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History Is Not Past: What Being Trauma Informed Really Requires

October 1, 2019

Read this blog from a Michigan state leader to learn why a truly trauma-informed approach to services and care must be shaped by more than the trauma happening right now or in the immediate past. The time orientation of a culture describes the influence the past, present, or future has on beliefs and social actions.

By Lonias Gilmore, MPH, Childhood Obesity Prevention Specialist

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Physical Activity and Nutrition Unit








History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. – James Baldwin

During the Leading for Indigenous Children and Communities session at QRIS 2019, Patina Park, Miniconjou Lakota-Cheyenne River and Executive Director at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, set us up with a brief but illuminating history of US domestic colonization and displacement. Before she introduced the rest of the panel, she channeled James Baldwin with these words for our consideration: History is not past. It is current, present, and a living, breathing experience.

Candida Hunter, citizen of the Hualapai community and Senior Director of Tribal Affairs for First Things First, and Lisa Ojibway, from the Infant/Toddler Specialist Network-State Capacity Building Center, joined Patina to talk about historical, contemporary, and repeated traumas and offered ways to be anti-racist and anti-colonialist in our work. Near the end of the session, Lisa Ojibwa called on us to confront trauma from the point of view of people who were not only displaced and nearly exterminated in the distant past, but who continue to experience and process trauma. There are indigenous people alive today who can tell firsthand stories about boarding schools where, among other atrocities, children were punished when they spoke in the only languages they knew. Parents, grandparents, aunties, and uncles were so afraid, many did not speak or teach their home language to the younger generation. There are firsthand stories being told about the forced removal of indigenous children and placements in non-indigenous foster homes. Many families are still looking for loved ones who were taken and those who disappeared. There are also firsthand stories still being told about the expulsion of Mexican people from communities they helped to build, the xenophobic demonization of people of Arab heritage that peaked following 9/11, and the 1967 uprising in Detroit which led to decades of disinvestment in and abandonment of Black communities.

I relate very much to this plea for an acknowledgment of both the historical and systemic nature of racism.

There is great value in a trauma-informed approach to services and care, but policies and practices are often shaped by what we understand about trauma happening right now or in the immediate past. The time orientation of a culture describes the influence the past, present, or future has on beliefs and social actions. Generally, people in the US have a linear orientation to time, putting the past “behind us” in favor of the present and the future. People with polychronic orientation seek valuable experience from the past for similar situations in the future and they tend to manage the present day by day. Trauma that occurred in the past has contemporary impact and repercussions. Anything “trauma-informed” must embrace everything about the past, not just the assets that make the US a great nation but also its crimes and failures. Interventions, policies, and practices should be informed by an understanding of the conditions that sustain the acute and ongoing trauma of historically marginalized communities of people. Becoming “trauma-informed” also requires us to be responsive to historical traumas experienced at the individual AND family AND community levels.

What are some benchmarks for “trauma-informed” provider organizations?

  • Recall where you’ve been and understand where you are to know where you are going. Examine current practices using a self-assessment.
  • Deficit thinking can lead to practices that re-traumatize. Learn about, process, and address racial and cultural biases.
  • Authentic family engagement should lead to deeper connections and sharing of power. Create space for families to voluntarily tell their own stories and offer space not only for them to ask questions but to influence programs.
  • Community engagement is important, too. Learn the history of the place where you are providing interventions and services and setting policy.We should seek valuable experiences and lessons from the past and apply them as we build for a brighter future. Trauma is intimately tied to individual experiences and experiences defined by history and community memories, including encounters with and memories of racism and racist policy. There is great value in a trauma-informed approach to services and care. Approaches must be developed and delivered in a way that honors the diversity of communities and their experiences in this country

[i] Baldwin, J. (1981). Black English: A dishonest argument. In Smitherman, G. (ed.), Black English and the education of black children and youth. Detroit: Wayne State University Center for Black Studies Press. 54–60.

Lonias Gilmore is a BUILD Initiative Equity Leaders Action Network fellow. She has over ten years experience building partnerships to improve public health and eight years experience leading policy, systems, and environmental change to improve health and education outcomes and advance racial equity. She provides consultation and technical assistance to coalitions, workgroups, statewide partners, and community organizations on disease prevention strategies and to improve childhood outcomes. Lonias became a public health practitioner because she believes we can eliminate the power of race, culture, zip code, and socioeconomic status to predict health outcomes and well-being. Lonias received a master’s degree in public health from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Langston University in Oklahoma.

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