Trauma Informed Community Development: An Interview with Paul Abernathy, Part 1 Posted on December 12, 2016 by wpengine Share this post GTECH is about to embark upon a new round of work in the Hill District, ReClaim Central. But, as always, we aren’t going it alone. The Hill District Consensus Group brought us on board to help develop some of the vacant lots around Bedford Dwellings as part of the Choice Neighborhood planning process. Meanwhile, down the street, FOCUS Pittsburgh had been working on an intensive project to improve one block on Webster Avenue. So, rather than pursue another effort separately, we decided to join forces, bringing together Ambassadors from Bedford and Webster to transform vacant lots around their blocks. Recently GTECHer Gavin White sat down with Paul Abernathy, Director of FOCUS Pittsburgh, to talk more about their continuing work in the neighborhood. Note: Paul had so many important and inspiring things to say that we decided to split the interview in half. Enjoy part 1, and keep an eye out for part 2 later this week! G: First, where did FOCUS Pittsburgh start and where do you see yourself now, as far as the work you’re doing here in the Hill District? P: Well, we started with very simple things, primarily food and clothing. And at that time we used the food and clothing as an opportunity to really get to know people, but more importantly to really listen to their heart and listen to their concerns. In the course of that ongoing listening exercise we began to identify needs of people and began to address them in a way that was really speaking to their suffering, and that’s how we ended up exactly where we are. We still do a lot of basic needs – already this year we have about $800,000 worth of food and clothing that has been distributed to the community; we have 2,500 kids that we’re feeding 5 meals every weekend now as part of the backpack feeding program. We’re still doing the basic things, but it’s rolled into other things—IDs, birth certificates, help with lights, gas, rent, workforce development… Today, right over there, they’re doing dental. [Chuckles] That’s why we have to listen to these drills. So if you need to see a dentist, we’ll just take you over there. But so now, we have this health center, we have primary, behavioral and dental care. It’s all free for people who can’t afford it. That includes lab work. That includes procedures. It even includes surgeries. We’ve been able to build this network of clinicians, medical professionals, and local hospitals to enable us to do this, and now we have hundreds of patients under care. “People were coming here for food or clothing, coming here for an ID, a birth certificate and they’d end up talking about the pain that they had been through.” It was out of this work and this sensitivity to the health of our community that we began a conversation, probably 5 years ago, on community trauma, because we began to realize that people were coming here for food or clothing, coming here for an ID, a birth certificate and they’d end up talking about the pain that they had been through. There was a woman who, right before you came – I mean literally, I bet you about a minute and a half before you came – she came here for a bus ticket. I mean, of all things, a bus ticket – that’s all she wanted. And she sat right in that chair that you’re sitting in now, and I said to her, “well, why do you need a bus ticket?” She needed to get downtown and after that on her way to Beaver County. Then she started to share the scars on her body that had come from this abusive relationship that she had just been through. She began to talk about her addiction with cocaine. She talked about how after she was beaten by a man, the police said to her “all you are is a junkie. You just need to go back to where you came from…” you know, and it goes on, right? In the end, I said to her, “if we give you this bus ticket, I do have concerns about all these other things…” And we talked through some of that but, when she left, she said to me, in response to that she said, “you know” she said, “it’s really amazing that you guys are concerned about me because, I don’t have anyone” and you know, her eyes welled up, and that is, you know that was the experience, it was those experiences that compelled us to say, “we have to do something. We have to address… we don’t know how to address this. We have to begin listening, we have to start a wider conversation on this topic, a community conversation on this topic,” and that began a series of conversations on community trauma, out of which emerged Trauma-Informed Community Development. G: Trauma-Informed Community Development is an idea that I don’t think a lot of people know about. Could you talk a little bit about what that means and how you root community development in these understandings of trauma? P: So, Trauma-Informed Community Development – we sum it up by saying that it is establishing and promoting healthy, healing micro-communities. One of the things we’ve learned from the research that has been shared with us about trauma from our university partners at Duquesne and the University of Pittsburgh is that our community has been severely fractured as a result of multigenerational, complex trauma. A lot of the times we begin talking about the community – we have to do this for the community, we have to get the community involved – but we really have to pause and ask ourselves, “is there a community to get involved? Do we really understand what the true sense of community is?” We realized we had people living next to people they were just terrified of. People didn’t want to speak. We had to recognize that but also recognize this idea about trauma being so extensive that, even if someone didn’t experience trauma directly, there is so much around everyone that it absolutely shapes the worldview and informs a culture that has emerged from it. This is what we would call the effects of community trauma. And that’s not only gun violence. It’s homelessness, it’s hunger, it’s poverty, it’s addiction, it’s abuse, it’s racism – these are all forms of trauma that over the centuries create a worldview, a culture that actually reinforces unhealthy behaviors. We began to recognize that and so we went through a consultative workshop here in the community. It was a process we learned from our partners at Duquesne University about how to problematize issues, because issues don’t have solutions – problems do. So we used this process to problematize the issue of community trauma, and from this process emerged a strategy to address what we saw as the consequences of this multigenerational, complex trauma, part of which was changing a worldview – a paradigm shift to reinforce healthy behaviors in a way that helps people in the community heal from the wounds they had sustained over generations – establishing and promoting healthy, healing microcommunities. “We understand the consequences of trauma heavily influence adult health and behaviors, but if we understand that, we have to understand that we have to get people healthy enough to sustain these opportunities that many people are working so diligently to create.” Another thing we say a lot here in this work – we want people to be healthy enough to sustain opportunities. We don’t want people getting jobs and losing jobs. We don’t want people getting housing and losing housing. We’ve seen these things happen to many people, and it’s not because they’re ignorant and it’s not because they’re stupid. It’s not because they’re malicious. It’s because they’re not well. We understand the consequences of trauma heavily influence adult health and behaviors, but if we understand that, we have to understand that we have to get people healthy enough to sustain these opportunities that many people are working so diligently to create. The interview continues in part 2.