ACEs reduction is a community initiative
From an interview by Community Resilience Initiative
Teri Barila, Founder of the Community Resilience Initiative in Washington State, which has pioneered initiatives in the community to reduce and prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), was interviewed after she stepped back from day-to-day involvement after two decades of work. With her scientist’s mind, Teri recognized early on that the seminal ACEs study was more than an academic exercise. It was putting the spotlight on a public health emergency that could only be tackled at the community level. She is known for working 80-hour weeks, blurring personal and professional life, in sounding the alarm bell locally, regionally, and nationally that this crisis puts everybody at risk and is everyone’s responsibility to solve. Here are some highlights of the conversation:
The real impetus for Teri came at a conference in Winthrop, WA in Oct 2007. It was the third time that Teri had heard Dr. Rob Anda, co-principal of the original ACEs study. “But this time,” Teri says, “he was telling the story in a different way that just caught me.”
He was frustrated about his work with a special committee on children’s issues in Washington, D.C., trying to get its members to understand the power behind the study of intergenerational transmission of ACEs from parents to children. They dismissed it saying that the data were great, but that it wasn’t their business to tell parents how to raise their children. Teri continues that Dr. Anda looked right at the audience, all 100+ people, but it felt like he was looking straight at her. He was pointing his finger, saying: “It’s your job to go home and make something happen in your community.”
He felt that every community needed to stand up and demand that this information be placed in the hands of medical providers, mental health professionals, etc. To Teri, it felt like marching orders because she had grown up in a military family and took orders pretty well. “For the first time I was able to see that full community aspect which became my call to action,” she admits. For the first couple of years, it had always felt like fabulous research, but more about mental health, and in her head it felt compartmentalized. “But that day in Oct. 2007, I got charged up because I saw ACEs through a much bigger lens.” Resilience takes a connection of empathy and heart, not just the cognitive understanding of the research.
She learned that community resilience does not come from a practice of individual growth, as important as that is to the individual. Kids learn best when they watch adults practice what they preach. Kids learn best when they are exposed to resilience principles no matter where they go during their day, whether it’s preschool, school, church, physical or mental health programs, after-school programs, etc.
So Teri started to look at resilience as the responsibility of not just one sector, but all sectors. Could every sector share the information on ACEs, brain development, and resilience as a platform on which to build particular strengths, skills, and capacities? We now know from research across 100+ communities in WA state and also national research on big cities that building strong resilient communities comes from community engagement.
The biggest challenge in Teri’s mind is that this work is a journey, not a sprint, because we are so trained for quick fixes and the new flavour of the month. The true challenge is tackling resilience building as a community-wide effort across all sectors and organizations, individually and collaboratively. It has to work across all levels, both top-down and bottom-up, and it takes a while. The challenge is to stay with it when you are not seeing the success or progress you had hoped for. Persistence and perseverance for sustainability are the biggest challenges for anyone attempting this work, which is why the development of core teams is so important. If you have a core team in whatever your organization is, school district, hospital, etc., then a group of people will champion this work.
Dr. John Medina, a neuroscientist at Seattle Pacific University says, “Think about major public health programs like breast cancer or colon cancer screening, tobacco cessation and seat belts, which took an average of 30 years to cement themselves in communities. We are probably looking at 30 years of getting ACEs and resilience anchored in, a very long window.”
However, there are encouragements from the reactions from individuals and organizations as they take on this work and see the pivotal changes that occur. Parents say, “Why didn’t I know this sooner?" We need to understand why we have those triggers that were built into our bodies from the day we were conceived and later. Patterns that were created when our bodies learned to defend and protect themselves in stress or trauma situations.
“It’s all about becoming conscious.” Teri says. “It’s about taking responsibility for ourselves as adults and for learning how that awareness can serve us in regulating and managing ourselves so that we do a better job of modeling the inherent core resilience that comes with a regulated system.”
Teri has key words if you want to make something happen in your community. Can you be the:
Catalyst who gets the conversation started in your community?
Convener who brings people together, even if they are the naysayers (who will accept the change when they personally feel what it means to them)?
Coach and cheerleader who keeps the work going?
Champion who finds ways to show how important this work is?
Committed one when it feels like this effort is taking so long?
Teri concludes, “I hope I have been able to create a spark for somebody to think about this information in a slightly different way, to build a more resilient community wherever you are and whatever your community is: your family, your church family, your work family, or your neighbourhood. A lot of this is based on your own network and relationships. Garden it and cultivate it. See where it takes you!”
See the Resilience Challenge
for help in being a catalyst in your community.
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From an interview by Community Resilience Initiati, 01/03/2023