I just moved across the country to the Philadelphia area to start working as an Americorp VISTA in Camden, New Jersey. I am working with the Healing 10 collaboration to bring a trauma informed paradigm to Camden, arguably one of the most traumatized cities in the US. At the moment, I am in the midst of both trying to understand my new job in trauma informed care and set up my apartment in a new city. Obviously, trips to the library and IKEA were in order. While I struggled to build my IKEA Kallax shelving unit to have a place to store all of these new library books I realized that the tasks I was undertaking had remarkably similar emotional trajectories. So let’s talk about incorporating the trauma informed paradigm through an extended metaphor of the IKEA building experience that we have all been through.
I don’t know about you, but when I start tackling a new project, whether it be an IKEA Kallax shelving unit or a new job, I tend to jump straight in. With furniture, I know generally how it is supposed to look and I assume I am smart enough to figure out which pieces fit together. I mean really, I helped to build whole sets for theater in high school; obviously, that qualifies me to build a shelf. The same principle applies to my job. I came to my first day equipped with my Vista Assignment Description (VAD) which gives me my goals, objectives and some actives I would be doing during my year as a VISTA. On top of that I have a Masters Degree in Conflict Resolution, which gave me the foolhardy confidence to think I knew what I was doing (like only academia can). Both of these illusions came crashing down in about 5 minutes. For the shelf that meant literally crashing, and I have the photos of my bruises as proof. Luckily for my job the only thing that was damaged was my confidence. It took less than an hour of being in Hopeworks’N Camden to realize there was something very different and special about working in an organization that fully embraces the Sanctuary Model of Trauma informed care. I had to take a step back and change my way of thinking before I could even begin.
A bruised ego and a bruised leg later, it was time to search for some kind of directions. For me that meant research and reading on trauma informed care, the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) study, and toxic stress. While reading Sandra Bloom’s Restoring Sanctuary I had my ‘Ah-ha’ moment. The simple idea of changing the way we think about people’s behavior from ‘sickness’ or ‘badness’ to thinking about it as a symptom of injury, finally put ideas I had been grappling with for years into words. Even more revelatory for me is her description of organizational dysfunction as a symptom of the environments of trauma and stress that organizations exists in. Where was this idea in my organizational conflict class? For that matter; where was any of this in my whole conflict resolution degree? Reading Sandra Bloom’s work was like opening up the IKEA instructions and figuring out that I had been using the wrong tools this whole time. My academic experience had taught me how to use a variety of tools in my tool box, a hammer, a saw, a screwdriver and even a drill, but they skipped over the lesson on the allen wrenches. And it turns out that the allen wrenches were the key to the whole shelf.
After finally finding the instructions, the pictures make building this shelf look easy. If the poorly drawn stick figure can do it I should definitely be able to do it, especially because I at least have a fully formed face and opposable thumbs. However, somewhere between deciding which screw to use next and fitting two pieces of board together that seem to have different pegs and holes, I came to the conclusion that the smiling lineman was lying to me. This was not as simple as it seems. Implementing trauma informed care is the same way. It is one thing to shift your thinking by asking “What happened to you?” instead of “ What is wrong with you?”, but is much harder to truly embody all the elements. It is easy to understand that someone might be overreacting to something because they are using patterns that have helped them survive in the past. It is hard to not get frustrated or hurt when they are yelling at you. It is easier to see the ways your organization is adapting to trauma and chronic stress by mirroring destructive patterns than it is to develop organizational structures that create safety while also allowing for growth, change, democracy, and nonviolence. The gap between theory and practice had never seemed quite as wide as when I’m standing in the middle of a pile of disassembled particleboard or when I’m trying to wrap my head around the consequences of using a trauma informed paradigm.
Sometimes you just have to take a break. Trying to fit seemingly incongruous parts of a shelf together can be draining. It is totally normal to get frustrated. The key is to remember to take care of yourself, including your mental health. Trauma informed care emphasizes the importance of understanding that trauma radiates and therefore creating safety for EVERYONE in the organization needs to be a priority. This means that the staff also needs to have a safety plan and they need to be encouraged to take time to practice self-care. The best part of these practices is that they can also can and should be used in life outside of work. Sometimes three deep breaths and a walk around the block is the difference between a completed shelf and a broken mess of boards.
Taking a leisurely walk while exploring my new neighborhood allowed me to return to my tasks with a clearer mind. Just like with IKEA furniture, it’s not just going to take one day to fit these methods into my daily life. Inevitably I’m going to discover that I really need a side table or perhaps a new desk chair and it’ll be another trip to IKEA. Likewise, I’m going to keep finding new aspects and nuances of trauma informed care that I need to include into my own paradigm and work.