Centering Trauma, Healing Communities

Members of EJUSA’s Collective Healing team, as well as the Baton Rouge Healing Coalition, join Newark Mayor Ras Baraka to share ideas on reimagining trauma-informed cities.

For generations, communities of color have experienced deep mistrust of police, resulting from years of institutional racism and violence. Only after the 2014 police murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Ezell Ford, all within a month of each other, did discussions of police violence and accountability become a part of the larger national conscience.

Over the years, public attention to police violence and the associated lack of accountability has mounted, revealing both a dire need and ample opportunity for a new form of justice. In January 2018, the Federal Office of Victims of Crime (OVC) launched a three-year initiative to explore these needs and opportunities.

The initiative, formally called “Law Enforcement and the Communities they Serve: Supporting Collective Healing in the Wake of Harm,” is a federal collaboration between the OVC, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Department of Justice. IACP identified five cities to house the program: Baton Rouge, Houston, Minneapolis, Oakland, and Rapid City, South Dakota.

For the past year, EJUSA has partnered with activists, community-based organizations, institutional service providers, and law enforcement agencies in these cities to tackle a critical question: What do trauma-informed approaches to harm and violence look like? The work has gained a powerful momentum as the collective group addresses the prevalence and impact of police-community tensions and establishes new means of interaction and understanding.

In this role, EJUSA supports organizations that work with survivors of violence coping with trauma, while meeting with local police departments to build their understanding of trauma, the ways that communities have been harmed and traumatized at the hands of police, and the ways that law enforcement themselves have experienced and internalized the trauma involved in their jobs.

“The goal is to really help cities center trauma within all aspects of their work, and collectively create public healing strategies that acknowledge harm and foster healing on both sides” says Latrina Kelly-James, EJUSA’s director of training and capacity building.

“It broadens the definition of healing,” says Christine Henderson, EJUSA’s senior collective healing strategist. “It shows intersections between policing, community organizing, and victim service providers, and allows each to understand how trauma-informed strategies can be a foundation for so much justice work.”

While police-community relationships still have a way to go across all sites, some of the most pivotal changes within the initiative’s first year occurred in Baton Rouge. Like all of the cities selected for the project, Baton Rouge has been deeply affected by racism, poverty, state violence and significantly traumatic events — most notably the 2016 murder of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police, the killing of Baton Rouge police officers and a major flood; all of these occurring within weeks of each other.

As EJUSA’s Collective Healing team met with the Baton Rouge Police Department (BRPD) and local organizations to advocate for cultural shifts within the department, several grassroots groups came together to form the Baton Rouge Healing Coalition. This network of 15 like-minded organizations support one another to create strategies rooted in community healing, while receiving capacity-building support — in the form of fundraising, organizational support, marketing, and more — from EJUSA staff.

In August, this coordinated activism and community support yielded a historic public apology from BRPD Chief Murphy Paul, not only for Alton Sterling’s murder but for the toxic culture of policing that has haunted the city for generations. In this apology, Paul explicitly named the department’s commitment to healing from the trauma that police have experienced and created in the city.

Chief Paul’s apology was one of the most exciting highlights of this year but it was far from the only one. Several cities saw remarkable developments, including Rapid City. In a city known mostly as the site of Mount Rushmore and much less for its mistreatment of its sizeable Lakota Native American population, commitments by police illustrated transformations in law enforcement’s empathy to community trauma and healing that hadn’t been seen before.

Initial meetings with the community surrounded issues of disconnection from police, rampant violence, and corruption. Over the year, the Rapid City Police Department (RCPD) listened and devised a plan for proactively shifting their department culture. Presented over 300 PowerPoint slides, the plan described the history of the U.S. government’s genocide against Native American people, and how this violent legacy dictates the way that law enforcement engages with the community today.

Before presenting the plan externally, RCPD met with Lakota elders to ensure that the plan was acceptable. One elder was brought to tears, naming that this was the first time they’d felt hope that true change could take place.

The Collective Healing initiative will continue for an additional year. Given the progress and clarity that has come from this first year’s work, our team noted the continued need for deeper investment from police in order to achieve the initiative’s goal of transforming historically over-policed communities.

