Urban Wire Acknowledging trauma, improving communities
Elsa Falkenburger
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What I don’t like is when people come and say, “We understand what you’re going through.” No, you have no clue of what I’m going through around here. Until you live around one of these neighborhoods like this where it’s just constant shooting and killing and stabbing, you have no clue what we’re going through. 

Stan Hamilton, high school football coach and youth mentor, Benning Terrace, Washington, DC

Those living in public housing and other low-income or marginalized communities face challenges and trauma that most of us never do—and none of us ever should.

Though I’ve spent years working with communities like Benning Terrace, I don’t know what it’s like to grow up there and struggle with the daily stressors of violence and concentrated poverty. My family isn’t dealing with generations of trauma stemming from historic and structural conditions of racism, disenfranchisement, and isolation. And I haven’t been let down in the past by those attempting to intervene in my community. I am also not the most knowledgeable when it comes to community resources and strengths to draw upon in response to these challenges.

Researchers have the data to inform what programs and policies could help make things better, but most of us lack that lived experience. To get the full picture of community members’ priorities and design strategies to best address them, we need to talk to community members, acknowledge what they’re facing (and our role in it), and listen to their feedback.

These steps might seem obvious to some—why wouldn’t researchers, policymakers, or social service providers engage the communities they work in?

  • It’s not how we’re used to doing things. Change is hard, and doing what you’ve always done is easy. Where do you begin? What if new strategies don’t work? Will that leave you at square one? These are legitimate concerns but weak excuses for avoiding innovation. The status quo certainly hasn’t solved all our problems.
  • It’s expensive. Building lasting relationships, hosting meetings, and getting to know a community requires time and money. But those investments pay off.
  • It goes against what some consider “rigorous.” Conversations with residents won’t produce hard data, but that doesn’t make their insights any less valid or useful.

But evidence indicates that engaging communities in a trauma-informed way works.

Launched in 2012, the Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety (PASS) project seeks to reduce risky sexual behavior and empower Benning Terrace teens and their caretakers to challenge gendered and societal norms, build healthy relationships, and connect to local health services.

As we planned the project, an Urban Institute team visited Benning Terrace weekly to foster connections with residents. Residents told us they initially had trouble trusting the research team and new service providers because in the past, researchers treated them like “lab rats” and service providers used the community to “hit their numbers,” abandoning them after meeting their own needs.

To acknowledge these experiences and avoid promoting further trauma, we adopted a community-based participatory approach, leaning on a community steering committee and advisory boards on all phases of the research and program design.

Residents’ feedback informed research strategies, which molded the program to be more accessible and effective.

  • A resident hired by Urban to be a part of the project reviewed a survey and questioned vague terminology or the ordering of questions, which the research team then modified.
  • When the community advisory boards identified interpersonal connections with service providers as their top priority, the steering committee provided meet-and-greet opportunities and a chance for residents to give feedback.

Based on what we learned from residents, we adjusted our approaches to minimize inflicting further harm.


  • We were fully transparent with community partners about the length and limitations of the three-year grant. To foster sustainability, we partnered with the DC Housing Authority and trained community residents as program facilitators.
  • We connected residents with trained social workers and community health specialists, held meetings in familiar and easily accessible places, and left time within agendas to discuss topics of concern—from challenges with property management to personal experiences with sexual harassment or neighborhood violence. We also attempted to remove participation barriers by providing meals, welcoming children, and scheduling meetings at convenient times for residents.
  • We compensated participants as fellow professionals for their time or provided incentive payments for short-term engagements.

Recognizing past community trauma, the PASS team structured the project around honoring community voices and incorporating partners at each step, allowing participants to codevelop their own programming around sexual health and safety and ultimately creating and sustaining a useful resident-driven program for DC youth.

It’s difficult, and it’s different from business as usual, but engaging communities in a trauma-informed way can lead to better results and lasting change. Who is better suited to help design strategies to improve a community than the community itself?


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros Greater DC
Tags Community-based care Public health Sexual and reproductive health Social determinants of health Washington, DC, research initiative Community data use
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
Research Methods Community Engagement Resource Center
Cities Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV