Racing ACEs gathering and reflection: If it’s not racially just, it’s not trauma-informed


The following memo was written by a group of people who participated in the Racing ACEs gathering. 

It’s 2016. Local and national protests rise against an ongoing stream of state-sanctioned murders. African-American lives are being lost at a frequency and in a manner that decry ethnic cleansing. Sacred Indigenous land is being desecrated for profit. African-American, Native American, Latino American, Asian American, and poor communities are facing dislocation, police violence, and a range of traumas that compose the frayed ends of America’s historically racist national fabric.

It’s August 2016. In the middle of an election season replete with racially charged rhetoric, immersed in Black Lives Matter actions and the rich local history of social justice movements, a group of practitioners, researchers, and community advocates come together in Richmond, California.

Who we are:  We are more than two-dozen carefully selected representatives engaged at the nexus of the trauma-informed and racial justice fields, forming a circle on behalf of our ancestors, our children, and ourselvesWhat brings us to the room, to the work? Colonialism brought us here. Imperialism brought us here. The spine of western civilization and plunder of nations brought us here. Slavery, ethnic cleansing, all things that made this country possible, that make possible the hoarding of wealth in the hands of a few, all the ramifications of those things, of race as a structure that cages us—that is what brings us here. Oscar Grant brings us here. Mike Brown brings us here. Tamar Rice and Sandra Bland bring us here. Eric Garner. Alex Nieto. Terence Crutcher Korryn Gaines Philando Castile Alton Sterling Anthony Nuñez Jessica Williams Loreal Tsingine … As kin of the murdered, we share an urgent and crucial need to speak. For them. For us.

On the agenda: An exploration of how racial justice – its values, investments, strategies and practices – can be centered at the heart of trauma-informed work. The meeting is called “Racing ACEs,” a reference to the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. Our work, in a fundamental sense, is to race ACEs so that we can explicate the inequitable burden of racial oppression, as well as the intersections of oppression, privilege and liberation in all their forms.

The ambivalence of ACEs: The ACE Study is a valuable tool that brings a wider audience to what clinicians, researchers, and advocates working in the field of child and adolescent trauma have said for decades – confirming that experiences of violence, neglect, and trauma are harmful to a person’s long-term health. For those of us in the room, the opportunity and obligation to leverage the study and its implications is also matched by an ambivalence.  The ambivalence that fills the all too common absence of historical trauma and ongoing violence and harm aimed at people of color.  This absence has an atmospheric effect that conveys and compounds harmful pathologies surrounding people of color in the midst of ongoing trauma – pathologies that lead to misdiagnosis, mistreatment, and false assignments that render us as problematic and risk-laden. When they are translated into policies, practices, and investments, these inaccurate pathologies further perpetuate and codify racial oppression and the dehumanization of people of color.

Much of our time together during Racing ACEs, then, was spent in a challenging and often painful discourse. Together in that space we held and hold each other. In congregating we braided our strengths, making cable and network of them; we reinforced ourselves, refortified our ambition by showing each other our experiences. Despite our differences we put our lives on the table in front of us and recognized, reaffirmed, the core similarities of them all: a value for these same differences and an insistence that they are not a marker of worth, that our worth is our ability to be proud, dignified, and strong in the midst of a war being waged against us.

We held our pain, sharing the weight of it so that our neighbors can stand again rather than crumple beneath it. We acknowledged that our pain is sacred – and so too our rage: rage at systems that perpetuate oppression; rage at systems that fail to recognize themselves as causing the trauma they claim to fight; rage at the incremental changes in cultural and organizational practice that we are forced to accept as ‘good enough’ when it comes to our lives and our dignity; rage that “people are dying, people are being hurt everyday, and people are being paid with our tax dollars to do it”; rage that people stripped “of family, community, safety, and other protective factors of privilege are left raw, exposed… hurting”; rage that so many of us came to and lived in the space “heavy with grief”.

This rage, all of it, is sacred, as one of the great minds among us pointed out. And our commitment to channel it productively and heal ourselves is priority.

Also of import, we recognize the need to bring together white people and people of color to dismantle the fallacy of whiteness and address issues like white supremacy, white fragility, and the role and responsibility of white people to actively rupture and repair the harms of racial oppression. For the privileged that depend on supremacy for their own well-being and preservation, this struggle is key. How do we dismantle habits of “whiteness” for ourselves and for diverse communities at large, especially those who profit from such habits? Given that some of us understand “white” to be another term for savage greed, how do we cross the divide to do this work? And how do we make it clear that the quest to end white supremacy is in itself a white responsibility? And that for the sake of our own health we must set that responsibility aside and leave it for the privileged to resolve, while we simultaneously fight for space in which to live safely while the privileged fail to make overdue progress.

Our aims and assignments:

  • Racing ACEs was, to our knowledge, the first meeting of its kind, and to many it felt long overdue. Again and again participants called for “more human, and financial resources, so we can have these conversations and do this work.”
  • We must foster and sustain more of these too-rare spaces — including spaces that are solely for people of color — to honor sacred pain and rage, to create joy, and to share our stories, and build power.
  • Racing ACEs included a discussion of critical and practical resources for trauma-informed work. If we are truly to center on liberation we need to collectively bring a racial justice lens to specific tropes and tools within that space. This includes reexamining the ACE Study in public practice, taking into account, for example, cultural and racial humility as practiced by the privileged, as well as the tremendous and all-exhausting resilience necessitated by people of color, LGBTQ people, as well as the differently-abled who must daily navigate hostile spaces in public and in private.
  • As one participant pointed out: “Until we get to a place where ‘white’ people recognize their harm, we can’t make change.” The challenge, then, is to learn what it will take to bring white people together to do white-on-white work around issues like white supremacy, white privilege and white fragility. And this particular challenge cannot and should not be the responsibility of Afrodescendants, Indigenous, Latino, Asian, or any person of color. The challenge to dismantle white privilege and harm is a challenge to be shouldered by white people whose white-on-white work must address white fragility and combat white privilege.
  • As targets in a race war, the priority to speak is ours – all of ours. We must connect and build with other communities who were underrepresented in the space, including our Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, South Asian and Southwest Asian partners.

