In the United States, many communities are left behind or locked out of American prosperity and opportunity – not by accident, but by design.
In recent years, poor urban planning, redlining, and disinvestment are just a few systematic design choices that have entrenched inequity and trauma into entire communities. What does community trauma look like today? Discrimination, intergenerational poverty, lack of job opportunities, lack of access to healthy foods, crumbling infrastructure, substandard housing and education, and high rates of violence – all products of harmful policy decisions and unjust power structures.
Unjust policy and consequential community trauma have a long history in the US.
For example, following slavery, state and local Jim Crow laws codified an apartheid regime that prevailed in Southern states from 1830 to 1965. These discriminatory ‘separate but equal’ policies systematically knit trauma into the fabric of the communities they governed, and set a precedent for current norms regarding policy and investment decisions in under-resourced communities and communities of color. These forms of institutionalized oppression are what we call 'structural violence,' and are a direct contributor to community-level trauma. While seemingly less pernicious today, local, state, and federal systems continue to fail too many communities. From lead poisoning in Flint, the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, and many other cities; to the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy; to communities torn apart by immigration raids, examples of structural violence and community trauma abound. When federal, state, and local institutions allow for systemic injustices that create this kind of trauma, a community approach to solutions is needed.
In 2016, Prevention Institute (PI) released a framework to address community trauma, with the support of Kaiser Permanente Northern California Community Benefit.
Adverse Community Experiences and Resilience (ACE|R) lays out a framework for understanding the ways trauma and lack of opportunity shape too many neighborhoods – spreading outward from individuals to encompass youth, the elderly, caregivers, service providers, first responders, and the community as a whole.
Community-level trauma is a barrier to achieving healthy, thriving communities.
The ACE|R report presents a framework for addressing and preventing trauma at the community level and outlines specific strategies for healing and building resilience, elicited from those living or working in areas affected by community trauma. Since its release, it has resonated across multiple sectors, including healthcare, mental health, violence prevention, climate change preparedness, and early childhood development, among others.
In the U.S., many communities are incorporating strategies from PI’s report to heal and prevent trauma.
In San Diego, United Women of East Africa is using the ACE|R framework to structure its work on Making Connections for Mental Health and Wellbeing among Men and Boys, an initiative funded by the Movember Foundation and coordinated by PI. Jama Mohamed, program coordinator for the San Diego initiative, describes how community environments can produce and exacerbate trauma among refugees participating in the program: “When you look at a community that has actually experienced trauma, and you put them in an environment like this, it’s not for us to question their behaviors,” he said. “[The refugees] got away from dying [in their home countries] to come to an environment where they have to survive again. We are creating … opportunities for parents, young men and women to find solutions that are culturally competent.”
Other cities where the ACE|R framework is in use include:
- Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where PI is working with the Milwaukee Health Department to reduce the incidence of interpersonal and structural violence, and promote community safety and resilience.
- Oakland, California, where PI is working with the city and other partners to address community trauma and develop training materials based on the ACE|R framework. This work is made possible by a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Tacoma, Washington, and San Diego, California, where Making Connections initiatives use the ACE|R framework to develop strategies that address the community conditions that undermine quality of life for young boys and men of color, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicide.
Communities have a long history of taking on the sources of shared trauma and making bold steps to counter injustice at the grassroots level. The goal of the ACE|R framework is to share what’s working and empower communities to connect across sectors to build resilience and heal together.
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Support for development and implementation of the ACE|R framework is provided by Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit.