By Fareeha Waheed
Pretty much everyone knows that Baltimore has had more than its share of trauma through the generations. The very founding of Maryland began in a religious war and the enslavement of Africans brought to the colonies. So far this year, there have been 130 homicides in Baltimore, about the same as in the first half of last year. In recent years, Baltimore has outpaced each previous year’s murder rate, meaning each year brings more violence, heartbreak and traumatic events to our city. And then top it all off with the COVID-19 pandemic.
What not everyone knows is that members of the Baltimore Teachers Union are doing something about how this trauma harms our students and our communities.
Zeke Cohen, a former Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU) member and now in his second term as a City Council member, originated the idea for a citywide task force on trauma-informed care. He sponsored the Elijah Cummings Healing City Act authorizing a Trauma-Informed Care Task Force that launched one year ago. Now, Maryland is looking at a statewide task force modeled on ours.
I’m also a member of BTU, and I serve on the task force. Its purpose is to make sure our city provides a pioneering level of support to children and families through the lens of trauma-informed care. This is especially important to me as I complete my eighth year of teaching special education. I see the need every day.
The task force, which operates out of the Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success, ensures that city agencies are trained in and report yearly on progress toward trauma-informed care within their agencies. We also partner with the community to offer support, such as a pilot program in our public libraries to help people with substance use disorder. This program uses peer coaches experienced in recovery to meet weekly with participants so they can find support and treatment. These coaches also provide services and outreach for trauma, mental and behavioral health to participants and their families.
As part of our mission, task force members are exploring how to partner with public schools, libraries and even barbershops to promote healing. We’re also considering how we might advocate for more equitable housing and how to fight blight, including keeping neighborhood schools open and thriving. We want to extend this process to the community with listening sessions. Who better to understand the flaws in housing policies than the people who’ve actually experienced them?
Healing comes from this work, but we still have big problems to tackle, including powerful environmental toxins. I had a third-grader who developed a brain tumor and died. Another of my students didn’t even make it to middle school before succumbing to asthma.
Even more toxic is our city’s history of structural racism. Sadly, Baltimore has some of the most racist housing laws and covenants in the nation, dating back to the days of slavery. More than half a century after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, we still have some really segregated neighborhoods and schools.
Of all the challenges facing us, structural racism has proven to be one of the most intractable. It still pervades policing. Years after the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police, our city’s apartheid and trauma remain unhealed because of continued hyper-enforcement by police and hyper-reliance on police for a range of social problems. Baltimore is piloting a diversion program for adults in acute mental crisis, in which a crisis response worker arrives instead of the police. It’s a start.
All these toxins, environmental or human-created, increase the likelihood of what we call generational trauma, an insidious transfer of biophysical traumatic effects from parent to child through generations. Children’s traumatic experiences go unaddressed because people don’t talk about them, and this impacts their growth and development well into adulthood.
Everyone is susceptible to generational trauma, but specific populations are particularly vulnerable due to their histories. According to Dr. Gayani DeSilva, a child and adolescent psychiatrist: “Being systematically exploited, enduring repeated and continual abuse, racism and poverty, are all traumatic enough to cause genetic changes. So, African Americans in the United States and around the world are particularly vulnerable. And the families affected by [such] catastrophes … will have traumatic reactivity for generations to come.”
People who have endured years, even decades, of war also may have generational trauma, Dr. DeSilva told Health. Domestic violence, sexual assault or abuse, and hate crimes are other acts that can result in generational trauma, or a heightened sensitivity to the effects of traumatic events.
Let me offer my own family as an example. I am from Pakistan; my family moved here when I was 7 years old. My grandparents survived the partition of British India in 1947, which divided the region into India and the newly formed Pakistan. Since then, the two countries have been involved in a number of wars and conflicts. My grandparents have carried the trauma of racism, poverty, abuse and war with them, and like the heirlooms that have been passed down across the generations, we have also been left with the emotional scars of their trauma. There are some stories and experiences my grandparents and other elders refuse to talk about even today.
Perhaps this collective trauma from surviving wars, poverty and famine is why, generations later, the suicide and depression rates in Pakistan continue to be well above the global average. While I’m not facing the same war as my grandparents, growing up was not always easy and I did not have access to many of the tools and coping mechanisms I now use in my classroom.
To assimilate in America, I had to quickly reject all my Pakistani roots: my mother tongue, how I dressed and what I ate. I had to forget everything to avoid being bullied until I became confident and comfortable in my own skin. Even my parents dropped Urdu and started to speak in English all the time. It’s like living on a bridge with one foot in Pakistan and one foot in America. Understanding my family’s history, coupled with the cultural norm of ignoring trauma and mental health, has given me the courage to break these generational cycles by prioritizing my own wellness so that I am thriving instead of merely surviving.
