C4 Innovations

Recognizing Urban Trauma and Supporting Healing

An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Ashley Stewart and Daryl McGraw discuss urban, race-based trauma and ways recovery service providers can support healing for people who have experienced and witnessed it with host Livia Davis.

Trigger Warning: In this episode, we discuss types of trauma—such as death, violence, abuse, abandonment, poverty, food insecurity/hunger, and incarceration.

November 22, 2021


Livia Davis, Host (00:05): Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Livia Davis. Our topic today is urban trauma. What it is, and how recovery support service providers — whether those recovery supports are being provided in a community setting, or in a clinical setting — can better recognize it when working with people in recovery from mental health and substance use also impacted by urban trauma. I am joined today by two guests, Mr. Daryl McGraw, Associate Director, Social Justice, and Recovery calling in from Connecticut. Hello, Daryl.

Daryl McGraw, Guest (00:43): Hello, Livia. How are you? I’m excited to be here. It’s one of my favorite topics. So let’s go.

Livia (00:49): Thank you. And also with me today is Dr. Ashley Stewart. Training and curriculum development specialist calling in from New Jersey.

Ashley Stewart, Guest (00:57): Hi everyone.

Livia (00:59): Thank you both so much for joining us on this important topic. Just to get us started, research tells us that traumatic experiences are tragically common within inner city neighborhoods. We see it in the news and also research bears it out. We also know that urban trauma includes the sudden death of loved ones, being assaulted, or being exposed to the violent deaths of others. With urban trauma having so much weight to it, what can we, as recovery support providers, do to better recognize it, is really what we’re going to talk about today. And I’m going to ask Dr. Ashley Stewart first to expand a little bit on the of research so that we can be clear in what it means, and what we’re talking about, and how it differs from other kinds of trauma.

Ashley (01:51): Great. Thanks, Livia. Thanks for turning that over to me. Yeah, so urban trauma, it can be very much insidious form of trauma because essentially it is where people’s baselines have shifted to what is normal. Urban trauma speaks to the things that go on, on a day-to-day basis, chronically every day, forms of violence, poverty, food insecurity, witnessing and grieving loss, experiencing hardship that is part of the natural daily occurrences within urban environments. Now that’s not to say that that’s all the urban environment is, right, and it’s this balancing of that plus joy, plus peace, plus love, plus family, plus all of these other dynamics, but when they’re experienced at the same capacity at the same frequency all day, every day, it creates this really unique form of insidious trauma. And lots of times folks will compare the symptoms of urban trauma to that, of post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD].

Ashley (02:50): And so we know that post-traumatic stress disorder is often associated with veterans, and folks who have experienced this type of war. Well, what we know about the scholarship around race-based traumatic stress coined by Robert Carter is that the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which can also be experienced as part of urban trauma, is also very much in alignment with race-based traumatic stress. And so when we are examining this, I think it’s important to stay true to what the scholars were suggesting, which is it’s not necessarily pathologizing the individuals who are experiencing race based traumatic stress, or pathologizing the people who have experienced urban trauma, but more so looking systemically and structurally at these forces, the systems, the disparities, and society that allow for this type of inequity to persist, and causes trauma for individuals which really begs to what is traumatic events, anyway. There’s the event itself. And then there’s the impact that it has on the individual, or on the body, which is then the trauma.

Livia (03:57): Thank you so much, Ashley. The racial trauma, which results from experiencing or witnessing race-based stressors, which you just talked about, and the causes of it, the root causes of it, which you also pointed to are really important for treatment providers and recovery support providers to understand and learn how they can address. But before we talk about that, I’m wondering if you, Daryl can talk a little bit more about what does this look like? Can you kind of paint a picture of what this might look like for folks who are serving people who are in recovery, who are coming to their doors?

Daryl (04:37): Oh man, thank you, Livia. And I really appreciate the clinical definition, Ashley, you always bring that here. I really appreciate that. The one thing that I think about, and I’ve talked about this topic a few times in other settings. This is a term commonly used, but rarely firmly discussed. When I was asked to speak about urban trauma, and I talk about urban trauma, I always talk about the question was, so was it physical? Was it sexual? What was it? What was your trauma? What was it? And I’m always, “No, that wasn’t my experience.” My experience was more… When my dad left, when I was six years old, my dad left, and he left our family, and he told me I was a man of the house.

