By Jonathan Foiles
Quintonio LeGrier had begun acting erratically in the months before he was killed. LeGrier, a sophomore at Northern Illinois University, had yelled profanities in the dining hall and told arriving officers “I am God,” sat with his fist raised for an hour at a dorm council meeting with a hand-lettered sign taped to his chest, walked into his dorm adviser’s room and picked up objects without speaking, and chased a fellow student who was riding her bicycle. LeGrier was briefly psychiatrically hospitalized and, when he returned home to Chicago for the holiday break in 2015, told his mother he would not be returning to school on Christmas Day. He spent the next night with his father. That evening they got into a dispute and called 911 on each other. When police arrived they shot and killed both LeGrier and his downstairs neighbor, Betty Jones, in a shooting later found to be unjustified by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
LeGrier had had a rough life. At five years old, he had been removed from his mother’s house after she called the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and told them that someone needed to come and get her son, because she was going to kill him. When DCFS workers arrived, they had to pry LeGrier’s fingertips from the doorknob. He was placed with a caring foster mother whom he came to call grandma. He worked to repair his relationship with his father, first meeting him monthly at a therapist’s office to play Uno, and eventually spending some weekends with him. His mother was an inconsistent presence. Before his death, LeGrier had succeeded academically; he had been studying electrical engineering at NIU.
LeGrier is not the only person to have been killed by Chicago police while experiencing a mental health crisis. A year before LeGrier’s death, Laquan McDonald, another African American teenager from a difficult background, who was also experiencing mental health issues, was killed by Officer Jason Van Dyke. One year after LeGrier’s death, in February of 2017, Michele Robey, a fifty-five-year-old white woman who had a career in social services before developing serious, late-onset mental illness, was shot and killed by police in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood.
When someone like Quintonio LeGrier or Michele Robey is killed, the impact spreads beyond the individual. Trauma moves outward in ripples, particularly in communities of color, which are disproportionately affected by police violence. Current interventions for treating trauma require individuals to do the heavy lifting—including going to the office of a mental health professional, a task that often proves overwhelming. And, in general, these systems only really know how to treat individuals; they are much less adept at addressing the pervasive traumas, like poverty, racism, economic instability, and police violence, that seep into the roots of a community.
Some organizations in Chicago are working to change that reality. Recently, Lawrence Hall, a nonprofit serving at-risk children and adolescents in Chicago, joined with five other organizations to kick-start a community conversation on how neighborhoods can best respond to traumas, both individual and collective. The group included the Kedzie Center, a community mental health clinic; Cook County Health and Hospital Systems; North Park University, a faith-based college; the North River Commission, an economic development nonprofit; and 2nd Story, an organization that focuses on creating “spaces where people can share and deeply listen to one another’s stories.” Together, they convened a gathering on September 26, 2018, titled “We’re All in This Together: A Neighborhood Conversation on Building Empathy and Safe Communities.”
The event was held on the campus of North Park University, on Chicago’s north side. Walking into Hamming Hall, on the evening of the event, I counted twenty-one different organizations setting up their materials. Tables were lined up along three walls, with a sea of chairs in the middle. Staff from Lawrence Hall were stationed by the door to pass out cookies, baked by youth as part of the organization’s workforce development program. As people began filing in for the resource fair, I moved among the various tables, hoping to find out what brought these groups here and what they hoped to gain from the evening.
I first stopped by the booth for Aspire, a local organization seeking to expand options for adults and children with developmental disabilities. Aspire offers a variety of programs, including inclusion consulting for children and independent living for adults. “There are always gaps in the services we provide, so we’re looking to continue our relationships with other groups in the area,” said Claire Killy, Aspire’s manager of inclusive solutions. I spoke with half a dozen representatives, from agencies working with domestic violence, nonprofit management, community development, and the arts, and all had pretty much the same thing to say: they were proud of the work they did but recognized that healing trauma required a larger, community-wide response.
Attendees began to arrive, milling about the tables and talking with presenters. Around 7 o’clock, everyone shifted to the middle of the room to hear an opening presentation. About 175 people were gathered. In her address, Kara Teeple, CEO of Lawrence House, framed the event as an attempt to answer the question, “How do we shift the dialogue from not just saying, ‘why are these kids bad,’ but ‘what happened to them?’” This event, Teeple said, was intended to reorganize the community conversation by incorporating a trauma-informed perspective, one that keeps in mind the pervasive nature of trauma and provides guidelines for responding in an empathetic manner.
Teeple was speaking from experience. A few months back, clients of Lawrence Hall “were doing things in the community that weren’t community-like,” Renee Lehocky, director of strategic initiatives for the agency, told me. Their youth are not unlike LeGrier or McDonald: traumatized as children, shifted between homes and institutions, sometimes in trouble with the law. The reaction from the surrounding community was negative, and the staff of Lawrence Hall wanted to find a way to respond that also invited the community into the work they were doing and increased their knowledge of the challenges faced by Lawrence Hall clients.