It is 2016. Today, tomorrow, and ever-forward we will hold our community—our pain, our rage, and our joy—as our key to survival, as our key to honoring ancestors who are our strength, and against whom our children will measure us for generations.

We are the living frontline of resistance.

34 responses

  1. Sending such appreciation for this shared conversation and ongoing activism… I bring it up now in every single training that even slightly mentions the ACEs.
    I am wondering if this conversation has also generated a similar assessment tool/questions based on this graphic. Thank you


  2. Thank you for this. Could you also send me a copy of the extended pyramid? I would love to include it in my thesis. Sad to have missed the conference.


  3. Please send a clean copy that I can incorporate (with citation of course!) in our Certified Peer Specialist training. We talk openly and courageously about the foundation of race and violence in the US as one of causes of our collective and individual trauma – how wonderful to have graphic representation!


  4. How might i get a clean copy of the slide at the top of this post? I would love to share it with our classroom facilitators who bring social and emotional learning sessions to public school classrooms


  5. Kanwarpal:

    I subscribe to the Aces Too High listserve because of my deep passion for criminal justice reform. I have the privilege of teaching a variety of audiences, from cops to traffic court clerks, how ACEs and trauma impact the individuals the criminal justice system purports to serve. My goal is that policy-makers and front-line staff begin to understand race as a construct and that the resulting oppression leads to trauma and subsequent behavioral challenges the “system” often labels “criminal.”

    Then, imagine my delight when I remember you from Mills College. I am riveted by your body of work, and would love to learn more about any intersections with criminal justice you or your colleagues unearth. I strive to help local criminal justice leaders to identify and respond to “criminal” behavior in a trauma-informed manner. Your work gives me better language to explain historical trauma and racism as ACEs. Thank you.

    With deep respect and admiration,

    Abbey Stamp
    (Mills College c/o 1995)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Abbey!

      Wow, such a small world. Great to hear from you and wonderful to hear that the the Racing ACEs memo speaks truth and resonance. This was a collective effort and I am humbled to be able to speak for and steward our work. Looking forward to hearing more about your work. All my best to you – Kanwarpal

      Liked by 1 person

  6. As an elementary educator in an inner city school, I first became aware of ACE through online info… Since the majority of our students/families/community are effected by ACEs, I have been dealing with those parents, children and community members since 1993. We, who work with those effected by ACEs can only adjust our daily relationships in light of the newly (to me) found growing body of knowledge that has started out as ACEs. I am anxiously looking forward to my research in related resilience data for countering this scourge in our society.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Kanwarpal Dhaliwal:

    So much important work has been done raising awareness about ACEs and the long-term impact of ACEs. It’s been a huge and big task and it seems like it’s only starting to get a new level of traction now.

    I’ve not thought enough about how do ACEs fit in the wider context with social justice, racial justice, equal rights on all realms?

    And class issues as well.

    One of the things I love so much about ACEs is that the focus is on how humans are impacted by adversity. It’s not so much the type of adversity either – just adversity. it’s not even about the people, the groups who are impacted, it shows that the system of each of us is burdened by toxic stress and more so when it’s cumulative. However, that doesn’t mean that our race or gender or class, etc., don’t have an impact on our lives or the toxic stress we experience or the other types of toxic stress we live with.

    You’ve got me thinking about bias and privilege, and how that shows up in individuals, including me, as well as how these topics get touched on and tackled within this ACEs community.

    I gave a talk to a lot of social workers and a black woman came up to me after and said she was so glad I spoke about childhood abuse, poverty, violence, state social worker involvement and ACEs – as a white woman. She said, to the people present, I probably wasn’t what they thought ACEs would look like. She said, I looked like the mostly white crowd in attendance and that maybe people would hear me differently because of it.

    I hadn’t thought about the stereotypes about blacks and living with poverty or violence and the way whites can pretend that ACEs aren’t about all communities. Or that those making policies aren’t also thinking of race.

    We are such a large ACEs community now and as we look for, create and sometimes challenge the way ACEs are defined, counted and addressed, we all have to make sure we do so in ways that don’t perpetuate racism (or classism, sexism, etc).

    Thank you.


    Liked by 2 people

    • Cissy,

      Thank you for your thoughtful and reflective comments. What we hope and and expect in revealing and framing historical trauma and racism as ACEs is naming then how social location and structural privilege impact the way in which one’s ACEs scores are recognized, validated, treated, supported, and conversely for others, namely people of color, criminalized, punished, or pathologized. We leverage and further what the Study has done to explicate consistently missing and minimized factors and conditions of racial trauma and violence that are pillars of US nation building. We know that many are not willing and/or able to lean in, be vulnerable, tender, wrong, in order to then the just and truly healed. We know and believe there are many more who do have the will and ability to commit to this most painful, most critical work. Thank you for leaning in.

      All my best,


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