Daryl (05:25): So all my responsibilities at six years old, six ended my responsibilities were more like making sure the gas was off, the door was locked. And that my little brother had got to the sitter. The interesting thing kind of what Ashley was saying with the PTSD is growing up in these urban environments where shootings are common, and violence is common because violence was surrounded me, right? So growing up, for a lack of a better term, I grew up in the hood. So seeing and witnessing violence was common.

Daryl (05:59): That was how things were settled. So for me, it wasn’t odd, and many people around me, and I didn’t even know to be truthfully honest, I didn’t even know I was a trauma survivor until late into my thirties, because this was the air that we breathed. This was common. So for me and many people that I grew up with, we didn’t think we were trauma survivors. We just thought we, this was normal behavior until you start to talk to other people, professionals maybe, and they start to say, “Well, you know, that’s not, that’s not common. That’s not normal.” Those experiences at six years old, that feeling of abandonment is not so something that you should experience at six, and those responsibilities were a lot different. So shout out to all my latchkey kids out there that’s listening.

Ashley (06:47): Yeah. Yeah. And I think another part that really builds on what you were just sharing Daryl is, PTSD, that diagnosis can happen as a result of a single event, or not even having to be there, just witnessing or hearing about something that happened to someone that’s close to, Dr. DeGruy talks a lot about that. Whereas this urban trauma is the insidiousness of it, the pervasiveness of it is that it’s not just a single event. It is the life circumstances. It is the compounding, the residual impact of things that you’re having experienced to yourself, or seeing it happen to other people.

Ashley (07:29): And I think that’s what a lot of folks miss about urban trauma in race based stress, is that it is not a single event. It is actually something that is a lived experience with trauma that happens ongoing and sustained. Even if you’re no longer in the environment, it’s still affecting your family. It’s still affecting your friends, the folks who are closest to you, so you can do the work for it, but it still is very much a part of your environment. And that’s why we really want to look at being able to respond to it appropriately within different settings, and appreciation for it.

Daryl (08:06): No, I agree with you a hundred percent. I’m a person — I’m also a survivor of police brutality. So my experience with law enforcement and having been assaulted by law enforcement, when I seen George Floyd being assaulted in a similar fashion that trauma retriggered, right? And many people in the urban community, whether that was happening to them, but just witnessing something like that happening will automatically trigger a trauma response. So for those that are working with people in urban environments, working with Black and Brown people, and something happens nationally that’s tragic, we need to check in with them and make sure they’re okay. And that doesn’t happen a lot. That doesn’t happen when I talk to school teachers, and we talk about children of incarcerated parents. Even the holiday times can be traumatic because everyone is drawing that hand, I’m going to date myself now, right?

Daryl (09:07): You take your hand, and you draw that turkey. Or they say, draw your family for the holidays. Well, if your father’s impacted by the justice system and is incarcerated, then you’re forcing this kid to either lie that this kid is drawing a picture of their dad there, or drawing a picture of a missing dad, and looking over, and seeing a full family next to them, to the left or the right of them. And this is a traumatic experience. So it might not be something as physical, these things come in all different forms. And like you said, it’s the response too. My response to my dad leaving plagued me for 30 something years. I used substances. I was incarcerated. All these things. And when I peeled the onion back, I realized it was direct correlation to when my father left.

Ashley (10:01): Daryl, I think that your use of the example of police brutality is an important one. So I think that’s a place where we begin to clarify. Okay, we know that the central nervous system is activated anytime anyone sees police lights behind them, it’s just the anxiousness. “Am I going to give ticket? Oh my goodness. I can’t believe I’m getting….” It’s a natural bodily response, but there’s something that’s very different than when you or I, or folks who have experienced, personally or vicariously, police brutality, see those lights behind us.

