Trauma and Community


At Te Hiko, we normally work in communities that have something in common – deep experience of trauma.

This resource is for people who are coming into a new community where trauma is a big part of the landscape. We want to help people think about how to prepare before they begin their community innovation mahi.

Often, the dominant models of helping whānau experiencing hard times focus on addressing a defined problem (for example financial debt, violence, parenting stress). We are learning at Te Hiko that trauma is playing a big role in why these ‘problems’ have not been already resolved by whānau and community themselves.

Unprocessed or reignited trauma can stifle community innovation

In her article Three challenges of trauma, why recovery is so hard Carolyn Spring explains that “trauma is difficult to heal from. It’s meant to be.” Because it is a response to dangerous situations, our brains and bodies rightly take it seriously and deeply. It seeps through all of our experiences. Healing from it is hard and takes a lot of work. She talks about the way that trauma stops you from engaging the parts of your brain that you need in order to be able to “dream up the possibilities for how we can recover and live a life different to the one that has gone before.”  It keeps our brains focused on “survival, threat and danger” but “closed to forward motion, new learning, and risk-taking”

The things trauma closes us too are exactly the skills we need for community innovation work. But we also need to acknowledge that communities with experiences of trauma have all sort of amazing skills and experiences to bring to the innovative space – how do we work so that these gifts are sparked?

Our mainstream systems can reignite trauma

Because of their structure and whakapapa, mainstream systems (Government, education, health, etc) represent power and control. The very fact of engaging with a system that has those elements of power and control can reignite trauma in people.

When we enter a new community, we need to understand what part of those systems we are representing to people. We need to take responsibility for what we bring with us and what we represent. This means that we need to be prepared for trauma to be ignited, and plan for how we are going to respond to that.

What does trauma come out as in the community innovation?

  • Quiet or no responses
  • Agreeing with everything you say
  • Angry responses
  • Hurt and defence
  • Focus on the short term, blaming others, and immediate solutions rather than big wide creative future thinking

How can we address trauma in our community innovation mahi?

When we are wanting to innovate with a community, we need to always understand the nature of the trauma elephant in the room. We need to model non-colonising ways of working that can create opportunities for whānau to move beyond intergenerational trauma.  

What does that actually look like? For us, it means we work in a careful and practical way:

  • Being trustworthy and demonstrating trust – doing what we said, and being reliable
  • Establish trusting and true human to human relationship, bring our whole self into the room – not just our job that we are trying to do
  • Hosting spaces well – good kai, good kōrero, experienced facilitation and ability to handle when things go off track or someone in a group gets upset
  • Staying on the lookout for any sparks of dreams and supporting communities to build on them
  • A focus on what is important to the community/whānau –willingness to drop our agenda and pivot to the issue that is laid out in front of us
  • Get clear and explicit on the way we are going to treat each other– we often make treaties with the groups we work with. This needs to me more than just some words on a wall, we have to kōrero about it, breaking down together what we mean by words like ‘respect’
  • In the same way, we make sure to get agreement on the agenda and check that all of us think that it’s important too
  • Don’t bring only our brains and mouth, bring our heart and our hands (we help with the dishes!)
  • Believing in people’s abilities and gifts and helping them believe in them too
  • Don’t form solutions by ourselves, don’t tell community what they should do
  • Allow space for people to get things off their chest – we don’t always have to answer it/justify/fix, but we do have to listen. We find once people have been listened to about what they see is wrong within the system, they can start to see their own power, and not blame others/expect others to fix, but realise they are active in it and be a part of positive change
  • Take time, go slowly, don’t rush

Being kaitiaki for the communities we work with

Our becoming a and the growth triggered by our Hinetītama wananga led by Matewawe Pouwhare has brought new awareness into our Wesley whānau about the power and impact of this intergenerational trauma and especially how colonisation has created it.

We think that this means that our older models of ‘helping communities’ have limited impact. The Hinetītama approach introduced to us the role of kaitiaki as a resource to midwife in new ways for whānau and communities to think, process and dream.

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