For EJUSA’s Senior Strategist, Will Simpson, intentionality and communicating how change is happening is key.

“We learned a lot this year,” he says. “We need to send the message that huge changes are possible, and that healing is happening. We need to show people that growth is happening on a daily basis.”

Exposing Trauma to Heal

Trauma to Trust participant speaking

Violence interventionist and Trauma to Trust participant Darren Miller (center) speaks about the impact of the program, and his experiences with law enforcement.

Over 500 police and community members have completed in EJUSA’s Trauma to Trust program. Click here to learn more and participate.

Summer sunlight poured through tall windows into the community room of a historic Newark building this past June. Long tables formed something like a horseshoe, with chairs lining the outer perimeter. A large projection screen sat at the end.

Men and women of all ages trickled into the room. Many of them peeled off hoodies, collared shirts, even a Yankees jersey to reveal the uniform of the Newark Police Department (NPD). Without a word of instruction, they filled all the seats on one half of the room. On the other side sat Newark community members, activists, and a few newcomers to the city.

Day one of Trauma to Trust, a police and community training program, was about to begin. For the next 16 hours, those in the room would open up about the trauma they had experienced through interactions with the police, the stress of being “on the job,” the ways that relationships could be made strong, and what kind of changes could create community safety without leading to more arrests.

Trauma to Trust is about creating empathy and understanding around trauma—the kind that occurs every day as well as the historical trauma that continues to affect all generations of people of color. This sharing of experience is hard work and requires vulnerability. So the way the police took over one side of the room, creating a dividing line between them and the community was not ideal. But it’s also not unexpected.

“Trauma to Trust is engineered to challenge bias,” said Monique Swift, EJUSA’s lead facilitator in the June sessions. “Police are biased against the community, and the community is biased against police. More often than not, trauma is the foundation of those biases. That’s why Trauma to Trust is so effective. We expose the trauma and explore it. We’ve seen over and again that the exposure leads to the opportunity to heal and ultimately transform the relationship.”

Trauma has not traditionally been a part of police training anywhere, at any time, in the U.S. But the NPD has been operating under a consent decree, an agreement reached in 2016 between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice in response to allegations of “unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests, use of excessive force and theft by officers” against people of color. The Trauma to Trust trainings are one approach that the NPD and community have identified and implemented to address the circumstances which led to the consent decree.

Darren Miller has lived most of his life in Newark. Once formerly incarcerated, he is today a violence intervention worker for the Newark Community Street Team (NCST), where he mentors about 15 young people. “This is my calling,” he said, after the trainings.

The June sessions were his second round of Trauma to Trust. “For me this was a healing process,” said Darren, who explained that he’d been beaten by police when he was arrested and again while in prison by corrections officers. “I wanted to be able to be a voice, as a person who has been locked up, who has dealt with trauma. And I wanted to be a healing agent where we would work together.”

Edith Muhammad brought a unique experience to the trainings. Her father was murdered when she was a child. A couple years after graduating from college, she spent seven years in the NPD, ultimately leaving to take care of her son. “As an outsider looking in, I see the NPD having these conversations as almost revolutionary, to talk about trauma and public trauma,” said Edith, who just took a job with NCST working in its hospital-based violence intervention program. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of crime. We have to make communities safe without destroying them.”

Edith isn’t the only participant to describe what’s happening in these rooms as revolutionary or similar. Each training session brings up new questions that are creating a shift in perspective from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” It’s in that shift that the possibility for empathy and understanding lives. Only when we achieve that can we start building a shared vision for what public safety—that embraces racial equity and violence prevention—can look like.

Former Newark Police Officer and Trauma to Trust participant Edith Muhammad.

The program is drawing national notice. A team of community members from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, joined the June trainings because they’re doing their own work on police and community relations. Nicole Scott founded the BRidge Agency INC nearly three years ago. She, like everyone in the Baton Rouge group, paid her own way to come to these trainings.

“I was expecting to attend a seminar where we were taught,” said Nicole. “What we got was far more enriching. We saw law enforcement with community, taking time to talk with each other, learning about each other’s sides. I wished some of our officers were in that room so that they could see that mutual dialogue can take place and be respected.” She paused. “That was life changing.”

