There is no doubt that the notion of becoming Trauma Informed has become a buzz word. That popularity leaves what should be a transformative exercise at risk of becoming a tick box exercise, to be completed as swiftly and financially efficiently as possible. Inevitable really but with potentially devastating consequences. I want to take a moment to reflect on this tension because of a recent exchange I had with an organisation who wanted to begin what I hoped was a transformative journey. Those of you who follow my social media channels will be aware that this did not go smoothly. I thought that if I wrote about the uncomfortable lessons I learned and the hopes I still carry, it might be helpful to others who find themselves in a similar situation. I hope it will help all of us to think about how to act with integrity in emotionally challenging circumstances.
As someone who delivers training on trauma, recovery and resilience, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I hadn’t taken on work that felt like it had no hope of ever becoming embedded. I would take a guess that we have all done that at one point or another if we’re honest with ourselves. Why? Firstly, because my work brings in my income (as it does for 99% of the population) and, although I would still do this work if I won the lottery, I would do it a lot less. I am driven to do this work from within but it is still the work that I do to financially sustain myself. Secondly, there is always that hope that the work I do will plant seeds, create shifts, ripple into the team or organisation or school. That does happen far more than we might think but that rippling takes time.
I am going to share the following story with you with the intention that it will help you manage your own processes if this happens to you.
I receive enquiries for my training or speaking everyday so when I received an enquiry from a national organisation who work with young people leaving care to discuss developing a trauma informed organisation, I was excited for further discussions.
After a number of emails we set up a Zoom meeting and spoke for an hour. The person alluded to the particular problems in their organisation and I alluded to the fact that I was aware of those challenges within the organisation. Working around the country across all the sectors gives me a broad knowledge base about people’s experiences and views of their local authority or their school or their organisation.
The next email I received asked for an extensively detailed quote of costs and content. Ordinarily I would not go into lots of detail at this stage but I felt that they really wanted to move this forward and I wanted to support and encourage them to take the journey because I felt they really needed it. Remember, they work with young people leaving care so it’s very very important!
I left this stage of the process excited and hopeful, having invested approximately 3.5 hours of effort, thought and time in their organisation. I had not yet received confirmation that they would book my services, but I took it on trust, because of the nature of our conversation, that this would follow. Had I not had that trust, there was little reason for me to spend my time and energy in this way.
I cannot express the shock I felt at what happened next. By chance, I happened to see a tweet advertising that the organisation was now intending to deliver its own Trauma Informed Practice ‘bitesize’ webinar, aimed at those working with young people leaving care. At this 2 hour webinar costing £65 + VAT “participants will have had the opportunity to reflect on their practice and will feel more confident and equipped to sensitively respond to a care experienced young person in a trauma informed way.” The organisation was delivering this themselves! My conclusion was that my proposal had become the content guide for this webinar, given that they had expressly said in our earlier conversation that they had a desire to become a trauma-informed organisation. This means that they did not have the expertise or experience to deliver the webinar they were now charging others for.
My shock, turned into anger, turned into hurt and finally became about injustice. Having tweeted about this happening to me, but without naming the organisation, I received several messages from young people who guessed which organisation I was referring to, because they had themselves had interactions with this organisation that left them feel used. Some had had their stories extracted from them and used in publicity. One talked of having writing stolen and used in their materials. In other words, I was not alone in my experience of this organisation. This was a systemic issue embedded within the culture of this organisation.
I have now spent five days coming to terms with this situation. I have needed the help of friends and esteemed colleagues to remain regulated and to cope with my shock. I have grounded myself with yoga, swimming and walks in nature to help me calm enough to think strategically about how to respond to the situation.
Why has this response triggered me so deeply? Why has it pressed so many of my buttons?
- I trusted them
- I felt that they used me
- I didn’t notice that they were going to use me
- I felt manipulated by them
- They treat other people like this, but most importantly, young people who are coming to them for help
- I have been that young person and they know that
- Relationships are everything to me personally and professionally and they know that
- I bring my personal experience into my professional and academic work and they know that
If something like this happens to you, what does moving forward with integrity look like? People and organisations make mistakes all the time. This is normal. It is just part of the messiness of life. Mistakes are not a problem. Failure to make repairs is the problem. The question is what do we do when we make mistakes? More importantly, how do we do the deep work that is involved in understanding the legacy of trauma?
Coming up, I have detailed what I need from the organisation in order to make repair. I am being explicit with them about how we can move forward. This takes courage on my part to be so explicit, because it is a vulnerable position. If I told them exactly what I needed, and they still ignored this request, I would know for sure that they did not care about me. I would know for sure that I had been used. This is a hard thing to know.
And yet, if it were the truth, it would be better to know that truth and I know that I am resilient enough to take care of myself in tough situations. And I know that I have friends and colleagues whom I can turn to to help hold me if I need help. So I am willing to take the risk of greater vulnerability. I was willing to stand in my power and to state explicitly what I needed from them, in the face of the hurt they had caused me and others.
This list lays out what I need the organisation to do in order that I feel that they are willing to be vulnerable, to ‘do the work’ so as to demonstrate whether they want to learn from this and move forward or whether they are more than happy to simply throw me under the bus.
- I would like an apology that acknowledges that you have not treated me well and that in doing so you have caused me unnecessary harm
- I would like you to explore publicly apologising to all the young people for whom you have got things very wrong and offer them safe ways of letting you know how you could put things right
- I would like you to work with someone (I can give you a number of recommendations) who is skilled and experienced on developing TIP for the whole organisation – there is a systemic issue within the culture of your organisation that needs working through thoroughly
- I would like the team to develop skills in how they work together in a respectful, vulnerable and honest way to learn how to develop trust. We meet people as deeply as we’ve met ourselves so my feeling is that the staff team feel they can treat people the way they do because they have not done ‘the work’ themselves. Leadership here is crucial.
- Safety is a strategy and your actions created feelings of unsafety for me. I have healed most of the trauma that is in my awareness so I have the tools to work through my ‘stuff.’ Young people who have experienced trauma are trusting you and seeking safety and will not have healed their traumas at such a young age. If you do nothing else, work on safety.
- You have very few care experienced staff (according to the conversation I had with your staff member). This is not helpful and needs rectifying.
- I would like you to reflect on the fact that you are not equipped to deliver the training and remove the offering
I hope that making my actions public in this way is helpful in a multitude of ways and for a multitude of people. Trauma Informed Practice means we are prepared to go deeply, we are prepared to take responsibility and we are prepared to change! Trauma Informed Practice is not about everyone else. It is about us and how we show up and how we place safety, relationships and integrity at the heart of EVERYTHING we do. If we get it wrong, we repair the harm caused.
I am choosing to share this because this stuff is difficult. My intention is to help us all deal with conversations that make a difference in a meaningful way. It was suggested to me by one colleague that publishing this could cause a backlash. My intention has not been to shame this organisation, even though in my initial hurt I wanted to, which is why I have not named them here. I have spoken my truth and tried to make clear what has happened to me with an organisation who is working with people who carry the legacy of trauma. We need to have these difficult conversations.
I let the organisation know the time that I would be publishing this piece and offer them the opportunity to send me a response that I can publish too should they wish to do that. I have worked hard at being respectful throughout this experience.
Repair where hurt happens is important in any relationships and it is especially important with organisations who work with trauma and organisations who seek to be trauma informed.