As for my students, those whose ancestors were enslaved in America have felt the repercussions of centuries of racist policies and practices.
For one thing, they have had few opportunities to accumulate family wealth. Oftentimes my students’ families live paycheck to paycheck, on as little as $18,000 a year. Racism, systemic obstacles, traumatic incidents and gun violence are endemic. It all adds up to an inability to enjoy a stable life with enough food, rest and a supportive environment in which to learn and grow.
Adverse childhood experiences leave lasting impacts on children’s lives — they have terrible consequences. Some kids get help. Others don’t. Merely looking at children or their families gives you no idea what they’ve been through. When they show up at our schools, libraries or city halls, those of us who provide public services should treat them with respect and do everything in our power to offer support, not just check off a box and send them out the door.
Rays of hope
I hope one day we can say that Baltimoreans are thriving, in part due to initiatives such as Baltimore’s task force on trauma-informed care. No major city has done this before and I’m excited to help create a road map for how it is done. Trauma-informed care is just one solution — but it’s a powerful one.
Before the task force launched last year, I saw inequity but didn’t have words for it. I absorbed as much professional development as I could, learning how the brain works, so I could help kids de-escalate in certain situations. In my classroom, for instance, we have a calm-down corner.
Now our whole school uses tenets of trauma-informed learning. A student recently said to me: “Ms. Waheed, I could tell my brain was not fully regulating itself today.” She realized she was hungry. I gave her a granola bar and she felt better.
We have a whole toolkit of trauma-informed practices such as restorative justice and a social emotional learning framework. In my classroom, when students are frustrated or disengaged from learning, they can go to the calm-down corner to hug a stuffed toy or meditate, do some deep breathing, read, draw, and play with fidget toys or write in their journals.
There are lots of ways to help people regulate their emotions. One day when I was upset, my students told me to go decompress in the calm-down corner. It was great.
On a larger scale, labor unions have a set of resources, too, and the power to make sure our public funds are going to solutions that are pro-worker and pro-community. In BTU, we’ve been able to fight for a living wage, not just for our teachers but for our paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, who are often Black women.
Likewise, AFT-Maryland fights for our state healthcare workers, educators and public employees so they can have the support they need for all the people we serve. Thanks to our state and city federation and collaborative advocacy led by BTU President Diamonté Brown, the state Legislature has laid out a grand plan called the “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future,” which would underwrite universal preschool, incentivize teacher pay, and provide decent, family-sustaining wages for our PSRPs.
On the national level, AFT President Randi Weingarten talks about mental health in her most recent column for the New York Times, saying that improving the mental health of Americans is not just one of our country’s many challenges but is essential to nurturing a healthy society.
In cities and towns across America, we have to replace punitive policies that aren’t working with policies that enable people to thrive. People can’t “self-care” their way out of poverty. My hope is that with this task force, we can lay down a framework for more equitable housing, education and healthcare.
As a teacher, I’ve seen how understanding trauma helps me in planning more engaging lessons and also in helping students understand their emotions so they can better focus on learning. It’s easy to see the change when students have what they need. If we keep applying our policies, practices and budgets toward trauma-informed care, then I think we’ll be one step closer to healing.
This whole experience is also teaching me the spectrum of inheritance — that we can inherit not only precious family heirlooms but also our family’s trauma.
As we move forward, I hope we can partner with students, families and communities for more healing, and for physical health and mental health support. I’d love to see every classroom engaged in trauma-informed practices. I’d love to see all of us trained in it. We need more awareness for students and staff about these issues, alternative outlets for healing, and a diverse pipeline of Black and brown counselors.
I’d also love to see more counselors, nurses, school psychologists and mental health clinicians prioritized in every school and district budget. The list is endless, but I believe in the power of our students and educators, and I want to give them the chance to thrive rather than merely survive.
To access the AFT’s remote learning course, “10 Trauma-Informed Strategies to Help Students Heal,” contact Chelsea Prax. The course contains 10 modules, each focused on a research-based practice for responding to student trauma, including helping students manage triggers and supporting grieving students. Participants can receive 20 credit hours for completing the course modules; local affiliates also may request skills training workshops on individual strategies to meet specific needs.
Fareeha Waheed (she/her/hers) is a lead math teacher and special educator in Baltimore. A Pakistani American immigrant with a passion for educational equity, she serves as a vice chair of the Baltimore Teachers Union and leads the policy as well as the diversity, equity and inclusion work of the city’s Trauma-Informed Care Task Force. Waheed holds a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology, a master’s in education, and is pursuing her doctorate in urban leadership at Johns Hopkins University. She has taken part in local to international conversations on race, politics, trauma-informed care, data-driven decision-making, and education for liberation.