A Trauma-informed Approach to Social Justice in Higher Education by Erik Reinbergs

It is no secret that many of our students come to us with incredible stories of resilience. In our offices, our residence halls, and classrooms, all students bring their life-histories to their interactions – their identities, hopes, and experiences. Some of their stories come out subtly, in private conversations, in times of pain, or times of healing. Others shout their stories at protests, in brave essays, and in creative projects.

As student affairs professionals, we often have the joys of hearing the stories of our students. We strive to encourage an open atmosphere where students are comfortable sharing, processing, and making meaning from their experiences. We like to think we are prepared for these conversations. Yet, sometimes, we find we are not.

During times of growing inequality, we are likely to see upward trends in the number of our students who experience traumatic events. Whether abuse, rape, (un)natural disaster, gun violence, car accidents, experiencing the violence of poverty, or instances (often repeated over a lifetime) of discrimination – too many students have trauma histories that impact many aspects of their education. As budgets are cut, tuition rises, and social services are shuttered, students have less access to the resources that may aid in their healing. When trauma increases and services decrease, educators who are informed about trauma sensitive approaches can play a key role.

We are, however, not clinicians. It is important to be aware of our boundaries alongside the strengths and limits of our training. Listening with empathy and skillfully pointing students toward appropriate campus resources are vital strengths that many higher education practitioners have mastered. Yet, I propose we need to better understand how to take a trauma-informed approach with our students. As social justice educators, a trauma-informed approach meshes well with many of our shared practices and ethics.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides a starting definition for trauma informed approaches in any setting:

A program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for healing; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in staff, clients, and others involved with the system; and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, practices, and settings. (SAMHSA 2012)

Also outlined by SAMHSA are 10 key points that the organization deems essential components of successful trauma informed practices. The language of these 10 points is quite similar to concepts popular in social justice education. These commonalities provide a firm ground for us to include these principles into student affairs practice. Take a look below:

    1.      Safety: throughout the organization, staff and the people they serve feel physically and psychologically safe; the physical setting is safe and interpersonal interactions promote a sense of safety.

    2.      Trustworthiness and transparency: organizational operations and decisions are conducted with transparency and the goal of building and maintaining trust among staff, clients, and family members of people being served by the organization.

    3.      Collaboration and mutuality: there is true partnering and leveling of power differences between staff and clients and among organizational staff from direct care staff to administrators; there is recognition that healing happens in relationships and in the meaningful sharing of power and decision-making.

    4.      Empowerment: throughout the organization and among the clients served, individuals’ strengths are recognized, built on, and validated and new skills developed as necessary.

    5.      Voice and choice: the organization aims to strengthen the staff’s, clients’, and family members’ experience of choice and recognize that every person’s experience is unique and requires an individualized approach.

    6.      Peer support and mutual self-help: are integral to the organizational and service delivery approach and are understood as a key vehicle for building trust, establishing safety, and empowerment.

    7.      Resilience and strengths based: a belief in resilience and in the ability of individuals, organizations, and communities to heal and promote recovery from trauma; builds on what clients, staff and communities have to offer rather than responding to their perceived deficits.

    8.      Inclusiveness and shared purpose: the organization recognizes that everyone has a role to play in a trauma-informed approach; one does not have to be a therapist to be therapeutic.

    9.      Cultural, historical, and gender issues: the organization addresses cultural, historical, and gender issues; the organization actively moves past cultural stereotypes and biases (e.g. based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, geography, etc.), offers gender responsive services, leverages the healing value of traditional cultural connections, and recognizes and addresses historical trauma.

    10.    Change process: is conscious, intentional and ongoing; the organization strives to become a learning community, constantly responding to new knowledge and developments. (SAMHSA, 2012).

Though these are 10 recommendations for a specific approach, they are purposefully generalizable to any number of contexts – including student affairs. As higher education professionals, we have many student interactions where we can put a trauma informed approach into action. It is important, however, to also pressure our administrations to also take approaches that help mediate student trauma. These might include restorative justice practices, caps on rising tuition, protections against corporate influence, programs that support oppressed groups, campaigns that push back against rape culture on college campuses, and reducing stigma associated with help seeking behaviors. This administrative level is an important addition because trauma is deeply contextual and historically rooted (Braveheart, 2003). In order to truly encourage student resiliency, we need to both support our students directly in the moment and push for sweeping systematic change.

Erik Reinbergs is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the Social Justice Education concentration. He can be reached at ereinber@sacl.umass.edu.


Braveheart, M.Y.H. (2003). The historical trauma response among natives and its relationship with substance abuse: A Lakota illustration. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 35 (1), 7-13.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012, Dec. 10). Trauma definition: Part two: A trauma informed approach. Retrieved from:             http://www.samhsa.gov/traumajustice/traumadefinition/approach.aspx

For additional resources, I point interested readers to the work of Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart, PhD for her important works on the impacts of historical trauma and their treatments. A wealth of information is compiled at http://www.historicaltrauma.com .

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