And that’s the point of working to reduce violence and also change the way we respond to it. There’s no doubt this work can save lives. But it can change many more lives by relieving many communities of constant violence.

As the sessions wrapped up, and participants shared their takeaways, Edith talked about what that means, for her and for all of us. While there many things that exist to give us the impression that we’re safe—an alarm system, a weapon, and, yes, over-policing—what we really need is something much simpler. “I want to be safe because I live in a safe place.”

Click here for more information on EJUSA’s Trauma to Trust program. To participate in this fall’s upcoming training, sign up here. 

Care, Dignity, and Respect: A Survivor’s Perspective

Some people are born into a vocation—whether it’s teaching, making art, or training to be a physician. They know from an early age and pursue their goals with laser focus. For others a career path winds and shifts directions as life intrudes and uncovers opportunities that weren’t previously apparent. Lisa Good belongs in that latter group.

Today, Lisa is the founder of Urban Grief, an organization based in Albany, NY, that provides critical, trauma-informed support for victims of violence while also acting as a fierce advocate for awareness and policy change to reduce violence. (Lisa is also a vital member of the EJUSA board of directors.) But she is the sum of her parts, and to understand how she came to her calling, you have to go back to her youth and understand that she is a crime and sexual assault survivor several times over.

Lisa Good (right) is the founder of Urban Grief

She told her story to Vogue in 2017. Lisa grew up an only child, so several cousins became her siblings. When she was 17, one of those cousins, Jay, was murdered during a robbery. For Lisa, it was the same as losing a brother.

“That really took me on a path of self-destruction,” said Lisa, in the Vogue essay. “I found myself in a lot of high-risk situations, drinking and hanging out with a bad crowd.”

After being raped, she also found she wanted vengeance. Luckily, she had a friend who kept her from making a tragic situation far worse.

Lisa soon married a man who would violently abuse her for years, even after she had left him. Her trauma continued to accrue, even when her ex-husband was himself murdered. She feels fortunate that she was able to go to therapy for free to get some help. “People need to know it’s okay to get help,” she said. “Access to programs doesn’t necessarily lead to utilization when it comes to this kind of pain.”

By 2001, Lisa had already spent nearly a decade helping those struggling with substance abuse, first as a counselor and then as the program director of a residential substance abuse facility. But she felt pulled to start Urban Grief. “It was a call from God in the face of overwhelming grief and trauma that I witnessed firsthand after violence,” said Lisa. “I wanted to know who was helping, so I did a needs assessment. This included interviewing survivors and I found that no one was offering help.”

One of the cornerstones of Urban Grief’s mission is to perform outreach to shooting victims and the families of those who have been murdered. Over the course of her career, Lisa continued to uncover gaps that weren’t being addressed. “My overall observation is that people of color don’t generally know about victims’ services,” she said. “They are not given basic information and sometimes feel re-victimized by their interactions with systems.  A lot of the time, this means that the criminal justice system was traumatic for them and didn’t provide real justice or address the need for safety.” The consequence of this is that the cycle of trauma and violence, when unaddressed, perpetuates.

The week of April 7 is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, an ideal time to talk about what survivors need as they deal with trauma. Over the course of 18 years of doing this work, and informed by the trauma she’s survived plus her training and expertise on the traumatic impact of violence, Lisa has zeroed in on some fundamental needs that all survivors should get: care, dignity, and respect. It seems so simple, and yet so often reality tells a far different story.

“Sometimes when I hear families describe their encounters, they’re treated more like criminals,” she said. “They come away feeling like they’re being treated as suspects and without any empathy.”

Lisa’s advocacy is critical, whether she’s raising awareness throughout a community about the impact of violence and trauma in their own lives or sitting with a survivor in the immediate aftermath of violence. In that moment, especially, she has found that keeping it simple is the way to go.

“The first step is I just ask: ‘How can I help? I’m here to help.’”

Reckoning with historical trauma | Reimagining Justice This Month

Reimagining Justice This Month highlights stories about effective responses to violence – responses that disrupt cycles of violence, heal trauma, and address structural racism.

