From Youth Trauma to Youth Leadership

Written by Carmen Iniguez

June 9, 2015

A few years ago I went back to school to become a licensed family therapist. Along with my skills of organizing and advocacy (and even mothering, which came later), I wanted to be able to work directly with the young people who must lead the social change we all need. In this role last year I worked with a middle schooler I will call Ramiro.

Ramiro had no motivation to do work in class, much less homework, and was in danger of failing. The school complained about his disruptive behavior that included talking out of turn, distracting others, falling asleep in class. His parents were frustrated and divided about how to deal with him. Ramiro was sent to the school’s main office a few times a week when he would complain about having head or stomach aches. Sometimes he would go home early and miss big chunks of the school day.

Over the course of several weeks I got to know Ramiro in individual therapy at his school, where we would talk about how he was doing over marathon games of mancala. Ramiro had a tough, protective exterior and was initially very distrustful of me and protective of himself. After all, who was this stranger who’d meet him with board games to play?

Little by little he began to warm up, confiding to me that he was having a hard time getting up in the morning to go to school. He talked about the gunshots and sirens going off near his tiny house crowded with relatives working many jobs. He talked about his father, looking for full time work after being laid off from his job of 25 years, lashing out at Ramiro when the school would call with complaints. When I was able to begin family therapy sessions in Ramiro’s home I saw first hand the depression among so many family members, as well as other issues, like his father’s untreated diabetes.

Over the course of our sessions, the family’s challenges and emotions emerged, and they gained access to medical care and food stamps. An older brother and his family were able to find their own housing.

Not surprisingly, when Ramiro’s home life eased up, he made huge strides in school. Motivated by the promise of a brand new X-box at the end of the school year, Ramiro was able to raise his grades far beyond his original goal of passing, reaching a 3.4 GPA.

I thought of Ramiro a few weeks ago when the headlines told us about a new lawsuit demanding Compton Unified School District, the district serving the largest number of black and brown youth in California, to do more to support students suffering from trauma. The case argues that students suffering from trauma (interpersonal, family, community, structural and systemic) are not learning because their mental health needs are not being recognized and addressed.

Whether you agree with class action as a strategy or not, the lawsuit is making visible the issue of trauma and its pervasive impact in the lives of children and youth. The lawsuit also demands the attention of the adults who are in direct contact day in and day out to acknowledge and provide the necessary mental health supports for students to learn and thrive.

Unlike a broken limb made known by a cast, trauma is often invisible and misunderstood. The manifestations of trauma are many and varied from isolation, depression, anxiety, and hyper-vigilance to anger and aggression towards self and others.

In schools, the impact of trauma on children and youth often shows up as it did with Ramiro, as noncompliant or defiant behavior. Adults often end up punishing, rather than helping kids with trauma; continuing, rather than interrupting a vicious cycle.

What would happen if we tried something else? What if we, as adults, found effective responses for what is really going on with young people? What if adults could recognize trauma and learn how to help young people heal?

I believe the impact would be extraordinary.

Helping youth heal is exactly what a number of youth organizing groups have been doing for many years. Healing centered work has become a core strategy for many organizations that recognized a need that was not being met or funded.

Urban Peace Movement, in partnership with Professor Shawn Ginwright, Ph.D. and Mara Chavez-Diaz (Graduate School of Education, University of California at Berkeley), just released the findings of their new report, A Conceptual Mapping of Healing Centered Youth Organizing, which features practitioners and organizers in the field who are working to embed healing into their organizing efforts with young people.

In their report they show how the consequences of policies such as Proposition 187, Proposition 209, Proposition 227, zero tolerance in schools, and Proposition 21 “did not only occur at the level of public systems and public policy.”

These policies have left devastating, deeply traumatic, and in many cases deeply personal impacts on families and communities, such as the trauma of having an incarcerated parent or the trauma of having a family member deported. And these policies have had disproportionately negative impacts on communities of color and on young males of color in particular. This is compounded by the fact that these same youth who have been unfairly impacted often have few opportunities and little support to address the psychosocial harm resulting from persistent exposure to an ecosystem of systemic violence, harm, and trauma.

As the report makes clear, healing is political, and healing and organizing intersect.

The report will be the focus of an upcoming webinar, “Healing Centered Youth Organizing: The Integration of Healing into our Strategies for Social Change”. I will be joining the webinar to learn more about the report’s findings and implications.

I am inspired to know that more and more youth organizing groups are putting healing at the center of their work.

And I go to work each day imagining a world filled with millions of Ramiro’s, healing and bringing their wisdom and talent forth to lead us all.

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