Trauma is all around us, especially right now. It doesn’t matter your age, income level, color, gender, political ideology, religion, or nationality. Trauma affects everyone. The very nature of nonprofit work assures that we regularly, if not daily, encounter colleagues and clients who have experienced trauma. So what can you do to make sure that you and your organization respect and empower people who have faced, or are facing, trauma?
Here to answer that important question is Kate Daugherty, a leader when it comes to trauma-informed care. Today, Kate teaches us how trauma and stress impact our brains and a few trauma-informed techniques that can not only bring back balance, but also improve your organization’s bottom-line. So get ready to put your own amygdala aside, activate your prefrontal cortex, and take some radical steps toward a trauma-informed culture.
Listen to the Episode Here!
The People Who Got Me There: Podcast
(2:08) Trauma and amygdala hijacking
(7:29) Two key things to consider when having a difficult conversation
(14:13) Steps organizations can take to become more trauma-informed
(18:37) How your organization can benefit from a trauma-informed culture
(21:03) Critical aspects of transitioning to a trauma-informed culture
Dolph Goldenburg (00:00):
Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits® Podcast. I’m your host, Dolph Goldenburg. Today’s conversation addresses a heavy topic. Trauma. Trauma comes in many forms. It can be from abuse inflicted by someone else such as physical or emotional abuse. It can also come from a deeply disturbing experience like an illness or an accident. And, of course, there’s also second-hand trauma that comes from empathically hearing other folks’ stories who’ve been traumatized or being exposed to other traumatizing stories again and again. Trauma is prevalent in our society and it touches everyone from children to the elderly, from poor to the wealthy. There is no doubt that we interact daily with coworkers and, especially in the nonprofit sector, clients who have been touched by trauma. So what can we do about it? How can we personally and organizationally develop strategies to respect and empower people who have experienced or are experiencing trauma?
Dolph Goldenburg (01:09):
Here to discuss all of this with us is Kate Daugherty. Kate is the Community Impact Director at Hopeworks Camden and is an acknowledged leader in the field of trauma-informed care. Currently, she leads the Camden Healing 10 Collaborative, a cross sector coalition of residents in Camden, New Jersey who seek to infuse a trauma-informed approach across all care services in the Camden area. She also trains Camden area businesses, schools, organizations, and nonprofits to develop and leverage a trauma informed culture. So please join me in welcoming Kate Daugherty to the podcast. Hey Kate, welcome to the podcast.
Kate Daugherty (01:55):
Thank you so much for having me.
Dolph Goldenburg (01:57):
So I’d like to start today’s episode with a pretty powerful story that you shared with me about a young girl coming to terms with how her brain functions. Can you share that with our listeners?
Kate Daugherty (02:08):
Yeah. So as part of Hopeworks Camden, we actually hire young people to go out and do the trauma-informed trainings that we offer. That requires that they learn a lot about trauma, its impact, and particularly how the brain functions when it’s been impacted by trauma. So one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had was talking to a young woman about this thing called amygdala hijackings. The amygdala is the part of your brain that keeps you safe. And in humans, that part is overactive. That comes from our evolutionary history. It comes from keeping us safe for a really long time. But in today’s society, that’s not such a great thing because it thinks that things are dangerous even when they’re not. Think about if you’ve ever been really freaked out by hearing a loud noise or a siren in the distance and you jump. That sort of response comes from millions of years of the amygdala trying to keep us safe, but it’s not great now.
Kate Daugherty (03:10):
So I had this young woman who had experienced quite a bit of trauma in her life and she was learning about this and learning that sometimes when the amygdala gets triggered, it completely takes over and stops you from being able to think rationally. This is called amygdala hijacking. And it was just so interesting when she looked at me after learning this term and was like, “Wait, you mean my brain’s not broken?” I was like, “No, your brain is actually working exactly how it is supposed to work. You were just put in an abnormal situation, so your brain’s working normally in an abnormal situation and that’s why you feel like you can’t think rationally. That’s why you feel like you can’t think about the future and that you’re in that survival mode all the time.” And so being able to share that with her was such a powerful moment. And I think that is when I really came to terms with this trauma-informed thing. It’s a buzzword in the nonprofit culture right now, but it’s something that needs to be shared with everyone. It’s not just something that teachers and nonprofit professionals can keep to themselves, but it needs to be shared with our participants. It needs to be shared with for-profit companies. It needs to be shared with anyone who will listen.
Dolph Goldenburg (04:23):
I will say amygdala hijacking is real and any of us, and I certainly have, who have misplaced their cell phone knows exactly what I’m talking about. Suddenly everything in your brain is like, “Oh my gosh, things are not right. Things are not right.” And all you’ve done is misplaced your cell phone. And you know it’s somewhere in your house or your car.
Kate Daugherty (04:41):
Exactly. And I think that one of the most powerful things is thinking about what stress and stress hormones in your body actually do. So the youth healing team plays this really fun game that we do in one of our webinars that we’re hosting right now. And we ask people to do a list of things rapid fire, like clap your hands and then start jumping up and down and then start saying the alphabet backwards and then raise your hands in the air. And then we say, “Those were all pretty easy to do. You managed them. What was the third thing I asked you to do?” And no one can tell us because even that fun game releases adrenaline and cortisol, which are stress hormones. And one of the things that those stress hormones do is they limit your short term memory and so you physically can’t remember what you were doing five seconds ago. Yet a lot of times we ask those really stressful questions at the exact wrong moment. So when someone’s experiencing amygdala hijacking when they’ve lost their cell phones, the first question you ask is “Do you remember where you had it?” No, you physically can’t remember where you had it at that moment. So we ask people to do these really impossible things that, until we understand the brain science behind trauma and toxic stress, we’re never going to understand why they can’t do them.
Dolph Goldenburg (06:00):
I love that. So essentially you just gave me my mother’s advice. I was born in 1971 so there were no cell phones, but I would lose my shoes and my mother tell me to just sit down and do something else. And it was the most frustrating advice ever when you’re five years old to be told to just sit down and do something else
Kate Daugherty (06:15):
Did it work?
Dolph Goldenburg (06:16):
Oh yeah, it always worked. And that’s what I’m saying I love that because that is time honored advice that your mother gives to you: lower the stress a little bit and you’ll remember where your shoes are.
Kate Daugherty (06:29):
And I think that that is such a classic example that a lot of trauma-informed techniques are things that we have known for a really long time but didn’t have the science to explain why they worked. These techniques are not this big thing. I come from the youth development world and we have positive youth development techniques. They all mesh really well with trauma informed practices because we knew they worked way back when, we just didn’t know why. I think a great example of that is active listening. It’s been taught forever as a great way to help people change and grow. Well, knowing science, we know that connection between people lowers stress hormones. And so just taking those few seconds to actively listen to someone works; you might not know why it works, but why it works is actually that it’s lowering the stress that someone’s feeling so that they can access other parts of their brain.
Dolph Goldenburg (07:29):
So say you’re someone’s manager and you have to have a difficult conversation. You know that it’s going to be stressful for them. What are some of the things that you can do to help ratchet down that stress and help them really not get hijacked?
Kate Daugherty (07:48):
So a few things, but I think the first one is proactive, proactive, proactive. We don’t do de-escalation training. If someone’s escalated, you’ve lost; you’re already not there. So definitely I think the first thing is let people know what the conversation’s going to be. If you have to have a hard conversation with someone, don’t put a random thing on their calendar. A random calendar meeting with your supervisor give you that sick stomach. I personally have a very open relationship in terms of communication with my supervisor, who’s our executive director, Dan Rhoton. And the first time that he ever put something on my calendar like that, I literally called him almost in tears at 7:00 AM because I woke up to an email that just said “quality assurance conversation.” And in my brain, the story that I was making up was, “Oh my goodness, I’ve done something wrong.”
Kate Daugherty (08:42):
And in his brain, all that conversation was, and all the conversation was going to be, was talking about a new quality assurance plan that we were putting in place across the whole organization. But when I saw that, that’s not the first thing that I went to. So I got immediately amygdala hijacked and the only thing that I could think about was losing my job. And I’m a professional, right? So imagine what that does to our young people or our clients if they see this random calendar invite or get this random ominous letter in the mail saying they have to come in. So letting people prep gives them a lot of that control back because then their prefrontal cortex, their rational part, can get involved. So that’s one thing.
