By Travis Cronin, MCW, LCSW
I began kindergarten in Portland, Oregon in 1983. My bus stop was across the street from my house and my mother would watch me from our front room window. I had two younger brothers at the time so my mother had plenty to distract her as she waited for me to get on the bus. One morning I was the only child at my bus stop. As I waited for the bus, a tall White man stopped his car, opened his door, got out, and approached me. He asked if I wanted a ride to school. I told him that I liked riding the bus. He told me that he could get me to school more quickly than the bus. He asked me where I lived, and I pointed across the street. I remember that as I pointed to my house, my mother was looking out the window. The man offered one last time to give me a ride as my mother opened the front door. As 4’11’’ 105 pound mother started to cross the street, the man got in his car and left quickly.
My mother asked me what the man wanted and I told her. She was very distressed, but I did not know what the big deal was. I was barely five years old so the idea of kidnapping was entirely foreign to me at the time. I remember getting a lot of positive attention (I.e., hugs, attentive listening) when I would tell this story to the other kids. My mother was so concerned she bought me a set of cassettes called The Safety Kids® https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCK4gdwv1Vc. Posting this link takes me back to the support and love I felt from my family as they tried to prepare me for my next encounter with a potential would be kidnapper. Over the coming years my mother would have me watch countless programs based on true stories of children who were abducted. If there was an after school special or a made for TV movie with the topic of child abduction that came out between 1983 and 1990 there is a very good chance that I have seen it http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085136/.
My history sensitizes me to the fact that seemingly benign events can have long reaching consequences. How would my life be different if I had gotten into that car? Would I have been raped, killed, or both? What I can say is that this event impacted me, my mother, and likely many other people who heard about the story. Most of the trauma from this encounter with a White man comes from my imagination about what might have happened if the man had enticed me to get into his car. This man did not touch me, he did not even yell at me. Yet his choice to approach me and invite me into his car resonates so strongly with me that I am writing about it 33 years later.
I am now a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University in the school of social work. One of the most promising concepts for supportive workplaces comes from behavioral health services. The concept is building a trauma-informed workforce http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207194/. This concept simply asks us to consider the possibility that everyone we interact with may be suffering from some form of trauma. Therefore, when we see someone acting in a way we do not understand we ask, “What happened to you?” We no longer ask, “What’s wrong with you?” Imagining the role that psychological or physical trauma can have on how we interact with other people.
I mentioned the Whiteness of the man who approached me. I did this because we often omit racial descriptions when we are discussing the sins of White folks. It’s almost as if race is only an important detail if the person lacks whiteness. This omission overtime, combined with racial emphasis when discussing the sins of people of color, has led to a cumulative historical trauma for people of color http://www.extension.umn.edu/family/cyfc/our-programs/historical-trauma-and-cultural-healing/. This contemporary form of racism is so common, White people often perpetrate this trauma without awareness of the impact it can have on the people around them.
The White man who approached me that day likely had trauma of his own, and he likely has little awareness of how his actions have negatively impacted my mother and me. As I close my narrative I invite you to consider two points. The first is that we have all had bad experiences in life, so why is it so hard to imagine the pain and trauma of other people? The second point is, that our society is not fair, and it has never been fair. This inequity manifests itself in thousands of ways.
The next time you find yourself asking, “What is wrong with that person?” stop and take a nice long breath. Then take another one. Once you have collected yourself ask this new question, “What has this person been through?” After you are done asking this question, you might even find yourself asking, “How can I use my set of privileges and resources to support this person?” Your best support may require you to get someone else to help, but if you ask this new question enough, people may just start coming to you when they need help. What would your workplace be like if it were trauma-informed?
Travis W. Cronin, MSW, LCSW, is Senior Advisor and Social Catalyst for Diamond Strategies, LLC, a diversity, equity, and cultural competency firm that inspires, achieves, and celebrates inclusion. Having an MSW, he has over a decade of experience in public child welfare, and in 2011 he obtained licensure as a clinical social worker [LCSW] and has provided psychotherapy for the U.S. military. In addition to being a part of the DSC team, he works as the project coordinator of the MSW Child Welfare Education Project at ASU, where he is also completing a Ph.D. social work.