In July, I was lucky enough to attend the Second Annual Early Childhood Trauma Symposium at Northwestern University. The symposium focused on ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), community-building, and public policy. There were several impressive speakers, including Dr. Bruce Perry, the author of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories From a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook. I have to admit that while I found every single word of Dr. Bruce Perry’s enlightening and thought-provoking, I have expelled most energy reflecting on a small, seemingly insignificant encounter I had with a mother living in Chicago.
After some of the heavy material was presented to the audience, we were split up into small group discussions to digest all that we had learned. The room I was directed to was facilitated by Eddie Bocanegra, a violence interrupter who was featured in the documentary, The Interrupters. Dr. Peter K. B. St. Jean, a criminologist, sociologist, and film maker, also sat in on the conversation as a featured “expert”. I was impressed by the two men and ready to hear what they had to say about addressing trauma in targeted at-risk populations.
The discussion involved lots of teachers, social workers, and psychiatrists giving their two-cents about how to foster social-emotional development in children, especially those living in under-served communities. There was talk of art and dance therapy, training staff to be trauma-informed, and involving parents in children’s education. Much of these things were suggested on the premise that it worked for Fenger High School, a Roseland school that used to be notorious for the amount of arrests within school grounds and the large number of drop-outs. The discussion took an unexpected turn when a young mother chimed in about her experience.
The woman shared with the group that she had two young children whom she raised herself. No older than thirty, she let out a laugh as she said that she knew she was a perfect mom. She discussed how they lived in a community similar to Roseland, not specifying which one. She confided that she felt the need to shelter her children, hiding all the drug deals, prostitution, and gang activity that surrounded her neighborhood. The woman wanted the best for her children, but she was worried that one day her good parenting wouldn’t be enough for them. She wanted advice from the group.
Dr. Peter K. B. St. Jean responded. His voice boomed as he took control over the group: “Parents can affect the child in three ways. First, they can be the best parents they can be. Second, they can choose the best mother/father for their child. And third, they can choose a community that is most conducive to the values in which they wish to raise their child.” For a while, I caught myself nodding along, but when I heard that third part, my brow furrowed.
This woman was being told that she should move out of her community, the community that she knew as her own. The woman didn’t say much in response, and the discussion evolved in to other topics surrounding violence in communities. Still, I couldn’t help but think; was I the only person who had a serious problem with Dr. Peter K. B. St. Jean’s message? Did the room full of thirty-something professionals working in these communities really believe that a person should move her family in order to evade community violence?
I walked over to introduce myself to the woman once the discussion was over. I told her that I work with parents in North Lawndale and that I found a children’s book extremely helpful in conveying an important message about communities. The book, titled No Bad News, is about a young boy who always goes to the barber shop with his mother. One day, his mother tells him that he can go the short distance without her. As the boy walks to the barber shop alone, he sees several displeasing things: men drinking, garbage in the streets, and graffiti covering buildings. By the time the boy arrives at the barber shop, he is visually upset. The barber listens to the young boy vent, but afterwards he speaks of all the beautiful things in the community that the boy overlooked. On the boy’s walk home, he finds gratitude and positivity in his neighborhood; no longer is the neighborhood riddled with ‘bad news’. The woman smiled as she wrote down the title.
This book reveals something about communities that Dr. Peter K. B. St. Jean failed to consider; all communities have problems and all communities have strengths. To create real, positive change in communities, we cannot blame families for living in certain communities, nor can we tell mothers to abandon the life they know. Rather, we need to galvanize and influence others by example. We need to care for one another and show the power of love. If the immediate community is not able to provide the support that a family needs in order to thrive, then it is up to the larger community to come in and fill that need. No mother should feel that she must shelter her family to keep her children safe, nor should any woman feel that she has to move away from her home in order to achieve a better life. Both of these responses result in an isolated family, and isolation is not conducive to creating a strong and loving community.
The Northwestern symposium, No Bad News, and Dr. Bruce Perry all share a common message: build strong communities. Relationships are key to overcoming the barriers within our communities. Without first creating strong support systems, we will never be able to tackle the seemingly bigger issues that plague our city. Dr. Peter K. B. St. Jean wasn’t incorrect, but his reply was coldly pragmatic. If we want to help communities, the first step is to listen and show we care.
Cole, Kenneth. No Bad News. Albert Whitman & Company. 2001
James, Steve, Alex Kotlowitz, Justine Nagan, Gordon Quinn, Teddy Leifer, Paul Taylor, Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, Eddie Bocanegra, Aaron Wickenden, and Joshua Abrams. The Interrupters. Arlington, VA: PBS Distribution, 2012.
Perry, Bruce. The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook–What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing. New York, NY, US: Basic Books. 2006.