How to Be Trauma-Informed

WITSEvents, Volunteers

How to be trauma-informed

Jacob Dancer III is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Program Manager at UCAN. Jacob led a WITS Talks on being trauma- informed for WITS volunteers and community members on November 14, 2017. A full video of the training, hosted by Exelon, is included below. Read on for a complementary interview with Jacob on identifying trauma and its effects on young people.

Eric Coleman:  What is your background in social work, and what is your current role?

Jacob Dancer III:  I went to The University of Chicago and got my Bachelor’s in Psychology in 1989 and my Master’s in Social Work from the School of Social Service Administration in 2004. I’ve been working in the field since 1991, and I’ve been in multiple roles. I’ve been a Residential Treatment Specialist working with juvenile sex offenders. I’ve also been a therapist working with adult and juvenile sex offenders, as well as victims of sexual trauma and trauma. I was a clinical supervisor for a few years, supervising interns and staff on providing clinical services for adults and youth who have been victims of trauma (violence and loss). I am currently the Program Manager of our Violence Intervention and Protection Services at UCAN and have been here since 2013.

EC:  At the recent WITS Talks, you discussed trauma and being trauma-informed. Could you briefly define trauma?

JD:  The definition of trauma is an event that creates distress, discomfort, loss, or pain (emotionally, physically, cognitively, spiritually) through different experiences. It can be life-altering and long-lasting.

EC:  What does it mean for someone who works with students to be trauma-informed?

JD:  There are four R’s in being trauma-informed. First, you want to realize that trauma is widespread and not just within an individual. Trauma impacts the student, the client, the staff person, the organization, the community, the neighborhood, the family. It is not isolated. When someone experiences trauma, it doesn’t just stick with that one person; it’s a systemic impact. Once you realize, you want to recognize symptoms of trauma. What does it look like? What are the signs? [Those are] the events, experiences, and effects in my earlier definition. You want to respond in a way where the policies and practices of the people who are implementing trauma-informed care integrate into their experiences. Your policies change on how to respond to youth or adults who have experienced trauma. Your procedures change, your setting changes, and you want to resist re-traumatization. In summary, you realize the wide spread of trauma, you recognize the symptoms of trauma, you respond by changing your policies, procedures, and practices to respond appropriately, and you resist re-traumatization.

EC:  Why do you think the process you just described of being trauma-informed is something that individuals who work with students should be aware of?

JD:  People who have experienced trauma don’t walk around with a tag around their neck saying, “Hi, I’ve experienced trauma.” You may say something hurtful unintentionally. You may do something disrespectful and re-traumatizing and not be aware. It is better to assume that every youth, especially youth communities in Chicago where poverty environments are present, has experienced trauma. and you treat them as such so that you don’t re-traumatize them or exacerbate the trauma experiences they already have.

EC:  There are teachers and practitioners that work closely with students on a consistent, long-term basis, and then there are individuals, like WITS mentors, that work with students less frequently but still on an ongoing basis. What kind of advice would you give to both of those different groups that spend time working with students?

JD:  To the group that are spends a lot of time with students (teachers, practitioners, etc.): rapport is healing, relationships are healing, and being cognizant of how your relationship is with the young person will impact and shape how they respond to their traumatizing experiences. It is important to appropriately model how to interact with others, especially in times when we as adults feel disrespected by another adult, and a young person is watching. If you’re around young people a lot, they pick up your habits on how you manage and navigate your experiences. And it’s important not to think that, “Well, I’m an adult, so I can do this, and you’re a kid, so you should do that.” No, you model it. That’s the important part for those who are frequently around a lot of young people. For those who spend time with young people more sporadically, it’s important to be present with them and who they are and to meet them where they’re at. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you enable inappropriate behavior, and you don’t hold the person accountable. It means meeting them [in an] empathetic and nurturing way. It means being present and speaking to them in a way where they don’t feel less than. Of course, everything I’m saying is applicable to those who see students frequently, as well. It means not telling them, “Well, you don’t know anything because you’re a kid,” or dismissing their point of view, because they haven’t been on the planet long enough. All those kinds of things do not encourage a connection; instead, they create separation.

One of the things about working with the student population at WITS is that sometimes young people can get so agitated or frustrated, and as a volunteer or mentor, you can feel helpless. Questions like, “What kind of impact can I make when I really only get to work with this student for 45 minutes?” [can arise]. The greatest impact that we can make as adults is to tell [students], “that it must be hard for you, what you’re going through,” and to be very empathetic. What I think a lot of people get confused about is the difference between sympathy and empathy. “I really feel bad about what you’re going through,” that’s sympathy, which does nothing for the young person. But if you say, “That must be really hard, what you’re going through,” and not saying, “Oh, I totally know what you’re going through,” because what you experienced when you were growing up is an entirely different context to what the [young] person is experiencing. We want to be so quick as adults to come up with the solution and put it in a box. “No, I totally get that, I grew up on that block, too. I totally know what that feels like.” No, you don’t. You grew up on a block in the early 90’s, they’re growing up on the block in the 2010’s, and that is an entirely different context than it was 20 years ago.

EC:   What is your favorite part of working with students?

JD:  Being the program manager, my work is more through my staff than it is through me, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t know [the students we serve] well. I love watching a young person’s eyes light up with curiosity when my staff introduces me, and I share that I am familiar with them, because I supervise their mentor. They always ask, “So, you’re their boss?” I say yes, and it is important for me to know that their mentor is taking good care of them. That’s how I know who the students are. I’m the type of program manager that the youth know who I am. I am not shy at all, and I am very positive youth development-focused. If I see a young person in our programs, I will speak to them, say hi, and ask them how they are doing, what’s going on in school, how are they feeling? When they do see me, if their mentor is not around, they know they can come to me.

Additional resources on working with students who have experienced trauma: