May | June 2019

Stakeholder's Corner: Addressing Trauma and Transforming Policy and Practice in Greater East St. Louis

By Evan Krauss, Director, East Side Aligned

East Side Aligned (ESA), based in East St. Louis (St. Clair County), IL, is a movement involving many sectors of our community in improving the well-being of children and youth and ensuring their readiness for success in school, work, and life. Together, ESA stakeholders strive to align policy, practice, and investment across sectors to achieve our community’s shared goals for young people.

With OJJDP funding, ESA developed the FIRST STOP Plan to Reduce Youth Violence and Victimization. The plan is the result of a process led by the Office of the St. Clair County Board Chairman and the United Way of Greater St. Louis alongside local young people and various community partners. FIRST STOP honors and amplifies the voices of our community to build commitment, civic infrastructure, and leadership so that all children and youth feel—and are—safe. FIRST STOP is shifting mindsets, building trust and collaboration, working to ensure racial equity, and encouraging shared responsibility for youth violence prevention.

left quoteChildhood exposure to trauma adversely affects physical and mental health, cognitive development, and academic performance. It increases the likelihood of involvement in violence later in life. Impacts of these traumatic exposures can be long lasting, but community members in East St. Louis are working to break that cycle. right quote

At the forefront of FIRST STOP is our goal to build a trauma-informed and responsive community. During the planning process, one resident shared that “hurt people hurt people.” Brain science and research on child development confirm that exposure to violence and trauma can often perpetuate a cycle of harm. Fortunately, healing-centered and evidence-based solutions can mitigate the pervasive consequences of exposure to trauma. Over the last year, we’ve facilitated meaningful progress in transforming how kids are perceived, understood, treated, and served. The impact has been far reaching, yielding change in the settings in which kids live, learn, play, and pray. Following are a few highlights of our recent work:

  • Through a partnership between East St. Louis School District 189, East St. Louis Federation of Teachers Local 1220, and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, 500 school personnel participated in a training that explored what trauma is and how it impacts brain development and learning, why educators and stakeholders in education need to acknowledge trauma and its impacts, and how participants can begin to build trauma-informed and responsive schools and communities.
  • More than 150 youth development professionals in agencies that run afterschool and summer programs received intensive training on how trauma impacts the adolescent brain, and specific solutions and supports that can be offered through organizations and programs to help young people affected by trauma.
  • Two hundred nine stakeholders representing a variety of sectors—including education, law enforcement, social services, and healthcare—received training on trauma and toxic stress. In addition, four area residents were trained on how to take trauma-informed approaches into their neighborhoods; they were then hired to facilitate peer-to-peer trainings.

In addition, 10 institutions—including the state police, the regional probation department, the county prosecutor’s office, the local housing authority and school district, a regional hospital, and several youth-serving agencies—are participating in a year-long Trauma Learning and Action Collaborative, facilitated by Alive and Well Communities. The goal of the collaborative is to reshape policy and practice across systems.

Youth also are learning and taking action. Last summer, about 20 youth participated in training programs focused on community organizing principles, art, civic education, and healing justice. This prompted a group of youth to organize a conference, attended by 50 youth, to share information about the effects of trauma and create a “space” for dialogue on the topic.

All of these efforts are building a shared community understanding of trauma. Together, they are promoting accountability between residents, community agencies, and institutions to ensure that interventions humanize rather than criminalize East St. Louis children and youth. Across the community, the question is changing from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” and “What can we do?”

In combination with other efforts—including an embedded social and emotional learning specialist within the school district, a first-time weapon offender diversion program, and community deescalation and violence-interruption activities—FIRST STOP is changing norms and behaviors, cultivating youth leadership, and creating the conditions to reduce youth violence in the short and long term. We are grateful to have OJJDP’s support, guidance, and investment in our effort to build just systems and create equitable outcomes for youth.

Photo of school personnel who participated in a training program on mitigating the effects of exposure to violence and trauma.

FIRST STOP stakeholders have organized trainings to share healing-centered and evidence-based approaches in school settings to mitigate the effects of exposure to violence and trauma. Shown above are school personnel who participated in a 3-day “train-the-trainer” program and then went on to train more than 500 of their colleagues in East St. Louis School District 189.