Ashley (10:30): It is first the thoughts of my family members and loved ones who have experienced police brutality. Sure, there might be some of us who have excellent and wonderful experiences with the police, but it’s also me thinking about the times that I’ve been harassed, or experienced police brutality myself. So it’s not just that I’m anxious because I don’t, “Oh my goodness, it’s a ticket or it’s police or whatever.” The encounter — “What was I doing? Am I in trouble with the law?” It’s an actual physiological fear, a trauma that is evoked that goes through a whole like shuttering, like a Rolodex of experiences, lived and vicarious that says, “This is very, very dangerous situation for me.” And not just because I might get a ticket or might just because I don’t know I could get arrested, but because of all of the other really intentional forms of harassment, abuse, neglect that come to surface when Black folk, when Brown folk interact with the police.

Daryl (11:27): I agree. And I think that there’s an opportunity to teaching moment as well. Like if you’re a social worker, and you’re working in these urban environments, and you identify yourself as social workers, well, when social workers come into these urban environments, a lot of times they’re connected to the Department of Children and Family Services. And when a social worker comes into the environment, the experiences that they’re only there to take children away. So you, identifying yourself as a social worker can be fearful. For people who grew up in those environments. There’s never anything happy that happens when the social worker comes, nothing. No disrespect to my social workers out there. We love you, and we need you, but understanding how that may be portrayed. Also similar effects with police officers and so on and so forth, because the experiences in these environments have been most of the time negative, whether they have been to the individual or what you witnessed, because we also understand, as you stated more than once here, that it’s not just experiencing the trauma, it’s witnessing the trauma.

Daryl (12:27): In that internal feeling. We could open this up and really get into the historical trauma, and start talking about how slavery — still, because, and I’ll say that this slavery still affects us in Black, and Brown people in this country, because there has never, never been a sense of healing. We have never had the opportunity to heal. So therefore we still… There’s this deepened sense of hurt. And man, I don’t even, man, let’s go, Ashley, let’s go.

Ashley (13:00): Listen, let’s give the listeners a quick reference. We’re not going to have an opportunity to dive into that, but you should look into the work of Dr. Joy DeGruy in post-traumatic slave syndrome, sometimes referred to as post-traumatic and slave syndrome to learn a little bit more about what Daryl’s saying.

Daryl (13:12): A hundred percent. Yes.

Livia (13:15): So since we cannot talk about urban trauma without also talking about racial trauma, and since we just talked about racial stress being ongoing, pervasive, generationally transmitted, and it affects both the persons and the collective communities where people reside, what are some key takeaways, or some things that recovery support providers can do? Should they take a look at their policy? Should they take a look at their environment? How should they be? What should they take for steps? Could we share just a few strategies?

Ashley (13:54): Yes. Yes. So of things that you just listed and more Livia, I think one thing that’s really important, particularly when it’s around shifting policy, or around practices is having an appreciation that this type of trauma can really live well below the surface. I often, in my practice, in my work, and in my life hear people, “People get shot every day.” And that for me is just such a critical, if someone’s saying something like that, that is an indication of trauma. That’s the normalization. That’s people didn’t even realize that it has compounded because their baseline of what is a traumatic event, or what is stressful has completely shifted. And it is a appreciation for that complexity of trauma that is needed, and needs to be represented across the board in all services that are offered. There has to be that intentional engagement with people for that even to come up.

Ashley (14:44): Because again, we’re appreciating recognizing that when the baseline begins to shift, we have to be even more present, and more aware to engage with people, to even see this level of trauma surface.

Ashley (14:56): The other second thought that I have, and I probably have more after Daryl goes, because we just inspire things for one another. But the other thing is the critical importance of peers, of providers, of staff, of folks of color with lived experience in that space. Because one of the things that is really clear when we’re talking about race-based traumatic stress and the incredible importance of not pathologizing people, is can people connect with who is providing services to them? There’s a different way that it needs to be expressed. There’s a different way that needs being engaged. And quite honestly, people are exhausted. They don’t feel like explaining the nuances of what they have experienced to someone who’s coming into this situation firsthand.

Ashley (15:42): For example, a lot of my clients, we pick up at our completely different level because when they talk to me, they don’t have to filter themselves to be not seen or experienced in a particular way. But as a black provider, I’m able to see and understand. And I know when they say, a particular statement that has a lot of passion behind it. They don’t have to sugarcoat it or filter it for me because I get it, and I know where they’re coming from, and I’ve seen it, and I don’t have to spend additional time having them explain things that… Well, it’s just the surface of what they’re going through. If that makes any sense.

