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Addressing Trauma as a Pathway to Social Change

How understanding trauma can effect faster, more effective change

In the 1860s, American abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted that people invested in social change “endeavor to remove the contradiction” between “what ought to be” and “what is.” This contradiction seems ubiquitous today as social change advocates struggle to address multiple, overlapping crises.

Systemic racism, climate change, the forced displacement of millions of people, a devastating global pandemic and other widespread social issues highlight how far we are from “what ought to be.” And each of these problems requires urgent and sustained attention.

At the same time, another problem is inhibiting and limiting sustained attention to these complex crises: trauma. We are learning that trauma, or distress resulting from exposure to chronic or extreme mental or physical stress, is a common human experience with the power to spread across people and time. Research reveals if nothing is done to mitigate the influence of traumatic experiences, individuals afflicted by today’s challenges may pass their trauma to the next generation. This kind of transfer, known as “intergenerational trauma,” isn’t new to human experience, but research on it didn’t begin in earnest until the 1960s. 

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