‘They Was Killing Black People:’ In Tulsa, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history still haunts the city with unresolved questions, even as ‘Black Wall Street’ gentrifiesThe Washington Post
The historical trauma of slavery and lynching continues to impact entire communities and destroy lives. In Tulsa, reckoning with that historical trauma means excavating and not only acknowledging the devastation of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, but addressing unresolved questions about mass graves of Black people and repairing the ongoing harm. If justice means preventing violence and creating accountability and safety, this kind of history needs to be uncovered and recognized.

Bringing a dark chapter to light: Maryland confronts its lynching legacyThe Baltimore Sun
Our justice system is rooted in the legacy of slavery and lynching, and the impact of structural racism from police shootings to mass incarceration is felt across entire communities. Acknowledging that history, as well as both the historical trauma and present day harm of caused by the system, is essential for reimagining justice that can create equity and healing. This is how people in Maryland are making sure we remember the history of lynching so that we can transcend it. Continue Reading →

“Restoring Lost Trust”

USA Today and our friends at the Marshall Project made a great video about our program in Newark, which is bridging communities of color and police and breaking cycles of trauma. Please take a moment to watch the video and share it with your family and friends.

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EJUSA holds first national convening on trauma and the criminal justice system

EJUSA National trauma convening group photo

EJUSA has taken a big step toward building a national network of people impacted by trauma across the criminal justice system by hosting our first convening in mid-March.

Twenty-four leaders came together – traveling from all over the country – for two days of sharing, healing, learning, and planning. They included crime survivors, people who were formerly incarcerated, families of the incarcerated, and law enforcement. All of the participants have worked alongside EJUSA at some point: as advocates within our death penalty work, as leaders of grassroots violence intervention and survivor organizations that EJUSA supported in capacity building, or as participants in our Police-Community Trauma Program in Newark.

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Who Has Access to Healing?

Reimagining Justice This Month highlights stories about effective responses to violence – responses that disrupt cycles of violence, heal trauma, and address structural racism.

States Set Aside Millions of Dollars for Crime Victims. But Some Gun Violence Survivors Don’t Get the Funds They Desperately Need, The Trace
Elizabeth Van Brocklin asserts that all victims – whether harmed by mass shootings or neighborhood gun violence – should receive the support they need in the wake of tragedy. She points out the lack of services for those injured in incidents of gun violence, who are disproportionately young black men. Now, Van Brocklin says, some states are beginning to improve access and funds for underserved victims.

Can Police Change Their Mindset from Warriors to Guardians?, The Crime Report
A Fordham Law School panel highlights the recurring tragedy of police-caused homicides in the U.S. One panel member contends that these tragedies should be addressed by “reengineering” police procedures and trainings in ways that encourages them to save lives, not take them.

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Watch our transformative work in Newark

Last week, The Grio published an amazing video featuring our program in Newark, which brings police and communities of color together to break barriers and fight to change police culture and behavior. Please take a moment to watch the video, and then share it with your friends and family.

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Newark Healing Community Meeting – January 13

In the past two years, hundreds of community residents and police officers have spent hours exchanging stories about their own trauma and learning about the trauma of the other.

Join us for an action session that highlights our work and identifies opportunities to break the cycles of violence and trauma in Newark to:

  • Improve community-police relations
  • Support the healing of trauma in our community
  • Break the cycle of violence

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EJUSA Evangelical Network promotes violence prevention, support for survivors, restorative justice, and death penalty repeal

EJUSA Evangelical Network websiteWe are proud to announced the formation of the new EJUSA Evangelical Network. It is comprised of Evangelical leaders – from across the nation and political spectrum – who seek to transform the justice system by promoting responses to violence that are rooted in the values of racial equity, healing, public health, and restoration.

“Evangelicals are active in a lot of criminal justice reform campaigns,” said Shari Silberstein, Executive Director of EJUSA. “In our work with Evangelicals on the death penalty, we consistently heard that they wanted to advocate for something, and not just against broken policies. Our Evangelical Network provides that affirmative platform for future advocacy.”

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