Telling Community Stories to Affect Change

It’s funny where the most interesting and engaging conversations can happen.

At the gym last week, I had a few random, but passionate conversations with other members of the educational (and martial arts!) community about youth experiencing trauma and how it impacts their ability to participate in school, learn effectively, and handle their emotions. 

Trauma is something I wish I had learned about when I became a teacher over ten years ago.

Like many new teachers, I struggled with classroom management.

It is probably not surprising to learn that as a 5’2″, 22 year-old woman, I did not have a natural authoritative presence.

However, there were many other reasons for the challenges I faced — ineffective and harmful administrators, a lack of shared expectations among our middle school team, and my own battle with anxiety.

These all contributed to what often felt like turmoil in my classroom.

While I always empathized with the challenges my students faced in their own lives, I never fully understood the ramifications of the trauma and hardship they experienced — nor did I know where to connect them or their families for additional support. 

I was lucky because the school had a wonderful social worker and part-time psychologist to whom I could refer students.

They also served as great supports and sources of advice and knowledge for me as a new educator.

Yet, there was little capacity and no infrastructure at the school for understanding and responding to trauma.

I remember being told that students were experiencing homelessness, hearing stories about families who were involved in gangs, and seeing that students were extremely impoverished, but I had no tools to process these situations or fully support my students.

I felt anguish about the situations they were experiencing, but I know I did not always respond effectively. 

Years later, after working in a community school and supporting many others, I know what more effective and comprehensive supports can look like.

I have seen the benefits of wraparound services for students and families, including a full mental health team; meaningful enrichment and engagement opportunities for students and adults; connections to resources for basic needs such as housing, food, clothing, and adult education; efforts to track and review data on engagement, attendance, and supports provided; and most importantly, a loving and affirming approach to working with students and families with the greatest needs.

Community schools — schools that become a hub of the surrounding community and provide these wraparound services for students, families, and community members — are well-supported by research.

This model has been shown to be beneficial in reducing chronic absenteeism, improving school climate, increasing student achievement, and more.

One of the findings from a 2017 Learning Policy Institute report states that:

“The evidence base provides a strong warrant for using community schools to meet the needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools and to help close opportunity and achievement gaps for students from low-income families, students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities.”

​So when my friend at the gym, a high school guidance counselor, told me that his school effectively did not have any mental health clinicians available to students, I was taken aback.

I talk to him frequently about his school and the amazing ways in which he supports his students, so I was shocked to learn that this large high school was so under-resourced in this area.

The school seems to be on its way toward providing wraparound services, with a brand new food pantry and the dedication of counselors like my friend.

Yet this conversation made me realize that the services I took for granted in Baltimore City schools — which were still often insufficient to meet the high level of need — did not exist everywhere.

This was a critical and humbling realization.

Of course, if we could make students’ barriers disappear — or at least provide them with the resources that they need to overcome these barriers and thrive — we would.

But in the absence of a magic wand, what can we do? From my lens, this is where needs assessments and data tracking can play a huge role.

Imagine if we collected stories from students, families, and staff about the challenges faced by the school community, each stakeholder group’s perceived needs, and their recommendations for meeting those needs.

Now think about if we used factual data about the community and student population to support those stories.

What we would get is an intensely compelling, collective narrative about what this community needs and how its members feel those needs could be met.

Could a needs assessment or set of data instantly bring on a full slate of mental health workers at this school? Of course not.

But when we tell our story effectively, people (read: funders, decision-makers, influencers) listen. And when people start listening, we can inspire them to make change.