Students speak at Baltimore City Council Hearing
From left: Bryonna Harris, Damani Thomas, and Jaionna Santos testify before Baltimore City Council. Photo credit: John Waire

Too often, as young people, our voices are overlooked and unheard. We’re deemed too young to have experienced anything that could have deeply impacted our lives. In reality, the opposite is true. According to the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, 56% of children in Baltimore City have experienced one or more traumatic experiences involving violence, incarceration, homelessness, or substance abuse. More than half of our children in our city will have to grow up with the burdens of life weighing them down. Pent up frustration and anger becomes a formula for violence. It is not a pathology, it is a cry for help. We must listen. 

But creating real change in Baltimore is often a messy business, especially when it involves coming to terms with the legacy of persistent violence in our communities. Many people are so invested in the way things are that they are unwilling to see a way forward. Victims of trauma often see it as an immovable feature of the world they must simply accept, a byproduct of America’s troubled history of racism and systemic oppression. The traumatized often identify with their suffering because surviving it can be a badge of honor. Real change involves a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing how our brains are impacted by the environments they are forced to navigate.  

Additionally, those in authority are often afraid that acknowledging trauma will force them into painful self-examination. Those with power do not like to do the uncomfortable work of admitting how the old ways of doing things exacerbated the suffering of our city’s most vulnerable. It is easier to throw up your hands than to roll up your sleeves.

The hard work of trauma informed care should not be confused with playing the blame game. It is all about understanding how the past can influence the future, sometimes without our knowledge. By refusing to understand what brain researchers are telling us about how trauma influences the developing brain, we are consigning ourselves to a future whose script is already written. We have seen it over and over again. The cycle of trauma repeats.

Learning to see things from this point of view took work for us, too. After a shooting happened at our school, we were asked to testify about the trauma we faced. We decided to speak about how trauma affects our everyday lives as students in Baltimore city. Initially, we were afraid that talking about the obstacles we faced and the trauma we endured might reopen painful wounds. We were frightened that our trauma might be paraded in front of those who simply wanted to feel pity on us or judge us for what we have survived.

It’s scary to say we’ve become accustomed to the violence and traumatic events that happen in our city but it’s our home and we have no choice but to try to survive each day as best we can. We do what we can to make a comfortable life for ourselves inside the endless procession of violence.

People fail to realize that trauma is a generational cycle. It disguises itself as normal for most adolescents living in Baltimore city. But in reality trauma is a distressing event that can scar our lives forever. These specific traumatic ordeals can accumulate inside a person and hang over their head, camouflaging their actual emotions.  

Working with Councilman Zeke Cohen, his colleagues on city council, as well as other stakeholders, we accomplished something that is very difficult: we moved from talk to action. Sharing our trauma became the impetus for change. While the Elijah Cummings Healing City Act is only one step forward, it is an essential step. 

Educating people about trauma is no easy task. We must do this while also ensuring that city agencies interacting with people who trauma are prepared to respond in ways that are supported by research. Doing so will minimize the harm to traumatized individuals and to the city as a whole. 

Baltimore is a beautiful city. Too many of the young people who live here witness horrific things no human should ever see. One day we may be able to change this for good, but for now, this is the reality of the poverty, addiction, and violence that plague our city.

To be numb is to doom the next generation to more and more entrenched traumas. This is why signing this legislation is such an important step for us to take. By doing so, we honor the legacy of the late Congressman Elijah Cummings, who taught us that “Our children are the living messages we send to a future we will not see.” This legislation is an attempt to make sure that it is a message of hope and healing that we send.

Bryonna Harris, Damani Thomas, and Jaionna Santos are students at Frederick Douglass High School. They worked with City Council person Zeke Cohen to push forward the Elijah Cummings Heal the City Act.