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Wisdom, tapped: Conference to mine community expertise in treating trauma

Courtesy of the Catalyst Initiative
Catalyst Initiative Director Suzanne Koepplinger, center, speaking with attendees at a "Healing From Trauma" event.

Though turning people away from a meeting is never a good feeling, Suzanne Koepplinger, director of the George Family Foundation’s Catalyst Initiative knew that she and her colleagues were on to something last year when they had to do just that.

In 2015, Catalyst, in partnership with community ally Marnita’s Table, convened two community meetings focused on developing culturally specific, nonmedical, whole-person practices to help people heal from trauma.

At the first meeting, Koepplinger recalled, so many potential attendees showed up that, “We had to turn away 100 people. We just didn’t have physical space in the building for everybody. As it was we were packed in. We heard the message loud and clear that this is an issue that we need to address.”

The group scheduled a second meeting that was just as popular. In the end, more that 500 people attended the two events.

What message did Koepplinger and her colleagues take away from the experience?

“That no one was talking about trauma in ways that are culturally meaningful to marginalized groups,” she said, “and at those meetings we were doing that. Clearly there was a hunger for more.” 

In response to the enthusiastic outpouring, Catalyst decided to decided to expand its reach, scheduling and planning “Building Resilience: Restoring Our Human Capacity to Heal,” a one-day conference designed for community members, funders, policy leaders and health-care professionals interested in exploring the promise of integrative health and healing practices in treating trauma and its impact on underrepresented individuals, organizations and communities.  

“I think we are on to something significant here,” Koepplinger said. The goal of the conference, she explained, is to attempt to “tap into people’s wisdom and help them normalize practices that will help people reduce stress and begin to heal from trauma.” 

Because the first two meetings were so jam-packed, organizers chose St. Paul RiverCentre, a space that could accommodate a larger group. Registration is capped at 400, and according to Koepplinger, is filling up quickly. Mid last week they were already topping 200. 

“The event on September 27 is the continuation of our earlier conversations,” Koepplinger said. “The idea with the event is to open the conversation up to a wider audience.”

Harnessing community knowledge

Founded in 2014 as an offshoot of the George Family Foundation, Catalyst is a multiyear funding initiative that provides one-time seed grants that Kopplinger said, “fertilize community-based projects, focused on integrative health and healing.” 

“People in communities have great ideas. They know what they need if we listen to them and provide them with financial backing. That’s what we do.”

Inspired by research that has found that children and adults exposed to high rates of trauma, including community violence, crime, addiction and imprisonment, and poverty are less likely to perform well in school and at work, Koepplinger and her colleagues sought out community activists who could help pinpoint culturally specific solutions that lessen trauma’s impact.

Suzanne Kopplinger
Courtesy of the Catalyst Initiative
Suzanne Koepplinger

“We took the time to talk to people in the community and learn the best approaches to coping with trauma,” Koepplinger said. “We talked to people in the African-American community, the Indian community, the Latino community, to GLBT youth. Trauma is a barrier to people being well emotionally and physically. It holds them back, and we want to expose people to strategies that help them address the trauma that many have been exposed to daily.”

Koepplinger was especially impressed with the work of Marnita’s Table, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit dedicated to solving community problems through intentional social interaction. The organization co-sponsored the initial meetings; they also helped plan the Sept. 27 event.    

“Our convener of choice is Marnita’s Table,” Koepplinger said. Co-founder Marnita Schroedl has “developed a community engagement model that is the best one I’ve ever seen. She has built a model where people can engage in honest dialogue and get outcomes that far surpass any other community engagement program. We are getting such great results.” 

People of influence sought

The first two Catalyst-sponsored meetings were mostly attended by community members. Event organizers hope to continue the community conversation but also expand it to an influential audience that could glean from the knowledge of attendees — and influence larger policy change.

“We hope to have people in the health-care professions, in government on all levels, and in funding organizations come into the room,” Koepplinger explained. “We want to open this conversation and begin to explain that people in community are often talked to by systems. We are learning that this method doesn’t always work.”

In the traditional Western health-care model, community members hear messages like, “Go to your doctor. Get your blood pressure under control. Don’t eat this. Get off the couch,’ ” Koepplinger said. But she believes that actually listening to members of marginalized communities and learning about “culturally relevant practices that encourage healing,” might have a greater impact on long-term health and well-being.

“As a society, we don’t always do a great job of listening to communities and learning from their wisdom,” Koepplinger said. “This conference is an opportunity to do that.

Conference lineup

“Building Resilience” will feature a number of keynote speakers, including Sabrina N’Diaye, founder of the Baltimore-based Heart Nest Wellness Center; Gail Christopher, senior adviser and vice president of the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation; and Henry Emmons, M.D., founder of Partners in Resilience, a Minneapolis-based organization that provides resilience training for mental health professionals and individuals.   

Breakout sessions will cover a number of topics, including indigenous ceremonial and ritual healing, meditative/reflective healing practices, ancient healing practices, movement-based healing, and community resiliency planning and implementation. The day will conclude with a healing drum ceremony from Samba Fall, founder of Multicultural Kids Network

“This is not your typical conference,” Koepplinger said. “This is going to be much more experiential. People who are coming to the conference will observe and participate in some of these healing practices.”

Multicultural Kids Network founder Samba Fall
Courtesy of the Catalyst Initiative
Multicultural Kids Network founder Samba Fall, seated left, leading a drum ceremony at a 2016 event attended by Catalyst seed-grant recipients.

Founded in 1994 by Penny and Bill George, former Medtronic chairman and CEO, the George Family Foundation is a $61 million private family foundation with an annual grant-making budget of $3.8 million. The foundation focuses on integrative health and healing, leadership, community, the environment, youth development, spirituality and the advancement of women and girls.  

The “Building Resilience” conference is well aligned with Catalyst’s mission, Koeppinger said.

“Until now, I don’t think we have truly explored the opportunity to learn the best tools for recovery and healing,” she said. “This event will be a perfect first step. We will help people recognize their own power to heal in ways that are relevant to them, and with that healing can truly begin.”

Tickets for “Building Resilience: Restoring Our Human Capacity to Heal,” cost $55, including breakfast and lunch. Limited partial scholarships are available. Register online here

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