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Using trauma-informed care to help communities heal: Q & A with Brenda Mosley


Brenda Mosley, 69, is a certified community health worker with the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization and Kresge Foundation grantee that advances social equity and economic empowerment by nurturing and creating opportunities for residents to live in, and actively shape, their neighborhoods of choice. She also is the founder and executive director of By Faith, Health and Healing, a nonprofit organization that supports residents of Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, where Mosley lives, to address community trauma, including addiction, gun violence and poverty.

In this interview, Mosley shares her own story of personal trauma, and how trauma awareness has reshaped her life. Specifically, she talks about her own experience with trauma-informed care, an approach to engaging people with histories of trauma that recognized the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledges the role that trauma has played in their lives, and why she now dedicates her time to helping others in her community to receive similar care.

Before we discuss your work, please tell me how you came to be interested in trauma-informed community engagement?

I am a survivor of childhood trauma. I was sexually abused from age 2 to age 7, and was also abused mentally, physically, and emotionally growing up. I dropped out of school in 9th grade and started using drugs to make all the pains from those experiences go away. I used drugs for almost 30 years. I had kids, so I dragged my kids through my addiction. In 1991, after lots of encounters with addiction, after incarceration, after having my children taken away from me by the City, I hit bottom. I was 38 years old. That’s when I went to a 12-step program, went back to school and began to achieve some things after being told my entire life that I wasn’t never going to be nothing. I got certified as a registered nurse and worked primarily in the Emergency Room at Temple University. Throughout my recovery I told my daughter, who had cerebral palsy and had been taken from me by the city, that I would get her back. Every step of the way, I told her that. When I got my diploma, I gave her a copy of it. When I got my nursing license, I gave her a copy. Every degree I got, I gave her a copy, too.

In 2007, my daughter had been hospitalized and put on a ventilator and got a tracheotomy. The facility she was at didn’t have staff for people with tracheotomies, so because I was a licensed nurse, I was able to get her back and care for her myself. The courts awarded her to me. Through taking care of her, I saw the need for parents to be able to take care of their own children with cerebral palsy, so I started my own home health care agency. I was on the verge of getting my agency certified by the state when my daughter passed away in 2014.

I was then in a state of grief. I had worked for years to get her back. I had no desire for anything. I retired from nursing. I sold the house and moved to Kensington, to an area that was recognizable to me from my drug addiction days. There, I stayed in my house for a year, incapacitated, grieving the loss of my daughter and not knowing which way to turn.

Eventually, I went to a neighborhood meeting. I met two ladies there who invited me to return to learn more about them and also about the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC). They opened my spirit up and opened my mind up to allow me to grieve at a natural rate. I started knitting and crocheting with them. They gave me peace. One day they asked me if I would volunteer to participate in a trauma-informed program. It was a three-year program. We were 10 ladies who all had something in common. We’d all lost a child. We talked about the brain and how growing up as a kid, you have to be nurtured so you can make good decisions, and about how all these things that happened to me as a kid hindered my growth. I saw how I didn’t have the luxury to learn how to process things on a healthy level until I began to see these pieces of the puzzle being given to me through trauma-informed care. 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.

I understand that you and the nine other women co-created NKCDC’s toolkit for trauma-informed community engagement. What was that experience like for you?

The program organizers asked us what aspects of trauma-informed care best fit our community. There were four different models we looked at and compared which ones really worked for us. We talked about how in your community, you have to feel safe because if you feel safe, you can go about your life in a productive manner. So, we talked a lot about what happens if you’re not feeling safe. We called it a “check-in.” We’d ask each other how their day was, and find out where people are with their emotions so that we can respect that person’s space. And we looked at loss. What can we lose if we are not safe? It’s not just about losing a loved one. It can also be the loss of integrity, of self, of a job, of a house. And then we looked at the future and what it holds for the community, and ran through the different models figuring out what worked best for us and how the models could be used not only to help individuals but also to develop the community in a way that addresses all these issues and stressors and helps us see what the community wants to change.

Why is it important to take a trauma-informed approach to community engagement in Kensington?

Everything around the neighborhood in Kensington is about trauma. The drug addiction. The abuse, the other problems. I know what they are going through because I have gone through it. And there’s no other way to introduce trauma but to say, “trauma,” and to let people know what it is so that they can recognize it because either someone is living in trauma or they are not. If they are in it, and that stress is not relieved, that stress is piling on and piling on and it becomes toxic.

You now run your own nonprofit organization to provide fellow Kensington residents with trauma-informed support. Can you provide some examples of what that looks like?

Yes. When I began to live again and the joys and pleasures of life began to return again, I knew it was because of this trauma-informed program and these women, so I became a volunteer with the program. Three years ago I started a nonprofit called By Faith, Health and Healing to 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 you accept so that you can make room to accept new, better things in the future.

I began with a pilot program called, Mother’s Pain, Mother’s Love, for women who have lost a child like I did. In that program I use a model from the trauma-informed curriculum, which is the same model that helped me look at myself and my loss and build a future after my daughter died. I also offer yoga, music and art therapy, too. There are local organizations that provide those services. Some of them do it for free because they want to know about trauma-informed care. I also did a trauma-informed summer camp this summer for the youth, which was a first for me and one of my joys. I wanted to recognize the neighborhood children and the traumatic events they are going through and bring the families together to help them to understand why their kids may be acting out. On the last day of camp, all of these parents and kids that have all of these issues came together to go on a day-trip to an amusement park in the Poconos. That really touched me. It was so amazing for the parents to be able to come out, get outside and get away from Kensington for a day.

With school starting back, I want to do something to keep those kids and parents engaged. Not too much, because I don’t want to overwhelm them and I don’t want anybody to feel like they’re being invaded. I just want them to be able to keep that safe space that they built together because that makes the healing happen.

To learn more about New Kensington Community Development Corporation’s work, click here.