“Why do we have juvenile incarceration at all, period, for anybody in this country? We are criminalizing sick, traumatized, oppressed children early. This is powerfully spiritual, important work upon which the future of this nation rests. It calls upon us to bring the best of the total experience of our best selves to the table. We can’t mail it in on addressing inequality in this nation. Each of us is going to have to bring the best of ourselves to the equation. Not just the best of ourselves, but the best of ourselves in unity and in coalition.
Dr. Robert Ross, a long-time leader in fostering communities of health, recently joined Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors in an intergenerational conversation about the hopeful and ever-evolving work of building racial justice. He is a passionate advocator for those whose lives have been shaped and scarred by early trauma. In his TED Talk from 2014, he crucially illuminates how that trauma becomes a pathway to a grim narrative that is difficult to escape.
The talk was part of a TEDx event at Ironwood State Prison, for an audience who has suffered from the very cycles of hurt and displacement at the center of Dr. Ross’s work. He exposes us to the part of the narrative that so often gets overlooked: why these cycles exist so rigidly, how we might be implicit in perpetuating them, and how we might begin the work of healing the suffering in our midst.
“I want to spend a little bit of time talking about the most important and critical and most powerful — in our view at the California Endowment — disease in this country, and that is the disease of childhood trauma. I want to talk to you a little bit about what it means. And here, being at Ironwood State Prison, is the perfect backdrop to talk about this academic of what happens to our young people, and how that plays out in their lives.
Let me start by way of a story. The story begins with a young woman named Claudia. Claudia is someone who we’ve come to know in the last couple of years. At the age of 12, Claudia was growing up in South Central Los Angeles, in one of those neighborhoods and communities that many of you here at Ironwood State Prison grew up in, where a young person is more likely to be enrolled in a gang than enrolled in college. Claudia grew up in a neighborhood like that. She was doing OK, she was doing well in school, until the age of 12. One of her older sisters was brutally murdered. A few months after that, another older sister was shot right in front of Claudia’s face. Claudia then went form a straight-A student to someone who became a problem in the classroom. She became stubborn, she became defiant, her grades dropped, she got thrown out of the classroom, she got suspended from school, she got expelled from school. She went on to lose interest in school and her education. She went on to get pregnant. And she went on to lead a very tough life at the age of 14 and 15. I want to return back to the story of Claudia and how that story has ended in a few minutes.
What Claudia’s story illustrates is the importance and the power of trauma. A very well known, excellent researcher at Kaiser Permanente, a pediatrician researcher named Dr. Vince Felitti, did an important research study on 17,000 patients. He wanted to understand the relationship between exposure to repeated doses of childhood trauma, and childhood adverse experiences, and childhood toxic stress, and the role that that plays in their health as an adult.
What he found by surveying these 17,000 patients, and he had access to all their medical records, is a very strong relationship between the number of episodes of exposure to childhood trauma. He listed them out in a survey, and they were questions like, “Were you ever physically abused as a child?” “Were you sexually abused as a child?” “Did you witness violence in your home?” “Was your mother a victim of domestic violence in the home?” “Did you have a parent that was incarcerated?” “Were you exposed to violence in your neighborhood and community?” These were the kinds of childhood traumatic exposures and incidents that these patients were asked questions about.
What Dr. Felitti found was that if you had three or more of these exposures to childhood trauma, your health got substantially worse — not just as a child, but even as an adult, 20, 30, and 40 years later. And if you had five or more exposures to these childhood traumatic events, the incidence of your likelihood to smoke tobacco went up astronomically. The incidence of alcohol abuse went up eight times. The incidence of injection drug use went up 4,000 times. And so what Dr. Felitti’s research shows — that old adage, that old saying that we heard when we were growing up, “time heals all wounds,” is bull dinky. Not true.
There’s an understanding behind what trauma does to us, because, as human beings, we’re wired for survival. It goes back millions of years to the time we were cavemen. It’s called the fight-or-flight survival response. Because when we were cavemen, we had to run from a saber-toothed tiger, or we had to defend our cave from a rival clan. And so we are wired like that for survival. There’s a thinking part of our brain, which is the front part of our brain — it’s called the frontal cortex, or the frontal lobe. That part of the brain, the front of the brain, you use when you’re reading, when you’re learning, when you, inmates, when you’re taking an online course, when you’re trying to solve a problem, when you’re trying to beat a video game, you’re using the front part of your brain. But there’s another part of the brain that’s the automatic part of the brain that’s in the back part of the brain, and more deep inside. And that’s the part of the brain that’s wired for survival.
When we see a threat, when we see something traumatic, when we think that something might threaten us in a traumatic kind of way, we prepare ourselves either to fight or to flee. It’s called the fight-or-flight response. And what happens is a rush of hormones is triggered by some nervous impulses from that part of the brain. Hormones like cortisol and ACTH and epinephrine — also known as adrenaline and norepinephrine — these hormones flood the body. And blood goes to your muscles, your muscles tense up, your pupils dilate, you sweat, you get tensed up because you’re ready to either fight or flee. And so that’s the human, hard-wired response for survival.
