Systemic Trauma-Informed Education

As a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples’ Wellbeing, I know that the wellbeing of Indigenous peoples depends partly on the interruption of socially sanctioned conscious and unconscious discriminatory behaviours inflicted by non-Indigenous peoples, as well as the interruption of lateral forms of violence reproduced by Indigenous peoples. While I completely endorse the use of individual trauma-informed approaches in clinical and social health care, I have been concerned about how the universalization of this approach is being applied in education as an over-simplistic solution to a complex problem that conflates education with a colonial form of care that protects individuals from being made aware of their implication in systemic violence, blocking the possibility of interruption of colonial violence. Therefore I propose a systemic-trauma informed approach to education that can contribute to the wellbeing of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, of the land, and of the planet at large.

A systemic trauma-informed approach to education is based on the understanding that, as educators, we have an ethical responsibility to critically examine the knowledge and systems we are embedded in, in order to identify and interrupt historical, systemic and on-going social and ecological violence. This approach to education, like individual trauma-informed care, is based on choice and consent. However, unlike individual trauma-informed care, it focuses on the interruption of systemic trauma, which involves inviting people to sit with their complicity and implication in systemic harm. A systemic trauma-informed approach to education offers unconditional regard for students’ “being”, while strongly encouraging them to examine the construction of their world-views and self-images and to question the ways of knowing, relating and imagining that they have been socialized into in modern/colonial society.

This approach recognizes that modern institutions, including our systems of education, that are underwritten by colonialism and  that promote hyper-individualism and over-consumption as pathways to prosperity, are setting humanity on the path of premature extinction. Thus, a systemic trauma-informed approach invites students to take 7 steps back and 7 steps forward (or aside) in order to show up with deeper forms of sobriety, maturity, discernment and responsibility as we learn to face together the multiple crises and storms ahead of us.

However, facing our complicity and implication in social and ecological harm can be experienced as an uncomfortable and painful process that causes disillusionment with idealizations we are encouraged to have about the world and about ourselves. But if we need to have difficult conversations about where we have come from, where we are at and where we are going, first we need to expand our capacity to collectively sit with difficult things, without feeling overwhelmed or immobilized and without relationships falling apart. In practice, the difference between individual trauma-informed approaches and systemic trauma-informed education resonates with the distinction between safe and brave spaces.

While safe spaces are designed with the ultimate goal to offer relief and support to everyone equally (without judgement and without any educational pressure), brave spaces are about learning to hold ourselves accountable to do the work of expanding our frames of reference and interrupting harm. Both safe spaces and brave spaces have a place (i.e. in clinical settings and in education), but if we design education as only a safe space, we will be prevented from raising difficult questions, having difficult conversations or aiming to interrupt patterns of social and ecological harm. In my view, as an Indigenous educator, conflating the two trauma-informed approaches and universally applying an individual trauma-informed care to education, is, in most cases, detrimental to critical, anti-colonial and anti-racist education.

A systemic trauma-informed approach focuses on the collective trauma and impact of historical, systemic and on-going violence and of systems of unsustainability that characterize modern/colonial societies. It requires participants to be ready and willing to question their narratives about the world and about themselves, to examine their emotional responses to difficult issues and to evaluate and expand their capacity to build and repair relationships in accountable ways.  This approach requires a level of readiness to engage critically with one’s worldviews and self-image, therefore it is not universally “inclusive” or applicable. The approach may have adverse effects for some populations, for example, neuroatypical and neurotypical people who require stable certainties about the world and about themselves may find this approach too unsettling, since it works with and through ambivalence, complexity, contradictions and paradoxes.It is important that participants are offered the opportunity to assess if this is the best time and context for them to engage in education informed by this approach so that they can grant or refuse consent.

I have used a systemic trauma-informed approach in the design of my elective courses about Indigenous education and methodologies. As an illustration of the principles of choice and consent, I reproduce below the disclaimers that I offer my students in the course syllabus. I also go through the disclaimers with the students at the beginning of the course, when students still have a chance to opt out of the course without any financial implications.

If you are an Indigenous person, some of the content of this educational resource may cause you to re-experience traumatic events from the past. This is likely to happen as we describe the dynamics of colonial violence and expose invisibilized macro- and micro-aggressions. Some Indigenous people experience this exposure as a relief and opportunity to process and integrate the lessons of past-trauma, others experience it as re-traumatization. Only you can decide whether it is the right context and time for you to proceed with this approach. 

If you are a white settler, the content of this educational resource was designed to show you how what you have been socialized to think as normal and natural can be experienced as violent and harmful by Indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities. This will likely create a level of dissonance, discomfort, exasperation, displeasure, frustration, disillusionment and/or disenchantment, which are necessary for you to be able to dis-identify and potentially interrupt patterns of socially sanctioned harmful projections, desires and behaviours. It is also up to you to decide if this is the right moment for you to proceed with this approach.

If you are a racialized settler, you will likely experience ambivalent responses to this educational resource. This is partly because you may be able to relate to experiences of subjugation and discrimination; while at the same time being asked to consider your implication in the subjugation and discrimination of Indigenous peoples. This will likely prompt you to question the connection between immigration and settler-colonialism in Canada and your paradoxical position of being both subject to and complicit in colonial violence. Please read the “Letter to prospective immigrants to what is known as Canada” if this is the first time you are confronted with these complex questions.

If you are an Indigenous person and have decided to proceed, please be aware that some of the exercises may prompt a level of discomfort as this approach to education aims to make visible macro- and microaggressions that are often normalized in institutions and interpersonal relations. This exposure may cause you to re-experience traumatic events. In case you have a difficult emotional response to an exercise or invitation, please follow these steps:

  1. Try not to over-identify with the emotional response, receive it as a teaching moment about parts of you that need attention, calibration, healing and compassion;
  2. Find a practice that can bring you to a place where you can hold space for your thoughts and emotions from a healthy distance (e.g. traditional practices, somatic work, polyvagal exercises);
  3. Try to identify the fears, insecurities, internalized labels and frustrations behind the response and find a practice or ritual to integrate their lessons and to release the tensions associated with them;
  4. Talk to a trusted friend,  Elder, counselor or therapist about what you are learning from observing your internal responses.

If you are a white or racialized settler and have decided to proceed, please be aware that a level of discomfort and dissonance are expected in the educational process. If, at any point, you feel emotionally overwhelmed by the exercises and invitations, please follow these steps:

  1. Try not to over-identify with the emotional response, receive it as a teaching moment about parts of you that need attention and recalibration – be mindful of patterns of self-infantilization;
  2. Find a practice that can bring you to a place where you can hold space for your thoughts and emotions from a healthy distance (e.g. somatic work, polyvagal exercises);
  3. Try to identify the fears, frustrations, perceived entitlements and/or insecurities behind the emotional response: are there parts of you who demand certainties, easy solutions, quick fixes, validation of your worth, affirmation of benevolence/innocence or coddling? What can you learn from observing these patterns?
  4. Talk to a trusted friend,  Elder, counselor or therapist about what you are learning from observing your internal responses.

In this course, you will be exposed to resources, teachings, invitations and instructions by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous instructors. We are committed to creating an environment of respect for both students and instructors. If you are experiencing frustration with the course, please talk directly with the instructor and refrain from using collective time to express personal unprocessed emotions. Collective time should be used to increase our collective capacity for deeper forms of sobriety, maturity, discernment and responsibility.  Those displaying aggressive behaviour will be asked to leave the course.

One of the objectives of my research program is to advance a systemic trauma-informed approach to education. I welcome feedback and am interested in collaborations around this topic.