Livia (16:23): It makes so much sense, and lived experience is so central to so much of what programs can do to add to their program practice. Daryl, what about you?

Daryl (16:36): Yeah. I think just knowing… Man Ashley, said it all. She stole all my points. Iron sharpens iron. So I’ll have to appreciate my colleague just hitting all those points, especially about the peers, and the people with lived experience. But the one thing that I’ll also say is understanding how current events, being up on current events, being knowledgeable about what’s happening in the world, how does that affect your agency and the people that you service. And understanding that poverty is trauma. If I’m not eating, if I don’t eat. And I’m not going to tell you, I’m struggling. So there’s these different things. And the last thing that I’ll say is that, especially those of us like myself that are justice involved, a lot of times our unwillingness to connect with services is not a sense of defiance.

Daryl (17:28): And I’ll say that we’re considered non-compliant. But what it is, is our experiences with trauma is so deep that I don’t know how to connect with people. So that may look like I’m antisocial when I am just not, I don’t know. I just came out of an environment where being social wasn’t cool. So that’s, it may so…. We got to be careful when we’re calling individuals “non-compliant.” And understanding where they came from because when you peel the onion back, you’ll start to realize that that person can be compliant once they get comfortable with the environment that they’re in. We could go on for days, but I’m going to stop right there.

Ashley (18:08): That’s so good. That’s so good. Listen, I’m so glad that my mic was muted because I’m over it. Listen, I hope y’all heard. I hope that’s real good.

Daryl (18:22): Yeah.

Ashley (18:24): It’s so important. It’s so true. And it is very essential that we have that appreciation. Thanks for mentioning that, Daryl.

Daryl (18:30): Absolutely. That’s where we at. Livia, man we could go all day.

Livia (18:34): We could, we might need to do another podcast just on this. I just want to wrap up by asking you one question each. What keeps you going with all of this? What keeps you going? How do you keep being the light you are in the world and the change makers?

Ashley (18:52): That’s a question, isn’t it? Oh my goodness. One, because if I didn’t have the hope and optimism, I didn’t see the ability of healing, and purpose, and happiness, and peace that comes from when we appreciate, and really begin to see people — that keeps me motivated. And then the reality of it is I’m a Black woman. I’m here because my ancestors endured, and I remind myself of that every single day. I am here because they literally survived some of the most traumatic and horrific conditions ever seen to human beings. And so I feel very inspired that I get to do work that lends to helping other folks heal. So that what keeps me going. And I love the work that I do.

Daryl (19:35): Yeah. I feel like we’re very fortunate, an opportunity to do this work, but Muhammad Ali said it the best. This is the rent that you pay to be on this planet. So the rent that I’m paying is, I grew up in the hood. I grew up in the environment where we took took took. So every day I get up, I’m focused on paying that rent, and paying that rent is giving back and being an example for others that this thing is possible. And I’m also holding the door open for those that are coming behind me. I got you. I got the door open. Let’s go. Let’s get it.

Livia (20:06): So before we wrap up today, Daryl, I am hoping you can share with our listeners some information about your upcoming TED Talk on December 5th.

Daryl (20:17): Yes man. Livia, thanks for mentioning it. I appreciate it. Urban trauma, December 5th, Hartford, Connecticut. We’re going to be on the TEDx. The link will be in a follow on the podcast. So feel free to connect on it. If you in Connecticut, December 5th, come through, and I’m excited. And you already know what it is. Man, we’re going to blow that. We’re going to tear the stage down. You already know.

Ashley (20:39): I cannot wait! You all do not want to miss this. Daryl, I’m so excited. I have my calendar, and I hope you all do too because it’s going to be awesome.

Daryl (20:49): Yes. Crazy. I be streaming too. So if you can’t make it to Connecticut, catch the stream we in here, that’s what we going. Urban Trauma, December 5th.

Livia (20:59): Daryl, thank you so much for joining us today.

Daryl (21:03): Thank you Livia. Well, always a pleasure. Thank you for having me. It’s an honor and a privilege to be here.

Livia (21:08): Ashley, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ashley (21:11): It is my absolute pleasure, and thank you to everyone listening for starting this conversation with us.

Livia (21:16): And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

Erika Simon, Producer (21:21): Visit c4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.


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