Angela Sedeño, executive director of the Kedzie Center, followed Teeple, noting that “people in extreme distress may act in such a way that instead of getting the help they need, they get hurt.” Sedeño then introduced the keynote speaker Dr. Stan Sonu, an assistant professor at the Emory University School of Medicine who, until recently, had been working with the Cook County Health & Hospitals System. Sonu’s talk addressed the lingering impact of trauma, with a goal of “draw[ing] connections between what we learned about adversity in children and youth and how that affects us and our communities today.” He began by sharing the results of a landmark study on the lifelong impact of developmental trauma.
The Adverse Childhood Events (ACE) study began when doctors at Kaiser Permanente’s obesity clinic, in San Diego, California, noticed a curious thing about patients in their programs: though many were losing weight, half dropped out before completion. Between 1995 and 1997, researchers gathered data in an attempt to figure out the cause. They asked participants whether they had experienced any of ten traumatic events in their childhoods: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, exposure to domestic violence, household substance use, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce, and incarceration of a family member. ACE scores were calculated as a number out of ten, corresponding to the number of traumatic events experienced by the individual.
Kaiser’s researchers found that the number of adverse childhood events was shockingly high among their patients (28% reported physical abuse; 21% sexual abuse), that adverse events often occured in clusters, and that high ACE scores are associated with a number of long-term negative health outcomes, with respect to not only mental health (depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, suicidality), but also physical health (cancer, heart disease, diabetes). Since the original paper was published, twenty years ago, it has been cited more than 27,000 times. Researchers in seventy-one different countries have used the framework to better understand trauma in their communities. But, Sonu pointed out, ACEs only tell half the story.
After walking the crowd through the original survey, Sonu introduced a striking metaphor. Imagine, he said, that each individual is a tree, and each ACE category, positive or negative, represents a branch. The tree cannot thrive on its own; it requires roots to ground it. These roots represent community factors, which for many are detrimental: unaffordable housing, racism, joblessness, poverty, community violence. And each tree grows in soil that is either helpful or harmful. This soil, Sonu explained, represents adverse collective historical events—the Holocaust, slavery, genocide, mass incarceration, forced displacement.
According to Renee Lehocky, the average ACE score of a Lawrence Hall youth is 6. LeGrier and McDonald started from much the same point. They begin life at a disadvantage, and levels of systemic inequality only serve to further limit their options. “When we talk about ACEs, we’re always talking about injustice and we’re always talking about inequity,” Dr. Sonu explained. Your ACE score is mostly settled before you draw your first breath.
Being trauma-informed starts by taking into account the ways in which early experiences can radically alter the course of a person’s life. It’s not about sympathy; merely feeling sorry for trauma survivors leads to little progress. Rather, as Teeple explained, it’s a shift in conversation from “why are you doing this?” to “what happened to you?” Doing this creates spaces for radical empathy, moving beyond merely feeling bad to actively doing something about it. Trauma-informed communities both acknowledge the individual pain in their midst and work to dismantle the structures that help to create and perpetuate this pain.
After Dr. Sonu spoke, two community members told their own stories of trauma and resilience, and while I will refrain from sharing details to honor their request for confidentiality, the larger group received their stories, gave them hugs and words of support, and discussed ways to address the larger context. That is how we begin to heal our communities, and it’s up to us to create spaces for encounters like that to occur. Recovering from trauma starts by making space for someone to share their pain and taking the time to listen.
Of course, one evening is not enough. The nonprofits that came together to host this gathering plan to continue collaborating—first to evaluate this event, then to plan more for the future. Moving forward, the Kedzie Center plans host six community events each year, plus a larger annual conference “to keep the conversations going and to continue to educate the community on trauma-informed care and empathy,” Sedeño said. The center is already planning its next community event, which will occur a few weeks from now, and Lawrence Hall will host another open house this month.
Last week, Officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder in the killing of Laquan McDonald. The officers who killed LeGrier and Robey were never charged, and while the conclusion of the Van Dyke trial represents a hopeful step in the direction of racial justice and police reform, it is far from enough. Chicago’s long legacy of racial and economic injustice has created a context in which thousands find themselves perilously close to catastrophe. Collaborative projects like “We’re All In This Together” are an important step in addressing trauma at the community level—of healing the soil from which our trees grow.
Support for this article was provided by Rise Local, a project of New America.
Jonathan Foiles is a writer and mental health professional based in Chicago. He writes a blog for Psychology Today and has previously written for Slate and Belt Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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