Event Explores Everyone’s Role in Race, Trauma and Healing

From a recorded welcome by Oprah Winfrey to input from a variety of local and nationally recognized experts, 1,400 people came together at the city’s new Fiserv Forum Wednesday evening Sept. 26 to learn how to do their part to heal Milwaukee.

A Community Gathering on Race and Trauma was hosted by SaintA and sponsored by Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee, SWIM, a multi-disciplinary group dedicated to inspiring collaboration to help Milwaukee heal.

Panel discussion during #HealMKE: What can be done about race-related trauma?

Event organizers believe it was the first-ever gathering of its kind, where leaders from human services, community organizing and the business sector came together with the intention of talking collectively about race, trauma and healing.

Noting that the gathering capped SaintA’s 10-year anniversary of working in trauma informed care, President and CEO Ann Leinfelder Grove said the answers to healing the trauma caused by racism and bigotry “lie within each of us.”

She noted that SaintA had developed its 7 Essential Ingredients to better serve children, families and the community but that the agency realized it needed to also focus on historical trauma, implicit bias and white privilege. “These are perhaps the most burning issues in Milwaukee,” she said.

That sentiment was underscored by internationally known neurobiologist, author and researcher Dr. Bruce Perry, senior fellow at the ChildTrauma Academy.

Generational Trauma Has Major Impact

“The brain allows us to absorb the accumulated and distilled experiences of thousands of previous generations in a single lifetime,” he said. “If you grow up in an environment with hurt and marginalization, you pass that on to the next generations.”

Hope lies in having rich relational health, which he said is a better predictor of health than a history of adversity. Most of human history included clans, people living together with lots of physical interaction. And connections with diverse communities are the key, he said, adding that “we can only move forward if we spend time with and listen to people who are different from us.”

“In the last five years, the toxicity of dialogue in this nation has been outrageous,” he said. “But the power of proximity can bring us together.”

Time to Speak the Truth  

Oprah’s recorded welcome reiterated her deep belief that success in addressing trauma starts with changing the idea of “what’s wrong with you “to what happened to you.”

Rev. Jim Wallis, Sojourners founder, an author and a former member of the White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said speaking the truth is key to healing.

He told the story of how in 22 seasons of coaching Little League Baseball he learned that every black child had been told by their parents how to behave with law enforcement officers, while white kids were never given that talk by their parents. That fear added to the stress and trauma the black children experienced.

This country’s history of slavery, added to white nationalism and supremacy is nothing if not a sin, he said. “We need to appeal to our better angels and not our worst demons,” he said.

By video, Oprah Winfrey gave her support for trauma-informed work being done in Milwaukee. (Photo: OWN)

Hope is essential to healing, and having hope is a decision a person needs to make. It’s about being hopeful in spite of evidence, he said. He related a story about inmates in the infamous Sing Sing prison in Ossining, NY, having said that most of the inmates were from four or five neighborhoods in New York City. It was like a train, from impoverished neighborhoods directly to prison.

“What train will you stop in Milwaukee?” he asked those gathered.

Multiple Perspectives, One Stage

Jermaine Reed, Executive Director at Fresh Start Family Services and former host of a morning show on WNOV radio in Milwaukee, moderated a panel including several area experts. Asking them their perspective on race and trauma, he got a variety of viewpoints.

  • Sumaiyah Clark, of the Milwaukee Health Department Office of Violence Prevention, said de-humanization and racism is one of the only crimes for which there has been no prosecution. It equates to 100 years of abuse with no accountability. Healing needs to move from individual blame to an understanding of systemic problems, she said.
  • Howard Fuller, of the Institute for Transformative Learning, said the community lacks a commitment to end what caused trauma in the first place. “We need to deal with what it really means to be poor in Milwaukee … people don’t have the resources to live a decent life.”
  • Alejandra Gonzalez, a DACA recipient and Legal Assistant at Soberalski Immigration Law,said growing up undocumented meant a life shrouded in fear. Things remain constantly traumatic, she said, especially now because immigration policies are constantly changing.
  • Fran Kaplan, of Nurturing Diversity Partners, said tackling trauma and racism needs to become a public health project such as that which led to a reduction of smoking. “We need to recognize the damage that it is doing to our entire society.” She, too, said society needs to shift its focus from interpersonal bigotry to the “profound unfairness and bigotry in our nation’s institutions. … Systemic bigotry is poisoning our nation’s economy, systems and our humanity.”
  • Harold Koplewicz, of the Child Mind Institute, an advocate for children and teens with psychological disorders, said children of color often live in poverty in dangerous neighborhoods, with incarcerated parents, receive less help and suffer an epidemic of problems. He, too said these children are on a pipeline from school to prison.
  • The Rev Jim Wallis, Sojourners founder, said better policies regarding housing, DACA, and mass incarceration are needed. Many policies are aimed at preventing positive change in our democracy, he said, and we need advocacy regarding policies.

How do we Address Structural Issues?

Commenting on what is needed to address structural issues, Fuller said change is needed in the power differential, that racism serves a power purpose. Resources need to go to the people who are suffering, not those who caused the problems. Action is the key, he said.

Clark said efforts need to be led by people of color, with those in power helping by going alongside. Cooperation is needed with the people in the community who already are doing the work, she said.

Kaplan said helping people understanding history is essential, adding that US history is not truthful and people fear what they do not understand.

Koplewicz said attitudes will change as more white people get to know more people of color. People need to understand how they acquired fears in order to change hearts and minds, operate out of the truth and ultimately change practices. Voting is crucial, he said.

Change is not about theories, rather what works, Mayor Tom Barrett said. Finding ways to get jobs back to the central city is critical he said. Respect is needed both ways to improve police and community relations he said, adding that better police, from the community they police, are needed. More decent housing also is essential, along with fewer evictions of women.

“If we work together, I’m confident we can address these issues,” he said. “If we are committed, we will make progress.”

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