Kate Daugherty (09:26):
The other thing that’s really important is to make sure that everybody has tools. We all have tools that we use to calm ourselves down, but we don’t think about using them at work. We call it a safety plan at Hopeworks and it’s just three to five things that you can do to calm yourself down. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting angry and want to send that email you know you shouldn’t or if it’s an embarrassed kind of upset. Whenever you get those feelings in your body, it’s something that you can use. And that’s something culturally at Hopeworks that everyone has from the young person that walks in on day one all the way up to our executive director and even our board. We’ve talked with all of them about safety plans so it’s a part of our culture. So if you’re in a meeting and you say something like, “Hey, I need to go do some laps around the office and use my safety plan,” that’s respected. And it’s such a powerful tool because emotional management is a key part of learning how to be an employee and it’s a key part of trauma-informed practices as well.
Dolph Goldenburg (10:32):
Obviously everyone has different tools that work for them. And I know you said do some laps around the office. What are some other common techniques or tools that work for people as part of the safety plan?
Kate Daugherty (10:44):
Yeah, so I’ll just share mine. I do laps around the office. Another one that I’ll do is I’ll get up and make a cup of coffee. I’ve made a million cups of coffee in my life. I can do it with my eyes closed. It’s a very ritualistic thing for me. And so just the act of getting away from my desk and making a cup of coffee gives me space. Those are great for times when I can get up. But I can’t always get up in the middle of a meeting. And so we have internal safety plan ideas, as well. And so the two that I use most frequently are trying to say the alphabet backwards. Dolph, do you want to try to say the alphabet backwards?
Dolph Goldenburg (11:24):
Z, Y X, W, U, V…
Kate Daugherty (11:29):
Are you thinking about anything else?
Dolph Goldenburg (11:31):
No, I’m actually having to picture it because I’m visual and picturing each letter that goes through my head.
Kate Daugherty (11:35):
So that one’s so effective, again going back to brain science, because it forces you from your amygdala back into your prefrontal cortex. And so you’re having to think about that. You’re having to use some senses if you touch your hands together or draw in the air, whatever that is that can bring you back into a moment and stop that amygdala hijacking process. And the other one that I use is a technique called square breathing or tactical breathing. I learned it when I was in high school. I had terrible test anxiety and so was taught this by one of my teachers. And what you do is you are going to inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four, and hold for four. You just keep doing that. You can kind of draw a square with your finger in the air. That really helps me to keep it pretty evenly paced.
Dolph Goldenburg (12:41):
I just have to jump in real quick: I get that’s supposed to calm people down. That would calm me down so much I’d fall asleep. I’m going to use that the next time I can’t fall asleep.
Kate Daugherty (12:50):
So the really cool thing about that is that it’s other name is tactical breathing. It is taught to U.S. snipers because it’s that effective at lowering your heart rate. So in maybe the most stressful situation in the whole world, that’s the breath technique that they turn to.
Dolph Goldenburg (13:08):
There you go. If you need to be a sniper, you need to fall asleep or you just need to de-stress, square breathing might work for you.
Kate Daugherty (13:15):
Yeah. So those are some that you can do when you’re sitting down, but it’s also important to move. Sometimes the breathing doesn’t help. The alphabet doesn’t help. And you’re like, what do I do? So in that case, movement is really important to address the butterfly feelings that you get in your stomach. Do you know what that actually is, biologically?
Dolph Goldenburg (13:38):
No. What is it?
Kate Daugherty (13:38):
So it is all of the blood moving from your digestive system into your large muscles. So when you do the fight, flight, or freeze response, you actually have the blood power to do that.
Dolph Goldenburg (13:52):
Right, you’re ready to run.
Kate Daugherty (13:54):
Which puts this really unfortunate idea around my dating life. Because you’re supposed to get butterflies in your stomach. And I was like, “Wait a second. So that means that I’m scared?” I don’t know how to take this one. So if your body’s telling you to move, you should move.
Dolph Goldenburg (14:13):
Obviously those are just some of the techniques that individuals can do and managers or mentors can do to help someone develop. Let’s talk about creating a trauma-informed culture. One of the things that you’ve already started on is saying everyone who comes into your organization, whether staff or board member, develops the safety plan. Let’s face it, we’re all on a continuum. So what are some of the things that organizations can do or think about as they move toward a trauma-informed culture?
