In 2008, Kenwood resident Donna Minter, a psychologist working as a mental health evaluator for the Wisconsin court system, traveled to Virginia to take a five-day training on building resilience to trauma.
Halfway through the training she had an epiphany: Trauma wasn’t just a narrow mental health problem affecting individuals but was a broad psychological concept incorporating collective historical injuries, ordinary violations of human dignity and structural forces like racism and sexism.
“I thought, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before, and I bet there are a couple people in Minnesota who would like to take this training,’” Minter recalled.
Fast forward more than a decade and the nonprofit Minter founded in 2010 now has a $200,000 annual budget and has trained more than 3,200 people in strategies for “breaking free of cycles of violence.”
The Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute’s participants have come from diverse backgrounds: Survivors of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, a group of refugee women who lived through Liberian Civil War and a landlord who used restorative justice techniques to help resolve conflict between tenants are among those who’ve benefited from the training.
This summer, the institute received a $10,000 award from the Minneapolis Health Department’s violence prevention fund, and in October the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Peacebuilding applauded Minter’s work by giving her one of three national excellence awards.
When Kirstin Burch took the training in 2016, she was working for the nonprofit Zoom House, helping families transitioning from homelessness. She said she learned that trauma was something larger than she had realized.
“When I used to hear that word, I would think of big-T trauma,” she said. “My brain would go to a hurricane or a violent attack. … I wasn’t looking at everyday problems — dysfunction in families, isolation, mental health — as core components of trauma and how trauma is experienced in your body.”
Burch said “understanding that [everyone] has experienced trauma on some level helps me to be less defensive and more open.”
And in her work at Zoom House, she said, the organization changed its approach to engaging clients. “We shifted from, ‘Move in, sign your lease, fill this paperwork out, do this intake form, do this screening,’” she said, “to, ‘Are you OK? Are you comfortable here? Do you have everything you need in your apartment? Have you eaten? Do you need a keychain?’”
The model for the Peacebuilding Leadership Institute’s trauma training comes from a curriculum developed in the wake of 9/11 at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.
The training teaches that traumatic events or acts of violence can push people into either a victim cycle (marked by fantasies of revenge and feelings of powerlessness, shame and anxiety) or an aggressor cycle (where people embrace good vs. evil narratives, lash out in the name of self-defense and create and sustain unjust structures and systems). Participants are then taught strategies to break free from these cycles (such as forgiving their offenders or acknowledging others’ stories) that can help bring them to a place of reconnection and reconciliation.
“Understanding this has helped me to have language about my own experiences and also to offer a lot of grace and compassion to other people,” said Crixell Shell, one of the institute’s three part-time trainers.
Minter said most of the institute’s trainees work at government or social service organizations; the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, Hennepin County and the state Department of Corrections have all sent staffers. “They come because they want to learn this to help others,” Minter said, “and then they learn, ‘Oh my goodness, this applies to me, too.’”
In October, the institute moved into its first brick-and-mortar office, near Minnehaha Falls. In addition to trauma training, it offers racial healing workshops and other classes.