Trauma Informed Community Development: An Interview with Paul Abernathy, Part 2

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.  If you haven’t yet had a chance to read the first half, check it out here

G: So, at what scale or in what context does trauma-informed community development occur?

P: This all happens in the context of these microcommunities.  This is the work of Trauma-Informed Community Development.  Whether we’re talking about a block, or whether we’re talking about a housing cooperative, the understanding is we’re talking about a microcommunity, and a process that helps these microcommunities create what we call a HOPE plan, and in this instance HOPE stands for:

  • Health and Wellbeing
  • Opportunity Making
  • Placemaking
  • Engaging Influencers

And we’re working over at the University of Pittsburgh to develop some advanced tools to help these microcommunities understand their progress, understand what interventions are perhaps best and what interventions are not most appropriate, and understand the strides people have made over time so we can celebrate the victories of people working together.  The community conversation started five years ago.  We’ve been working at this process for a little over a year at this point and in this year we’ve just learned an incredible amount, and actually what little we’ve done has far exceeded our expectations in a way that is really reinforcing the value of this approach in our underserved communities.

G: Why the emphasis on a micro-community?

P: One of the things that is very important, when it comes to community trauma, is that ultimately you’re dealing with real people that live in real places. One of the things that, for me, is always such an interesting experience to observe is when there is an incident here in the community – and not only this community but communities all over the nation – the first responders come, and then there is that moment where the first responders leave and people really are left to themselves.  Some of the most sobering conversations we’ve had have been with people very shortly after they’ve experienced a very tragic event or very violent event and find themselves home, all alone, and feeling really trapped in complete isolation, really slaves of fear.

I can think of one family that, you know, we didn’t know how we were going to get their kids back in school, to Milliones University Prep. We had no idea, because the kids and their mother had all experienced a homicide right in that home.  And, and they were terrified to go to school.  The threat of reprisals, the threat of, just, now that they saw this happen, thinking, “it could happen,” period.  I mean this was a new reality.

“We can’t neglect the value of this intimate contact, because we have to realize how necessary that is – that human, relational response.”

To address this, there’s many different approaches, but we can’t neglect the value of this intimate contact, because we have to realize how necessary that is –that human, relational response.  Systems are attempting to respond but there is a void that they cannot fill, they were never meant to fill.  And then certainly they don’t always respond appropriately. And so the idea of taking a broad paintbrush and taking broad strokes across the community to address this need really didn’t seem feasible, especially when the work was so localized.

And so from all of this we realized that we can’t have somebody go through counseling and go back into a broken environment, because we hear all these stories, you know “he was doing so well, but then he went back and fell in to the same old…” or whatever the case might be.  And so the community response was “we can begin to affect the health of the macro-community, one micro-community at a time.”  That over the years, if we could have a microcommunity here and a microcommunity here and a microcommunity here, that over time the macrocommunity would improve. That the work was close enough, local enough, intimate enough to really impact the people who needed to be impacted and also reinstituted this sense of human relational response, and recognizing the role, maybe even the foundational role that that plays in helping people heal.

G: Sure, that makes a lot of sense.  So you’ve got this process going on now in one microcommunity – one block on Webster Avenue.  What, in your mind, have been the biggest successes of that process? And, conversely, what are some of the biggest challenges that you’re still trying to tackle?

P: The biggest success, for me, is that I really see, for the people who are engaging in this process, I see a weight lifted off their shoulders.  And I see a paradigm shift occur, you know?  It’s really amazing to see neighbors who never talked to each other, or maybe had a negative view of one other, really build relationships with one another in a way that helps them address some of the major concerns in the community.  I’ve seen drug trafficking move out of the microcommunity.  I’ve seen that people are beginning to open their eyes and see, you know, maybe my conditions really aren’t the most healthy, and really opening up the opportunity to address that.  To see people say to me, “We understand this isn’t about just fixing up our house.  This is about a healthy, healing community.  And this is what we’re really committed too.   That even after we get a new roof or a new door we want to heal, we want to help others heal.” To hear people say those things is teaching me that this is really an incredible thing.

“I think the challenge in this work is always going to be, you know, let’s say, loving people enough to allow them to punch you in the face.”

One of the challenges, as you can imagine, is really continuing to build trust.  And I think the challenge in this work is always going to be, you know, let’s say, loving people enough to allow them to punch you in the face.  I will say that.  Because people who are really, really wounded, they lash out.  In time that changes.  And as they heal their words also become healing, but before that point, sometimes, their words wound, and sometimes their actions wound, and sometimes they can be very, let’s say militant even.   And I think the struggle is always in those moments, where pain lashes out.  For us, really, the measure is, how much do we love them?  Because we need to love them enough to let them punch us in the face.  This is the measure of our responsibility.  If we fall short of that, then we are failing our obligation to them.  This is the hardest part of the work.  And it’s always going to be, I think, the biggest challenge.

G: I think that makes a lot of sense.  You mentioned loving as a response to getting punched in the face, which makes a lot of sense, in a strange kind of way…

P: [Loud laughs] Yeah, right! [More laughs] Yeah!

G: But what does that loving look like?  So you get punched, you take it and you say “that’s ok,” but how do you begin that healing dialogue?

P: You know one of the things in that process… I think where the art in all of it comes is in giving people the space to be vulnerable, because whenever we give people the space to be vulnerable, then we can see exactly where some of the pain originates.

I think what really has been the moment of change is whenever we actually have a consultative workshop.  We go right on the block and pitch a tent in the street and residents come and participate and…it becomes an epiphany for them, it becomes tremendous insight into the way they see, into the way they are.

You know, some of the comments, one of the consultative workshops in particular that comes to mind is where a woman saw these presentations about trauma and its effects, and when it was over she said “I’m just so happy that I saw this, because it really helped me make sense of the way things really are now.”  And I think that’s where the healing really begins to happen.  Where we give people the space to really be vulnerable and then give them information so they can really begin to understand for themselves, you know, why it is they did what they did, why they said what they said, why it is they are so quick to punch someone in the face, as opposed to sit down and dialogue with them in peace.  And that epiphany inspires really great openness and lays a foundation for incredible transformation.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.