Kate Daugherty (14:44):
One of the first things is develop a common language. Have everybody understand what people mean when they say the word “trauma” and understand the difference between trauma and toxic stress. The difference is trauma is the thing that actually happened. Toxic stress is the biological process or the way that that stuff gets under your skin and can really affect you biologically. And so understanding those, not just your staff but also your participants, and helping them to understand some of the things that they’ve been through. It’s a great way, and one of the first ways, that I think an organization can start to move culturally.
Kate Daugherty (15:21):
Another way is by changing the question. It’s a pretty common one, but changing the question from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” It doesn’t have to be something that you’re physically asking someone. It can just be that check in the back of your brain. So a great example happened today. We’re all virtual right now and I had a young person who was late and signed on to one of our group meetings 15 or 20 minutes late. And it’s the fourth time it’s happened this week. So I asked her afterwards, “Hey, can we just check in?” So instead of saying, “What’s wrong with you? You’ve been late four times this week, this isn’t something that you normally do,” I was able to ask her, “Hey, what’s going on? What happened this morning that you couldn’t get on our call on time?” I found out that she is actually a primary caretaker for an eight year old right now. That wasn’t the case when we were in the office, and so that’s not something that I knew. If I had jumped in right away with “What’s wrong with you that you can’t get on this call on time,” I never would have gotten that information.
Kate Daugherty (16:29):
And it really opened the door to a whole conversation of, “So how can I better support you in being a caretaker while you’re home during the COVID pandemic and still being a great employee for me, a great intern, and was able to talk about how to balance family stuff and set boundaries when it’s work time. But it also just opened that line of communication. And I told her to just shoot me a text if she’s going to be five to 10 minutes late, I cared more about that than her being on time. So we had this great conversation and really came out with some actionable items that we wouldn’t have if I hadn’t have been able to change the question.
Dolph Goldenburg (17:08):
Part of what I hear there is also really clear communication of what your expectations are in addition to you being understanding, listening, and being open to you saying, even though you probably did not phrase it this way “It’s my expectation that if you’re not going to be there, you tell me.”
Kate Daugherty (17:25):
Yeah. I think with trauma-informed care and trauma-informed practices, one of the pitfalls that I’ve seen organizations go through is thinking they can’t have expectations once they know what is going on; they just want to feel sorry for people. And no, that’s not right. We don’t want to lower the bar for anyone. They can still get there. We just might need to reach down and give them a hand up.
Dolph Goldenburg (17:49):
Right. I’m a huge fan of the book, Radical Candor. They refer to that as ruinous empathy, when you feel so bad for the person you just let them slide. Either they’re not performing well or they’re showing up late for their Zoom meetings, whatever it is. I know they’re going through a tough time and it’s ruinous empathy because you’re not helping them get up. You’re just letting them stay down. And eventually you get tired of them not performing or not showing up on time, and then they wonder why they’re losing their job.
Kate Daugherty (18:14):
And that’s where the nonprofit sector gets this like really bad rep, I think, of not being the real world. I hear that all the time. We’re doing workforce development, but when participants get out into the real world it’s different. But, no, this is the real world that they’re in right now. I hope that the whole world looks like this and has been ability to say, “Communicate with me and we’ll help you get to the bar. No one’s going to lower it.”
Dolph Goldenburg (18:37):
I think there are some for-profits that are light years ahead of nonprofits on this continuum, and again, I’m viewing it all on a continuum. We see a lot of for-profit companies that are really all about the bottom line, but also operating from a real trauma-informed lens. We also see a lot of nonprofits that, often because of scarce resources, don’t feel like they can operate from a trauma-informed lens. I bet there are probably some Listeners out there right now with a quarter million dollar budget and five staff and going, “Oh my gosh, it’s a struggle every day. What can I do to move my organization toward this when I worry about payroll every single two weeks?”
