Late last summer, I had the opportunity to hear human rights icon Ruby Sales speak at a gathering for pastors. Sales is known to ask the question “Where does it hurt?” to unlock what might motivate someone to act in ways others find incomprehensible. Her question has the power to flip the narrative on our need to judge. We all have been hurt, some more traumatically than others. How does hurt show up?
I flashed back to the neighborhood where I grew up with children being raised in households marked by generations of alcohol addiction, episodes of domestic violence, and chronic illnesses made significantly worse by poverty.
For some of my neighbors, school was one more place they struggled, and so it also became where their frustrations flared. Before academic studies showed children of color being disproportionately disciplined in schools, I could tell based on whose mother, summoned again from her hourly wage job, was in the principal’s office.
What was less clear to me then — but child development experts have come increasingly to understand — is that children live with the long-term impact of toxic stress levels. And while some of my childhood neighbors grew up in harsh circumstances, they did not experience the crushing burdens of gun violence, mass incarceration, widespread addiction, and other trauma that children and families are exposed to today.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Chronic childhood abuse and neglect can cause lasting damage to developing brains and bodies. It leaves children, especially children living in poverty, at greater risk for disease, interaction with the judicial system, and other poor outcomes.
In Wake County, Advocates for Health in Action is one group bringing attention to the impact of such Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Among the ways they are educating the community and encouraging collaboration is by making available the documentary “Resilience – The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope.” The film explains the physical impact of toxic stress and the ways leaders in education, medicine, and social services are developing to protect vulnerable children.
Sara Merz, executive director of the group, said members of her board modified their mission a year ago because of “Resilience.” They expanded their work to include well-being because they realized adverse childhood experiences have "a bigger impact on health and well-being than any other single factor alone.”
Far from expecting children to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, resilience strategies emphasize the role that adults and healthy systems of care can play as buffers. Wake County has agencies and organizations whose excellent work in helping young people predates this push, Merz said. But the documentary makes clear that more is needed.
“This film ties it to health and social outcomes,” she said. “The data is new to people and makes people’s jaw drop.”
The ACEs Resilience Initiative in Wake County is at work, chaired by Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman and Orage Quarles III, former publisher of The News & Observer, with resources, including local film screenings, on the Advocates for Health in Action website.
The initiative is particularly interested in engaging faith communities; I saw the movie at my church, and the connections were striking.
Many faith-based outreach ministries focus on those living with the negative outcomes of trauma. That work is needed, but it generally offers a short-term solution.
Moving from service to justice requires education and advocacy so systems change to promote resilience while also mitigating the trauma that makes it necessary in the first place. Faith communities are uniquely positioned to be the educators and advocates who put some of our own service ministries out of business by making the need for them obsolete.