By Kyle Taylor, Communications Manager, School-Based Health Alliance
Violent events throughout this summer have exposed many young people to trauma either firsthand or vicariously through media coverage. We recently caught up with Dr. Shawn Ginwright, author of Hope and Healing in Urban Education and opening plenary speaker at our 2016 convention, to discuss how school-based health professionals can prepare to talk their students through the healing process. The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity.
This has been a particularly violent summer, with near-constant reporting on tragedies like shootings by police, shootings of police, and the Orlando attack. What effect does media coverage of this violence have on youth?
Well, it depends on which youth you’re talking about. For some, this coverage comes as a surprise. It’s surprising to them that there’s an attack on black lives and LGBTQ lives in America. For other youth, that doesn’t come as a surprise at all: it may actually come as a relief because the media is shining a light on their daily experience in a way that it hasn’t since Rodney King.
We have to be specific about which young people we are talking about because not all have the same experiences. Some grow up in non-urban, homogenous, safe environments. This summer will likely come as a surprise to them, and that may be a good thing, to raise their awareness. For young people of color who come from urban or rural environments—such as on our country’s southwestern border—these experiences aren’t new, and the coverage is just shining a light on people who experience these things every day.
That’s an important distinction. Many school-based health centers (SBHCs) serve students who belong to the latter group and are more likely to feel traumatized by these recent events. As we get closer to back to school, what can the providers in these centers do to meet the needs of their young patients?
Adults have a tendency to structure conversations and provide a lecture. Instead, providers should ask themselves how they’re creating a space for young people to share how they feel. Journaling, blogs, and videos are some ideas. I’d recommend pursuing whatever venue or activity you have to create a space and open the gate to how young people are feeling. By opening the space, you’re opening up the healing process. Part of trauma is not being able to share your story, holding the secret or challenge. Letting young people tell their story is critically important. I encourage school-based health providers to do that in a creative, loving, hopeful way.
So, after young people tell their story, what should you do? Wellbeing for young people is a function to the extent that they have control over their lives. Help the youth you know to take action; to create the environment, schools, and neighborhoods they want to see. Encourage them to create monthly dialogue circles or park clean-up efforts, and reflect on what they accomplished.
Sharing stories or lessons learned creates a cyclical process. If you’re creating a racial dialogue circle, discussing with youth what they’re learning from that activity increases their engagement in the process. When young people are engaged, it gives them a sense of power.
We need these hopeful spaces. The issues of this summer are big, heavy, existential issues—life and death—and it’s difficult to jump into policy conversations. Sure, we need police reform, juvenile justice, justice for cops and even for those live-streaming on Facebook. But not all young people have access to those justice and policy conversations without groups like Black Lives Matter. In absence of these organizations, school-based health providers can engage young people in a dialogue.
How can school-based health providers help promote hope and healing in their schools? What actions do you recommend they take?
There’s a tendency for adults to just want young people to go through the hope and healing process. But adults need to be participants as well. It’s important that adults are able to share in a vulnerable way, too. When adults share their stories, hopes, and dreams, it gives permission for young people to do the same. Without that, it becomes an adult-youth power dialogue that gets in way of authentic conversations. Providers need to be prepared to join the conversation. The first day of next semester, prepare to share your stories first: opening up about how you grew up or a time you got fired in a really honest and authentic way will set the tone for a hope and healing relationship based on humanity.
We recently shared a collection of resources with our field to help them in this endeavor. Is there anything you would add?
I recommend “Hope, Healing, and Care,” an article I published that provides a framework for implementing hope and healing and pushing boundaries of civic engagement for African-American youth.