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‘Racial trauma’ reminiscent of 9/11 condition

Martha Dismont

The situation here is, in some ways, reminiscent of a condition that existed in New York right after 9/11.”

So said visiting clinician Kenneth Hardy regarding the treatment of racial trauma in Bermuda.

Dr Hardy, a professor of family therapy at Philadelphia’s Drexel University and director of the Eikenberg Institute for Relationships in New York City, arrived on Sunday to provide training to social services workers, as well as to hold a public interactive event taking place tonight on the subject.

“You had the city experiencing this major, unprecedented trauma, unlike anything it had ever experienced before,” he said of the period after the attacks. “And so people like myself, and other clinicians who were there, were attempting to sit and treat people for the very conditions we were also experiencing ourselves.”

Social services workers addressing the impact of racial trauma here find themselves placed in a similar position, Dr Hardy said.

“They, too, for the most part, are commissioned to work with a set of traumatic situations for which they are not excluded. They’re dealing with black youths who are struggling with the same kind of difficulties that folks in the room are.”

According to Family Centre, Dr Hardy’s talk will discuss how the “life experiences of many youth of colour are organised” by racial trauma.

Dr Hardy spoke to The Royal Gazette as part of a round-table discussion, also including Dr Lou Matthews, director of educational standards and accountability with the Department of Education, and Family Centre executive director Martha Dismont, ahead of the event.

Transcending geography, racial trauma can also exist as inherited trauma, Dr Hardy said, passed from generation to generation.

“There’s no escape from it — there’s exposure whether it’s primary or secondary.”

“It would be a unicorn situation not to have been exposed to racialised trauma,” echoed Dr Matthews.

“I think it is, metaphorically speaking, built into the DNA of the soul of people of African descent.”

Racial trauma, Dr Matthews said, also exists as “firmly and indelibly imprinted” in Bermuda’s institutions.

“Whether it’s our school systems, hospital systems — just about any singular system we’re talking about,” he said.

Ms Dismont described Dr Hardy as someone who offered “major value to Bermuda”.

“The conditions in Bermuda today, as they have been developed in other places already, demand us to go deeper in our participation as clinicians and working with young people,” she said.

That connection, Ms Dismont said, involves knowing what is in both the heads and hearts of the youth. As well, it demands attention be paid not simply to questioning why someone is behaving a certain way, but instead looking at what lies behind the behaviour.

“In order to change behaviour, or at least to participate in a beneficial way, you need to connect,” she said. “It’s about relationships, and we want to strengthen our relationships.”

The need for connection with the youth also correlates directly to the classroom from an educational standpoint.

“We recognise we need a different approach, a more meaningful approach, a more authentic approach, to looking at children, and also responding to their needs,” Dr Matthews said.

According to Dr Matthews, this approach means not only having children able to function in the school setting, but also in helping them develop their voice. He said the classroom must serve as a ‘pipeline’ to truly benefit the students.

“They take a precious commodity one place to the next,” he explained of the analogy. “And so we have to become that pipeline of success.”

Impediments to that success would seem to exist, according to a study conducted roughly 18 months ago.

According to Dr Matthews, the study with the Inter-Agency Community Response Team found that the educational success of between 20 and 25 per cent of 1,900 examined students was at risk due to unresolved trauma.

The threat posed by that trauma to youths is not confined to the classroom.

“Every 30 days a young man is shot in this country, and every 22 days there is some incident with guns, and every 90 days or so, over the last six years, a young man dies,” Dr Matthews said. “I think we’re talking about a very serious impact of racialised trauma.

”We’re cloaked in a veil of looking good to the world. We’re very vulnerable to how things look to other people. So it’s very easy to say it’s not a problem, because we are afraid of the optics of saying that it is a problem.”

“We have difficulty connecting to our black youths,” Ms Dismont said. “Everybody agrees to that. Everybody.”

“Dr Hardy is teaching us about how to connect — to get our professionals in a space where they’ve checked themselves and they actually understand better what the needs are.”

Treating racial trauma, Dr Hardy said, can be done through a three-step approach, first involving acknowledgement, followed by created opportunities, and finally “direct, targeted action”.

“If you think about a runner that pulls a hamstring, but then is expected to keep running, there’s no way that hamstring is ever going to heal,” Dr Hardy said. “Because what it needs is time, it needs acknowledgement that somehow this thing happened, and to create a space for you to heal. And that doesn’t exist with racial trauma.”

“It’s a developmental stage we’re at,” Ms Dismont said regarding the identification and treatment of trauma on the island.

Dr Hardy’s interactive talk takes place at The Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity on Church Street beginning at 6.30pm.