Let’s Talk About Historical Trauma



In 2015, SaintA launched the Historical Trauma Workgroup to advocate for and educate our staff and clients about the cycle of trauma, structural racism, bias and white privilege. Here’s what we know about historical trauma and what we’re doing about it.

Not All Trauma is the Same

First, it’s important to understand the different kinds of trauma. There’s acute, chronic and historical trauma. All are complex, but they have their differences.

  • Acute Trauma – Something that occurs once and has a huge impact on our lives. For example, a tornado, a house fire or accident.
  • Complex trauma – Results from exposure to multiple traumatic events, often of an in invasive, interpersonal nature. The impact of this exposure is wide-ranging and long-term

Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart, social worker and mental health expert first used the term “Historical Trauma” in the 1980s, describing it as the, “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including the lifespan, which emanates from massive group trauma.”

But what exactly does that mean?

Kanisha Phelps, Learning and Talent Development Supervisor, describes it as, “feeling the effects of trauma without directly experiencing it.” She adds, “we hang on to what (trauma) happened to the people before us.”

So What?

There are communities in Milwaukee, and across Wisconsin that are undoubtedly affected by historical trauma. Some examples include the experience of indigenous boarding schools, forced relocation, slavery, genocide and even rural poverty.

“What if Historical trauma impacted that person and that’s why they were put in our care?” Phelps says. Historical trauma can create cycles of poverty, substance abuse and mental illness that disproportionately affects marginalized communities, which we often serve.

We’ve even found that within our own agency, staff were experiencing microaggressions and discrimination we weren’t always aware of.

  • Microaggression – a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)

We decided to use our resources to help those that are deeply affected by this phenomenon. Our Historical Trauma Workgroup was formed to support and protect employees who may face discriminatory behavior and educate staff as well in order to reach our goal of a more equitable workplace.

We’ve hosted lunch and learns about missing and murder indigenous women and incarcerated fathers, we’ve reviewed our HR process to check for bias, and we’re piloting our reconciliation project to apologize to families we’ve treated unfairly. The workgroup also serves as a safe space for staff to get together and talk about their experiences. Still, we know there’s much more for us to do as an agency and outside our offices. We know historical trauma is deeply rooted in the lives of our clients and staff.

Collective Healing

“We don’t want to be seen as a group that focuses on the deficits,” says Phelps. “It’s also about a group of people that heals.” That process is called resilience.

  • Resilience – “The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress— such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”  

Learn more about historical trauma here.

Learn more about our approach to trauma and trauma informed care here.

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