The 2015 McSilver Symposium Explores Poverty, Trauma, and Resilience

The McSilver Institute is based at the Washington Square Campus of New York University (NYU)

The 2015 McSilver Symposium—a full day of inspirational and informative sessions—took place at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on April 27th. The free event, emphasizing poverty, trauma and resilience, featured six provocative panels and two documentary films, including the world premiere of Under the Mango Tree, about Tamale, Ghana’s Shekhinah Clinic Food Program, which feeds over 150 homeless people with mental illnesses each day.

The event began with opening remarks from McSilver Institute Director Dr. Mary McKay, who welcomed the audience of researchers, practitioners, advocates and consumers, who share the institute’s mission of addressing the root causes and consequences of poverty. “What I hope you’ll find today,” she said, “is that we have put together events and panels of real meaning to our institute, but that also speak to you and the issues that you care about.”

The first panel, “The Trauma of LGBTQ Displacement in the US and Abroad,” was moderated by NYU Silver School of Social Work Associate Professor  Dr. James Martin and explored the trauma experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) people who are forced to leave their homes, communities or countries because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The panelists, Cristina Herrera, Gender Identity Project Coordinator at the New York City’s LGBT Center; Bruce Knotts, Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association, United Nations Office; and Dr. Jama Shelton, a McSilver Institute Post-Doctoral Fellow and Deputy Executive Director of the True Colors Fund, gave presentations that were diverse in perspective and rich in content. Herrera’s portion focused primarily on the lives of transgender women from Latin America, while Dr. Shelton’s focus was on LGBTQ youth in the United States and Knotts spoke of the challenges of creating a space in the United Nations to address LGBTQ oppression.

A screening of the film Healing Neen, which tells of Tonier “Neen” Cain’s experience of addiction, incarceration and homelessness stemming from chronic trauma and documents her journey to resilience fostered by trauma-informed care, was followed by a panel moderated by McSilver Institute Fellow Dr. Tricia Stephens on “The Power of Trauma-Informed Care.” Commissioner Rosemonde Pierre-Louis, of the New York City Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, spoke about the importance of integrating a trauma-informed approach in working with both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. Sandra Killett, Executive Director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), discussed the role of trauma in the lives of families involved with the child welfare system. Cheryl Sharp, Senior Advisor for Trauma-informed Services for the National Council for Behavioral Health, gave a presentation on the principles of trauma-informed care, as well as statistics on the prevalence of trauma.

The first afternoon session, entitled, “Step Up: Fostering Resilience, Life Skills & Academic Success,” featured not only researchers and policymakers but also students from the McSilver Institute’s Step Upyouth development program, which has achieved an 84% graduation rate among high school students who were struggling academically and experiencing challenges. After moderator Dr. James Rodriguez, a Senior Research Scientist at the McSilver Institute, gave opening remarks and introduced the panelists, Scott Bloom, the Director of School Mental Health Services for both the New York City Department of Education (DOE) and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, presented an overview of the City’s efforts to deliver mental health services in schools. Joshua Laub, Director of Youth Development in the DOE’s Office of Safety and Youth Development, spoke about efforts to support students and schools with the goals of reducing multiple suspensions, decreasing arrests and improving chances of graduating. In particular, he stressed the need to develop initiatives that acknowledge and address the underlying problems of racism, poverty and trauma. Gisselle Pardo, McSilver Institute Senior Research Coordinator and Clinical Supervisor for the Step Up program, said that Step Up recognizes these complex environmental issues and structural inequities that can block the path of urban youth. She and Chris Villatoro, Director of Step Up at the McSilver Institute, explained the program’s approach, which helps students develop life skills and harness the possibilities and strengths within themselves. Finally, Tanaisha Jackson, a freshman at SUNY Potsdam and alum of the Step Up Class of 2014, and Reina Amador, a Senior at Central Park East High School and member of the Step Up Class of 2015, discussed the critical role Step Up played on their paths to graduation.

