’s criminal justice reform forum in New Jersey. It was a packed room of well over 200 people, and it was a panel of faith leaders in New Jersey, including the Senator, talking about criminal justice reform. There was such passion on the panel – a really sincere discussion and framing of the issues of criminal justice reform and the movement.
Following the forum, I had an opportunity to speak with the Senator for a few minutes and talk about the needs of crime survivors. He was so grateful that I approached him. He thanked me and EJUSA for what we’re doing because it’s an important piece of the work. He mentioned the need for looking at behavioral health services and support and healing for those who are re-entering society after incarceration. So we had an opportunity to talk about that, and it was quite powerful.
As we were talking, there were others that were waiting to speak to him, and they got involved in the discussion. That was really cool. It felt like there was this moment to have a mini meeting about the needs of crime survivors in a really powerful space. It was brief, but it felt important, and we’re looking forward to meeting with staff at his office and continuing that conversation.
SC: So cool. He’s doing some really exciting work. Great that we are connecting with him.
So what do the next couple of months hold beyond more of this connecting and relationship building?
FLM: Well, we’re starting to choose one or two pilot cities to do some advocacy and communications work, helping them begin the process of integrating a trauma-informed program. We will also start bringing together EJUSA’s network of crime survivors – one that reflects the diversity of the crime survivor community – and discussing ways in which we can organize nationally together.
Another thing we’re hoping to do is look internally at EJUSA and think through how we can develop systems and be trauma-informed as an organization and as a staff, so that’s something I’m really excited about.
So there is lots to do. And I’ll just reiterate that I have an open call to the EJUSA broader community to please reach out to me with ideas, recommendations, or relationships they think are really important for any of these efforts. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and I would really welcome those conversations.