And in the moment, it helps us. In the moment when we’re trying to run from a saber-toothed tiger, or run from the rival gang, it helps you get down the street. The problem is repeated doses of childhood trauma exposure result in bad news for the health of the person — both in their brain and in their physicality.
So, for example, if you take the leading ten causes of death and mortality and morbidity in this country, those ten top leading causes of death are diseases like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, lung disease from smoking, liver disease from drinking, homicide, suicide — they’re behavioral diseases. They’re behavioral conditions. And the more episodes of traumatic exposure you have as a child, the more likely you are to harm yourself with that kind of behavior. In other words, what you’re doing when you’re using drugs or using alcohol is you’re medicating yourself against that trauma.
That’s the down side of what trauma does. There’s another interesting side, however. And that’s about courage and resilience. And it’s fascinating how courage and resiliency are not as well understood by the science, although trauma’s very well understood by the science. I’ll show you a picture of the brain — there’s certain parts of the brain called the amygdala and hippocampus, and scientific studies show that the architecture of those brain parts that determine translating thought into action get damaged in the amygdala and the hippocampus.
But forget about those fancy medical terms for a second. What it really does is repeated doses of childhood trauma crushes our spirit. That’s what it does to us. We lose hope.
Courage and resiliency is the ability to take exposure to trauma, exposure to adverse experiences, and turn it into something positive, and turn it into something transformational. So if you take a look at Mothers Against Drunk Driving in this country — this country has an entirely different set of attitudes around drinking and driving and laws and policies because a group of traumatized mothers — there’s nothing more traumatic to a person than losing your child. But these mothers rallied together and forced Congress and state legislatures and city councils to change the laws around drinking and driving. That’s how they used their trauma, and fueled it for personal transformation and for social leadership.
Many of you, many of the folks at ARC who were gang bangers, who’ve lived a life of violence, get transformed by their experiences, and now become peacemakers in their communities. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years of torture trauma at Robben Island in South Africa, imprisoned for his beliefs. And, somehow, after 27 years of that, Nelson Mandela emerges a peacekeeping leader. He leads South Africa to the most extraordinary peaceful democratic transformation that our globe has ever seen. How did that happen? How does courage and resiliency happen?
It happens when we see the truth of what has happened to us in ourselves, accept it, accept responsibility for what we’ve done, connect with others about it, and use that traumatic experience to become a transformational leader.
Let me tell you what happened with Claudia. Claudia had that kind of experience. She ended up in a continuation school where one caring adult helped her connect about her trauma and her truth, helped her turn her life around and see infinite possibilities about what her life could be. And Claudia is now a leader at the Youth Justice Coalition in South Central Los Angeles.
One of the things we need to learn how to do — I’m speaking now to those of us who are visiting Ironwood State Prison who have important jobs and titles, like myself — these children are showing up screaming for help, but we don’t recognize it. We miss it. They show up in the classroom as defiant, as stubborn. They miss class. They look like a troublemaker. It’s a “bad kid.” But we don’t take the time to get underneath the surface of what’s happening to that young person, to connect with them and give them a sense of hope and possibility, and give them the kind of treatment that they need.
Claudia worked with the Youth Justice Coalition around the youth, decided to work with the school district to say, listen, stop suspending our kids out of school. If a child’s getting suspended from school, he is screaming for help. She is screaming for help. How do we turn the system to support that young person rather than pushing them out of school and into the street? Those young people, led by the Youth Justice Coalition and Claudia Gomez as a youth organizer, helped change the policies to keep kids in school, like Los Angeles Unified School District, and reduced the suspension rate by 50 percent in less than two years. That’s leadership.
Those of us who are visiting you here at Ironwood State Prison, we have a responsibility. We have a responsibility that we get really smart about this powerful epidemic, that we use every opportunity in schools, in our juvenile halls, in our foster care systems, in our healthcare systems, to recognize and understand that children are being traumatized in this country, and reach out to them, and connect them, and engage them, and give them a sense of hope.
Those of you out here in prison — you have responsibility, as well. And we should shake hands with one another, holding ourselves accountable for what we have to do. Your job is to use the power of what happened to you to transform. Use the power of what happened to you to become a leader inside these walls and out in the community when you get there. And I know many of you are beginning to do that.
I want to end with a 13th-century quote from a Persian poet that says, “Your wound is where your light enters you.” And so I challenge you inmates here at Ironwood Prison. I know you’ve been wounded. I know you’ve been hurt. Don’t deny that truth. Find it. Use it. Use it as fuel for personal transformation. Change this world. You can do it. Infinite possibilities.”