The centerpiece of the day’s event was the panel on “The Trauma of Racism,” which explored the cumulative negative impact of racial oppression on people of color individually and collectively. Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams’ opening remarks set the stage for a thoughtful and lively discussion moderated by Silver School Assistant Professor Stacey Barrenger. McSilver Associate Director of Strategic Partnerships and Community Engagement Dottie Lebron highlighted the McSilver Institute’s new report, Facts Matter! Black Lives Matter! The Trauma of Racism, of which she was the lead author. David Peters, President, DPJ Inspired Consulting, spoke to the importance of addressing racism on the structural level. Sharon Wise, a trauma expert who provides consulting, training and technical assistance, shared her personal story of healing and self-empowerment as a pathway out of oppression. What was clear is that there is an urgent need to dismantle structures of power and privilege that hinder social equity and have damaging effects on the emotional, psychological, health, economic and social well-being on people of color.

Afterwards, McSilver Institute Deputy Director Gary Parker moderated a panel entitled, “Place Matters: A Community Based Approach to Understanding and Addressing Structural Poverty.” Dr. Mimi Abramovitz, the Bertha Capen Reynolds Professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, presented groundbreaking research she and Dr. Jochen Albrecht conducted on the Community Loss Index, which demonstrated that accumulated disadvantage at the community level contributes to disparities in areas including health, educational achievement, economic prosperity and exposure to violence. Dr. Albrecht, Associate Professor for Computational and Theoretical Geography at Hunter College, described the development of the Community Loss Index, including collecting and mapping New York City data on unemployment, foreclosure, foster care placement, incarceration, long-term hospitalization and untimely death. Inés Reineke, Knowledge Management Coordinator for the City of Buenos Aires’ Secretariat of Habitat and Inclusion, discussed how class lines have built invisible walls within the city, preventing indigent youth from escaping the poverty-impacted villas, or slums. She explained how the city is now using urban design, planning, and cultural programs to build relationships between economically divergent communities, and to create more opportunities for those living within the villas. Luis R. Castiella, Operations Manager for Management Control and General Directorate of Management Planning and Control for the City of Buenos Aires’ Ministry of Modernization, described how that city is using technology to understand the economic and social needs of its residents, as well as to support economic growth and improve quality of life.

The final session featured the premiere screening of the documentary Under the Mango Tree, followed by a panel on “Novel Approaches to Healing and Empowerment in African Communities,” which included the film’s Producer and Director, Katrina Moore, and three researchers doing work on the ground in Africa in partnership with local communities. Moore told how she was drawn to, and succeeded in telling, the story of Dr. David Abdulai and the food program at his Shekhinah Clinic, which has enabled Tamale, Ghana’s highly marginalized homeless mentally ill population to coexist peacefully with the rest of the community. Dr, Abdallah Ibrahim, a Lecturer in the Department of Health Policy, Planning and Management, at the University of Ghana School of Public Health, discussed the prevailing mistreatment of and inadequate care for people with mental disorders throughout Ghana, and spoke of the non-profit organization Behavioural Health Access-Ghana he has co-founded to help individuals and families experiencing mental health crises. Dr. Latoya Small, a McSilver Faculty Affiliate and Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Social Work, explained the McSilver Institute’s NIH-funded VUKA Family Program. The family-based intervention for perinatally HIV-infected youth in South Africa uses illustrated cartoons to convey information, promote overall physical and mental health, and reduce behavioral risk. Finally, Dr. Fred M. Ssewamala, who was orphaned as a boy in Central Uganda, shared his personal story of hope and discussed his research in Uganda on asset development and economic empowerment as a means to combat poverty and promote health.

All of the sessions were extremely well received by the symposium’s hundreds of attendees and truly captured the event’s theme of “Poverty. Trauma. Resilience.” The Third Annual McSilver Awards carried this theme even further, taking time to reflect on the accomplishments of visionary leaders and dedicated workers on the ground. See our recap of the McSilver Awards here.

See more photos from the symposium on McSilver’s photos on Facebook.