Kate Daugherty (19:18):
Yes, to everything you just said. I think that so many for-profit companies who are really focused on the bottom line have embraced this because it’s good for their bottom line and because it’s good for their outcomes. Some of the for-profit companies that we train have the same sorts of issues: their staff is burned out, their staff is not being creative, they have high turnover. We hear this in the nonprofit sector also, but these are their concerns, too. They’re really concerned about turnover because they understand how much it costs to refill a position, so it is cheaper for them and more effective for them to do some of these trauma-informed things. Whereas, again, I think that scarcity mindset kicks in for a lot of nonprofits where they are so much in their amygdalas all the time, that they’re not looking at it rationally and recognizing that this is something that’s good for the whole organization going forward.
Kate Daugherty (20:16):
And so it can be really hard to make that shift. Hopeworks went through that when we made the shift for being trauma-informed right around 2015. It was hard for some of our staff and some of our staff honestly didn’t stay and we had some turnover. But then after that we had this period where we had rapid growth, grew a ton, and served double the amount of young people. We became a lot more successful with the young people that we are serving and don’t have staff turnover. And so it was like this win-win that no one thought could happen after a lot of those hard conversations and a bunch of risks. It feels a lot riskier to do some of these more radical things when you’re in a scarcity mindset.
Dolph Goldenburg (21:03):
So as you think about that 2015 and on transition that Hopeworks did, what were some of the things that were critical to its success in that transition?
Kate Daugherty (21:13):
One of them is having leadership buy-in. So this wasn’t just something that our low level people wanted. It was something that our leadership, and that included our board leadership, really bought into. Our board came to trainings with us. Our board was a part of the core group of people that were implementing these sort of things. And so that was really critical because then our executive director had some of the flexibility to talk about how this was going to pay off a year down the line at board meetings without getting grilled every single time about how it wasn’t paying off right now. And so having that sort of buy-in was really critical. And then the other really important part, which I said before, was including our participants in the transition. It wasn’t just something that our staff could do alone , it’s something that our participants had to be aware of and had to understand what we were doing. So it’s not just something that you can have a one-off training and be considered trauma-informed, but it’s critical that everyone understands and works together to accomplish it.
Dolph Goldenburg (22:23):
So really part of what I hear you saying is a lot of work was done to bring the entire organization into alignment. So the board, the leadership, the line staff, the participants, everybody had to be in alignment. And really if you couldn’t reach alignment, this would not have been successful.
Kate Daugherty (22:38):
Absolutely. But it didn’t happen right away. We had some people who were in alignment from the beginning and then we had some people that were slow to change. I’ll pick on Dan Rhoton again because he’s our executive director. He’s a huge supporter of trauma-informed practices. He himself is not naturally trauma-informed. I think that if you talk to his wife, she would be shocked at the trauma-informed stuff that he does at work. But he realizes how effective it is. And so a lot of the folks who weren’t onboard were able to see how much of an impact it had on our young people and how much of an impact it had on our outcomes. For example, we went from measuring the amount of young people that finished our web training course in numbers to percentages. Before taking these steps, we had such small percentages of success that we couldn’t even measure it. I think last year we found that if participants make it halfway through the process, they have an 85% completion rate. And a 90% completion rate if they get an internship, which means that they’re actually hired by our company. These numbers prior to our trauma-informed transition were unheard of. But they became possible because it was something that the entire staff was able to buy into and then the better outcomes we got, the more buy-in we got and it was a nice snowballing effect from there.
Dolph Goldenburg (24:06):
Hmm. Wow, that is really cool. I love that. Kate, I want to make sure that I ask you the off-the-map question. Now you shared with me that you won a free bungee jump in Australia, and I can only imagine there’s a story behind that.
Kate Daugherty (24:26):
Yes, there is. It’s not a trauma-informed story.
Dolph Goldenburg (24:29):
It might have been trauma-inducing. For me bungee jumping would be trauma-inducing.
Kate Daugherty (24:34):
Oh, I didn’t actually do the bungee jump. I just won it and then I gave it to someone for a Christmas gift. Traveling is one of the things that I do for self-care. See, look, I can loop in trauma everywhere I go. So in 2015 I was in Cairns, Australia, which is where you go to go to the Great Barrier Reef. I was staying in a hostel and if you went to this certain bar, you got free dinner. So I thought, I’m spending all this money on a Great Barrier Reef dive trip, I’m going to go eat free spaghetti. While I’m eating dinner, they had a goldfish racing competition, which was a gimmick for all of the tourists. Essentially it was long plexiglass racing tubes that were open at the top and they would dump gold fish in and then you would use a straw and blow behind the goldfish and try to get it to go down the plexiglass tube. Since I was the only American in the bar, I got voluntold that I was going to be the American representative. My goldfish’s name was Jaws and somehow I ended up winning against 50 other people. I just had a very scared goldfish, apparently. So I probably caused some trauma to this poor goldfish.
