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Tackling Unhealed Trauma

A guide to healing-centered engagement, an innovative mental health model
Young teen with basketball coach

Many young people growing up in American cities and neighborhoods shaped by violence experience persistent traumatic stress which impacts their learning, development, and mental health, through no fault of their own. The scope and complexity of the problem means there will never be enough therapists to cope with it, according to Shawn Ginwright, a Harvard Graduate School of Education scholar and practitioner who has worked as a youth development professional for more than 30 years, primarily with African American students. Instead, Ginwright has a different vision: democratizing access to mental health care so that conversations focused on emotional well-being can occur wherever young people gather with other peers or adults, whether that be in a barbershop, a beauty salon, a basketball court, or on a bus.

Ginwright’s idea stems from a practice he developed in recent years called healing-centered engagement which offers a holistic view of recovery from traumatic experiences, for young people of color and the communities they live in. “It is not discounting the necessity of removing the structural inequality in our society,” including systemic racism, Ginwright explains, “but it is also focused on creating spaces of healing that are necessary as a result of the suffering and oppression that exists in our neighborhoods and schools.” 

The concept grew out of experiences from a summer camp program that he and his wife, Nedra Ginwright, first launched in San Diego, California, back in 1989. Camp Akili aims to build a sense of belonging and community for youth of color and to provide tools for them to better understand and handle their own mental health challenges. This past summer, Philadelphia became the first city to host the intensive week-long camp on the East Coast and the Ginwrights’ nonprofit, Flourish Agenda, is currently training educators in healing-centered engagement practices in the Philadelphia School District.

Ginwright’s social-emotional learning approach equips educators, administrators, youth workers, caregivers, and students with culturally appropriate techniques to promote healing, self-esteem, and well-being, and also creates positive conditions for academic achievement. He recently shared some key insights: 

1. Use strategies that focus on a person’s assets.

Young people have assets that can be used to assist with their healing and when they are given agency and power to actively participate in the process of transforming their schools and communities, the experience in itself can contribute to their own well-being.

Ginwright says conversations about mental and behavioral health, particularly in communities of color, often start from a deficit perspective — “something’s broken with you.” He says his work with healing-centered engagement involves shifting the perspective to “something's right with you,” and then asking the question: “How do we build upon the thing that's right for you so that you can have a positive impact on the world?”

2. Use systems and practices that foster a sense of well-being in the classroom.

Educators should encourage emotional check-ins with students. Ginwright suggests taking 10 minutes out of every day or a few times a week, before starting a formal lesson, to allow young people to talk about what is happening in their lives.

Writing prompts can be used to help students ask themselves deeper questions “about what’s inside of them and what needs to come out.”

Ginwright says these small tools and techniques can “have a profound reverberating impact on the overall health of a school climate, but also the mental health of those that are in the school themselves.” 

3. Help students build emotional vocabulary. 

Emotional check-ins can help young people develop emotional vocabulary and get beyond what Ginwright describes as the typical, “I’m cool, I’m all right” response — when a person struggles to find words to express their true feelings. Ginwright faced this particular challenge with his own son who lost a friend to gun violence. “It took some time for me to ask questions, to talk to him, and to just be present,” he says, while also showing love, care, and support.

Educators and youth workers have to be consistent and proactively create a sense of safety and trust with young people. One strategy that can be effective is for a teacher to share a story or experience from their own life — naming specific emotions they felt when it happened — which then gives students in the classroom permission to do the same. “You’re not just the teacher anymore. You’re a human being,” explains Ginwright.

4. Address educators’ mental health concerns. 

Self-care practices are needed in schools, says Ginwright who is a proponent of wellness days for teachers and finding opportunities within the professional development setting to practice well-being. These practices are important because educators can unintentionally bring their own personal traumas into classroom settings and create a “toxic impact,” if they are not addressed.

Don’t go it alone. Ginwright suggests that educators form their own healing-centered engagement community with five or six other teachers or staff and begin a healing journey together.

5. Develop asset-driven outcomes. 

Focus on the positive outcomes you want to see — youth who develop a sense of belonging, connection, peacefulness, hope and optimism, for example, versus deficit-based results such as violence reduction and a decrease in bullying.

Anyone interested in being trained as a healing-centered engagement practitioner can sign up here. There is also a free toolkit available

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