Edgecombe works to heal local trauma through training, understanding NC Health News

Edgecombe works to heal local trauma through training, understanding NC Health News

By Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven

Students in the Honor Opportunity Purpose and Excellence — HOPE — program start each morning by breathing. 

The alternative high school, nested within Tarboro High in Edgecombe County, is led by Quarry Williams, a man who’s moved up the public school food chain from bus driver to school counselor to administrator and nearly everything in between.

Once the students are settled, Williams comes to the front of the room and asks them to think of a place where they feel safe. 

“Escape there for the next minute and a half,” he tells the teenagers, as he turns on calming music. 

“Some students may come in and have had a horrible morning,” Williams said. The mindfulness exercise is intended to reset their focus, to place them in the here and now, so that, hopefully, they can come in and work, rather than spend the day agitated and on edge.

The school day has started this way for a while, and it was strengthened once Williams completed a nine-month training program, called the Resilient Leaders Initiative. It aims to teach rural leaders how trauma impacts the people they work with, how the systems they serve within can further exacerbate that trauma, and how to replace institutional policies that are harmful with ones that are healing.

At HOPE, that means in addition to the deep breathing before class, students now have access to a full-time school social worker and a calm-down corner, filled with plush furniture and a fish tank. Another key shift is in the way teachers and administrators approach students. Instead of asking ‘What is wrong with you?’, they ask ‘What happened to you?’

Stopping ‘the system’ in its tracks

All these strategies can help turn school from a hostile environment into a supportive one. Aside from being a worthy goal, the downstream effects can be even greater for children’s mental and physical health. 

Credit: Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven

Researchers have found that regularly practicing mindfulness can lower depression, anxiety and blood pressure as well as improve sleep. Also, introducing kids to mindfulness practices and showing them how to integrate those into their daily lives are skills they can carry with them forever. For instance, if students find themselves outside of class getting stressed, instead of responding how they usually do, maybe they’ll remember how the five minutes where they sat quietly and breathed before class actually helped them calm down. 

Moreover, when the adults around them treat them with care and respect, it can serve as a counterbalance to past negative experiences. It teaches kids they deserve to be treated with curiosity and kindness — and they ought to treat others the same. 

“Once the students here are able to see that the people here genuinely care about them, have their best interests [at heart], the bad behaviors that others may have seen, we didn’t see,” Williams said. “I tell my students: All of us have bad days. But the thing is, when you have a bad day, it’s how you handle it. 

“I’m not going to get upset with you if you say, ‘Mr. Williams, I need a moment. I’m not feeling good.’”

One of the biggest tools the program aims to give students, Williams said, is how to advocate for themselves. 

“In a traditional school, they have so much in a day. Sometimes they don’t have the opportunity to effectively express themselves in a positive way,” Williams said. “The first thing they do? They’re gonna lash out and become angry and next thing you know the process, ‘the system’ comes into fruition.” 

A trauma-informed community organization 

The Resilient Leaders Initiative is a new program hosted by an Edgecombe-based nonprofit called the Rural Opportunity Institute. The organization has been around for about five years. Though its community projects are deeply rooted in rural eastern North Carolina, it was founded by two newcomers.

Vichi Jagannathan and Seth Saeugling lived and worked in Northampton and Warren counties, respectively, as Teach for America instructors for two years. Once their contracts were over, they moved to the Bay Area to work in tech. 

“When I left to work in San Francisco after, it was just, like, really jarring,” Jagannathan said. In Northampton County, where she’d been a high school science teacher, she’d felt and seen how connected people were to their own history in the region. In the Bay Area, nothing felt like that.

“I felt very disconnected. It was totally transient. I didn’t feel like anything people were talking about was connected to history,” she said. 

At the same time, she and Saeugling found themselves learning all sorts of things that, were they to be implemented in a thoughtful and sustainable way, felt like they could help fill a lot of the needs they’d learned about while working in eastern North Carolina. 

“The questions just started to eat away at us,” Jagannathan said. “I think both of us had this feeling like we should go back and see if there’s something there.”

From listening to practice

The two outsiders expected to be met with a healthy dose of skepticism, which they were. 

“People would tell us, they’d be like ‘I’ll meet with you. But I’m cautiously optimistic about what you’re doing,’” Jagannathan remembered. 

They spent nine months interviewing more than 300 people in the community and using organizational tools they’d learned in San Francisco to map out what people said they needed.

Spending that much time asking questions and listening “built a ton of trust,” she said. “I think people were like, ‘Okay, you actually are not coming in and telling us what we should do. You’re listening to us and then the programs are coming directly from that.’”

What they learned was that people in Edgecombe County were carrying a lot of trauma: generational poverty, limited job opportunities, the legacy of Jim Crow, repeated flooding from hurricanes, mass incarceration — for many people the pain just kept piling on, with little relief in sight.

Tarboro High sits in Edgecombe County. The HOPE program is connected to the high school, but nestled toward the back. Credit: Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven

Moreover, the systems they interacted with — the schools, the courts, social services — often made that trauma worse. Jagannathan and Saeugling knew they were not the ones to fix this problem. But they could bring people together who could — maybe — figure out how to solve some small segment of these problems.  

The two tech pieces they brought to the process are called systems mapping and design thinking. They’re pretty common approaches in Silicon Valley to solving problems, but, so far, uncommon outside of it. 

“Rather than hearing about someone’s problem and assuming that you know how to fix it,” design thinking “is a bunch of methods that you can use to work with the people who experienced the problem to think broadly about the best solution for their problem, and ensure along the way that it’s something that they will use,” Jagannathan explained. 

Systems mapping is less about individuals and more about asking why things are the way they are. 

Staff from the Rural Opportunity Institute created a visual representation to demonstrate how some traumatic cycles interact. Credit: Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven

“What are all the bigger forces at play for why we see these patterns of people’s experiences?” she said. “You’re looking for cycles — vicious or virtuous cycles — of things that keep repeating that produce these outcomes.”

After hearing stories from so many different interviewees about how trauma from different sources weighed on them, they tried to create a visualization that would show how these dynamics fit together. 

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