Dolph Goldenburg (25:57):
Exactly. You got to traumatize goldfish. Right.
Kate Daugherty (25:59):
I had a traumatized goldfish whose amygdala was way overactive.
Dolph Goldenburg (26:03):
And had butterflies in the belly. It was like, “Oh my gosh, I need blood in the fins to get out of here.”
Kate Daugherty (26:08):
So I ended up winning a bungee jump. I ended up staying with a family on a cattle ranch for a few weeks. So I was able to give their son bungee jumping for his 18th birthday present.
Dolph Goldenburg (26:24):
I bet an 18 year old would really, really love that. I’m kissing 50 there’s no way you’re tying a stretchy rope to my leg and throwing me off a bridge. Not going to happen.
Kate Daugherty (26:33):
No. I would be stubborn enough that I would do it and then I would hate myself for it.
Dolph Goldenburg (26:37):
That’s awesome, because I am at the point now where I get butterflies I’m like, “No, when I get these I’m not supposed to do it. I’m not doing it.” See, I’m going to bring it back to trauma, too.
Kate Daugherty (26:48):
I think that is actually the rational response. My stupidity and my stubbornness is the “someone said I had to so I’ve got to do it now.”
Dolph Goldenburg (26:56):
I don’t know. Because you were smart enough to recognize it wasn’t a good thing for you to do and gave it to someone else. Had it been a reef diving trip, you would have done it, you would not have given it to the kid for an 18th birthday present.
Kate Daugherty (27:10):
Yeah. I was very broke at the time and so I needed some sort of present to give them as a thank you. So it was a win-win situation for me.
Dolph Goldenburg (27:20):
That’s awesome. I totally love that. I have never heard of a goldfish race before and you might be the first goldfish jockey that I’ve met, so there you go. Kate, thank you so much for joining us today. Listeners, if you would like to learn more about trauma-informed leadership and the great work that Kate and Hopeworks Camden are doing, then visit their website at hopeworks.org. There you can find resources on web design, GIS, and trauma informed trainings for your organization. Hopeworks also has podcast and, by the way, I happen to know that you’re a podcast listener. So if you’re interested, check it out. It’s called The People Who Got Me There and it is all about mentors. Although, I’ll share with you, Kate flips the script. What she does is she talks to successful young people and instead of asking them how they got to where they are, she asks them who helped them get there. Then in the second half of the show, she talks to the mentor. It is super cool. Definitely make sure you go on your podcast streamer of choice and check out The People Who Got Me There. We will link to that in our show notes, as well. Kate, thank you again for being on the podcast.
Kate Daugherty (28:31):
Thank you so much for having me. It’s always amazing to get to talk about things that are working.
Dolph Goldenburg (28:36):
Dear Listener, thank you so much for joining us today. While it’s not really that hard of a link, it’s just hopeworks.org, but if you missed that link because you were checking out goldfish racing or bungee jumping or anything else that we talked about, you can find that and more on our show notes at successfulnonprofits.com. And if you found today’s show beneficial, then please take a moment to rate and review us on your streaming app of choice. And of course you are always welcome to share it with friends, family, and colleagues. Take for instance our listener EJRVA who left this review on iTunes: “I am low key obsessed with this podcast. It has allowed me to have a constant source of inspiration. Wonderful.” Thanks for the positive review, EJ, I was happier than a kid with a tub of trick-or-treat candy when I received your review and it helped many others find the podcast. That, Listeners, is our show for this week. I hope you have gained some insight to help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment.
Dolph Goldenburg (29:48):
I am not an accountant or attorney. Neither I nor or The Goldenburg Group provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. This material has been provided for informational purposes only, is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or accounting advice. Always consult a qualified licensed professional about such matters.