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Article written by: Jonathan Torres, MAM President & CEO and Teshanda Middleton, CEO of Communities in Schools of Memphis
Find original article here.


Human trauma works a lot like old clothes. They’re passed down easily and bear outward stains that, while visible, have origins that are hard to remember.

Intergenerational trauma refers to the passing down of harm – something done to us or what we do to others. These are ways of behaving and interacting with our families, friends, and the wider world. Trauma can stem from experiences sustained through generations of grandparents, parents, children, and grandchildren, such as abuse or grief from loss. It can also present itself as the impact of historical or current events and social conditions, like discrimination, racism, and poverty. Trauma can also be sustained by denying, deflecting, or minimizing events or subsequent behaviors.

The consequences of being imprisoned by trauma are profound, and unfortunately, many of us have no language or outlet through which to process this pain. Psychiatrist and trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk has famously argued that our bodies carry the impact of trauma, even if the origin is primarily psychological.

Books and lessons have taught us far too little about the lasting psychological and emotional impacts of historical events. For instance, those at the center of the Civil Rights Movement endured extreme hatred in response to their risk, bravery, and sacrifice. Not only is the fight they led far from over, but their families who have carried their pain for decades are passing it forward as similar struggles continue in today’s society.

To this day, Black Americans and other people of color grapple with the impact of racial violence and trauma. Their experiences, whether in the form of outright racism or microaggressions, are all too frequently downplayed, in part because many, including those with power, have convinced themselves “racism” is a past-tense word. Minimizing and rewriting history are negative, short-term coping mechanisms, but one of the only real ways intergenerational trauma is broken at this level is through honesty.

Intergenerational trauma has both personal and societal components


Frederick Douglass, noting the gap between “the real” and “the ideal,” encouraged people to see what is, imagine what could be, “and endeavor to remove the contradiction.”

As parents, pastors, community leaders, teachers, elected officials, and everyday residents, we all ought to be brave about asking what stories we tell about ourselves, our communities, and others. Are we making assumptions about the lives of others? Do we rationalize things that cause hurt by reasoning “this is just the way it’s always been?” Or are we doing the painful, but necessary work to effect change?

As leaders from organizations long-committed to supporting children and families in Memphis and addressing their social-emotional well-being, we call on others to help us find solutions that relieve current and future generations from the trauma that has followed those before us. This is the driving energy behind the More For Memphis project, and what inspires organizations like Memphis Athletic Ministries (MAM) and Communities In Schools of Memphis (CISM) to take part.

MAM, a fixture in Memphis for 25 years, partners with Up2Us Sports, a sports-based youth development organization that focuses on educating coaches with trauma-informed best practices to develop youth. All MAM coaches are trained with these principles to help youth and their families break the bonds of intergenerational trauma. After-school enrichment programming also uses trauma-informed best practices to strengthen services and be a part of the solution to fighting the systemic trauma experienced in the communities served across Memphis.

Memphis has been hit hard with trauma


The COVID-19 pandemic; the racial, political, and social unrest that continue to plague our local and national communities; and the resulting trauma each of them produce were a clarion call to Communities In Schools of Memphis to become and do more.

To enhance the mission of surrounding students (and their families) with a community of support, over the past few years CISM has invested additional resources into comprehensive social and emotional learning (SEL) curricula deeply rooted in diversity, equity, and inclusion best practices. Each week, in-school staff lead small groups and conduct one-on-one check-ins with case-managed students focusing on grief support, anger management, healthy coping strategies, and more.

Staff members have been certified as Trauma-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI®) practitioners, and CISM is now one of a select group of organizations in the state of Tennessee certified to provide this training to other partners and organizations, ensuring that all parents and school-aged children in the city of Memphis are able to receive the support needed to overcome the barriers that prevent them from realizing their aspirations and interrupt trauma before it can be inherited by the generations to come.

Leaders from both the public and private sectors, with meaningful representation of our families and youth, must collaborate to address the complex root causes of the problems plaguing our city, such as poverty and crime: mental health challenges that are being unseen and unaddressed; poverty traps that create desperation; lack of opportunity that warps people’s senses of the choices available to them; and an inconsistent criminal justice system.

Conversely, MAM and CISM, along with our aligned More For Memphis partners, recognize we have to do more to support the change-makers around us – and we will. There is no one-size fits all solution for intergenerational trauma, so we have to be patient with ourselves and compassionate with each other, because change takes time. But this timeline for change cannot wait.

We invite local leaders to see how our organizations directly support families and youth to find new ways to work together. Our children deserve more, our families deserve more, Memphis deserves more!

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