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Trauma-Informed Community Engagement Toolkit helps residents build resilience


The Philadelphia neighborhoods of Kensington and Port Richmond are home to lots of people who do not want to be ignored. In March of 2021, when the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority announced an indefinite closure of the Somerset El station, citing unsafe working conditions and deterioration from a proliferation of human waste and needles, the residents were stunned. Community members had not been consulted, had never been asked how the closure of this vital transportation artery would impact the community, had never been given the chance to voice their own frustrations with the station conditions and ideas they might have for improvements.

And so, the community organized. On March 23, 2021, more than 200 people came together and marched to protest the pending closure and bring attention to the problems of homelessness, substance abuse disorder, and poverty that led to the station’s closure. Less than two weeks later, repairs were initiated, and the station reopened.

Nevertheless, the underlying problems remain. In Upper Kensington, where approximately three quarters of the residents are people of color and have low incomes, more than 60 percent of neighborhood children live in poverty. Rates of violent crime are more than twice that of the city, and housing code violations are nearly six times as high. These are just a few of the social, economic and environmental factors that researchers collectively refer to as the “social determinants of health” and fuel the neighborhood’s health disparities. Upper Kensington currently ranks last for health outcomes among Philadelphia’s 46 neighborhoods. And that’s in the city that already has the highest rates of premature death, infant and child mortality, cardiovascular disease, HIV, and homicide among counties that contain the nation’s largest cities.

Another contributing factor is trauma, says Lowell Brown, communications manager at the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), a nonprofit organization that promotes resident-driven community development in Upper Kensington and neighboring communities, and a grantee that is part of Kresge’s Advancing Health Equity through Housing initiative. “Residents are traumatized by the amount of disinvestment in their communities, by the opioid crisis, by the lack of affordable housing, by gun violence.”

Not only is that sort of stress damaging to residents’ health and well-being, such stress can also make it difficult for residents to organize as a community to advocate for changes they may want to see in their neighborhood, Lowell says. “A lot of neighbors have these trauma-infused barriers to engaging with civic associations or with neighbors.”

In recognition of the mental, emotional and physical harm inflicted on residents by trauma, NKCDC partnered with local nonprofit organizations, including Impact Services, and nearly a dozen neighborhood residents to co-design and co-create Connected Community: A Trauma-Informed Community Engagement Toolkit, a curriculum that educates participants on trauma and its effects, and offers tools to build resilience and increase emotional intelligence.

Brenda Mosley is one of the Kensington residents who helped to create the toolkit by providing input and feedback during a series of workshops and meetings over a period of three years. A survivor of multiple traumas, including child abuse, drug addiction and the death of a child, Mosley says that participating in the design process was meaningful in helping her to address her own trauma.

“I became a whole person in that program and before I knew it, three years had passed. I learned how to process things I hadn’t been able to process before,” she explains. “When I received trauma-informed care, I began to open up, to cry, to let go and release the hurt and the pain and the sorrows, all the things that had kept me from healing properly.”

Mosley’s experience with trauma-informed care has been so transformational as to inspire her to share the work with fellow community members by volunteering with NKCDC as a community health worker, a neighborhood resident trained by the organization to use the trauma-informed model to engage with fellow residents and connect them to critical services, including assistance with home repairs and other housing services. Three years into training volunteer community health workers, NKCDC recently hit a milestone; the organization now has three permanent community health workers on its staff and was also able to hire five community health workers they trained for other permanent roles in the organization.

Mosely has also reached a milestone of her own with the launch of her own nonprofit organization, By Faith, Health and Healing, which she operates out of NKCDC’s offices and which she uses to provide her community with free, trauma-informed programs and services. As she explains, “I provide trauma-informed care as a way to relate to people in this community and to make space for the community to come together, to feel safe, to figure out what type of loss that we, as a community, can work together to help accept so that you can make room to accept new, better things in the future.”

For more of Brenda Mosley’s personal story, please see this interview.